*First broadcast on May 19, 2022.
The "Showa era" was the period of Japanese history between 1926 and 1989. The 60s, 70s and 80s are fondly remembered in Japan as a time when many were feeling the positive effects of a booming economy. That nostalgia has been growing in recent years, even among those who didn't experience the Showa era first-hand. Our guest, Professor Kono Kohei of Ibaraki University, introduces the bold designs and physical appeal of Showa era products, and explains why cafes from those days are attracting young customers.
Hello, and welcome to Japanology Plus.
I'm Peter Barakan.
Just as in England we talk about
the Victorian or Edwardian era,
in Japan every emperor is given an era
name, and the years are numbered.
So for example, we are in, currently,
year number four of the Reiwa era.
The Showa era was one of the longest,
lasting from 1926 to 1989,
during which time Japan
went through militarization,
the destruction of World War 2,
and the subsequent dramatic economic
revival, which culminated in the 1980s.
Since then, there's been 30 years
of pretty much economic slump,
so people who lived through the Showa era
now look back on it as the good old days.
And even among the younger generation,
there's a kind of fad for Showa nostalgia,
and that's our theme for today.
The street you see behind me here
is actually part of an amusement park
just outside Tokyo.
And this street is a kind of
trip back to the 1960s.
We'll take a look.
The amusement park
has been open since 1950,
but part of it was recently refurbished
to look like a 1960s shopping street.
Since opening in its new form, the park
has been even more popular than expected.
Kono-san, good morning.
Thank you for joining us today.
It's my pleasure.
Our guest is Professor Kono Kohei,
of Ibaraki University.
He studies nostalgia for the Showa era,
and where that feeling comes from.
-Let's have a look around!
-Yeah, let's have a look.
They used to have things similar to
this in London when I was a kid, actually.
Oh, really? Three-wheeled vehicles
really epitomize the time, don't they?
There were a lot of small,
independent businesses back then.
So small, maneuverable
trucks were really useful.
You'd see a lot of them on the streets.
I like the design; they look quite cute.
They've made it look a bit dirty,
just to add a bit of authenticity.
And here's a red telephone.
Right, you used to see these
everywhere, didn't you?
They're another iconic feature
of the Showa era.
They were the most common type
of public phone.
Later, there were green ones.
Oh yeah. Those are the ones
where you can use a card.
And they're all push phones, right?
These ones are the dial phones,
and they only took 10 yen.
Oh my god! All these old cigarettes.
I used to smoke these!
Yes, it's a cigarette shop.
That's what it says on the sign.
There'd always be a public phone
in front of these shops.
Back then, merchants would pitch
their products directly to passers-by.
Was this actually a common sight
back in the '60s?
We just saw a performance
in front of a shop.
But merchants would also sell things
in the middle of the street.
Overripe or damaged produce
would be sold at a discount.
That happened a lot.
The merchants' voices
were really distinctive;
they were powerful and engaging.
My parents told me that
during their university days,
on their way home from dates,
they'd buy bananas in front of
the train station at sales of that kind.
So yes, it was common.
So why did a modern theme park
recreate a '60s street?
Was there a special reason for doing this?
We're living in
an increasingly digital world.
It's convenient, of course,
but it weakens the bonds that link us.
People yearn for a sense
of connection with others,
and so we wanted to recreate a world
where that feeling came first.
That was the idea behind
You always hear two things
about the Showa era.
First, people didn't have much,
but they did have dreams.
Second, people shared heart-warming bonds.
I hear that a lot.
In other words, people worked together
to achieve happy and fulfilling lives.
That positive image is something
we often associate with the Showa era.
Of course, it wasn't
as if everything was perfect.
Cities weren't clean.
There would be all sorts
of unpleasant smells.
And there was widespread poverty.
But when we look back, those negative
aspects are canceled out by the positives.
I think that's the essence of nostalgia.
The Showa era spanned over 60 years.
Soon after it began,
the world was hit by the Great Depression,
and unemployment soared.
Japan moved towards militarism,
with dire consequences.
The Second World War devastated
the nation's industrial base
and rocked Japan to its core.
Then in the '50s,
the economy started to recover.
Industry and technology gathered momentum.
By 1956, a government white paper
was saying that the bad days were over.
Economic growth quickly accelerated,
and a modern nation emerged.
By the 1980s, Japanese products
were celebrated around the globe.
Japan was an economic superpower,
and a renowned US academic coined
the phrase Japan as number one.
In the 1960s,
a key benchmark of quality of life
for many Japanese was home appliances.
Televisions, washing machines
were status symbols for the nation:
cornerstones of a happy life.
In subsequent years, a stream
of unique appliances were invented.
A Japanese company developed
the world's first electric rice cooker.
This device was designed to prepare
a fried egg, a slice of toast,
and a glass of hot milk.
Manufacturers were constantly
coming up with new ideas.
This telephone has two dial pads.
It can be used from either side,
without rotating the phone.
Appliances displayed a sense of
originality and individuality that
everyday items these days seem to lack.
Oh my god!
Looks like something
from outer space, doesn't it?
I don't think it has much suction.
It doesn't work very well.
I wonder if they…if people would buy
this sort of stuff if it was on sale, now.
They're actually really popular.
The designs are so different.
Do you see the green and red toasters?
Oh, are those toasters?
Actually that's quite cool;
I wouldn't mind a green toaster like that.
Many Showa-era products
are back in demand.
Here's one example:
When they first appeared in the 1960s,
they were revolutionary.
People could record a radio
broadcast onto a cassette!
Through the '70s and '80s,
they got smaller and smaller.
Their designs were bold and colorful.
They became an essential element
of youth identity.
Matsuzaki Junichi repairs and
sells Showa-era radio-cassette players.
He's noticed a new interest
among young people.
For the young people of today,
smartphones have existed since birth.
They listen to music
through wireless earphones.
I don't think they listen to music
through speakers much anymore.
So for them,
the fact that radio-cassette players
have built-in speakers is intriguing.
I think they find the act of
playing music out loud entertaining.
I'd say it could well be an unusual
experience for young people these days.
Radio-cassette players like this
became incredibly popular
in Japan during the ‘80s.
I remember them well.
Did you have one yourself?
I didn't have one like this.
I had a cassette player, but then,
everybody had a cassette player
back in those days.
Showa-era radio-cassette players
have become quite popular
among the young people of today.
I think the reason
they enjoy using these devices
is because of the physical sensation.
Their physicality is quite appealing.
The way they feel.
The button goes “clunk”
when you press it down.
The dials click when you rotate them.
And the tape goes round and round.
You get a direct sense
of how the machine works.
And people really enjoy that.
Let's try it out.
I'll just open this up.
It's been a long time since
I've used one of these.
I'm not sure I can still do it.
It's pretty simple.
I'll just press the play button.
I mean, even with CD players,
they've always had a remote control.
So you never really touch the player,
except when you were
putting the disc in, or taking it out.
So yeah, it's a much more
I understand that.
I think that young people enjoy
using devices they interact with
because they're different from
using the screen on a smartphone.
I think they're embracing old gadgets
as a reaction to the modern age.
And it's not just young people.
People like us are smartphone users too,
and a machine like this generates
a strong sense of engagement.
That tactile appeal is a crucial element
of Showa nostalgia, I would say.
Another extremely important aspect
is the visual design.
These products are
always so fun to look at.
This radio-cassette player is bright red.
Showa-era products often have bold colors.
They're full of personality.
Creative design flourished
during the Showa era.
This shop specializes
in products from the '60s and '70s.
It stocks a range of colorful items.
Such as these toasters.
Back then, a great variety of
products were made in bright, vivid tones.
Glasses with floral designs
were very popular,
and the surge of nostalgia
for the Showa era
to start making them again.
Young people enjoy sharing photos
of them on social media.
Floral patterns are
a classic element of Showa design.
Products bearing floral motifs were
especially common in the kitchen,
and on the dining table.
This trend is thought to have originated
with vacuum flasks, like this one.
Previously, most vacuum flasks
were in plain colors.
But this one with a floral motif,
was a hit when it was released in 1967.
The designer came up with
the idea after seeing bouquets of flowers
on Western dining tables.
The motif itself was based
on kimono designs,
and so to Japanese consumers
it seemed familiar.
With a bouquet, you arrange various types
of flowers in a roughly circular shape.
Back then, that style
of decoration didn't exist in Japan.
I thought that
products with a bouquet-style pattern
could generate a really positive feel.
Floral patterns were used
in more and more products,
brightening the kitchens and
dining tables of the Showa era.
Why did people like those flower
designs so much, do you think?
First of all, people were
enjoying a higher quality of life,
and so they were able to
think more about how things looked.
It was a golden age for that.
And I think a big reason
behind the popularity of floral motifs
was the Westernization of dining habits.
People ate less rice, and more bread.
They started enjoying more Western foods.
Previously, almost everyone
ate at a low table,
but dining tables with chairs
started to replace them.
Not everyone made the change, but the
ratio started moving in that direction.
And as that happened,
Japanese started to see a dining table
as a bright and cheerful space.
Products with floral motifs were
a perfect match for that outlook.
It was almost like decorating
the table with real flowers.
So now we're seeing those
Showa period designs coming back again,
after quite a long time.
Modern goods tend to have
simple yet elegant designs.
Showa items on the other hand feature
bright colors, and elaborate shapes.
In a way, they're over the top.
But that's become their strength.
Showa products feature
an insistent, bold appearance
that modern Japanese
actually find really appealing.
That's my take on it.
The extravagant and colorful energy
of the Showa era
was also visible in architecture.
This is the Nakagin Capsule Tower.
It's an apartment complex
made up of separate capsules.
When it was completed in 1972,
it was the world's first capsule-style
building that was actually used.
Each capsule covers an area
of about ten square meters.
It contains a distinctive circular window.
A cupboard unit with a built-in TV…
and a prefabricated bathroom.
At the time, bathrooms
like this were still quite rare.
It feels a little like being
on board a spaceship.
The building's 140 capsules
were designed to be removable.
When they got too old,
they could be replaced with new ones.
The tower exemplifies a Japanese
architectural movement called Metabolism.
The idea is that the individual capsules
are like cells in a living organism.
If they're regularly replaced, then in
theory the building could exist forever.
The tower was designed by a
world-renowned architect, Kurokawa Kisho.
At the time,
Japan's population was growing
and its cities were expanding to match.
New buildings needed to have the
flexibility to deal with changing conditions.
The Nakagin Capsule Tower
was seen as a perfect solution
for the problems of its time—
a blueprint for the future.
But in the 50 years
after its construction,
not a single capsule was replaced.
It fell into disrepair, and
a decision was made to demolish it.
A campaign to enable
the building's DNA to live on
is being led by a former resident:
According to the “Metabolism”
concept that Kurokawa developed,
buildings should evolve to
suit the changing needs of the times.
That was the idea.
So although the Nakagin Capsule
Tower will disappear,
I think the capsules themselves
should be preserved.
They could be displayed in art galleries
and museums, or people could stay in them.
I think that reusing the capsules would
be a way of honoring the original concept.
Perhaps the capsules will
indeed live on in some form,
and inspire the architecture
of the future.
Another valuable piece of
Showa heritage is this style of cafe.
These, too, are being enjoyed
by a new generation.
When I first came to Japan,
this was pretty much all you saw.
They didn't have any of
the chains back in those days.
Showa cafes would serve green melon soda,
and actually that's still common,
but flavors like lemon and
strawberry were available, too.
And back in those days, spaghetti…you
could only usually get two types.
There was this one, Napolitan,
and then there was Bolognese.
It wasn't until the 1990s
that pasta dishes diversified.
In the window, it says, “Cafe Victoria.”
That font was really popular in the '50s.
When recreating that time period,
the lettering is very important.
Yeah, that's interesting actually.
Because fonts do change quite a lot
from period to period, don't they?
That does look very old fashioned now.
The cafe here was built especially
for this amusement park.
But genuine Showa-era cafes
haven't completely vanished.
They do still exist, here and there.
Young people enjoy going to them,
and taking pictures for social media.
That's been happening a lot
in the last three to four years.
The urban landscape in Japan
is constantly changing,
and older buildings tend to
get knocked down.
which do so much to embody
the atmosphere of Showa times,
are becoming quite rare.
This one, in Ueno, Tokyo,
has been open for half a century.
It has a classic ceiling.
and a dazzling chandelier.
The phone here has a dial pad.
The interior has barely changed since
the 1970s, when the cafe first opened.
Recently, the number of younger customers
has increased dramatically.
For young Japanese, the classic menu
is a key part of the experience.
The cafe's recipe for Napolitan,
a ketchup-flavored spaghetti dish,
has never changed.
Young customers enjoy ordering
much-loved drinks and dishes
in an original Showa setting.
Chain cafes are just utilitarian.
You buy a coffee, spend a short time
drinking it, and then you leave.
But with traditional cafes,
you can really take your time.
The dishes and menus
are visually appealing.
The food smells good,
and of course it tastes great too.
These cafes are about more than
just eating and drinking.
And that added value is
an important part of their appeal.
It's weird, you know,
there's cafes everywhere now.
You take two steps
and there's another cafe.
And these old-fashioned Japanese-style
cafes…I just haven't seen them in so long.
Chain cafes all feel quite similar.
But each traditional cafe
has its own interior design.
They have an enjoyable individuality.
There's another important point.
Buildings and facilities that
showcase a Showa-era atmosphere
are gradually disappearing.
Cafes are just about the only place where
you can still experience that atmosphere.
So when young people feel like
enjoying that Showa ambience,
a traditional cafe is
usually where they go.
That's why those cafes are
undergoing something of a revival.
Walking around here today,
there's a lot of really young…
I mean, like, young teenagers.
Obviously, they have absolutely
no clue about the Showa period.
I was wondering why
they would find it of interest.
And then I suddenly thought,
wait a minute,
for example there's
Hayao Miyazaki's animation films,
which are, of course, enormously popular.
And those feature a lot
of Showa period stories.
Perhaps they have a sort of virtual
image of that in their brains already.
Yes, it's true that a lot of children's
anime and manga are set in the Showa era.
It gives those young people
a sense of what that time was like.
They can picture it in their heads.
Of course, they don't have any direct
experience, so these are vague images.
But they are there.
You could call it nothing more than
a fantasy, invented only in the mind.
But that allows people
the creative freedom
to build their own vision
of Showa-era Japan.
they might combine something from the '60s
with something from the '80s.
Or they might combine something Japanese
with something that existed abroad,
during the same time.
They'll take something fun,
or something cute,
and put those elements together
to make a brand-new version
of the Showa era that's all their own.
Is there something special
about that period, do you think?
Well, we can't stop the passage of time,
but in Japan, the Showa era
will always be the last period of history
before the arrival of the internet.
That won't change.
Of course, that's true not just
for Japan, but for everywhere.
But when you consider goods
with a strong material impact—
that culture reached
a peak in Showa-era Japan.
Back then we saw the ultimate
embodiment of that idea.
And I think there's real value in that.
Perhaps one day, people will no longer
feel any nostalgia towards Showa times.
But I do think that
an appreciation for Showa values,
such as tactile pleasure
and bold design, will persist.
I certainly hope they will persist.
Thank you very much.
Thank you very much.