‘Tokyo Boogie-Woogie’ Guides Readers on a Musical Journey Through Japanese Modernity

Tokyo Boogie-Woogie outlines the contested space of Japanese popular songs as the modern nation evolves.

For the last half century, Japanese popular media has been consumed by a global audience, but the history of its production has often been called into question. Shows like Pokémon (1997) and Sailor Moon (1992) have had their audio “westernized” to remove elements that were too “Japanese”, or tempered art considered too erotic for children. The same concerns have also been taking place in Japan, most notably the self-censorship that occurred after the 1988-89 otaku murders and the recent Tokyo’s Bill 156. Hiromu Nagahara’s study of Japanese popular songs through the mid-20th century goes into detail over how similar concerns have played out since the end of the shogunate through the homogenized TV experience in the ’70s.

Culturally, Japan had a tradition of considering music of the masses as vulgar because the only official music styles were supported by the ruling class, which had an aversion to music made for entertaining the lower class (12). This hierarchy persisted even as the samurai ceded their rule in order for Japan to become a modern nation in 1868. Nagahara emphasizes the persistence of the hierarchy that classed state music over entertainment even as cultural changes had tried to flatten the class system.

A group of music critics emerged in the late 1800s, gakudan, from elites who had traveled and studied western art and music. These educated voices considered Japanese popular music déclassé, and their cure was to adapt elements from western art and music for their new national music. Nagahara demonstrates how “vulgarity”, as seen by gakudan, classed music in a supposedly classless society.

Tokyo Boogie-Woogie looks at the historical construct of “popular music” as both a reaction against songs of the masses and as a contested space where hierarchies of the feudal state unconsciously carry over as a nation tries to become modern. Through the creation of schools and music education, gakudan hoped to lift the population by creating a national music on par with western music. Hiromu Nagahara offers a developed timeline and narrative that demonstrates how, despite the dominant critical voices, cultural production cannot be mandated against the desires of a population.

Nagahara’s study focuses on the era between the period when phonographs were imported by Frederick Whitney Horn in 1896 and when television becomes the dominant medium in Japan in the ’60s.

In simplistic terms, Nagahara presents a narrative where the Japanese elites attempt to incorporate western art and music as part of the greater culture. This conflicts with the development of regional and corporate choirs, some of whose members gain popularity, transform into entertainment performances, and some of the stars become so popular they transcend their local celebrity and sign as recording artists. Even as critics denounce the vulgar, popular music scene, they encourage a new music based on westernized concepts of art and instrumentation.

Gakudan, as well as other cultural leaders, denounced the development of the popular music scene as being too Japanese. Much of the music from the ’20s onward began to feature lyrics that mixed the romantic, sentimental tradition with locations and details lifted from Japanese cities. These songs often included references to everyday life, that by modern standards, would feel familiar, timely, and sentimental. When Japan invaded Manchuria, the songs shifted to romanticize and eroticize the experience of the foreign land.

This paradigm of critique carried over through the US occupation and the erotic cityscape and prostitution that developed around US military bases. Calls for protecting youth and women from the corrupting influence of the music and the environment turned to social action. Nagahara outlines how single songs contributed to what neared the actions of moral panics as citizens and the government attempted to erase the songs from the cultural landscape.

One unexpected highlight of this book relates to Homeland Ministry censor Ogawa Chikagorō. When music was most vulnerable to censor control, he chose to view popular music as a product of the time and circumstance. He was not a music critic nor part of the gakudan, but as Nagahara paints him, he became an unofficial champion of what others considered vulgar and expendable. Even though a censor, he did not attempt to change the nature of the music, limiting his censorship to only the most questionable material. Unlike the critics, he did not try to reshape music to be artistic or politically positive because he understood that any overt control by the state would fail. As described in this study, it seems he played a supportive role in championing the songs critics thought were beneath a national standard.

While the study is based on the music industry, it illustrates the same cultural forces pushed for greater cultural production of books, comics, film, and television. Instead of focusing on the industry in a vacuum, Nagahara looks at the cultural context of urbanization, militarization, the US occupation, and the changes in the Japanese culture resulting from broadcast media. He uses certain songs and their cultural responses to demonstrate the development of the nation through the contested, but never at risk, mass culture.

Readers interested in comics studies, delinquency, and contemporary Japanese popular media consumption may appreciate the grassroots backlash to new forms of media and book burnings that were taking place in Japan at the same time Fredric Wertham and the US Senate waged war on children’s reading materials in the US. One important aspect of this history relevant to scholars outside of Japanese history is the orchestrated attempt by the cultural elite to “educate” mothers and the resulting police involvement in an attempted cultural cleansing of vulgar media deemed harmful to children.

For a general reader (as opposed to an historian or other scholar), Nagahara provides a well-documented study of how modern Japanese pop media developed a foundation in the masses that neither the government nor critics could control. Japanese popular music took the form that the population appreciated, and it was supported by that population through several cultural upheavals.

Nagahara marks the end of the popular song when television became ubiquitous in Japanese homes. The new industry undid many of the corporate standards developed by record companies and radio in the early 20th century. But the television did not kill the gakudan. Instead, it was a cultural belief that the nation had risen above the lower class majority of the feudal era that undermined the arguments against vulgar music. By 1970, 90 percent of the Japanese population felt they were part of the middle class (210). This general sentiment meant that the elites could no longer cast popular media as vulgar with any sincerity, and the hierarchy that had existed from feudal times finally succumbed to a truly modern state.

Tokyo Boogie-Woogie stands as a well-developed cultural history of Japanese popular culture as the nation progressed through modernity. Using popular music as a marker, Nagahara unpacks a complex media culture where cultural elites, the government, and grassroots organizations often attempted to shape modernity through critical responses to capitalist industry and the masses that consumed the media. Nagahara succeeds in showing how the foundation of Japan’s contemporary post-modern media culture was created through its contested growth through modernity.

RATING 8 / 10