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In-depth Japan’s Seven Postwar Decades
A Revisionist History of Postwar Pop

Wajima Yūsuke [Profile]


In the public imagination, the pop hits of the Occupation years epitomize a brand-new culture of freedom and democracy. But a closer look at the roots of Japan’s early postwar pop scene reveals a far more complex interaction of influences and ideologies.

 “Our songs change with the times, and the times change with our songs,” goes the saying. In actual fact, the tenor of the times is rarely shaped by popular music. And it is open to question whether popular music directly reflects the spirit of the era. In retrospect, however, the two often seem inextricably linked. In the following survey of popular music in the early postwar era, we explore the ways in which certain songs and genres have come to epitomize the times in the collective memory of the Japanese people. 

Apple Song: Wartime Origins of a Postwar Hit

Namiki Michiko (1921–2011) as pictured on the cover of a recent release featuring her 1945 hit “Ringo no uta” (The Apple Song). Born in Tokyo’s Asakusa district, Namiki spent her early years in Taiwan. In 1936 she entered the training corps for the Shōchiku Shōjo Kagekidan, an all-female musical theater troupe, and the following year she launched a successful stage career with her debut at the Asakusa International Theater. During the war, Namiki traveled as far as Shanghai and the Philippines to entertain Japanese troops. Starring in the 1945 Shōchiku movie Soyokaze (A Gentle Breeze), she performed Manjōme Tadashi’s “Ringo no uta,” which became the first pop-music hit of the postwar era. (Nippon Columbia, 2014)

 “Ringo no uta” (Apple Song, 1945) and “Tokyo Boogie Woogie” (1947) are perhaps the two best-known songs of the immediate postwar era, and to most people familiar with them, they seem to epitomize the carefree, liberated mood suffusing Japanese culture after the war’s end. Both were certainly huge hits in the years immediately following Japan’s surrender. But what people tend to forget is that both songs illustrate the continuity between the prewar or wartime years and the postwar era, and that in intellectual and progressive circles, the popularity of such songs was considered problematical.

“Ringo no uta,” known as the first popular hit of the postwar era, was composed for the movie Soyokaze (A Gentle Breeze), which was released in October 1945, just two months after Japan’s surrender. The movie and the song, in other words, were actually wartime productions. Toward the end of the war, the emphasis in filmmaking had shifted from the sentimental depiction of hardships on the home front to sheer feel-good entertainment that offered an escape from the privations of daily life. Soyokaze and “Ringo no uta” appear to have been conceived with this purpose in mind.

In Japan it had been standard practice to release recordings of movie theme songs ever since the commercial success of “Tabi no yokaze” (Night Winds), the theme song from the 1938 film Aizen katsura (Tree of Promises). The composer of “Tabi no yokaze,” Manjōme Tadashi, also wrote “Ringo no uta.”

Birth of the Tokyo Boogie

Hattori Ryōichi (1907–93), whom many regard as the father of Japanese pop music, was noted for such hits as “Tokyo Boogie Woogie” and “Ginza kankan musume” (Ginza Can-can Girl) that boldly incorporated the latest Western pop music styles and jazz rhythms. (Nippon Columbia 2006)

“Tokyo Boogie Woogie,” composed and arranged by Hattori Ryōichi and performed by Kasagi Shizuko, is likewise viewed as the musical embodiment of postwar Japanese culture under the US Occupation (1945–52). The swinging, decidedly Western rhythm of Hattori’s music seems to epitomize the postwar Japanese love affair with American culture, and the image of singer Kasagi Shizuko shimmying about recalls the risqué dancing of the “pan-pan girls” who made a living soliciting US servicemen. Such associations make it easy to imagine that “Tokyo Boogie Woogie” sprang fully formed from the unique cultural ambience of postwar Japan. But the truth is that both Kasagi and Hattori were key figures in the development of Japan’s prewar jazz culture. In fact, prewar Japanese jazz reached its zenith just before the outbreak of war with the United States with the musical theater troupe formed by Kasagi and Hattori (Shōchiku Gakugekidan).

Kasagi Shizuko (1914–85), known as the “queen of boogie” in early postwar Japan. Kasagi was born in Kagawa Prefecture. At the age of 13, she joined the all-women’s musical theater troupe that was to gain fame as the Osaka Shōchiku Kagekidan and quickly attracted notice for her dynamic stage presence. After her 1947 hit single “Tokyo Boogie Woogie,” she released a string of similar titles, including “Jungle Boogie,” “Homerun Boogie,” and “Shopping Boogie.” (Nippon Columbia, 2014)

Boogie rhythms first appeared in Hattori’s work not after but during the war, when the composer was stationed in China for the purpose of staging propagandist musical reviews. The new rhythm appears in a section of Hattori’s symphonic jazz composition “Night Fragrance Fantasia,” which premiered at a recital in Shanghai in June 1945.

As an aside, in the 1960s, when Hattori’s popularity was on the wane, he forged a new career path for himself in Hong Kong, where he had a tremendous influence on the development of the local entertainment industry. Hattori’s career thus embodies the continuity and interconnectedness of East Asian popular culture in the prewar and postwar eras.

Spurned by the Intelligentsia

Of course, one could scarcely expect that the very first hits of postwar Japan would emerge from a vacuum, disconnected from the performers, composers, and styles of the preceding periods. But this continuity was problematical from the standpoint of the progressive postwar intellectual elite, which hoped to propagate a postwar culture embodying enlightened, democratic ideals. Critics attacked the new pop music as retrograde and reactionary, an attitude encapsulated in this comment by Sonobe Saburō, one of the most prominent music critics of the time.

“Consider the recent pop song [ryūkōka] ‘Ringo no uta.’ Is there a single line in this song’s lyrics that speaks to the inner life of the common man? Or that expresses genuine human emotion, for that matter? It is nothing but a string of meaningless words put to an equally vapid melody, paired with a performance whose musical-revue ambience panders to the masses’ fascination with foreign culture. In a time of desolation and ruin, when the people fall prey to a hopeless and unreflective state of mind, commercialism is cynically exploiting their weakness and lack of self-awareness and plunging them into a state of lethargy as it revives the tendencies of the old liberalism’s twilight years. (Sonobe, Minshū ongaku ron [Music for the People, 1949], p. 35).

A similar hostility toward so-called ryūkōka—the commercial popular music favored by the Japanese recording industry—surfaced in the 1950s among leftist circles with the rise of the sing-along movement and the activities of the Workers’ Music Council. This reaction had a significant impact on Japan’s music scene in the decade spanning the mid-1950s and mid-1960s.

Another illustration of our changing perceptions of early postwar pop music bears mention. Film director Imai Tadashi, a leftist intellectual known for his social realist approach, objected to the theme song Hattori penned for his 1949 film Aoi sanmyaku (Blue Mountain Range) as being a typical ryūkōka. However, the song, with the beginning line “wakaku akarui utagoe” (cheerful young voices), took its place as an anthem of vibrant youth.Yet the song later came to symbolize postwar democracy in the popular imagination. In two opinion polls conducted by television networks in the 1980s (TBS in 1981 and NHK in 1989), it came in first place among “songs that the Japanese people love best.”

  • [2015.08.13]

Associate professor of musicology and theater studies, Osaka University, specializing in popular music, history of popular culture, and Afro-Brazilian music. Received his doctorate in literature from the University of Tokyo. Author of Tsukurareta “Nihon no kokoro” shinwa—enka o meguru sengo taishū ongaku shi (Manufacturing the “Heart of Japan” Mythos—Enka and the History of Postwar Popular Music) and winner of the 2011 Suntory Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities. He also penned “The Birth of Enka,” a chapter in Made in Japan: Studies in Popular Music.

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