Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan
Although intimidating, with its doorstop size and historical focus, Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan is surprisingly readable. I found it fast-moving, with an inviting combination of personal reminiscence and an educational approach to cultural history.
This is the first of four volumes covering the entire Showa era, the reign of the Emperor Hirohito, ending in 1989. It’s chunky, over 500 pages, but there’s a lot to cover. An introduction by Frederik L. Schodt explains the background of both the Japanese labeling system and author Shigeru Mizuki, a much-respected mangaka with a focus on stories about the supernatural yokai. When the era began, he was four years old, and so we see him growing up as the country changes.
Showa blends aspects of his works previously translated into English. The old woman of NonNonBa, with her folklore stories of spirits and old-fashioned outlook, appears here, taking care of young Shige. Like Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, this book combines realistically rendered images of places and times, with cartoony figures layered on top. And as with Mizuki’s experience in the military, there are stories here of hazing and abuse, only this time, it’s kid gangs. Mizuki also draws one of his Kitaro characters as an occasional narrator, explaining some of the historical events.
This volume, in particular, looks at the economic struggles leading up to World War II. It actually begins before its title, with the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the devastation it caused both physically and economically. Even before the US Great Depression caused worldwide tremors, Japan was struggling from bank failures, poor political choices, increasing militarization and nationalism, government crackdowns, assassinations, and conservative pushback on a period of relative cultural freedom.
There are short factual notes in the back, providing an additional sentence or two about notable personalities or laws or events mentioned in the text itself. They provide a bit of a stepping stone for the (likely) unfamiliar reader, but I found it easier to go by context. When a particular prime minister served, for example, wasn’t likely to make me any more familiar with the mention, but instead, I moved on with the events, much like an everyday citizen would. The history isn’t strictly chronological, as Mizuki follows simultaneous threads through different focus areas in different chapters. He jumps backwards and forwards as needed for context.
Stories of large political movements are alternated with personal memories of his childhood. He was a strange one, eating almost anything, randomly following adults around the village, and hanging out in graveyards. I was most sympathetic to his father, though. He was the only one in the village to go to college, and he loved books and theater. He dreamt of being a writer and was fired from his banking job for cowardice. Later, he was bankrupted when he tried to open a movie theater and the projector was stolen. He ends up leaving town for a job elsewhere with relatives, making the family fatherless.
The history chapters are straightforward, with lots of “and then this happened” over drawings that look like they’re taken from photographs. Various interchangeable businessmen characters discuss the events of the day as well. Yet I liked these sections best, because it’s an involving way to hear about another country’s history and struggles. The kid stories are more painful, with various people struggling or being mean to each other, although other readers will find them a welcome break for humor. I was more disturbed by the matter-of-fact portrayal of starvation and suicides, as villagers and farmers suffered greatly with no money, to the point of selling their children into labor or prostitution. The less sensitive will appreciate the analogy between power-hungry children abusing each other and the governmental officials portrayed in other chapters.
I learned a lot about the history of Manchuria as it related to Japanese efforts to invade China. I hadn’t realized that the areas were at war as early as 1931, leading up to the bigger war of the 1940s. The military were rogue, in conflict with the government, and looking to unite all the Asian countries (after taking over Korea). It’s informative to get to see an aspect of world history rarely explored in the US, and learning more about the instability of this period in Japan is fascinating. An afterword by Hideki Ozaki reiterates the events of the volume.