Japan in the Shōwa Era: Looking Forward and Back

Morooka Koji, The Emperor and the Empress after the End of the War, from the Tokyo series, 1947. Gelatin silver print. Yokohama Museum of Art

Japan’s Shōwa era – a period corresponding to the 63-year reign of Japanese Emperor Hirohito – began in the shadow of a cataclysm. Hirohito became Japan’s 124th emperor in 1926, three years after a massive earthquake levelled Tokyo. Even more terrifying forms of devastation would descend on the country two decades into Hirohito’s reign. In 1945, the world’s first atomic bombs were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing horror and mass death to the populations below and signalling to the world that a new age of perpetual anxiety, the Atomic Age, had arrived. 

Yet Japan in the Shōwa era was not defined solely by tragedy. From the ashes of war, the country crafted a post-war ‘economic miracle’ that brought social, cultural and physical transformations, that made Japanese brands globally recognized and coveted, and that remade the country’s sense of itself.  Progress, it seems, had triumphed over a tragic past.

Shibuya Ryukichi, Ginza Photomontage, n.d.. Gelatin silver print, 18.1 × 30.1 cm. Yokohama Museum of Art

Hanran:  20th Century Japanese Photography, which continues at the National Gallery of Canada until March, moves through the momentous events of the Shōwa era, highlighting its stunning contrasts and convulsive social shifts, and raising crucial questions about what the present and future owe to the past. Adapted from a 2017 Yokohama Museum of Art exhibition, Hanran reveals the Shōwa era as a jarring collection of opposites. It is the heartache of ordinary citizens’ suffering after Japan’s imperial ambitions, ruthlessly pursued by its military, had come to a disastrous end: it is a displaced man huddling in his bombed-out house in Tadahiko Hayaski's Living in a Collapsed Building and a muddied victim of war clutching her head in abject despair, a witness for the Anti-nuclear Group captured by Takashi Hamaguchi in 1966.

Hamaguchi Takashi, Ms.Fukuda Sumako, a Witness for the Anti-nuclear Group, from the series Mankind’s First Atomic Holocaust, 1966. Gelatin silver print, 49.6 × 36.1 cm. Yokohama Museum of Art

But Shōwa is also the electric, futuristic fantasy that took shape after Japan had demilitarized and accepted, as writer Kaori Shoji put it, “that the only way out of the mire of defeat was to work like crazy and never stop.” Born of the economic miracle, late-stage Shōwa is city night-life with its garish disco scenes, as seen in Hiroshi Hamaya's A Maiko Dancing at the Disco Arabian Night, Kyoto, and the whimsical sight of a humanoid robot alongside its roller-skating homo sapiens handler, strutting their stuff at a science fair in his Arena Hostess, Tsukuba Science EXPO 1985, Ibaraki.

Hamaya, Hiroshi, A Maiko Dancing at the Disco Arabian Night, Kyoto, 1981, printed 1991. Yokohama Museum of Art. Photographed by Hamaya Hiroshi © Katano Keisuke

The common element that links the Shōwa era’s two phases is Hirohito himself. Photographed by Koji Morooka in 1947, after the emperor’s familiar military uniform had been replaced by conspicuously Western, civilian attire, Hirohito came to symbolize Japan’s post-war aspirations (despite ongoing debate about whether the emperor had been an enthusiastic supporter of the war or was merely captive to Japan’s de facto military rulers). Japan’s post-war constitutional monarch after renouncing his Divine status, Hirohito was now the figurehead for a society led not by military tacticians but by a new class of fiercely determined business executives.

Hamaya, Hiroshi, Arena Hostess, Tsukuba Science EXPO 1985, Ibaraki, 1985, printed 1991. Yokohama Museum of Art. Photographed by Hamaya Hiroshi © Katano Keisuke

Their efforts helped transform Japan. Tokyo – today the world’s most populous city, rebuilt after the 1923 earthquake and relentless bombing in the Second World War – became a towering, neon-lit symbol of Japan’s modernity. Even Hiroshima, site of one of the most horrific events in world history, has been reborn as a sleek, bustling hub of industry, commerce and culture, infused with an almost palpable sense of youthful optimism.

But in the midst of this radically remade reality, what is Japan to do with its past sorrow? That question has long provoked debate. Before Hiroshima City Council’s 1966 resolution, for example, to make the city’s bombed out domed exhibition hall a permanent monument, the Genbaku Dome, there were many who argued these ruins should be destroyed because of the painful memories they evoke.

Photographer Hiromi Tsuchida has made it his artistic duty to ensure those memories, which provide vital lessons for the future, do not fade from the national consciousness. One of the most poignant sections of the exhibition is Tsuchida’s portraits of A-bomb survivors, who were photographed in the mid-1970s and revisited in the 2000s.  The portraits appear alongside testimonials, with the subjects first recounting their experience of the cataclysm of August 6, 1945, and then reflecting, in old age, upon lives lived in the shadows of that fateful morning when a flash of light changed Japan – and the world – forever.


Hanran: 20th-Century Japanese Photography, organized by the Yokohama Museum of Art in collaboration with the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada, is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until March 22, 2020. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.

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