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Showa’s not giving up without a fight

by Mark Schreiber

The government has decided that the 31st year of Heisei will end with the abdication of Emperor Akihito 120 days into 2019, on April 30. Then on May 1, Crown Prince Naruhito will become emperor and a new nengō (name of the period of reign) will be announced.

In his weekly column in Flash (Dec. 24) titled Nyusu Kuidaore! (Stuff Yourself With News ’til You Drop!), Osaka-based TV personality Jiro Shinbo promised a “bold prediction” for the next nengō to follow Heisei.

Actually the method of time keeping in Japan is a bit more complicated. Apart from the nengō system that records the years of an emperor’s reign, there exists an imperial system dating back to dynastic founder Emperor Jimmu, in which 2018, for example, will be the year 2,678. Also in 554, the Chinese lunar calendar was imported via Korea. 2018 will be the year of the earth-dog, a combination of 12 branches and five stems that repeats in 60-year cycles.

Shinbo turns to speculation on what the new era will be named. First of all, he rules out words that begin with the Roman letters “M, T, S” and “H” — corresponding to the previous eras of Meiji (1868-1912), Taisho (1912-26), Showa (1926-89) and Heisei (1989-present). That doesn’t leave a great many other possibilities, because all historical nengō up to now have used only 72 different characters. That’s why the same Sino-Japanese characters tend to pop up repeatedly. Shinbo’s betting the name will contain “ei” (meaning “eternal”), “gen” (“fundamental”), “bun” (“writing” or “civilization”) or “o” (“agreement”) along with lesser possibilities that begin with a “K, N, R, C” or “W.”

So with the writing now on the wall, one would expect to see an avalanche of Heisei-related nostalgia in the print media. So far, though, there’s been hardly a rumble. Instead, publications continue to flaunt the celebrated individuals and news-making events of the Showa Era.

One likely reason is that people born in the Heisei years, the oldest of whom have yet to turn 30, seem to prefer squinting at their mobile phones over buying magazines. And publishers, understanding the demands of the demographic, have instead chosen to focus on four-fifths of the population — roughly 90 million Japanese — born during the Showa Era, between 1926 and 1989.

For pure, undiluted nostalgia, one should pick up a copy of the January issue of Showa 40-nen Otoko a glossy, six-times-a-year magazine appealing to men born in 1965, which catalogs Showa cultural icons, famous crimes and incidents, popular consumer products and pro sports, including baseball and wrestling.

In the year’s final issue, Shukan Jitsuwa (Dec. 28) ran the 63rd installment in the Women of Showa series by Wataru Irokawa — a nom de plume meaning “crossing the river of sex.”

Another indication of the era’s enduring popularity is the appeal of retro Showa products. This year, for instance, saw a revival of portable radio-cassette players (aka “boom boxes”). Sunday Mainichi (Dec. 24) featured a full history of the Honda Super Cub scooter. Next August, the fuel-stingy little workhorse will observe its 60th anniversary. Now assembled in over a dozen countries, its total worldwide production passed 100 million units this year — nearly five times the number of Beetles manufactured by Volkswagen. Aside from addition of a telescopic front fork and the more recent adoption of an LED headlamp, the model’s classic lines have practically gone unchanged.

Every Wednesday, Yukan Fuji runs two columns related to Showa Era nostalgia. In his Showa Isan (Showa Heritage) column in Yukan Fuji of Dec. 14, Shinobu Machida wrote of the custom of dressing up corporate mascots and other figures in red stocking caps and Santa Claus costumes each year end, which he has traced back to a campaign by Coca-Cola’s ad agency around 1930. The article also features a photo of Shonben Kozo (Manneken Pis) — the beloved statue that’s been relieving itself from a pedestal on the platform of JR Hamamatsucho station since 1955 — decked out in a Santa suit.

Last week, Kenichiro Nakamaru’s Showa Words column featured “hanamoku” (“flower Thursday”), a popular term from 1988, when times were so good some people couldn’t wait until Fridays to start letting loose, and Thursdays became a day for enjoying travel, dining, shopping and so on.

A specialty publisher called Million Shuppan has issued a stream of Showa-related mooks that dredge up notorious crimes and unsolved cases, titled “101 Mysteries of Showa.” The first came out in November. 2016 and another appeared last March. It was followed last month with “99 Showa Mysteries,” with much the contents focused on prostitution.

Likewise Shukan Post (Dec. 22) and Shukan Gendai (Dec. 23) ran suspiciously similar photo features. The former’s was titled “Secret Photo Collection of Showa Sex Businesses,” which included so-called “no-pan coffee shops,” in which the waitresses provided entertainment by refraining from wearing undergarments and walking atop reflective flooring. Turkish baths — changed to “soaplands” in order to avoid international ill will — are even now still operating in the Yoshiwara district in Tokyo’s Taito Ward. The collection also featured scenes from “image clubs,” where male patrons were invited to act out their fantasies, and “pink salons,” in a sense the forerunners of cosplay.

Shukan Gendai, meanwhile, encouraged its male readers to “Showa no sekkusu o mo ichido” (“Showa sex, one more time”). Featured in grainy black-and-white photos were terekura (telephone clubs), female mud wrestlers, strip theaters with audience participation and a coffee shop named American Crystal whose floor vents generated gusts of wind powerful enough to lift female employees’ skirts so as to emulate the famous scene from the 1955 Marilyn Monroe movie, “The Seven-year Itch.”

Truly, these were times when titillation ruled the nation.