Postwar popular culture

Uneven lecture notes thrown into print

By William Wetherall

A review of
Shunsuke Tsurumi
A Cultural History of Postwar Japan, 1945-1980
London: Kegan Paul International, 1987
174 pages, hardcover

A version of this article appeared as
"Popular convolutions" in
Asahi Evening News, 13 November 1987, page 11

Shunsuke Tsurumi is a well-known modern philosopher cum scholar and writer on everything under the Japanese brow, high and low. But a collection of uneven essays on highly selected themes of popular culture does not add up to a cultural history.

Nine themes are listed in the contents:

Occupation: The American Way of Life as an Imposed Model
Occupation: On the Sense of Justice
Comics in Postwar Japan
Vaudeville Acts
Legends of Common Culture
Trends in Popular Songs Since the 1960s
Ordinary Citizens and Citizens' Movements
Comments on Patterns of Life
A Comment on Guidebooks on Japan

Like its companion volume, An Intellectual History of Wartime Japan, 1931-1945 (London: KPI, 1986), this book is based on a series of lectures Tsurumi gave at McGill University in Quebec in 1980. The 31 pages of endnotes, however, are translations of the notes that Tsurumi added to the Japanese version published in 1984 (Iwanami Shoten). Most of the notes should have been integrated into the main text.

Some 56 illustrations include facsimiles of cartoons and comics, photos of people and events, and the scores and lyrics of 15 popular songs. The photos are as fuzzy as the discourse and idiom of the text.

The discussion of manzai in the chapter on vaudeville acts epitomizes all the problems that editor Yoshio Sugimoto, a Le Trobe University sociologist, would have solved had it been one of his own fine books debunking nihonjinron. The dust cover translates manzai as "dialogues" but the text introduces it as "the dialogue between the Master and the Servant."

Eight of the 13 pages on manzai are given to manzai's proletarian history to the end of the war, and the other five pages make many references to the past. In the space that is left for postwar manzai, Tsurumi writes:

Manzai has long been a popular art representing the uneducated class. To this class the leaders of the opposition parties, including the Communists, Socialists and the New Left, seem a shadow bureaucracy, closely resembling the ruling bureaucracy. Distrust of the leadership and the expression of the simple needs of the people have characterized manzai from ancient times to the present day.

Tsurumi might simply have said that manzai is a comic dialogue between a pair of standup comedians, one of whom may play the dupe.

The chapter concludes with this observation: "'The Manzai is a criticism of such machine-like skill as valued and practiced by the ruling bureaucracy." A photo on the following page shows the "Two Beats" manzai team -- Beat Takeshi and Beat Kiyoshi -- in what is called "The Manzai performance".

The reader who wonders that "The Manzai" means is referred to a long endnote which Tsurumi begins:

When these lectures were given in the spring of 1980, unknown to me there had already been in Japan a revival of manzai. A new style with a new designation, 'The Manzai,' presumably signifies an internationalization of manzai art.

The note then gives complete bibliographical references to three Japanese books which contain "Detailed discussions of the development of this new stream" of manzai.

This book is a good example of what happens when lecture notes are thrown into print with little consideration for the reader. Its last chapter criticizes the stereotypes and errors in "guidebooks on Japan" written by foreigners and Japanese alike. It might have added a discussion of the well-meaning but convoluted and barely readable attempts by otherwise enlightened Japanese intellectuals to reveal the social psychology of their popular culture.