Mass Culture in Interwar Japan


A review of Creating Mass Culture in Interwar Japan, by Amy Bliss Marshall.

Amy Marshall’s dissertation sheds much-needed light on the birth and development of what were arguably the two most important mass journals in mid-twentieth century Japan, Kingu (King) and Ie no hikari (Light of the Home). The dissertation traces the growing popularity of these two journals from the time of their first publication in 1925 through the tumultuous wartime decades of the 1930s and ’40s, a period during which each journal came to boast a monthly circulation of over one million. As Marshall argues, however, their ultimate historical significance derives not simply from their commercial success, but from the fact that through their national reach, they “served to embed a mechanism of communication and socialization within Japanese society that had not previously existed” (p. 1) – namely, mass culture.

As Marshall highlights in the introductory chapter, her dissertation is in conversation with existing scholarship on modern Japanese journals, including works by Sandra Wilson, Sarah Frederick, and Barbara Sato, as well as studies on the history of Japanese mass culture, such as Kenneth Ruoff’s recent monograph on wartime Japan and Marylyn Ivy’s work on the postwar era. More broadly, Marshall’s project addresses what she notes as the tendency in both Japanese and Anglophone scholarship to assume the existence of the very process by which mass culture actually emerged, instead of examining it. The dissertation proposes to do just that, not only by focusing on Kingu and Ie no hikari, but also by demonstrating that these two journals were of critical importance in “the creation of a mass Japanese audience” (p. 17).

Marshall’s dissertation advances three key arguments. First, the development of these journals and mass culture as a whole required “the imagination and efforts of people who envisioned a national audience and created the means and infrastructure to distribute products and information to that audience” (p. 236). Second, such visions were realized not only through the individual geniuses behind the journals, but also through the incorporation of a growing number of Japanese into the mass readership, through enticements like prizes, supplements, and activities like group reading and fan clubs. Finally, what proved to be the most significant impact of these journals on their readers was not so much their overtly ideological content as it was the practice of consumption that these magazines promoted – most conspicuously through the large number of advertisements in each issue.

In Chapter 2, “The Splendid Power of Being in Perfect Harmony,” Marshall expands on the first argument by examining the origin of the two journals in the 1920s, underscoring the significance of individual actors who envisioned both a new type of publication and a new type of audience. In the case of Kingu, it was the famed media mogul Noma Seiji and his Kōdansha publishing empire. For Ie no hikari, it was such figures as Shimura Gentarō and Arimoto Hideo, leaders of the Industrial Cooperative, a national organization that supported its members in Japan’s agricultural communities through education, union activities, and financial assistance. In both cases, these individuals demonstrated a keen foresight that enabled them to envision mass readership for their journals long before this became a reality. Of particular importance was their shared emphasis on contents that were both entertaining and educational for readers from all walks of life. In practice, this led the producers of both journals to position their publications as katei zasshi (family magazines), aimed less at Japan’s educated elite and more towards a broader swath of the public made up of middle and working-class readers.

Chapter 3, “ ‘We Came, We Saw, We Astonished,’” features both close readings of the inaugural issues of Kingu and Ie no hikari as well as an overview of the ideological bent of the journals through the 1930s. Despite the significantly different institutional contexts and priorities that gave birth to the two journals, this chapter reveals that both journals shared a profound sense of idealism as well as nationalism, in which those involved in their publication held an abiding belief that what they produced “could help make a better Japan” by providing vehicles for the moral cultivation of Japanese citizens (p. 132). For both journals, this coalesced in the course of the 1930s into an increasingly overt support of Japan’s military expansion abroad, as seen in countless articles that praised the heroics of Japanese soldiers and justified Japan’s political supremacy over Asia. Marshall also suggests that the journals’ agreement with government policies was such that officials promoted them, rather than subjecting them to the increasingly tightening censorship of the wartime state.

In Chapter 4, “Reading Together,” the dissertation pivots from the producers and contents of the magazines to the ways in which they were actually consumed by their readers. In so doing, this chapter makes the case that the magazines’ successes stemmed from a readership that was predominantly communal in nature, rather than being limited to atomized individuals. At home, both journals targeted various members of the family, especially mothers and children, while public spaces such as schools, military barracks, and workplaces also provided sites in which the magazines were shared among individuals. Both Kingu and Ie no hikari actively encouraged such communal ways of reading not only through their editorial content, which encouraged communalism, but also through more direct efforts at fostering a sense of community centered on the magazines. These included both efforts that were aimed at physically mobilizing the readers, such as Ie no hikari rallies and Kingu fan clubs, and contests within the magazines themselves that encouraged reader submissions. As Marshall suggests, such efforts not only proved to be successful, but also provided a model for government efforts to mobilize individuals in support of the war effort later on.

In Chapter 5, “Advertising to the Audience,” and Chapter 6, “Cultural Infrastructure,” Marshall makes the case that the two journals’ most lasting legacy can be seen in their contribution to the formation of mass consumer culture in Japan. As Marshall puts it, “consumption was integrated into the very core of the magazines” (p. 241) – a fact demonstrated not only in their success as commodities, but more importantly, in the ways in which they educated and enticed a growing number of Japanese to be active members of a consumer society. Chapter 5 features an overview of the various types of advertisements that were found in the two magazines, including promotions for soy sauce, tooth paste, and “whitening beauty water” (p. 210). Significantly, the Chapter notes that both the prominence of ads within the magazines and their lack of military overtones remained consistent well into the late 1930s, even as the other content became increasingly militarist. In Chapter 6, Marshall discusses how postwar issues of Ie no hikari, as recent as January 2010, continue to be marketed as “family magazines” and how product advertisements remain integral elements of each issue.

The rich archive made up of the two journals constitutes the heart of the primary sources used in this dissertation. These include numerous articles as well as advertisements, illustrations, and supplementary contents (furoku) that were often attached to each issue. Marshall supplements these sources with documents produced by key individuals involved in the magazines’ production, such as Kōdansha’s Noma Seiji, and observations by outsiders, including the classic ethnographic study on an agricultural community in 1930s Japan by John Embree. Together, these materials form an immersive view of the world created by Kingu and Ie no hikari.

This dissertation makes an important contribution to the scholarship on mass culture and media in modern Japan by highlighting the development and significance of Kingu and Ie no hikari. It fills a significant gap in historiography and invites historians of modern Japan into a more serious and sustained analysis of “how” mass culture emerged in mid-twentieth century Japan. As such, it should be of interest not only to scholars working on the history of media and culture in modern Japan, but also to those interested in the historical roots of popular culture in contemporary Japan.

Hiromu Nagahara
History Faculty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Primary Sources

Kingu magazines
Ie no hikari magazines
Okuhara Kiyoshi, Ie no hikari no nijūgonen [Twenty-five years of Light of the Home](Tokyo: Ie no hikari kyōkai, 1949)
Noma Seiji, Watashi no hansei [My early life] (Tokyo: Chikura shobō, 1936)
John Embree, Suye Mura, A Japanese Village (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939)

Dissertation Information

Brown University. 2013. 257 pp. Primary Advisor: Kerry D. Smith


Image: Ie no hikari. Nara Prefecture Library.

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