Since the 1980s, popular culture has been one of Japan’s most important and most visible exports, from video games and film to fashion and J-pop. But where did Japanese cool come from? What did it mean for Japan to have a “popular” culture? What was “Japanese culture” before the pop? And did popular just mean “Westernized?”
In Toyko Boogie-Woogie: Japan’s Pop Era and Its Discontents, historian Hiromu Nagahara faces all of these questions by tracing the rise of Japan’s pop music industry. As can often be the case with stories of mass culture, Nagahara’s exploration of how and why popular songs came to occupy a central position within twentieth-century Japanese cultural politics centers on concerns for hierarchy and democracy in the production, consumption, and critique of art, media, and culture. Indeed, the book demonstrates how the emergence of a highly capitalized culture industry threatened to upend existing hierarchies of culture and taste, provoking vigorous backlash from the political, cultural, and educational elites of Japan. In doing so, Tokyo Boogie-Woogie offers a new understanding of twentieth-century Japan by connecting the cultural history of mass entertainment with the social and political history of the transformation of the nation into a mass middle class society.
But don’t forget about the songs themselves. Here, courtesy of Nagahara, a playlist of tracks considered in Tokyo Boogie-Woogie:
And here’s a bit from the book:
Between the late 1920s and 1960s, an impressive array of musicians, intellectuals, government officials and other members of Japan’s cultural elite not only debated the merits, or lack thereof, of popular songs, but also made attempts at managing and countering the broader set of societal problems that were associated with the songs. This was true from the very outset of the genre’s emergence in the late 1920s. Produced by record companies that were largely funded by Western capital and disseminated through channels such as cinema, radio, and cafés, popular songs quickly came to be recognized as the audible symbols of what contemporaries called modan (modern)—a term that gained currency in the late 1920s as an adjective to denote all that was seen to be part of Japan’s mass-oriented, speed-driven urban modernity. As such, the popular song genre was immediately associated with contemporary trends such as the perceived Americanization and eroticization of Japanese culture—trends that found critics across the political spectrum and were captured by another, more sensational, contemporary phrase, ero guro nansensu (erotic, grotesque, nonsense). In this way, numerous songs came to be identified, with varying degrees of plausibility, with countless contemporary cultural, social, and political phenomena, be it mass consumption, war time nationalism, occupation-era poverty, or—as is perhaps true even today—the allegedly ever-degenerating juvenile mores.
What ultimately proved to be far more revealing about the historical realities of mid-twentieth-century Japan, however, were the ways in which the debates over popular songs were carried out—that is, the language and rhetoric that were employed, the attitudes and affects exhibited by the critics in discussing music, as well as the political and intellectual alliances that were formed against the songs. In particular, both the language of popular song critique and the underlying attitudes it revealed remained remarkably consistent from the emergence of the genre in the late 1920s to the time of its ultimate demise in the 1960s. The most common accusations leveled against these songs were that they were decidedly “vulgar” (teizoku) and “lowbrow” (teikyū). Just as it was assumed that popular songs naturally reflected “the times,” it was also taken for granted by the Japanese elites who debated these songs that they were inherently and, for some of them, irredeemably déclassé. Nor was this assumption limited to the shrillest critics of the genre; even those who personally enjoyed some of these songs more often than not spoke of the need to “elevate” not only the quality of the entire genre but also the tastes of the broader, listening public as well.
The consistent and overwhelmingly elitist nature of popular song critique initially seems to run against the grain of what we have come to understand as Japan’s first mass media revolution, which took place precisely in the decades this book considers to be Japan’s “Popular Song Era.” Popular songs emerged simultaneously with other equally new forms of media, such as mass circulation magazines, radio, and sound film, all of which connected a vastly expanded proportion of Japan’s population to the widening web of media products as readers, listeners, and viewers. This new media-consuming public in turn came to play a key role in Japan’s ultimate transformation from what was a society deeply cognizant of the social and cultural divisions within itself during the chaotic decades preceding World War II to one whose inhabitants were beginning to believe that it was, in fact, made up of nothing but the “middle class” by the 1970s. In this transformation, those whom observers identified as Japan’s masses (taishū) emerged not only as the chief consumers of mass media and mass culture but also as the protagonists of the broader social change that was seemingly upending existing cultural norms and hierarchies.
The history of the popular song genre has tended to emphasize the genre’s emergence as part of this process of massification and the growth of shared lifeways among the Japanese—it is a story of the inevitable, if gradual, diffusion of common musical culture among an increasing audience. The story of modern Japanese popular songs is, at least in part, that of a mass consumer culture that not only survived but thrived throughout what some historians have come to identify as Japan’s “transwar” era. And yet, at the same time, the history of popular song critique reveals that these songs emerged not simply in the context of the rise of mass media and mass society but, more accurately, at the intersection of forces that encouraged the standardization of culture and everyday life in modern Japan and those that persistently reinscribed hierarchy and difference on the newly emerging mass society.
The ongoing contention between these two sets of forces is precisely what this book seeks to highlight as one of the most enduring and consequential dynamics that shaped twentieth-century Japanese culture. Considering modern Japan’s cultural politics in terms of the Popular Song Era not only enables us to examine it across some of the most tumultuous decades of the twentieth century, but also brings some of the most important historical dynamics that have shaped it into view. In particular, it highlights the ways in which the assumption of hierarchies, the desire for a democratized culture, and the interplay between these two competing inclinations among Japan’s elites consistently undergirded many of the most consequential sets of ideas and forces that guided the ways in which people produced, consumed, and critiqued culture throughout the century.