“This restaurant is Showa-kusai,” I’ve occasionally heard my coworkers declare.
I’m thinking specifically of a random little outing we went on to a nearby oden restaurant where we could rent out the tiny upper floor of an already tiny shop, with ladies in kerchiefs carrying steaming bowls of broth and protein-filled items not easily recognized outside of Japan up a narrow flight of wooden steps, and then apologizing for not having the right beer on hand but that they’d be right back from getting some at the liquor store. But what does that phrase mean? A somewhat literal translation would be, “It stinks of the Showa period in here.”
The Japanese calendar is all kinds of complex, but one thing foreigners pick up on pretty fast is that there are two year-keeping systems in daily use. The year we’re more accustomed to (2015), or the year of the period of the current emperor’s rule (Heisei 27). When one emperor’s rule ends and another begins, the name of the time period also changes, and this has been going on since the year 645 AD. To put it in a little more perspective, the over two and a half centuries we now refer to as the Edo Period was actually a collection of 35 periods, ranging from one to twenty years in length.
The current era, Heisei, began in 1989 with the start of Emperor Akihito’s reign. Showa was the previous era, from 1926 to the first week of 1989. Therefore, “Showa” can mean a lot of things for a lot of people: the pre-war era, World War II, the post-war era and occupation, the economic climb up to the bubble era, and the bubble era (about 1986 to 1991). It was be a heavy topic, but when I hear the term thrown around to describe the atmosphere or style of something, what I’m hearing is not “this restaurant reminds me of carpet bombing and poverty,” but “this place is so-o-o-o-o 80’s!”
Showa is Japan’s retro, it the distanced past that we look back on and dismiss for its poor fashion choices, but still close enough to feel an uncanny familiarity even if you weren’t quite born yet.
Perhaps one of the more noticeable tastes I’ve had of Showa Japan was this ramen truck.
I was walking back to my apartment with some of my fellow CIRs when one of my American friends, who has a handle on Showa culture like no one else I’ve ever met despite her lack of actually having lived in Showa Japan, brimmed with excitement at the sound and sight of this thing. “I didn’t think those ramen trucks still existed!” she said. “I’ve never seen one, but I heard these used to be the big thing. Everyone ate at these. I have to try it.”
One of the things that feels very “Showa” to me yet that I have experienced in Heisei is singing trucks. They’re like ice cream trucks, but they sell more than just ice cream–if you’re really, really lucky, you might be hearing a tofu vendor! Other times they are collecting recyclables and they play their happy little songs between announcements to bring out your dead (dead trees, that is). If it’s just someone speaking and they’ve been at it all week at an especially loud volume, however, they’re probably just a politician. Still, the ramen truck and its whirring, repetitive notes was a new sound to me. It was like the horn of a car tortured into letting out long breaths to make a change in pitch noticeable enough to perhaps be called, by the most generous of listeners, “a song.”
The name of the mobile establishment even felt like a bit of an old joke:
味自慢 (aji-jiman) is a phrase you often see associated with ramen, and a quick search on the phrase reveals a ramen restaurant by this name in Sakaiminato. It means “Pride in Taste,” but it feels funny to me because my brain reads it as a pun like “ajiman.” That’s probably just me, though.
Although I appreciate the occasional bowl of ramen at a yatai (outdoor food stall), this takes that a step further, as you can stand there at the mobile counter if you so wish, after reading from the posted menu and watching your steaming bowl of food be prepared before your eyes.
My friend’s verdict was that this little taste of a bygone era was good. As a bystander, I wouldn’t have said it “stunk” of Showa.
Maybe I should have joined her for that little trip back in time. Ramen is sounding really good right about now, and I don’t really care what era it smells of.