Buruma on the Kiss of Democracy

Here’s another selection from Ian Buruma’s chapter on the Occupation–“Tokyo Boogie-Woogie”–in his book Inventing Japan: 1853-1964 (Modern Library Chronicles, 2003).

Demokurashii was to be instilled in the Japanese people as though none of them had heard of the concept before. This involved, among other things, the “three S’s”: sex, screen, and sport. Baseball was encouraged as an intrinsically democratic game. American tutors were concerned about the feudalistic relations between Japanese men and women, who never held hands, let alone kissed in public. Kissing scenes in prewar Hollywood movies had been censored in Japan. So the occupation authorities decreed that henceforth there should be kissing in Japanese films. The first movie to take the plunge was entitled 20-Year-Old Youth and created a sensation. One zealous occupation officer had the smart idea that square dancing would be an ideal way to liberate Japanese from feudalism and introduced this novelty to some rural folks.

There was a great deal of idealism, as well as naïveté, in the American attempt to bring democracy to Japan. As always, idealism breeds hypocrisy. For even as the Japanese were lectured on their right to free speech, criticism of occupation policies was banned. Satirical cartoons of SCAP were forbidden. And SCAP officials were so keen to present the United States and its citizens as models of virtue and probity that unfavorable views were censored. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s novel about American poverty, was banned, as were books and films about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Much as kissing, hand-holding, and dancing were to be encouraged among the Japanese, photographs of GIs fraternizing with local girls were out of bounds. However, since the right to free speech was part of the American way, mention of occupation censorship was also strictly forbidden.

The lessons of American culture were most effective when they were imparted on an unofficial and thus voluntary basis. After almost ten years of cultural deprivation and military propaganda, most Japanese were hungry for anything foreign and upbeat. During the war, “films about personal happiness” had been expressly forbidden in Japan. So Glenn Miller and Betty Grable probably did more for Japanese liberation than any number of high-minded lectures on demokurashii. Not since the late 1920s and early 1930s had there been such a taste for ero guro nansensu, the erotic, the grotesque, and the absurd: Strip shows were popular, as were pinup magazines with such exotic titles as L’Amour, Liebe, Nightclub, and Neo-Riberal (sic). Millions of people were hungry and homeless. Orphans were sleeping in the railway stations. But the big hit of 1948 was entitled “Tokyo Boogie-Woogie.”

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