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The enduring mystique of the Showa Era

by

Special To The Japan Times

For many Japanese people, life is divided into two distinctly historical time lines: before and after the 昭和期 (Shōwa-ki, Showa Era, 1926-1989). 昭和の匂いがする (Shōwa no nioi ga suru, “This smells like Showa”), we say to each other, when talking about anything retro or 懐かしい (natsukashii, nostalgic).

Even the ゆとり世代 (yutori-sedai, “relaxed generation” — those in primary school during the education ministry’s “relaxed education policy”), who were mere babies or weren’t yet born dig Showa, as witnessed by their love of Showa dishes like スパゲッティナポリタン (supaggetti Naporitan, spaghetti Napolitan) and メンチカツ (menchi katsu, deep-fried minced meat patties), and 昭和ポップス (Shōwa poppusu, Showa pop music) from Keisuke Kuwata and Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Any discussion of Showa precludes the presence of Emperor Hirohito, who in early 1989 succumbed to illness after a 64-year reign. The nation then mourned the passing of a beloved but controversial icon who symbolized both Japan’s ill-fated entry into World War II in 1939 and its exit in 1945.

After that, Japan plunged headfirst into the Showa endeavor known as the 高度成長経済 (kōdo seichō keizai, rapid growth economy), convinced that the only way out of the mire of defeat was to work like crazy and never stop. Thanks to that ethos, the tail end of Showa spawned the バブル経済 (baburu keizai, bubble economy). Amazing things happened: In 1987 a Japanese insurance company bought Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” for $39.9 million. Two years lager, the Nikkei Stock Average hit ¥38,915.

It all came crashing down once Showa was replaced by the Heisei Era, but the embers from that fire still smouldered well into Heisei. Three years after Showa ended, crowds flooded the floors of Juliana Tokyo, now fondly remembered as the city’s definitive nightclub. Juliana was where girls danced in tiny, clingy dresses called ボディ コン (bodikon, literally “body-conscious”) atop pedestals known as お立ち台 (otachidai).

“Ah, Showa!” (cue the opening notes of the Pink Lady track “Peppā Keibu”). What a weird time that was, full of annoying 不便 (fuben, inconveniences) on a social scale and scathing indignities on a personal level, all swirling like a malevolent storm across this crowded archipelago.

My own family lived in the quintessential Showa phenomenon known as the 団地 (danchi, housing project) — where large, steel-plated numbers were nailed onto the sides of 10 apartment blocks (we lived in No. 5) — in 東京23区内 (Tokyo nijyūsanku-nai, within the 23 Tokyo wards) because my father abhorred the long 通勤 (tsūkin, commute) from the suburbs. The コンビニ (conbini, convenience store) was still in its inception period and they weren’t at all ubiquitous. Trains had nothing so civilized as 女性専用車両 (josei senyō-sharyō, women-only cars), so schoolgirls and young women endured all sorts of harassment, including 痴漢 (chikan, groping) on a daily basis.

School was just as bad, and 体育 (tai’iku, physical education) was often pure torture. Girls had to wear awful creations known as ブルマー (burumā, bloomers) and were made to leap over 跳び箱 (tobibako, vault) with legs spread — it pains me to remember.

しかし (Shikashi, But)! We did have the option to sell those burumā and 制服 (seifuku, school uniform) to the ブルセラ ショップ (Burusera Shoppu, bloomers and sailor uniform shop (セラ is short for セーラー服, sērā-fuku)) upon graduation for a bit of cash, though my friends and I were too 臆病 (okubyō, cowardly) to try.

“Ah Showa!” (cue the Seiko Matsuda track “Sweet Memories”). How different things were back then, especially the way the Japanese interacted with one another.

Unlike the indulgent, democratic parents of today, my parents were typical Showa people who believed the only way to raise kids was through 厳しいしつけ (kibishii shitsuke, hard-core discipline). My father yelled and raged at the slightest provocation and we kids learned to turn off the TV and scatter to our school books the minute we heard his footsteps in the danchi stairwell. On the other hand, my 両親 (ryōshin, parents) left us pretty much to our own devices, as long as crime and expenditure didn’t come into it.

My brothers loved 昭和の男の子 (Showa no otokonoko, Showa boy) pleasures, like watching “Star Trek” reruns on TV or shadow boxing in the local park with a tattered volume of the classic Showa manga 明日のジョー (Ashita no Jo, literally, “Jo of Tomorrow”) propped open on a bench for inspiration. We had a ラジカセ (rajikase, boom box) and danced to Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” trying to moonwalk in soiled Onizuka Tiger sneakers. When we came into a bit of cash, my brothers went straight to the sundry shop down the street for ガリガリ君 (Garigari-kun), a ¥50 soda-flavored ice pop (that’s still around today for ¥70).

In the danchi everyone knew everyone else, and though there were incidents of theft and violence, all the kids looked out for each other. When the older girl next door couldn’t go home because of a massive キスマーク(kisumāku, hickey) on the side of her neck, I ran to the drug store for a wonder-cream that supposedly made these things go away. It didn’t work, but at least we tried.

Now childhood is quiet and controlled, and kids have no idea of Showa’s intense 賑やかさ(nigiyakasa, raucousness). Though I like to think that knowing the entire lyrics to “Bad” and doing a decent semblance of a moonwalk count for something. これも 昭和の勲章だ (Kore mo Showa no kunshō da, “This, too, is a badge of Showa”).