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.