An Overview Of Japan's Showa Era

The Showa period is a point of time during Japanese history that was under the reign of Emperor Hirohito. This lasted from December 25, 1926, until his death on January 7, 1989.  Longer than the reign of any previous Japanese Emperor, the Showa period spanned the pre-1945 (1926-1945) and post-war (1945-1989) periods, which were regarded as two completely different states; the Empire of Japan and the State of Japan. The Heisei Period succeeded the Showa Period, from 1989 until the present.

How is A Japanese Era Defined?

The Japanese classify their years into eras or “nengo”, and each era is defined by how long a specific emperor reigned. Though before the Meiji period, era names changed a lot depending on what the court officials deemed necessary, relying on the sexagenary cycle, natural disasters, and Emperor ascensions. Everything was simplified after the Meiji period when the Japanese adopted the “issei-ichigien” system, which in English, is “one reign, one era name”. This would later be secured by “gengo-ho”, or the Era Name Law.

Ever since then, the Gregorian calendar was used in the sense that a year would begin once the Emperor would ascend, and end on the 31st of December of that year. Ever since the Meiji restoration, there have only been four emperors, thus, four periods. Those periods are namely the Meiji era, from 1868 to 1912, the Taisho Era, from 1912 to 1926, the Showa Era, from 1926 to 1989, and the current era, Heisei. It is not yet officially called the Heisei period (even though everyone already calls it that) because Emperor Akihito is still the reigning emperor.

A Brief History of the Showa Era in Japan

The Showa Period is the longest period since the Meiji restoration took place. It is also what succeeded the Taisho Period (July 30, 1912-December 25, 1926). During the first part of the Showa era, racial discrimination against other Asians became predominant in Japan.  The Showa regime preached racial superiority and racialist theories, based on the sacred nature of the Yamato-Damashii, a Japanese language term that refers to the cultural values and characteristics of the Japanese people, as opposed to the cultural values of foreign nations, primarily through those identified through contact with Tang dynasty China.

Nationalism was absolutely booming - and local leaders such as various movements recruited mayors, teachers, and Shinto priests to indoctrinate the populace with ultra-nationalist ideas. Their loyalty stayed with the emperor and the military. From 1932 to 1936, Japan was governed by admirals. Rising nationalist cries led to instability in government and soon, the idea of a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere began to foment.

The Japanese believed that the American, British, Chinese, and Dutch powers were a threat to all Asians and the only way to counter this threat was to follow the Japanese example.  Japan had been the only Asian, non-western power to industrialize itself successfully rival the great western empires.  However, this was largely described by Western observers as a front for expanding the Japanese army. The idea behind the Co-Prosperity Sphere was that Asia could be united against Western imperialism under the auspices of the Japanese. The main goal of the Sphere was the hakko ichiu, the unification of the eight corners of the world under the rule of the Emperor.

The Invasion of Manchuria

From 1928 to 1932, a domestic crisis could no longer be avoided, further exacerbated by the worldwide economic collapse that brought further hardship to the people of Japan. The civilian government lost control of the populace and the army, moving independently of the proper government of Japan, took the opportunity to invade Manchuria in the Summer of 1931. Japanese nationalism was buoyed by the romantic concept of Bushido and driven by a modern concern for rapid industrial development and strategic dominance in East Asia. It viewed the Western powers as threatening the Empire of Japan.  The only solution was conquest and war.

Years of War: The Bloody Sieges That Occurred During The Showa Era

You could say that Showa was one of the bloodiest periods, next to the Sengoku Period (infamously referred to as “Age of the Warring States”) under the Muromachi Period. This is because of the havoc that was caused by two wars; one in Manchuria and the other being the second world war, particularly the devastation of Hiroshima.

On July 7, 1937, Japan invaded Manchuria which led to a large-scale war approved by the Emperor. By 1939, the Japanese army had seized most of the vital cities in China, including Shanghai, Nanjing, Beijing, and Wuhan. On December 13, 1937, following the capture of Nanjing, Japanese soldiers began the Nanjing Massacre (sometimes called the “Rape of Nanking”) which resulted in a massive number of civilian deaths including infants and the elderly, and the large-scale rape of Chinese women.

In 1941, after an oil embargo was called on Japan by the United States, Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. From December 1941 to May 1942, Japan sank major elements of the American, British and Dutch fleets, captured Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies, and reached the borders of India and Australia. Japan had suddenly achieved its goal of ruling the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

With the defeat of the Japanese military, the Allied Powers dissolved the Empire of Japan. Japan’s military was disarmed completely and the Post-War Constitution repealed the absoluteness of the Emperor. Article 9 of the Post-War Constitution expressly forbids Japan from waging war on a foreign nation. A War Crimes Tribunal, like that at Nuremberg, was set up in Tokyo.

Several prominent members of the Japanese cabinet were executed, most notably former Prime Minister Tojo Hideki. But the Emperor was neither tried at the Tokyo trials nor dethroned, nor any members of the imperial family. Under the Post-war Constitution, the Japanese Emperor was reduced to a figurehead nominal monarch, without divine characteristics, and was forbidden to play a role in politics.

Reconciliation, and Nostalgia; The Culture Formed by the Showa Era

The Allied occupation ended on April 28, 1952, when the terms of the Treaty of San Francisco came into effect. Japan regained its sovereignty but lost many of its possessions prior to World War II, including Okinawa, the Kuril Islands, Sakhalin and a number of small islands in the Pacific.

After World War II, Japan continued to experience a sense of Westernization, mostly due to the fresh establishment of the occupation. American music and movies inevitably became popular, with the steady increase in consumption of western culture.

At this point in time, Japan started spreading their own culture globally – and it was widely accepted. Young people across the world began consuming kaiju (monster) movies, anime (cartoons), manga (any Japanese comic book), and other forms of Japanese culture.

Before the second world war, Japan’s government only allowed nationalistic ideas and purely Japanese themes to be voiced out, thus requiring many artists to be recruited into the propaganda effort. Following the aftermath of the second world war, artists took on styles that were sourced from the international scene, moving away from traditional, local art forms and methods, into the mainstream of world art.

Famous Art Pieces from the Showa Era

The Showa period had both prewar and postwar phases. If you look at the art industry before the second world war erupted, you’ll notice that artists Umehara Ryzaburo and Yasui Sotaro are what dominantly make up most of Japan’s artwork. Famous works of Sotaro Yasui that were made in the Showa era include “Portrait Of a Woman” and “Chin Jung”, both of which are found at the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art.

Yasui Sotaro was good friends with Umehara Ryuzaburo, as they both studied in Kansai Fine Art Academy together. Uemahara Ryuzaburo is known for his distinctly western style of painting. The painter he looked up to was Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Uemahara Ryuzaburo tended to use bright colors and bold brush strokes in his work. Though his paintings stand unique, they do bear a resemblance to those of Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. Some of his best work that was made during the Showa era include “Kirishima”, painted in 1937, and “Sakura Island”, finished 1937, and lastly, “Mount Asama”, 1950.

Fashion During the Showa Era; Different Kinds of Clothing Worn By The Japanese Back Then

By the beginning of the Showa Period, men’s clothing had become largely Western, and the business suit had become standard apparel for company employees. Western clothing was often worn by working women and many women also began to wear Western clothing even in the home.

After the Second World War, women discarded the loose-fitting pantaloons called "monpe" that had been required wear for war-related work and began to wear skirts. Overseas travel was completely out of the question for most people back in the 50’s, so movies were the major source of information on overseas fashion. Many foreign films were shown in Japan, giving the Japanese people opportunities to see European and American fashions and copy them.

During the 1960’s, young people became the uncontested arbiters of fashion.  After the mid-1960s, Japanese men adopted the new “Ivy Style”, which paid homage to the fashions of American Ivy League university students. America’s elite class is mainly responsible for popularizing this style, which spread from young students to middle aged men. Traditional garb was slowly fading away to something used only in ceremonies or formal situations.

The Popular Music of the Showa Era

The term kayokyoku originally referred to Western classical art songs in Japan. However, NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) Radio began to use the term as another name of ryukoka (literally “popular music”) around 1927 and this took hold in the late Showa Era (1935-1944). However, many songs that were popular during this period were lost due to painful memories associated with World War II.  Presently, Showa music can best be described as Japanese pop songs formed in the mold of contemporary American pop and rock’n’roll hits.

Suzuya celebrated its 70th-anniversary last year and is one of the oldest kissaten (traditional coffee shops) in Kyoto. With photography as its theme, the interior is taken up with art work. The centerpiece is a large painting of a reclining Venus, and for photographers, there’s much in this Showa Era (1926-1989) cafe worth capturing. Besides art, Suzuya’s other specialty is curry. The coffee is made with Jamaican Blue Mountain beans which are classic kissaten style—mild with a strong sense of nostalgia.

Manga, Anime, and Other Shows That Are Set in the Showa Era

If you’re looking for anime that was set in the Showa period, one of the most obvious choices would be Showa Monogatari. It’s both a television show and film concerning the year Showa 39, which is 1964. This year is when the summer Olympics were held in Japan, and in the show, the Yamazaki family is in the thick of it all.

Other anime that were featured to have occurred during this era include Millennium Actress, Gatekeepers, and Tenchi Muyo! In Love. A popular live-action show was The Kamen Rider Series/Showa Series. King Ghidorah is also another famous character who appeared in the 1964 version of the well-loved giant monster movie Godzilla. As for the manga, there is a comic dedicated to narrating the history of the Showa period, and it is known in Japan as “Comic Showa-shi”, but in English, “Showa: A History of Japan”.

The Japanese Born In the Heisei Era Versus Western Millennials

There are discussions that go on comparing Japanese people born during the Heisei period to western millennials, saying that the two are almost the same in terms of culture and beliefs. The truth is, no matter what country you come from, any person in that age bracket falls under the category of “millennial” in terms of a western viewpoint. You don’t have to accept this viewpoint but calling kids of this generation “millennials” is currently a trend because it has been popularized as such by western mainstream media.

What is noticeable is that the Japanese born during the Heisei period are trying to innovate more than joining the workforce. More Japanese citizens who are in their early 20’s would rather be entrepreneurial (and work hard at it) than to be hired. They are also said to be the most pessimistic generation compared to previous ones, like those born during the Showa period, because of the bad economy.

Learning About History

Though tainted with war and controversy, the Showa Era was rich with events that had a huge impact in shaping Japan to be the great country that it is today. It was not an entirely bad era; it’s not as black and white as it seems;  much was learned from it. Reading up on history helps one make better decisions for the future, and not repeat the same mistakes as the past.