National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Deja vu as Shukan Shincho turns back the clock

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

The title of the Japanese government’s White Paper on the Economy for the 31st year of Showa (1956) was “The ‘postwar’ era is over.” That same year, a delegation from the World Bank headed by Alfred Watkins spent five months studying the feasibility of extending a loan for an expressway linking the cities of Kobe and Nagoya. Their report noted, “The roads in Japan are unbelievably bad,” and urged construction of a modern highway network to support the country’s industrial development.

It was 60 years ago this month that Tokyo-based publisher Shincho-sha, whose name translates as “New Currents,” launched weekly magazine Shukan Shincho, making it the first venture by a general publisher from outside the news media. The weeklies had previously been within the purview of two major newspapers, which began publishing Shukan Asahi and Sunday Mainichi almost simultaneously in the spring of 1922.

While Westerners tend to commemorate anniversaries at the half-century mark, in east Asia it’s common to observe the 60th anniversary, called kanreki in Japanese, which is based on the completion of the lunar calendar’s sexagenary cycle used for counting years.

In observance of this auspicious occasion, in addition to its regular magazine, Shincho-sha put out a 154-page bessatsu (commemorative edition) into which an 82-page replica of its first magazine is inserted, making for a total of 236 pages, and well worth the ¥460 outlay.

The original magazine, dated Feb. 19, 1956, retailed for ¥30, and featured a cover illustration by beloved artist Rokuro Taniuchi (1921-81), whose simple, almost child-like covers became closely associated with the magazine over its first 2½ decades.

While Japan has certainly undergone huge changes over the past six decades, the first issue of Shukan Shincho incorporates several features that are still recognizable even today. One of these is how Shincho’s magazines have consistently supported the photographic arts. Even in black and white, the photos — such as three pages showing Tokyo central rail station in the morning — visually portray the city and its people as they appeared in early 1956.

Nearly unchanged from the inaugural issue are the half-dozen weekly news briefs, each averaging about two-thirds of a printed page in length. In terms of their contents, several of these items conveyed an unmistakable sense of deja vu.

The lead item, featuring a photo of American Gen. Douglas MacArthur, touched on debate over revision of the Japanese Constitution, which at the time was only in its ninth year.

“The sole point of contention,” the writer remarked, “seems to be between those with the opinion that since the Constitution was imposed by the military Occupation, it must be revised in accordance with the will of the Japanese people, and those who — it’s having been imposed notwithstanding — are in accord as far as its contents pertaining to pacifism and renunciation of war, therefore in their view making revision unnecessary.”

In descending order, the other items from that week in February 1956 included a report on the growing number of groups advocating restoration of the Feb. 11 holiday formerly known as kigensetsu (Empire Day), which had been abolished in 1948. Another decade would transpire until it was revived as Kenkoku Kinen no Hi (National Foundation Day) in 1966.

A looming source of excitement was the government’s encouragement to develop a kokuminsha (people’s car). Translate this word into German and you get “Volkswagen,” the West German export success that the then-Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) sought to emulate.

The basic model, as envisaged by the bureaucrats, would have space for a driver and three adult passengers; be capable of cruising at 100 kilometers per hour; achieve fuel consumption of 30 km per liter or better; and not break down or require significant repairs for at least 100,000 km. If mass production could be achieved, a sticker price of below ¥250,000 (around $700 at the time) was seen as feasible.

But the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association was pessimistic, pointing out that a prototype car under development by Toyota Motor Co. was expected to sell for ¥200,000 above MITI’s targeted price.

The article noted that even if the selling price could be reduced to ¥350,000, such a car would still be unaffordable, as that figure represented more than a year’s earnings for most wage earners.

“With the poor quality of Japan-made goods, [such a car] would merely serve as ‘barley’ for people unable to afford white rice,” the writer observed. “And even if a ‘people’s car’ does get produced, it seems likely to spawn the phenomenon by which people of substance will stick to driving expensive imports.”

As it turned out, four more years would pass for Japan’s “national car” to reach the market. Toyota’s Publica two-door sedan made its debut at the 1960 Tokyo Motor Show and finally went on sale in June 1961, at a sticker price of ¥389,000.

In the post-1956 section of Shincho-sha’s souvenir issue, various people who left indelible impressions on the Showa Era (1925-89) are recalled. Popular singer Hibari Misora’s divorce from Akira Kobayashi made headlines in 1964. There’s a report on the life insurance payout following the death in 1963 — from a knife wound — of professional wrestler Rikidozan. Also featured is an article from 1958 about concerns of the Shoda family following the announcement that their daughter Michiko would become the bride of then-Crown Prince (and current Emperor) Akihito.

As was noted in this column a month ago concerning Takarajima-sha’s special magazine issue, in the collective minds of Japan’s current generation of magazine readers, the politics, personages and events of the Showa Era still loom large.