Showa Period in Japan: Art, Architecture & Culture

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, explore the recent history of Japan: the Showa period. Learn about the nationalist culture and its transformation into a progressive industrial society. Also, study the different arts and architecture that developed during this time.

The Showa Period

Sometimes, there is a break-point in history that defines a society distinctly before and after that given event. In Japan, World War II was a crucial episode that differentiated the culture of this nation before and after those violent years.

The Showa period started in December 1926 and ended in January 1989. That was the time when Emperor Hirohito, son of Emperor Taisho, held power. During this period, Japan changed significantly. The early years were marked by financial crisis and the rise of nationalism, which ended with Japan's defeat in World War II. Afterwards, the country became a democratic nation and experienced an amazing economic recovery, becoming a prosperous, industrialized country and one of the largest economies in the world.

Tokyo in 1970
Tokyo in 1970

The art during the Showa period was also changed by the war. In the early years, nationalist feelings were promoted and the arts were oriented towards traditional crafts and works. Then, postwar art embraced globalization and international influences, opening to the international artistic movements while also keeping some of its traditional roots.

Cultural Changes

Before World War II

The Great Depression hit Japan and caused social discontentment. Many blamed the West for all the problems. During the 1930s, Japanese nationalism was booming. Militarism quickly gained terrain, and extreme ideas, like the racial superiority of the Japanese, were discussed. Japan carried out a military expansion over China and the Pacific, where native populations were often victims of discrimination and even violations and massacres.

After World War II

Japan was defeated after suffering the horrors of the nuclear bombings. After World War II came to an end, the country was occupied by the United States until 1952, during which many democratic reforms were introduced. Furthermore, people were exposed to foreign influences like never before, and society embraced modernity. Several aspects of the Western lifestyle were adopted, although a local touch was always present.

Reconstruction of a Japanese Interior in the 1950s
Japanese Interior in the 1950s

Japan enjoyed decades of economic growth, built modern infrastructure, and also made substantial investments in education. This nation became a technological superpower, developing important brands of vehicles, appliances, and electronics that quickly became popular all over the world.

Architecture

The architecture of the Showa period was a reflection of the political and social context. It was also dramatically different in the early Showa and the postwar Showa years.

In the early years, a nationalist architecture developed, mostly for public buildings. Architects looked back to traditional Japanese architecture and tried to recreate it. Elements from Japanese traditional architecture were often combined with reinforced concrete and other imported construction techniques. Modern materials like brick and stone were preferred.

Tokyo National Museum (1937)
Tokyo National Museum

Postwar architecture opened to the world and adopted an eclectic and international scope. A specific style no longer defined Japanese architecture. Several Western architects designed projects in Japan, and on the other hand, some Japanese architects gained international recognition and built abroad.

Metabolism in Architecture

The Metabolist movement was part of Japanese architecture during the 1950s and 1960s. It developed with the idea that the city, dwelling, and individual were part of a single organism. Architects experimented with different materials and shapes and created interesting buildings formed by many smaller volumes. The best-known conception was probably the capsule, a small residential module adapted for the limited space and astronomical land value of the city.

Nagakin Capsule Tower (1972), in Tokyo
Nagakin Capsule Tower

Painting

In the early Showa period, artists continued to explore Western styles, including Surrealism, Cubism, and Futurism. With the rise of nationalism, more traditional forms of art were promoted. However, during the years of nationalism, many artists withdrew from the art scene. During the war, some artists were recruited by the government and taken to battle sites to depict combat scenes.

Shinjuku Station (1938), by Kimura Shohachi
Shinjuku Station

After the war, Japanese art flourished once again. Artists worked in a variety of styles, with some of the most popular being Abstractionism and Expressionism.

Woodblock prints continued to be somewhat popular. They were traditionally created by carving an image on wood and stamping it on paper, but lithography gradually replaced the traditional technique. The motifs were diverse, from traditional Japanese landscapes to abstract compositions.

Konjikido in Snow (1957), by Kawase Haisu
Konjikido in Snow

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