The Showa Era (1926-1989) encompasses three distinct periods in Japanese history: the brief prewar years when the young Emperor Hirohito struggled with questions of his own and the nation’s identity; the war years, beginning in glory and ending in utter destruction and disaster; and the 44-year postwar era with its roller-coaster ride of boom and bust. In "Showa Japan," Dutch author/photographer Hans Brinckmann focuses his lenses, both graphic and textual, on this turbulent era, specifically the years 1950-1989.
Brinckmann came to Japan as an 18-year-old management trainee at a Dutch bank in Kobe. He remained in Japan for 24 years, and for the following 14 years he worked for the bank in various international locations. In 2005, he returned to Japan and now lives in Tokyo. Another young Dutchman, Ysbrand Rogge, joined Brinckmann’s bank in 1955, and for the next five years the two traveled across the country taking photographs during their vacations. Rogge quit banking in 1960 for a career as a photographer and documentary filmmaker, while Brinckmann, although continuing to work at the bank, also continued taking pictures of, and keeping a diary about, his life in Japan.
Brinckmann refers to the postwar years as Japan’s Golden Age, “the Showa of hard work, clear goals, unparalleled economic success and regained national pride embedded in pacifist ideals.” The end of the era coincided with the burst of the Bubble economy in the late ’80s and the start of Japan’s decade-long recession.
The first stage of Japan’s “Golden Age” was largely created by the salaryman: in the same way that the samurai represented the soul of the Edo Era (1603-1868), the corporate worker came to symbolize Showa. “In Japan,” Brinckmann observes, “the salaryman surrendered virtually all his waking hours to his employer, seven days a week, twelve months a year. He surrendered his very soul.”
Brinckmann himself occupied a unique position during these years: he was a player in the Japanese economy — his bank lent money to major Japanese companies — but also an outsider and observer of Japanese society. His photographs offer fascinating glimpses of company outings at hot-spring resorts, and his diaries record his opinions of these events: “Of course, at men-only drinking parties (with drinks served by onsen geisha), all pretence and self-restraint would crumble, but even then drunken teasing and inane games were more likely to take place than the exchange of confidences or any kind of meaningful discussion.”
Even Japan’s rare moments of rebelliousness, such as the snake-dance protests against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty in 1960, smacked of conformity: “It was the only time in Japan’s postwar history that something resembling fiery political spirit flourished, although it was driven more by blind passion than by fully informed debate and democratic process….”
Once Japan had re-established itself as a first-world country, it continued to advance relentlessly, peaking in the financial excesses of the Bubble. Brinckmann offers examples like 10 million yen middle-class wedding parties, 400 million yen golf club memberships and the $83 million paid for a van Gogh painting in 1990. Bubble excesses invaded the social fabric as well, with the advent of sex tours to Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines and South Korea organized by Japanese companies to court potential clients.
The death of the Showa Emperor and the bursting of the bubble occurred almost simultaneously, and Brinckmann goes beyond Showa in his narrative to look at “its troubled legacy” — namely, the current Heisei Era, with its attendant trends, technologies and subcultures.
But it is in his role as the young foreign banker with notebook and camera that Brinckmann really shines. Although not a professional scholar, he has written a book that is historically factual and well-documented. It’s spiced with personal observations from his diaries and his and Rogge’s black-and-white photos of everything from Showa Era cleaning ladies and day laborers to the Imperial family itself.
Brinckmann’s unique perspective — not soldier, diplomat nor educator — along with his talents as storyteller and photographer, make this book a standout. I heartily recommend it.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today