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Sunday, June 29, 2008

COUNTERPOINT

286 reasons to reflect on a Japan long gone, but worthy of reflection


I recently gave a talk on Japanese culture to a group of foreign students at Tokyo Institute of Technology. They hailed from a variety of places, including Scandinavia, the United States and Asian countries. I began by asking them to give me a keyword or two that they thought characterized Japanese life today.

In a few minutes we had more than 20 answers on the blackboard, all of which were very appropriate to describe this highly modernized country and the people who live in it.

On the day after the talk I began to read a book that, had I known about it, I would certainly have shown them. Published by Iwanami Shoten in September 2007, "Sengo Harapeko Jidai no Shatta-on (The Sound of the Shutter in the Postwar Era of Hunger)," brings together a host of photographs that were published in the Iwanami Photographic Paperback series from 1950-58, with highly insightful commentary by author Genpei Akasegawa.

Iwanami Shoten published 286 of these paperbacks in that period; and though only a few are represented in this book, it provides us with a rich and telling portrait of a Japan that is now long gone.

Born in 1937, Akasegawa vividly remembers the era when he was a teenager. He reminds us of the importance of the photograph to all Japanese people then . . .

"The reality [that the war was over] was brought home to us with the famous photograph of the Emperor standing next to Gen. MacArthur."

So, perhaps it is fitting that the first paperbacks in the series, published in June 1950, included one with the title "The Americans." One photo from that volume reproduced in "The Sound of the Shutter . . . " depicts a black man in a bow-tie serving tea to two white ladies. There is also one of a modern American kitchen. To Akasegawa, who was living then in Oita, in Kyushu, this world must have seemed as exotic as it was attractive.

Another early paperback is titled "Whaling in the Southern Antarctic Ocean." A fleet of 16 whaling ships is heading south. Photos here show not only proud harpooners, but also a steamy, dead whale being slaughtered.

Whale meat was a protein stable of the Japanese diet; and, ironically, it was their American occupiers who urged the Japanese to consume whale meat.

"The whalers of the past were our heroes," Akasegawa writes. "The first time I ever encountered a whale it was at my very first school lunch."

"The Soviet Union" was a volume in this series in Sept. 1952. Many Japanese people saw the USSR as a progressive model for all peace-loving nations. The chronology of "Soviet Holidays" reproduced in the book ends with "Dec. 21: Stalin's birthday." This birthday, in 1952, was to be the Man of Steel's last.

One book in the series from 1953 focused on the automobile. This was the era when Renault was manufacturing cars in Japan together with Hino, and the compact Hino Renault taxi was seen everywhere. British carmakers Austin and Hillman also manufactured here.

By 1956, the Iwanami paperback series was featuring electrical appliances in the home, attesting to just how far the country had come in the decade since the war's end.

There are chapters here on trains, avant-garde art and shoes. Akasegawa reminds us that good shoes were status symbols in the Japan of the early 1950s, when most people wore clogs, sandals or shoes that were not particularly fitted to their feet.

Over the years, I have spoken to many Japanese people who lived through this era. One story stands out.

A film-producer friend, a young man then, was walking in central Tokyo's Shinjuku district when he was stopped by an American soldier. Without saying a word, the soldier doused him in DDT pesticide from head to toe, including inside his shirt. After this, the soldier gave him a little shove and said, "Go on."

I recalled this story when I read the chapter titled "Roundworms." Lice, fleas and all sorts of parasites plagued the Japanese at the time. Photos here of children making faces after drinking bitter medicine in school tell this story very well.

Happy coal miners in loincloths, carts drawn by horses on the main streets of Tokyo, an assembly line of women making black telephones — all of this comes together in this book to evoke an atmosphere of diligence and activity.

But to me the most fascinating chapter is the one from March 1953 titled "First Graders." After all, the now-retiring baby boomers who transformed postwar Japan into an ultra-modern economic superpower were these very same children.

Little boys with short haircuts and girls with bobbed okappa hairstyles sit at plain wooden desks, their bulky school satchels hanging off the backs of their seats. There are eight photos of chalk pictures drawn by children on the blackboard, and Akasegawa comments on these . . .

"These blackboard pictures are truly different from anything I saw [when I was a first-grader during the war]. It was unthinkable for us to draw pictures on the board. After all, the blackboard was a totally sacred place above where the teacher stood."

Here we see that there was even a generation gap of sorts between Akasegawa, born in 1937, and these children who were born just after the war ended.

These photographs certainly do not present us with a portrait of Japan's "good old days." They are merely the "old days."

Yet there is, without a doubt, an innocence of purpose permeating these images, an ingenuousness of spirit that was shared by the vast majority of Japanese.

No one would wish to bring back deprivation. No one but a misguided reactionary would wish to return to this past.

But, the esprit of hope that existed then has definitely been gouged away and replaced by nothing that might uplift Japanese people from the rut of purposelessness. The Japanese may have been poor, but — as Akasegawa points out — "It is possible to sense an elegance in the complexion of poverty."

Perhaps a look back to the reality of half a century ago might help Japanese people find something there useful to them today. Of course, it won't be the poverty. But it might be the way in which people together found a meaning for their lives and a direction for their country.

Had I shown this book to the foreign students at Tokyo Tech, they would have got a clear idea of just how far this country has come — and how looking back may give Japanese people a clue how to look forward.



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