Japan is nostalgic for a past that was somewhat worse than today
TIT’S A YEAR slip away as one walks through the gates of Daiba Itchome Shotengai, a 1960s-themed shopping district in Tokyo’s bay area. Children sleep dagashi, cheap and old-fashioned Japanese snacks. Some 20 somethings take turns ringing a rotary phone. A newspaper headline on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics reads dreamily: “Clear blue skies – the opening ceremony of the century”. A model of the unfinished Tokyo Tower, the building that would come to symbolize Japan’s post-war renaissance and economic vitality, stands in one of the halls.
The mall is one of many odes to Japan’s Showa era, which corresponds to the reign of Emperor Hirohito (1926-89) but has been synonymous with the period of spectacle in 1950s-80s. Seibu-en, an amusement park in Saitama, near Tokyo, rebranded as a 1960s-themed city in 2021. Rural areas have started promoting Showa architecture to attract tourists. For some young Japanese, the ultimate example of cool involves visiting so-called 1960s-style cafes. kiss; photos of their archetypal fare, such as lime-green melon soda floats, flooded social media. Kayokyoku, tunes from the Showa era, and urban pop, an upbeat, Western-influenced music genre that peaked in the 1970s, are back in vogue.
The interest in Showa reflects a desire for a more dynamic history of Japan. The country has never been richer or safer at home than it is today. But for many Japanese it feels stagnant, mired in political disillusionment, slow economic growth and a widespread sense of relative decline. A recent survey showed that only 14% of young Japanese believe their country’s future will get “better”. Showa Japan, a place of incredible growth, was a different matter. Voter turnout among young Japanese was twice as high then as it is today. “It was a time when people strongly believed: all your dreams can come true,” says Kubo Hiroshi, 64, founder of Daiba Itchome Shotengai.
That social and economic vitality is reflected in Showa’s bold aesthetic. Bright colors and elegant design – such as the glittering chandeliers and plush velvet seats in many kiss– they are common features. An exciting surge of Western influence on music and fashion added to the post-war sense of transformation; Disco-like country pop often features English lyrics. The atmosphere of the subsequent Heisei imperial period (1989-2019) can feel cold and sterile in comparison. (Otaku culture, which includes geeks obsessed with manga and video games, emerged during the Heisei era.)
Showa retro also has demographic significance. It reflects the nation’s pulse in pensioners, who naturally look back on their lost youth. Inamasu Tatsuo of Hosei University suggests that Showa nostalgia is different from American and European retro fashion because of the number of people who experienced the period personally who participate in it. Some nursing homes and sports centers aimed at older users have been redecorated in the colors and style of the 1960s.
There is a downside to Japan’s nostalgic obsession. Young Japanese use the term “Showa” to denote old-fashioned, but persistent, ideas – similar to the way young Americans use the term “OK Boomer” to express anger at talk about baby beaters and with the title. Outworn Showa ideas include sexism, wage slavery and adherence to a hierarchy based on superiority. When Banyan asked a group of 20 something Japanese, including fans of Showa chic, if they would like to live in the past, they almost shook their heads. “Maybe I’d like to experience Showa just for a day to see the architecture and culture,” said Shichijo Miu, 20, who runs the Showa retro student club at Tokyo’s Musashi University. “But when it comes to social views, there’s a lot I don’t support. “
The persistence of Showa’s stubborn side has to do with demographics as well. Men who came of age in the post-war era still dominate Japanese politics and at the highest levels of many institutions. The average age of the members of the Cabinet is over 60, and only two out of 24 are women. Japan’s gender pay gap is the worst in the G7. In the hands of its middy-duddy leaders, Japan has been slow to adopt digital technology (it’s still normal to send faxes in offices). The government is opposed to legalizing same-sex marriage, even though a majority of the public supports it. The beauty of Showa can contribute to modern Japan, and the memory of Showa’s vitality inspires it. However, in some ways Showa’s mentality is holding him back.■
Read more from Banyan, our Asia columnist:
Narendra Modi is the most popular leader in the world (June 15)
Japan offers Ukraine a rebuilding lesson (June 8)
The Strange Story of a Famous North Korean Inmate (June 1)
Also: How Banyan’s column got its name