Most American textbooks do a capable job of summarizing the political and economic facts of Japan’s modern history. The country, in their telling, modernized quickly in the late 1800s, turned militant in the 1930s, went to war in the 1940s, reemerged under American guidance in the 1950s, and became an “economic animal” in the 1960s. In the 1990s, the bubble burst. Unfortunately, most of these textbooks ignore the rich and varied lives of the Japanese people themselves: their consumption patterns, their work habits and entertainment styles, the movements they joined, the way they lived. That story will be outlined here, a story that finds in each of Japan’s evolutionary period’s tension—sometimes dynamic, sometimes debilitating—between bright forces such as freedom, affluence, equality, and progress, and the darker forces of control, poverty, and class division.
1895-1910: A MASS SOCIETY EMERGES
During the years between 1895 and 1904, bridging the Sino- and Russo-Japanese wars, Japan turned into a mass-oriented, urban nation. Social change had been occurring continuously since the 1868 Meiji Restoration, but the semi-feudal legacy of earlier centuries prevented modernity from reaching large masses until the 1890s, when Japan’s cities began to look much like their counterparts in Europe and America.
Jobs brought people into Japan’s cities in these years, expanding Tokyo’s factory population by 4,000 annually and pushing its populalion past two million by 1905.1 And jobs made the cities modern: for with the employees came expanding schools, rising literacy, sprawling slums, demands for services—and the rise of mass institutions. Newspapers, for example, evolved from small opinion journals into huge organs with 200,000 subscribers, edited by profit-driven men like Kuroiwa Shuroku who was accused of using sensationalism to attract the coarser classes—of acting like a “bartender who pours alcohol into his customers’ glasses to trap them.”2
A similar entrepreneurial drive caused Japan’s turn-at-the-century cities to hustle with new products and inventions. Movies were introduced to Japan in 1898, and the same year, the country’s first beer hall opened. In 1900, modem waterworks began operating in central Tokyo. And the next live years saw the spread of electric fans, irons, refrigerators, and department stores, and the launching of an “exciting entertainment” for Osaka swimmers, the 40-foot “water shoot.”3 By the end of Meiji, electric lights were widespread.
Urbanization and modernity were not spread evenly: not were they wholly good. Rural poverty persisted in these years, and the movement to the cities disrupted local communities. The 1910 novel Soil, written by a village schoolteacher, described a place where women died from poor medical care and children nearly starved in bad years. The factories to which many sent their daughters paid inhuman wages, provided filthy dorms, and made the girls work twelve-hour shifts. At the Ashio copper mine north of Tokyo, Japan experienced its first major case of industrial pollution, even as the journalist Yokoyama Gennosuke was describing Osaka’s vast slums where “scores of children . . . whose names appear only in a policeman’s notebook” inhabited a single row house.4
For thousands of late-Meiji Japanese. the modern age brought new hopes; for educated women it provided opportunities as journalists, teachers, and doctors; for the affluent everywhere, it provided more interesting products and quicker transportation. For hundreds of thousands, however, the age brought harsher realities: separation from rural social networks, entrapment in poverty—and, in the words of novelist Natsume Soseki, “loneliness . . . the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age.”5
The Meiji Emperor’s successor was Taisho (r. 1912-26), a weak man known for his mental instability. The difference between father and son symbolized the contrast in eras: strength followed by weakness, purposefulness by ambiguity. The cities particularly reflected that ambiguity. On the one hand, the frenetic turn-of-the-century changes continued unabated, producing a society full of fresh ideas and new entertainment venues. On the other, those very changes prompted a backlash, as worried traditionalists sought to restore old values and strengthen the state. If the 1923 Kanto earthquake, which resulted in more than 100,000 deaths, gave physical representation to the new era’s conflicts, the clash between new and old represented its spiritual and intellectual tensions.
The progressives spawned an intellectual explosion, with writers espousing everything from anarchism to democracy, from Marxism to capitalism. And women entered the debates, as radicals went to prison for preaching anarchy while moderates launched journals such as Seito (Bluestockings), which proclaimed: “In the beginning, truly, woman was the sun . . Today, woman is the moon. “6 One goal of the progressives was to call public attention to the difficulties of the still-growing poor classes: the continuing inhumanity of the textile factories, where females made up four-fifths of the workforce as late as 1930: the brutal coal mines of Kyushu, where child labor remained the norm:7 the 5,000-plus burakumin (outcaste) communities located at the desperate, filthy edges of urban centers—on the wrong side of what locals sometimes called the “Bridge of Hell.” And these same writers promoted the rights of workers to unionize and of commoners to march in the streets for lower street car fares and reduced rice prices—prompting historians to label the 1910s an age of urban riots.
One of the most interesting features of the Taisho cities was the emergence of a hedonistic café culture, made possible by the new automobiles, radios, silent movies, and a growing middle class. Moralists had complained for years about “modern” couples holding hands in public: now they despaired over the popularity of dancing, Western fashions, and movies. Magazine publishers made fortunes on gossip about stars and articles about getting rich, with titles such as “The Single Man and the Spirit of Independence” and “How to Start to Billiards Business.” At the same time, novelists like Tanizaki Jun’ichiro described young men who gushed to their beaux: “I worship you . . . .I’ll buy anything that’ll make you beautiful.” Words like jazu (jazz), moga (modern girl), mobo (modern boy), and ero (eros) entered the hip vocabulary, and actress Matsui Sumako scandalized avid readers with her sex affairs and eventual suicide (following a production of Carman).11
Not surprisingly, this vitality upset traditionalists more than did the plight of the poor. If officials reveled in the patriotism that accompanied the Russo-Japanese War—the first victory by an Asian nation over a Western power—they experienced premonitions of social breakdown as they watched the hedonism and social activism of the 1910s. Although these conservatives countered the trends most actively in the political sphere, creating patriotic organizations and rewriting textbooks to foster loyalty to the emperor, they also took on the world of thought and culture, the world that most affected everyday society. After 1925, when it was made illegal to advocate communism or criticize Japan’s national polity (kokutai), thought police began to hound liberal-minded students and activists. Novelists particularly felt the enforcers’ strong hand now, as officials actively censored any writing that encouraged “depravity and decadence.”12 The feminist Ishimoto Shidzue described in her mid-1930s memoir the tensions people felt, portraying a “liberal” husband who first encouraged her to become “modern,” then began to fear her new persona, “He who once had undertaken to educate his wife with a view to making her . . .active and independent . . . was now gloating over Japanese dolls in the old prints as types to emulate!” The result was divorce.
After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, daily life for most Japanese turned grim and dull; no longer was there either the means or political latitude to do anything more than support the war effort and find enough food to eat.
1930-1945: THE DARK VALLEY
By the late 1920s, Japan’s social dynamism was fading. The government’s efforts to stimulate nationalism bore a morbid harvest in the early 1930s, especially after Japan established a colony in Manchuria in 1932. Both the officials and bourgeoning right-wing groups worked hard now to create a populace committed to nationalism at home and expansion abroad. In the main, they were successful.
It bears note that modernity continued apace and Japan remained relatively tranquil throughout the 1930s, recovering fairly rapidly from the Great Depression. Radios reached nearly half of Japan’s homes by the end of the decade. Jazz continued to be popular. Magazines still promoted consumerism and poked fun at hypocrisy. And visiting Western stars Charlie Chaplin and Babe Ruth drew massive crowds. Even—or perhaps especially—in rural Japan, a gutsy, apolitical reality ruled throughout the 1930s, as anthropologist Ella Lury Wiswell found in a Kyushu village, where women consistently ignored government directives: “They took their pleasure in tobacco, drink, and sex . . . Their humor was earthy.” 13
During the second half of the decade, however, the urban mood grew darker—and more uniform—as officials succeeded in creating a national defense state. Following Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, suffrage-oriented women’s groups began to shill their focus to frugal living and support For the emperor. The radio waves included more martial music. And the covers of magazines like Children’s Club (Shonen Kurabu) displayed smiling, rifle-toting children in military garb. A few writers defied the mood, but their numbers had diminished by the time jazz and dance halls were banned in October 1940.
After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, daily life for most Japanese turned grim and dull; no longer was there either the means or political latitude to do anything more than support the war effort and find enough food to eat. Despite propaganda-induced images of the Japanese people as fanatic supporters of the emperor and the military, war diaries show a people more resigned than enthusiastic. Even the resisters grew silent, some, like a band of holiness Christian ministers, sitting in jail for refusing to reverence the emperors, and others, like the novelist Tanizaki, writing silently in a mountain home. But most sent their sons off to War, worked long hours in the nation’s shops and factories, stretched their budgets by wearing tattered clothes and eating ever slimmer rations, and generally ignored the officials’ injunctions to have more babies. The last months of the war brought dramatic shortages. While there was no starvation. Japan’s adults typically lost a full twenty pounds in the latter part of the war. “At each meal,” recalled one boy, “our grandmother wound a sash tightly around my brother’s stomach so that my brother wouldn’t eat too much.”14 A home economist wrote in his diary early in 1945: People say “they’re being driven to their wit’s end and no longer think it’s worth it, that there’s no reason for winning.” They kept their complaints quiet, he added, out of fear of the authorities.15
1945-1964: RETURN TO NORMAL
Things did not improve much in the first post-war years. Nearly a hundred cities had been bombed: troops were returning to a decimated economy; the infrastructure was in shambles. Said one GI, on arriving in Tokyo: “Tokyo … is a devastated, immodest mess, but the silence is what gets me most; no honks, yells, clangs . . . Everybody is still staring in that god-awful silence.”16 In October 1945, a schoolteacher died of starvation; in November, a newspaper printed the letter of a father intending to commit suicide so there would be more food for his children. While profiteers got rich and many resorted to the black market, most lived “like animal-people made of mud,” with people dying of starvation or exposure a full three years after the war.17
Fortunately, there also was a brighter side, almost at once. With a more democratic constitution in force after 1947 and a lessening wartime censorship, writers experienced greater freedom. When “bad books” began to appear in the stores, recalled historian lenaga Saburo. “I experienced tremendous joy”—not because he liked bad books, but because he craved freedom. Women won the right to vote, and thirty-nine were elected to the national legislature in 1946. Labor unions grew. Cafe culture—albeit of a cheaper and more sensuous kind than in the 1920s—returned to the cities. Not that everyone was happy now. Cit life was disrupted by more than 600 strikes a year in the late 1940s, and Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru was greeted by an opponent’s “sea of red flags” when he took office in 1946.19 Poverty remained the norm until the 1950s: and disillusionment soared as people learned of their soldiers’ wartime, atrocities. But the trend was toward recovery, and on his birthday in 1952, Emperor Hirohito wrote: “The winter wind has gone / and long-awaited has arrived I with double-petalled cherry blossoms.20
And once the occupiers left that spring, even material life began at last to recover, partly because of the 1950-53 Korean War, which created demand for Japanese goods and services, and partly because of the slowly spreading impact of Occupation reforms. By 1957, the economy had reached prewar levels, and by the 1960s, growth rates or nearly ten percent a year had turned Japan, once again, into one of the world’s largest economies. At the heart of the recovery lay consumerism, Japanese families purchased almost ninety percent of what the country’s factories and shops produced; the consumers set the values; they created the new institutions; they were the soul of postwar Japan.
One thing consumers did in the 1950s was to buy millions of washing machines, refrigerators, and television sets (Japan’s “three electronic treasures,” in journalistic parlance). They frequented bars and cabarets again, creating fads for everything from hula hoops to brown dolls worn on one’s anm.They produced. in the process, a new “middle-brow culture,” subscribing in unprecedented numbers to weekly magazines that provided articles about the emperor’s diet and the crown prince’s romance with a commoner. The renewal of pleasure-seeking provided the storyline of Ishihara Shintaro’s novel, Season of Violence, in which the protagonist declared: “What others think never bothers me! Doing only what I want—that’s all I can do!”21
For the millions who found this postwar climate empty, there were hundreds of new religions,” which promised spiritual community and wholeness without trying to curb members’ desires for wealth. And for those who wanted a cause, there was anti-Americanism. The 1952 US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, which ended the Occupation and made Japan dependent on the United States for defense, sparked protests through the 1950s, and at the end of the decade produced nationwide demonstrations large enough to topple a government but not to end the treaty. By 1964, when Tokyo hosted the Olympics, it was clear that Japan once more had become a nation of affluent materialists, Japanese athletes won more medals than they ever had before, and Olympic President Avery Brundage called Japan “No. 1 in all the world.”22
If the 1950s restored Japan to affluence, the next quarter-century demonstrated the travails of success. Surpassing Prime Minister Ikeda Hayato’s 1959 promise of “income doubling” within a decade, Japan had become the world’s second largest economy by 1970. Unfortunately, wealth brought ordinary people problems as well as triumphs.
The late 1960s, in particular, seemed consumed by success’s shadows. Students had enough money now to go to college in unprecedented numbers, but they were not happy there. Disillusioned by archaic teaching methods, university corruption, and Japanese support for America’s war in Vietnam, they erupted in protests, shutting down scores of universities for months at a time. Consumers complained too, often in organized fashion. through thousands of citizen movements (shimin undo) that demanded lower prices and pollution-free environments. One of their most pressing issues was urban crowding, as the influx of people into the cities caused outrageously high land prices, tiny living spaces an average Tokyo family of four in 1965 lived in a 403-squarefoot apartment), and crushingly crowded rush hour trains. Another major issue was pollution. Factories may have produced the world’s best watches and automobiles, but they filled the skies and waters with toxic wastes. By the late 1960s, policemen were inhaling oxygen at some intersections: Osaka’s Yoda River had lost its ability to sustain life; and thousands of fishermen in the town of Minamata were suffering from mercury poisoning. Many of the Minamata victims “found their hands trembling so violently they could no longer strike a match.” others lost control of their bodily functions; and nearly forty percent died.23 The staged suicide of ultranationalist novelist Mishima Yukio in 1970 illustrated how tortured affluent life could be for the literary elite: the tens of thousands of day laborers who slept in urban flop houses or parks by night and worked temporarily, benefit-less jobs by day showed how excruciating it was for the poor. “I can think of only two things that really bring these men together,” said an observer of the day laborers: “the drinking-stand and the park bench.”24
The plethora of problems did not slow Japan’s economic progress, however: nor did political challenges such as the world oil crisis of the early 1970s or the failure of successive cabinets later in the decade. As a result, the late 1970s and 1980s produced a golden age of capitalism, a time of increasing national pride. Best-selling books and articles, labeled Nihonron (on being Japanese), argued that success sprang from Japan’s national character: the unique language, the discipline required by rice agriculture, and a group-oriented management style. When industrialist Matsushita Konosuke proposed in 1976 that Japan level a fifth of its mountains and use the dirt to build a massive new island, thereby increasing usable land by forty percent, he said the project fit Japan’s character, bringing “a balance between material and spiritual needs.”25
Great numbers of Japanese lived better than ever during the 1980s, building new homes and renting technology-laden apartments on the world’s most expensive land, playing golf on courses that cost $200 for eighteen holes, traveling abroad frequently,26 and paying 10,000 yen ($100) for a drink and a slice of cake in upscale coffee shops. Large numbers continued to struggle economically, primarily because society remained divided between those who worked for the rich corporations, with high wages and lifetime employment, and those employed as shopkeepers, construction workers, or employees of the smaller companies, where economic downturns resulted in pay cuts. layoffs, and firings. But the dominant feature of Japan in the late 1980s was wealth and freedom. Polls showed that a full ninety percent of people considered themselves middle class.
Paradoxically, one result of this affluence was that Japan became not only more powerful but more controversial in the international sphere—and the controversy affected the daily lives of nearly everyone. The magazines and sports papers that commuters devoured on the morning trains were filled in the 1980s with angry articles about Japan-bashing abroad, as well as the harsh criticism that Asian nations heaped on Japan when the Education Ministry revised history textbooks to de-emphasize Japan’s wartime aggression. While many were impressed by the fact that 200 world rulers showed up for Hirohito’s funeral in 1989, even greater numbers complained about the restraints TV networks placed on entertainment shows when he died. Others grumbled at the increasing number of Asian and Mideastern workers who were attracted to Japan, often illegally, to take jobs in the late 1980s. Japan, it was clear, had done more than become an economic giant by 1989; it had become a thoroughly modern, middle-class society where the haves and have-nots mingled in a stew that was as dynamic as it sometimes was troubled.
Modernity had done more than make Japan an economic giant. It had given it a social character as rich and varied as that in any country on earth, a society where affluence enabled increasingly individualistic women and men to live the lives they desired.
Japan’s public story in the 1990s was economic collapse. The capitalist boom fizzled at the beginning of the decade, as land values dropped, debt-burdened banks folded, and the stock market fell by sixty-live percent in just three years. With the collapse came a loss of prestige, particularly in Asia where criticism of Japan’s World War II behaviors grew ever louder. With it too came increased numbers of people who could not afford a college education, families unable to repay loans or buy homes, and a general malaise as people faced the end of growth. The government’s inept response to the 1995 Hanshin earthquake, which killed over 6,000, followed by the Aum Supreme. Truth sect’s gas attack on the Tokyo subways, seemed to symbolize a darker time. The deeper social story, however, was more complex. It revealed a nation that, while chastened, still was dynamic and surprisingly self-confident, a nation whose class differences produced energy as often as they created problems.
The country’s continuing social energy revealed itself in many ways. Greater Tokyo—the world’s largest metropolitan area—had reached a population of more than thirty million, and increasing numbers of city dwellers were pursuing individualistic lifestyles by the end of the century. Some commentators talked about the shijinrui or “new human breed,” others about “micro-masses” who read specialized magazines and joined groups devoted to motorboat racing, computer games, or the ancient NO Theater. Ubiquitous computers, television, and cell phones (keitai) brought Japanese youth into instant contact with peers around the globe, and helped to spawn endless new behaviors, some exciting, some disturbing: rising divorce levels (to half that of the United States), women who refused to marry, adult men who took off-beat or menial jobs and lived with their parents so as to have freer lifestyles, more teenagers engaging in premarital sex-and a large population of outsiders, including motorcycle gang members, computer geeks, and disco groupies. Said sociologist Anne Imamura: “We are seeing . . .a diversification of patterns, from a single desirable model to a range of socially acceptable choices.”27
It could be argued that Japan’s popular culture had become thoroughly international by the end of the 1990s, saturating the rest of the world even as it imbibed foreign influences at home. Cities teemed with theaters and shopping malls, while television produced endless stars, some of them as ephemeral as cherry blossoms. Architects like Tange Kenzo and fashion designers like Issey Miyake occupied a world stage. Novelist Oe Kenzaburo won the Nobel prize in literature. Nomo Hideo and Suzuki Ichiro dominated Japanese sports pages when they achieved success in America’s major leagues, while Americans, Hispanics, and Mongolians starred in Japan’s own sports of sumo, soccer, and baseball. And then there was anime, arguably the century’s most influential Japanese export. Producers and writers like Tezuka Osamu and Takahashi Rumiko enraptured a generation of Japanese youth, even while becoming worldwide names.
Traditional culture and practices had not disappeared when the twentieth century ended. Divorce rates still remained lower than elsewhere; gender discrimination persisted, with smaller percentages of Japanese women working outside the home; minority groups continued to face prejudice-even as, on the other hand, Japan remained one of the world’s safest societies and personal savings rates continued at remarkably high levels. Modernity had done more than make Japan an economic giant, it had given it a social character as rich and varied as that in any country on earth, a society where affluence enabled increasingly individualistic women and men to live the lives they desired. If they preferred traditional family patterns, they could have them. If they wanted to try new lifestyles, they had the means and the space to do that. By 2000, it could be argued, no society on earth balanced the traditional and the avant garde more easily, or more energetically.
1, For population data, see Naimusho, ed., Nihon jinko tokei shusei (Compilation of Japanese population statistics), 1-4; for factory workers, Andrew Cordon, Labor and Imperial Democracy in Prewar Japan (University of California Press, 1991), 63.
2. Kuroiwa revolutionized journalism by his calls for papers that were cheap, easy to read, and interesting. Quotation from journalist Masaoka Geiyo, in Ono Hideo, “Kuroiwa Shuroku,” in Sandai genronjin shu (Three generations of journalists), 6 (Jiji Tsushinisha, 1962), 41.
3. Most of these introductions are described in Yumoto Katsuichi, Zusetsu Meiji jibutsu eigen jiten (Illustrated dictionary of the origins of Meiji affairs) (Kashiwa Shobo, 1998); the water shoot is described on pages 212-213. One of the best works in English for these developments is Edward Seidensticker, Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake (Charles E. Tuttle Publishers, 1983).
4. In Eiji Yutani, “Nihon no kaso shakai of Gennosuke Yokoyama.” PhD dissertation University of California, Berkeley, 1985, 198.
5. Natsume Soseiki, Kokoro (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1957), 30.
6. Hiratsuka Raicho, in Seito 1, no. 1 (September 1, 1911), 37.
7. Sachiko Sone, “Exploitation or Expectation? Child Labor in Japan’s Coal Mines Before World War II.” Critical Asian Studies 35, no. 1 (2003), 51.
8. Mikiso Haile, Peasants, Rebels, and Outcastes: The Underside of Modern Japan (Pantheon Books, 1982), 152.
9. Article titles from the journal Seiko (Success), February 1, 1914.
10. Junichiro Tanizaki, Naomi, Trans., Anthony H. Chambers (New York: Knopf, 1985), 35.
11. An excellent description of cafe society is found in James L, McClain, Japan: A Modern History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), 351-356.
12, Jay Rubin, Injurious to Public Morals: Writers and the Meiji State (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984), 199.
13. Robert J. Smith and Ella Lury Wiswell, The Women of Suye Mura (University of Chicago Press, 1982), 274.
14. “Vernacular Views,” The Japan Times Weekly, August 27, 1977, 7.
15. In Thomas R. H. Havens, Valley of Darkness: The Japanese People and World War Two (New York: W. W. Notion & Company, 1978), 6. Rich recollections from the war also are found in Haruko and Theodore Cook, Japan at War: An Oral History (New York: The New Press, 1992).
16. Sherwood Moran letter, September 26, 1945, in Otis Cary. ed., Wat-Wasted Asia: Letters, 1945-46 (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1975), 54.
17. John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: W. W. Norton & Company/The New Press,1999), 101. Dower’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book provides a brilliant account of the life of Japan’s populace from 1945 to 1952.
18. Ienaga Saburo, Japan’s Post, Japan’s Future: One Historian’s Legacy (Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefieldd, 2001), 127.
19. Dower, 257, 259.
20, Dower, 553. It bears noting that many scholars regard the imposition of new kinds of censorship by the Occupation authorities themselves, as well as their decision not to try the emperor for war crimes, as responsible for a failure of Japanese society to come to grips with Japan’s ultimate wartime responsibilities. Some also see the preservation of the imperial institution as hindering the development of genuinely popular democracy in the postwar era.
21. Shintaro Ishihara, Season of Violence (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1966 ), 61.
22. “Brundage Praises Role of Japanese.” Japan Times, October 25, 1967.
23. Frank K, Upham, “Unplaced Persons and Movements for Place,” in Andrew Gordon, ed., Postwar Japan as History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 338.
24. Brett de Bury, “Sanya: Japan’s Internal Colony,” in E. Patricia Tsurumi, ed., The Other Japan: Postwar Realities (M. E. Sharpe. 1988), 115.
25. Matsushita Konosuke, “Double Japan’s Land Space,” Japan Interpreter 11, no. 3 (Winter 1977), 280; from Bungei shunju, May 1976.
26. Some ten million went abroad annually: Andrew Gordon. A Modern History of Japan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 305.
27. Anne E. Imamura, “The Japanese Family Faces Twenty-First Century Challenges.” Education About Asia 8, no. 2 (Fall 2003), 33.