Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Why I Like Japan Reason #2: Nostalgia

Japan, it has to be said, is gaga for nostalgia. Anything that evokes that "takes you back" feeling is known as natsukashi 懐かしい in Japanese, and spend even a little time in Japan and you'll hear that word a lot. It's big business, this natsukashi. With something like 20% of the population over 65 and rising, anything that recalls the good ol' days is going to be popular. The number one music show on TV is a '70s-style variety show where aging superstars belt out enka tunes that last saw chart action in 1964. Even young people, such as American-born enka singer Jero, keep the oldsters giddy by singing the old songs. And should Japan's graying citizens want to have a little fun, the country is full of amusement parks for adults that resemble Japanese society in thr 1950s. Even entire towns have found that if they open a few penny candy stores and leave an old car lying around, people will flock to see it.

And I love it.

The time period everyone is natsukashi for is the Showa Era, from 1926 to 1989. It includes the war years, the post-war years and economic rise, and some of the bubble years. For many older Japanese, who were born after the war (as with our baby boomers), Showa was a time to look back on with moist emotion. They remember doing without in the lean years after the war, and doing with, during the wild bubble years. They remember their student days in the late '60s, when idealism shut down schools in protest of the college entrance exams (nothing was changed). And they remember the pop culture.

So what does this have to do with me? I was born in Showa 47 (1972), and thus I too am prone to Showa nostalgia. Of course, I was born in the States and didn't experience all that my Japanese counterparts did, but I did grow up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Japanese media was plentiful. I grew up watching Ultraman and Spectreman, Godzilla and the other Toho monsters, Gachaman (Battle of the Planets), Space Battleship Yamato (Starblazers), and more. The expensive die-cast metal Japanese toys were always the most coveted, as were the Japanese Game & Watch games that friends brought back from Taiwan and Tokyo.

Although I had no Japanese childhood, I have Japanese childhood nostalgia. Even things that were never part of my own experience, like '80s idols and samurai TV shows, instill me with a sense of nostalgia. Perhaps it's the way these things are packaged today in Japan. As I said, nostalgia is big business and anything old is presented with a sense of reverence.

But it's more than that. Watch a film from Ozu, the quintessential '50s director, or a Tora-san movie from the '60s, and you'll feel it too. Perhaps this has to do with the Japanese recognition that all things are temporary and transient, as with that ever-ready metaphor the cherry blossom, which blooms so beautifully for only two weeks and then passes, gracefully, like youth viewed from the midst of ever-increasing old age. Nostalgia is part of the national character, a sweet romanticism that I find enchanting and resonant.

This is part of an ongoing series of articles exploring my fascination with Japan. Previous entries include:


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