Showa Japan: The Post-War Golden Age and Its Troubled Legacy

showa_japan_cover

A few weeks ago, I attended the FujiFilm Square photo exhibition in Tokyo called Showa Japan seen through Dutch eyes.  The photographs, most in black and white, were both fascinating and interesting and I noticed a new book (not yet published in the US) titled Showa Japan: The Post-War Golden Age and Its Troubled Legacy by Hans Brinchmann, one of the photographers in the exhibition, and bought it.

Showa is the name of the reign of Japan’s previous emperor, Hirohito and began in 1926 with his accession to the throne until his death in 1989 (apparently, Hirohito is posthumously known as the Emperor Showa). 

The book focuses on post-World War II Japan (the time the author lived there) and it is during this period, widely regarded as Japan’s Golden Age, that Japan literally rose from the ashes (WW2 defeat and atomic bombs) to become the world’s second largest economy.  With the Japanese people and its workers (the term Salaryman was coined) having a single minded purpose, this was a period of economic advancement, wondrous change and great modernization. 

It was also a time of wild spending and excesses in every field that would eventually come crashing to a halt with the bursting of Japan’s bubble economy, with the era ending along with Hirohito’s death in 1989.

A 15th national holiday was added in 2007 on April 29 called Showa Day.

4 thoughts on “Showa Japan: The Post-War Golden Age and Its Troubled Legacy

  1. Interesting stuff. Does the book focus primarily on the 1950s-60s, the period now looked back on fondly with “Showa nostalgia”? Or does it cover all the postwar period, through the less aesthetically/nostalgically/culturally interesting 80s-90s as well?

  2. Yes, it covers all the postwar period, including the impact of the bubble in the late 80s.

    At the end of the book, the author offers his personal opinion on how Japan should change now to thrive in the future.

  3. Not to nitpick, but…

    >Hirohito is posthumously known as the Emperor Showa

    Actually, he was known as the Showa Emperor when he was alive and the reigning Emperor. Just like the current Emperor is known as the Heisei Emperor.

    Japanese people don’t refer to the Emperor by his name.

    >A 15th national holiday was added in 2007 on April 29 called Showa Day.

    Actually, this holiday wasn’t added. It used to be called 「緑の日」 (“Greenery Day”) and was changed to “Showa Day” a couple years ago (if memory serves, it was 2006…not 2007).

    “Greenery Day” is now on May 4.

    The reason for all of this is:

    1. April 29 was the Showa Emperor’s birthday. And when the Emperor is alive, his birthday is a holiday and celebrated as the “Emperor’s Birthday” (current one is on December 23).
    The Showa Emperor’s birthday is still a holiday and it was called “Greenery Day” after his death because he loved nature.

    2. “Golden Week” in May had the holidays of May 3 (Constitution Day) and May 5 (Children’s Day)…so May 4 became a holiday too…so that Golden Week could become May 3-5 (some companies give April 29 – May 5 off).
    May 4 at first had no name…then became 「国民の日」 (Residents Day).

    3. Recently, April 29 became 「昭和の日」 (Showa Day) because it’s more easily recognized as the late-Showa Emperor’s birthday with that name. And May 4 took the name “Greenery Day”.

    I wrote about it (and all of the other Japanese holidays) here:
    http://www3.ocn.ne.jp/~tokyo5/faq.html#showanohi

  4. Recent book review by Hillel Wright from Metropolis Magazine in Japan. URL: http://metropolis.co.jp/tokyo/recent/books.asp

    The Showa Era (1926-1989) encompasses three distinct periods in Japanese history: the brief prewar years when the young Emperor Hirohito struggled with questions of his own and the nation’s identity; the war years, beginning in glory and ending in utter destruction and disaster; and the 44-year postwar era with its roller-coaster ride of boom and bust. In Showa Japan, Dutch author/photographer Hans Brinckmann focuses his lenses, both graphic and textual, on this turbulent era, specifically the years 1950-1989.

    Brinckmann came to Japan as an 18-year-old management trainee at a Dutch bank in Kobe. He remained in Japan for 24 years, and for the following 14 years he worked for the bank in various international locations. In 2005, he returned to Japan and now lives in Tokyo. Another young Dutchman, Ysbrand Rogge, joined Brinckmann’s bank in 1955, and for the next five years the two traveled across the country taking photographs during their vacations. Rogge quit banking in 1960 for a career as a photographer and documentary filmmaker, while Brinckmann, although continuing to work at the bank, also continued taking pictures of, and keeping a diary about, his life in Japan.

    Brinckmann refers to the postwar years as Japan’s Golden Age, “the Showa of hard work, clear goals, unparalleled economic success and regained national pride embedded in pacifist ideals.” The end of the era coincided with the burst of the Bubble economy in the late ’80s and the start of Japan’s decade-long recession.
    The first stage of Japan’s “Golden Age” was largely created by the salaryman: in the same way that the samurai represented the soul of the Edo Era (1603-1868), the corporate worker came to symbolize Showa. “In Japan,” Brinckmann observes, “the salaryman surrendered virtually all his waking hours to his employer, seven days a week, twelve months a year. He surrendered his very soul.”

    Brinckmann himself occupied a unique position during these years: he was a player in the Japanese economy—his bank lent money to major Japanese companies—but also an outsider and observer of Japanese society. His photographs offer fascinating glimpses of company outings at hot-spring resorts, and his diaries record his opinions of these events: “Of course, at men-only drinking parties (with drinks served by onsen geisha), all pretence and self-restraint would crumble, but even then drunken teasing and inane games were more likely to take place than the exchange of confidences or any kind of meaningful discussion.”

    Even Japan’s rare moments of rebelliousness, such as the snake-dance protests against the US-Japan Security Treaty in 1960, smacked of conformity: “It was the only time in Japan’s postwar history that something resembling fiery political spirit flourished, although it was driven more by blind passion than by fully informed debate and democratic process….”
    Once Japan had re-established itself as a first-world country, it continued to advance relentlessly, peaking in the financial excesses of the Bubble. Brinckmann offers examples like ¥10 million middle-class wedding parties, ¥400 million golf club memberships and the $83 million paid for a van Gogh painting in 1990. Bubble excesses invaded the social fabric as well, with the advent of sex tours to Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines and South Korea organized by Japanese companies to court potential clients.

    The death of the Showa Emperor and the bursting of the Bubble occurred almost simultaneously, and Brinckmann goes beyond Showa in his narrative to look at “its troubled legacy”—namely, the current Heisei Era, with its attendant trends, technologies and subcultures.

    But it is in his role as the young foreign banker with notebook and camera that Brinckmann really shines. Although not a professional scholar, he has written a book that is historically factual and well-documented. It’s spiced with personal observations from his diaries and his and Rogge’s black-and-white photos of everything from Showa Era cleaning ladies and day laborers to the Imperial family itself.

    Brinckmann’s unique perspective—not soldier, diplomat nor educator—along with his talents as storyteller and photographer, make this book a standout. I heartily recommend it.

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