The Regulation of Popular Songs in Modern Japan


A review of Unpopular Music: The Politics of Mass Culture in Modern Japan, by Hiromu Nagahara.

Recent scholarly work on state-society relations and the regulation of popular culture in Japan from the 1920s to the 1950s often focuses on the dominant role of the state or powerful elites in shaping Japanese mass media.  David Earhart, Barak Kushner, and Gregory Kasza, for instance, have examined upper-class elites’ preoccupation with lower-class culture as well as the ways in which agents of Japan’s empire promoted pro-war propaganda and censored unauthorized voices.  Similarly, Sheldon Garon and others have illustrated the state’s dominant role in shaping Japanese mass culture after 1945.  Hiromu Nagahara’s dissertation builds on these earlier works, but rather than reaffirming the state or elites as oppressive regulators, Nagahara instead argues that those primarily responsible for the regulation of ryūkōka  (“popular songs”) were middle-class music producers, critics, and consumers who set the tone of critical discourse on mid-century popular media.

Arranged chronologically, Nagahara’s first chapter examines the prewar development of the record industry in Japan and the popularity of songs produced by domestic and multi-national record companies.  In the late nineteenth century, old and new forms of popular music competed as Meiji-era (1868-1912) officials attempted to inculcate musical appreciation in a citizenry united by a new national identity.  By the 1920s, companies such as Victor, Columbia Records, and Polydor displaced smaller domestic companies by injecting capital and introducing new technology in the burgeoning consumer market.  In the second half of the chapter, Nagahara analyzes the debates surrounding Victor’s 1929 hit, “Tokyo March,” which provides the author with a model for understanding later controversies surrounding popular music.  While some critics vehemently attacked the “vulgar” qualities of “Tokyo March,” which combined Japanese musical traditions with modan (modern) lyrics, the majority reacted with an ambivalence that, Nagahara argues, “reflected the increasing sense of crisis among these cultural elites whose capacity to influence the broader society was perceived to be under threat” (p. 51).

By the 1930s, Japanese officials, too, recognized the power of popular music. Censors in the Home Ministry, for example, sought to stifle critiques of Japan’s war effort while they promoted patriotic anthems capable of rousing public support for imperial expansion.  State attempts to manage Japanese mass culture in the 1930s and 1940s often utilized repressive tactics, but Nagahara argues in chapter two that censorship of the music industry was more nuanced and complicated than we might imagine.  Rather than relying solely on banning songs, censors such as Ogawa Chikagorō instead utilized “consultations” (kondan) with record producers in order to stop potentially objectionable content before production.  Although the consultation system was possibly more insidious than overt censorship, it nonetheless fostered cooperation between the state and producers, and it made, in Nagahara’s words, the “production, consumption, and regulation of ryūkōka…part of the same process” (p. 78).  As in the case of the Japan Association of Phonograph Record Culture, record company executives, state officials, and critics worked together to regulate the industry.

Ryūkōka maintained an important position in Japanese critical discourse after 1945 as the record industry struggled to overcome the devastation of the war.   As Nagahara illustrates in his third chapter, the industry proved surprisingly resilient.  Aided by Occupation officials’ relaxed enforcement of regulation policies on music and the spread of new technologies such as radio and eventually television, the audience for popular songs steadily grew throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s.  As in the prewar years, a wide range of individuals engaged in the critical discourse on popular music, but, according to Nagahara, during the Occupation, the loudest calls for change arose from leftist commentators dissatisfied with the industry’s level of modern, democratic development.  Critics such as NHK producer Maruyama Tetsuo, for instance, argued that coming to terms with the industry’s ties to wartime Japanese militarism would invigorate postwar ryūkōka, while music critic Sonoe Saburō attacked popular songs as “feudal” impediments to the creation of truly modern Japanese music.

Leftist critiques of Japanese mass culture influenced debates even after 1952, but, as Nagahara illustrates in his final chapter, the more radical calls for revolutionary change were tempered by the involvement of new coalitions such as the Japanese Society for the Protection of Children (JSPC).  Members of the JSPC argued that songs like “Yokosuka Ondo Tamaranbushi” (“Yokosuka Dance: the It’s-Too-Much Song”) epitomized the erotic vulgarity of postwar popular music and the media’s celebration of kasutori culture, a term derived from a low-quality, low-priced alcohol.  For these critics, popular music laid bare the social and cultural degradation of Japan that they attributed in part to the negative influence of American soldiers stationed throughout the archipelago.  The JSPC’s critique of Japan’s close alliance with the United States put them at odds with the state, which was also trying to guide the education of Japanese children, and eventually led to their marginalization within the larger child protection movement.

As industry self-censorship became more pervasive in the 1960s and 1970s, and government regulators increasingly focused on curbing sexually explicit material, critical discourse on ryūkōka slowly dissipated along with the genre’s popularity.  The conclusion discusses the transformation of certain ryūkōku genres, such as enka, into nostalgic repositories of “traditional Japan” and changes in the technology and structure of the music industry more generally.  Such transformations, Nagahara argues, accompanied a decline in mass culture criticism that rendered “postwar regimes of censorship increasingly invisible” (p. 170) and signaled the end of the ryūkōka era.

Although the author engages the difficult issues of identity, critical discourse, and mass culture, Unpopular Music avoids jargon and stays grounded in solid historical analysis.  Well written and convincingly argued, Nagahara has provided scholars with a valuable resource that should prove very useful to anyone interested in twentieth-century Japanese mass media, popular culture, and social politics.  In addition, Nagahara’s examination of the cooperation between middle-class professionals and state officials in regulating Japanese popular media raises intriguing questions about the nature of Japanese wartime mobilization and censorship.

Austin Charles Parks
Northwestern University
Department of History

Primary Sources

Song lyrics
Writings of critics, professional associations, and government officials
Writings of Ogawa Chikagorō
Police reports contained in Naimushō keihokyoku, Shuppan keisatsu gaikan (Tokyo: Ryūkei shosha, 1981)
Periodicals such as Ongaku to chikuonki and Ongaku sekai
Articles from Yomiuri shimbun and other major daily newspapers
Materials held in the Gordon W. Prange Collection at the University of Maryland.

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2011. 187 pp. Primary Advisor: Andrew Gordon. 

Image: Nakata Toshizō. Goraku no kenkyū. Tokyo: Shakai kyōiku kyōkai, 1924. Page 315. [image shows Education Ministry officials selecting “recommended phonograph records.”]

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