Showa: A Comic Book History of Japan
Before we went to Japan this year, I decided I would try to be a more informed traveler and read some Japanese history. By far the most engrossing and entertaining history books I found were by the Japanese Manga artist, Shigeru Mizuki.
The Japanese define their historical periods by the reign of their emperors. The reign of Hirohito lasted from 1926 to 1989, and is known as the Showa Period. “Showa” can be translated as “enlightened harmony” or “radiant Japan”. Ironically, this is also the period that included World War II.
The English language translation of Showa is divided into four volumes: the period leading up to the war (1926 to 1939), the war itself (1939-1944), the American occupation (1945-1953), and the economic boom (1953-1989).
Mizuki’s life contains the entire Showa Period. He was born in 1922 and died only recently in 2015. Because of this, Showa is told as two interwoven tales: the story of Mizuki’s own life, and the story of the Japanese nation. Mizuki’s experience reflects that of millions of Japanese: the grinding poverty of the 1930s and postwar period, military service during the war (he lost an arm fighting in New Guinea), and the unprecedented prosperity that started in the 1960s.
I’m not really clear on the difference between comics, manga, and graphic novels. Whatever you call it, Mizuki tells his story with drawings at least as much as with words, which makes Showa a pretty quick read. Drawings about the national narrative are highly realistic – many based on period photos. Drawings about Mizuki’s own life, on the other hand, are highly fanciful.
We meet Mizuki’s feckless father and his beloved grandmother, who instilled in him a love of folklore and especially of the supernatural beings called yokai. The yokai make regular appearances in the books, including as narrator. My favorite yokai is Betobeto San, who makes people feel like they are being followed. The proper way to deal with this yokai is to step to the side and say “After you, Betobeto San.”
Japan flirted with democracy early in the 20th century, but becomes increasingly repressive beginning in the late 1920s. The 1930s bring crushing hard times, with widespread hunger and farmers forced to sell their daughters into prostitution. The country needed a New Deal of its own, but the political system was too rigid to allow for such reforms. Instead, militarism emerged as the supposed answer to the nation’s problems.
Mizuki’s military service left him with a hatred of war and militarism, and not just because he lost an arm. Beatings were an accepted form of discipline, and soldiers’ lives were considered highly expendable. He also takes note of the atrocities committed by Japanese troops. The author’s unit was saved from a suicide charge by the good sense of its commanding officer, but the same officer was later forced to commit suicide as punishment for his disobedience.
Gradually, the Japanese Navy lost the capacity to supply troops stationed throughout the Pacific, leaving them without food or medicine.
The author’s life was probably saved by indigenous villagers who befriended Mizuki and gave him enough food to keep him relatively healthy. After the war, Mizuki returned to this village many times to visit.
Mizuki has mixed feelings about the American occupation. He notes that it took military defeat and foreign occupation for democracy and civil liberties to firmly take hold in Japan. However, there were limits, as shown by the “Red Purge” that followed in the wake of the Cold War. He also sees great value in the anti-militarist constitution imposed upon Japan by the Americans.
On the other hand, he is not enthusiastic about Japan’s unwavering support of American foreign policy, though he notes that Japan’s economy revived in large part due to the stimulus of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
Mizuki himself did not achieve fame and prosperity until the 1960s. He appreciated Japan’s new affluence, notably the plentiful food and new consumer goods. However, he was uncomfortable with consumerism and felt that ordinary Japanese did not adequately share in the benefits of the new wealth.
Like most Americans, I had only the sketchiest idea of Japanese history: Commodore Perry, Pearl Harbor, the atomic bombs, and the rise of Toyota pretty much summed it up for me. In Showa, I found a powerful interconnected story of one person and his country, covering most of the 20th Century. It was both easily digestible and engrossing.
That’s all for now.