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History lessons

August 5, 2010

When the RHG was here, she introduced me to the idea of going to the Showa Kan (the showa era museum). The Showa period was 1926-1989. Historically it’s a pretty fascinating block of time as it covers all of the pacific war (pretty much), much of the colonial era, the occupation and defeat years, and then most of the financial bubble.

It’s also got tons of great….stuff. And by stuff, I mean mostly bicycles and other 1920s to 50s things that make my heart flutter with their crisp lines and chrome construction.

Clearly, as I scratch my head for how to reconcile these two things, one can see that Showa is a complicated concept. The stuff is great, the social relations of the stuff are much more fraught for me, –that’s a “me” who wants to buy stuff that is chrome and cool and old.

Purely from a bike search perspective, the concept of Showa has been problematic. I’ve spent a lot (read way, way too much) time futzing around on Yahoo Auctions trying to find the perfect Showa bike. I have utopic dreams of pedalling around on a retro Japanese bike once home. I think it would make me cool (full disclosure, I’m a nerd, I wouldn’t know cool if it attacked me with a machete, but this seems to me to be a cool idea. And it would make me giggle. Isn’t that half of what “cool” is really? smug self glee?) But buying a “showa bike” is a pretty hard because the time period is so large. There are some (still interesting) bikes in the category of “showa bike” that are only a few years old really. I don’t consider 1989 as retro. I first came to Japan in 1989–god, I hope I’m not “retro.” Retro-gaijin. Now there’s a category for you. I wonder how far that is from “just-incredibly-out-of-touch-and-still-wearing-the-khakis-I-got-off-the-plane-in-years-ago” gaijin, cause let me tell you, there are a fair number of those around. I had compassion for them in the 90s, but now the Gap and every other large chain store is here, and there is no excuse for pants that fit you 20 pounds and 8 years ago anymore. Wow, what a tangent. I’m no fashionista, this is clearly really about my recent “floral indiana jones” look I can’t seem to shake and not about others. (but really, why do so many foreign guys here wear pants 2 inches too short?)


So, yeah, bike. Showa bike. I had a Japanese bike in 1989, and it was second hand, so techically I’ve had a Showa bike.  But I’m looking for something a little less from my own life experience. Hard to tell from looking online on the auctions what is old, and what is just used. It would seem rod breaks were pretty popular here into at least the late 80s, and I’m a sucker for rod breaks (purely aesthetically speaking). I want a bike that has the shiny chrome of a 1985 bike, with the frame and street cred of a 1950s bike. Maybe this delusional approach will keep me from buying a bike I have no way to get home.

But I have digressed, and digressed far, from what was in the back of my head when I started to post. History. History is something that we argue about and deconstruct a lot. Especially in Japan when it comes to memory and war. And of course this topic is central to much of my internal musing.  The Showa Kan is right near the infamous Yasukuni Shrine, and the shrine is mentioned in several of the great film clips in the museum. But it was, at least so far for me, impossible to situate the politics of the Showa Kan. It’s clearly quite focused on remembering the war, as much of the exhibit was about war experience for those on the home islands (although unlike the Yasukuni museum, there was little about the forces themselves). However, the SK was fairly nostalgic in its rendering of social relations, and product. And, again, I don’t know how I would really chew this through, for a good part of the Showa, Korea and Taiwan were “Japanese”.

This begs for me a (perhaps obvious) question:

Is Japanese (or any post colonizer) national identity only confined by current borders? If you are talking about a specific period in which the nation was a different configuration, is it fair/right/logical/forgivable to only speak of it in today’s delineation? I don’t think it’s a simple question of “Japan forgetting.” I don’t know if it is Japan selectively remembering, or if it is a conscious decision to not speak of/for countries that were colonies as it may only reinforce antagonism. I can see both the argument that Korea should have been represented (and by not doing so Japan is forming a new nationalism in the vision of the “homeland”), and also on the other hand that Korea can only represent itself and Japan should not attempt to do so.

I think I need to go back to the SK and read more carefully. I didn’t pay attention to the transitions from things like “country at overseas war” to “country/homeland under attack”. I felt like we moved fluidly from one to the other (which is something the Yasukuni museum does brilliantly, erasing cause and only focusing on effect) but I wasn’t really watching for it, I was too busy looking at glittery chrome objects and great woodwork.

Oh, and I had a second question I have kind of lost grasp of. It was something like, can Japan be nostalgic without finding itself in a complicated position? In N.America, we can be nostalgic for the first half of the 20th century for all the glamour, and for the 50s and 60s for the seemingly leave-it-to-beaver lifestyle. But what happens to nostalgia when it mixes with violence, or even just a desire to repress? Of course N. American nostalgia is complicated too, but isn’t it so much more so in a Japanese context? Will nostalgia always smack of neo-nationalism?

(of course, I might want to stop and ask why I am nostalgic for a history that is not mine and in a complex period. But let’s just go back to “I think it’s cool”)

I can see now why people like this period for study. It’s got stuff to worry about, but it also has tons of eye candy.

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