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Book review: Hiromu Nagahara – Tokyo Boogie-Woogie: Japan’s Pop Era and its Discontents

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Lasse Lehtonen is the editor-in-chief of Musiikin suunta and a younger scholar at the University of Helsinki, who specializes in research on Japanese music.

 
Hiromu Nagahara: Tokyo Boogie-Woogie: Japan’s Pop Era and its Discontents
Harvard University Press, 2017
273 pages

Aside from individual articles, examinations of the early steps of popular music in Japan—meaning, in this context, mostly music before the 1960s—in English are still notably few in number. Thus, Hiromu Nagahara’s book Tokyo Boogie-Woogie: Japan’s Pop Era and its Discontents is a welcomed addition to monographs on Japanese popular music in Western languages. With Margaret Mehl’s Not by Love Alone: The Violin in Japan, 1850–2010 (The Sound Book Press, 2014), it is also among the most important recent additions to the English-language literature on the (relatively) early steps of new types of music and music production in modern Japan.

Tokyo Boogie-Woogie is not, however, a history of Japanese popular songs themselves, nor is it a look into musical contents and style. Nagahara, a scholar of modern Japanese history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, rather approaches the topic as a phenomenon attracting social discussion and critique as well as censorship, both voluntary and imposed. Nagahara locates the birth of Japanese popular songs at “Tōkyō kōshinkyoku” (Tokyo March) in 1929, and the eventual fading away of the phenomenon up to the late 1950s. This corresponds to the use of the term ryūkōka for popular songs, as well as to the typical definition of the “golden era” of Japanese popular songs in popular histories in Japan (e.g. in Kikuchi 2008). Not only was production completely in the hands of record companies during these decades, they also saw the most heated debates and discussion related to the social status and implications of popular songs.

Based on an examination of historical documents, Tokyo Boogie-Woogie explores how and why the discourses of each decade impacted popular songs—and vice versa. This viewpoint is fresh: most histories of Japanese popular songs focus on musical development and the “makers” of music—meaning, in this context, performers, lyricists, composers, and record companies or production agencies. Nagahara rather points out links between these discourses and the developments taking place in Japanese society during the first decades of the Shōwa period (1926–1989).

This is also where Tokyo Boogie-Woogie does remarkably well. Nagahara skillfully demonstrates how mass culture was exploited for political means before, during, and after the war, and how the end of its critique connected with social and economic changes in Japan. Nagahara’s concluding argument is that with most Japanese identifying themselves as middle class in 1970, Japan became seen as a “classless society.” Regardless of whether this perception was entirely true, popular song production saw a simultaneous shift from the age of records and the hegemony of the record industry to the age of television and the hegemony of production companies. Thus began the current “television age,” during which it is typical to encounter the statement that stark cultural boundaries between “high” and “low” culture do not exist in Japan. Nagahara concludes by speculating on whether we are once again at the threshold of a new age, as critique of popular culture and its degenerating impact on the youth is gaining a foothold in discussion.

Nagahara’s argumentation is plausible, and the conclusions leave only little space for doubt. As Tokyo Boogie-Woogie is largely about censorship and social discourses related to popular songs, however, one should not forget the “pre-history” of the industry, which Nagahara discusses only briefly. Tokyo Boogie-Woogie does point out that the success of the earliest sales hit records during the Taishō period (1912–1926) did not involve the endeavors of record companies that released songs as records only after they had received the status of a “hit” among the audience. While this is true, examining the first hit records of the 1910s and their perceived effect of ruining the youth reveals a continuum of critical views not restricted solely to the age of record companies beginning in the early Shōwa period. For example, the social critique and demands of censorship related to songs such as “Kachūsha no uta” (Katyusha’s Song, 1914), “Kondo umaretara” (After Being Born the Next Time, 1917), and “Sendō kouta” (Boatman’s Song, 1919)—and, on the other hand, the democratization of culture that they reflected—share a notable similarity with those asserted during the “golden age” of popular songs (see reactions to these early songs, for example, in Wada 2010 and in Nagamine 2010). Furthermore, all of these songs were composed by Nakayama Shinpei (1887–1952), who composed “Tokyo March” and other hit songs of the early Shōwa period as well, signaling that they served, at the very least, as a pre-stage to the discussions and musical styles prevalent from the late 1920s. That Tokyo Boogie-Woogie has taken the “golden era” of popular songs as its subject is, of course, perfectly understandable and well grounded. However, as the “pre-history” of popular songs in Japan strongly hints at a continuum of social critique rather than at one restricted to the age of record companies, one further wonders if such a continuum has actually existed—albeit possibly in a different form—also during the “television age,” which supposedly marked the end of the social critique of popular songs.

Whether seen as a continuum or not, however, this observation does not, in any way, undermine the merits of Tokyo Boogie-Woogie: the book is an important addition to English-language research literature on the mass media and popular music in Japan. In this context, it is a warmly recommended read, not only for those engaged in the study of Japanese music, society, or media culture, but to everyone interested in examining the roles of social critique toward popular songs across the world.

References

Kikuchi, Kiyomaro 2008. Nihon ryūkōka hensenshi. Tokyo: Ronsōsha.

Nagamine, Shigetoshi 2010. Ryūkōka no tanjō: “Kachūsha no uta” to sono jidai. Tokyo: Yoshikawa kōbunkan.

Wada, Noboru 2010. Uta no tabibito Nakayama Shinpei. Tokyo: Iwanami shoten.

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Cover picture of the review: cover of Tokyo Boogie-Woogie: Japan’s Pop Era and its Discontents. © Harvard University Press. Source: Harvard University Press.

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