Showa – How far gone?( 2014.6.2[Mon.])


  There are a number of art exhibition posters hanging in the CDB Library. One day, a work shown at an art expo in the 1970s by Akira Uno, an illustrator active in the 1960s, caught my eye. With a pang of nostalgia, I took the opportunity to revisit essays from the same period by Natsuhiko Yamamoto and Teruhiko Kuze and made an intriguing discovery. Both authors have since passed, and were separated by 20 years in age – Yamamoto was born in 1915 (Taisho 4) and Kuze in 1935 (Showa 10).

  But despite the generational gap, they both fit the theme of ‘Showa nostalgia’ quite nicely. I have to confess they also overlap with my own memories. An interesting coincidence, but true. What’s more, the same sense was reflected in a talk by Shuichi Miyawaki, president of Kaiyodo, at a recent Loft Plus One event, so there’s no mistaking the concurrence. The memories remain sharp—sakura trees planted near elementary school gates; sweet shops on the route to school; festival pinwheels; cotton candy; older people reckoning their age using the now disused counter kazoe.... I may be 20 years younger still than Kuze, but the nostalgia for all things Showa, a 40-year period in Japanese history, remains nearly unchanged.

  The sweets and stationery shop in front of our elementary school sold everything from notebooks decorated with movie monsters and the heroes of TV dramas, to toy BB guns, to celebrity glossies at 5 yen apiece, and of course all the many cheap confections collectively known as dagashi. The specific items may have changed following the whims of the day, but the essence of the business stayed the same for decades. For the generations before and after the war, and even for people whose memories extends back into the 1960s, we share the same feelings about Heisei Japan, the same sense of loss and wistfulness, and the same vague feeling that the 1970 World Exposition in Osaka was a definitive turning point.

  No more Spitz dogs, no more auto-trikes, no more scrolling TV text exclaiming “Broadcast in Living Color!”... But it’s not just the physical manifestations. Children these days don’t tell how old they are using man, and people don’t use the counter kazoe to state their age. Actually, I never used man myself, because it seemed like a given, and I always felt the use of kazoe to be odd somehow. Small changes such as these tell the tale of cultural evolution.

  But this was not simply Japan becoming more sophisticated in worldly ways, the Japanization of Western culture that they used to call “high-collar” during the Meiji Period and the prewar era, it is also how we define the period looking back.

  But surprisingly, some traditions have not been lost. Of course each generation sheds some of its history in the process of change. But in the late Sixties, we used the future as collateral to accumulate things we didn’t really need and threw away many things we should have maintained as part of our daily existence....Well, maybe that is just my age talking.... But there is no denying that up to around Showa 40 (1965), we used the Japanese system for dates, but by the 1970s, the Western system had started to become more common. In fact, the present day looks a lot like “the future” as we thought of it up until the 70s. The old ideals have become the new standard.

  A few days ago, I came across a “Guide to the 1970 World Expo” while browsing through a used bookshop in Umeda. I was a bit surprised to think of it as a sentimental artifact so soon after the event, but I realized what I was really nostalgic for was how we lived and how cities looked back then. The Expo itself felt more like part of the continuum leading up to today. The many pavilions, so bizarre and innovative in their day, seeking to evoke an image of the future, and indeed one that was later echoed the design concepts of actual buildings, making the whole extravaganza now seem more like a forecast of the obvious. Decades after the fact, the bold futurism of the Expo is now no more than a commonplace.

  As an example, the Expo featured an amazing “moving walkway.” I had forgotten all about this until I saw the guidebook, but I can remember it being a big deal at the time. It’s not that I forgot the existence of the technology – we see them all over the place these days. I just didn’t remember how much of a fuss was made about them during the Expo. In fact, the travellator near Kobe General Hospital here on Port Island, some of which is still in use, was first constructed as part of the revolution in industrial design occasioned by the Expo. (On looking into it, I found that the Port Island contraption was predated by one in Hankyu Umeda Station).

  The first escalator in Japan was built in 1914 (Taisho 3), the year of the Tokyo World Expo, and it is said that crowds of people would line up to ascend the not very long incline. There are also stories of how, soon after the war, Occupation GIs or MPs, fresh from the countryside, would marvel at escalators running in Tokyo department stores. Japan’s predilection for the new has driven its transformation.

  At the same time, although over the intervening decades we have embraced many of the futurist values invoked at the Senri Hills site, there are others we can only gaze back on as eccentricities. Early signs of decline already perceptible in efforts to reignite economic growth, in a sense to reinvigorate the nation, as embodied in the opening of the new Tomei Expressway. All the remains of the venue is the iconic Tower of the Sun, but we tend to forget how a member of the Japanese Red Army occupied one of its eye sockets, or how Yukio Mishima took his life by seppuku. But what is clear is that by diligently completing the homework we assigned ourselves since the 1970s, we ended up with the world we have today, and without the things we have lost. In those years, Japan has been watching and waiting for the gap between the giant oddity of Senri Hills and the surrounding landscape to narrow, and indeed it has come to pass.  

  When watching cinematic oldies like “Sunset on Third Street” and “A Boy Called H,” I often feel like I have momentarily time-traveled back to the Showa 30s (1955–1964). And what is clear is that during that decade a revival was underway of the prewar Japan that had been lost to the ravages of war, not only in Tokyo, but in my hometown of Osaka as well. Not earthquake, nor firebombs, nor flood could destroy that special something, until we ourselves began to abandon it from the 1960s on. When our children look at the Tower of the Sun, what will they see in it? If a monument is intended an architectural testament to history, how can it be other than monumental in scale?