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New era aside, Showa nostalgia continues to keep rolling along

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

The new Reiwa Era is now into its third month and histories are starting to appear about the Heisei Era that preceded it. In late June, the publishing arm of the Mainichi Shimbun released a 384-page softcover book titled “Heisei-shi Zenkiroku” (“Chronicle 1989-2019”). The same week, the Nikkei Shimbun countered with its own 312-page work, “Reiwa ni Tsunagu Heisei no 30-nen” (“The 30 years of Heisei that’s linked to Reiwa”).

Having been in Japan since 1965, I can attest to having seen lots of generational changes over the past half century. Superficially at least, the march of progress has been ongoing: smoky Showa-style coffee shops with background music supplied by vinyl LP records have given way to self-serve, smoke-free Starbucks outlets with wi-fi. Neighborhood convenience stores now operate round-the-clock and delivery firms will bring almost anything to your door, practically obviating the need to leave your home to shop.

The arrival of the new era notwithstanding, it’s still business as usual for Showa, at least as far as print media is concerned. The main reason for this is simple enough: Those born in Showa, which ran for 62 years between the last week of 1926 and first week of 1989, still account for 72.4 percent of Japan’s population (as opposed to 26.5 percent for Heisei). Reading about the people, places and events of Showa is like a pair of old shoes, still comfortable enough to be worn for a while longer.

Take Shukan Gendai (July 13-20), which runs regular installments of its “Where is that person now?” series. This time it features former Olympic athletes, such as Yojiro Uetake (now 76), who took gold medals in freestyle wrestling at the Tokyo and Mexico City Olympics. He later served as a coach for the Japanese team. He was adopted into his wife’s family and became a manager of the family’s hotel business in the city of Tatebayashi.

June 24 observed the 30th anniversary of the death of songstress Hibari Misora, who literally sang her heart out before dying at the age of 52. Shukan Taishu (June 24) eulogized her, describing her life as one in which “she relied on her family, which caused her to weep.” The latter part was a reference to her younger brother, Tetsuya Kato, whose alleged ties to criminal gangs was a continuous source of grief.

The August edition of the monthly Bungei Shunju devotes 68 pages to “Tales of the Demons of Showa” — eight people who made their marks on the era, one of whom was Li Xianglan (aka Ri Koran), the stage name of a Chinese-speaking singer and actress whose real name was Yoshiko Yamaguchi. She was almost executed for treason by China after the war, until she convinced her captors she was actually a Japanese national. She was later elected to the Diet.

Meanwhile, in Shukan Bunshun (July 17), Diet member Takeshi Hashimoto, son of the late Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, reveals details of the letter his mother sent to his father demanding a divorce. She claimed he caused her to be depressed and she could not tolerate his infidelity and physical violence.

And speaking of prime ministers, Shukan Jitsuwa is in the midst of a long running series by Yoshiya Kobayashi on “Kakuei Tanaka’s turbulent postwar history” — the spectacular rise and fall of arguably Japan’s most controversial politicians. Stories about Tanaka — a self-made man from a poor rural family who became wealthy in the construction business before moving into politics — continue to sell magazines to this day.

Readers also feel nostalgic about crimes of the times, and back in the days before DNA testing and ubiquitous security cameras, Showa could claim some great ones. The latest issue of “Mystery in Showa,” part of an ongoing series of mooks from Taiyo Publishing, contains an eight-page omnibus of unsolved crimes. Titled “Criminals who disappeared,” it includes the robbery of a bank car transporting Toshiba’s company bonus of ¥300 million on Dec. 10, 1968, in the city of Fuchu (whose statute of limitations expired in December 1975) and the notorious Glico-Morinaga corporate blackmail crimes in Kansai (which expired in 2000).

If you’re a member of the younger generation, you needn’t feel excluded from the Showa fun. You might even want to consider taking lessons in Showa lingo. Each Wednesday Yukan Fuji carries a column by Kenichiro Nakamaru titled “Words of Showa,” which introduces popular buzzwords and expressions of the era. A recent installment highlighted the award-winning safety slogan from 1973, imploring drivers to slow down, that went, “Semai Nihon, sonna ni isoide doko e iku?” (“In confined Japan, where are you going in such a rush?”).

As further evidence as to how Showa also exerts its gravitational pull on subsequent generations, one need look no further than the current issue of Weekly Playboy (July 26). This magazine, which appeals to the young adult male demographic (ages 18 to 35), features excerpts from a four-hour interview with 73-year-old TV personality Masaaki Sakai. Its title: “The story of Showa entertainment, which I want to keep talking about in Reiwa (Part I).”

Finally, just for fun, I swapped notes with film critic Mark Schilling, who in 1997 published his magnum opus, the “Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture,” an essential English reference to mostly Showa Era pop culture. With little urging, Schilling gladly compiled a list of his 12 favorite iconic Showa personalities, and I compared his list with mine. Only three names overlapped: Misora, baseball superstar Shigeo Nagashima and film director Akira Kurosawa.

Still, I’m fully inclined to agree with Schilling’s observation, that “Showa was the first era in which millions of even ordinary Japanese fully engaged with the outside world, as both conquerors and conquered, copiers and creators. It’s legacy is still with us — and will long endure.”

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.