Showa retro is a category of Japanese vintage items, mainly from the post-WW2 period, but related to the Showa Era (1926 to 1989). During the period after WW2 reconstruction, and afterward, an original design and style developed.
See my pinboard: Showa Retro USA
I didn’t know about Showa retro until a couple weeks ago, and stumbled across the term when I was doing research on the National Rice-o-Mat SR-18E, a rare rice cooker here in the United States, but somewhat available in Japan’s used market.
In the listing: 昭和レトロ. I couldn’t read the kanji, but I can read most of the katakana, so I tried, and saw “retro”, レトロ. A quick search for 昭和 showed “Showa”, and I knew, roughly, when that was: the reign of Hirohito.
Bingo! I knew what I’d hit. A facebook friend had just gone on a vacation to Japan, and went to a district that specialized in second-hand stores with vintage items. It’s called Ome.
My brother’s family went to Japan, and they went to the Ramen Museum. The crazy thing is that they have a reproduction of 1958 in there, with ramen shops.
Here’s a film about life in Japan, in 1963, created for a US audience.
I’d been to a local restaurant called Daikokuya. Their decor, for years, was Showa Retro, and I didn’t know it. If you’re in Los Angeles, you should check it out. They have a lot of midcentury Japanese advertising signage.
So, this is all great that people in Japan also love midcentury vintage. Why is my Pinterest page called “Showa Retro USA?”
Showa Retro USA
It’s just a name I made up. During the postwar era, after it’s defeat by the US, Japan developed an export economy, and was being integrated into the US sphere of influence. One aspect of this was importations of Japanese products into the US.
This served to re-inject Japanese culture into the Japanese American communities. These communities were established between the 1880s to 1924, when immigration from Asia was banned. These are the Meiji and Taisho eras.
Showa, Meiji, and Taisho
Japanese eras are based on the emperor; the Meiji Era was from 1868 to 1912, and the Taisho Era was from 1912 to 1926. The Meiji era was the first half of the Empire of Japan, and marked the national shift from feudalism to modernism. The Taisho Era was marked by the erosion of the oligarchy, and transfer of power to the Diet, and a democracy.
The Showa era started out with a push for continued expansion of the Empire, and what amounted to Japanese fascism to support the imperialism. This ended with WW2 and the defeat of Japan. The Showa era continued into the postwar Reconstruction, and then into the rise of Japan as a global power.
So, the Japanese American culture that was retained in the US, in the 1950s, was a remnant of the 1880s, and the culture was, to some degree, frozen in time.
This is a video of Japan from 1897, the Meiji era, a time when Japanese emigration was high.
With the lifting of immigration restrictions in 1952, a wave of Japanese immigrants, many of them war brides, moved to the US, and created a surge of importation from Japan. Likewise, as trade with Japan increased, and the US military presence in Japan was maintained, more products from Japan were imported, either wholesale, or individually.
Consequently, some products that would be considered Showa retro were available in the United States, particularly in cities with Japanese immigrant populations.
These items include things like kitchen gadgets, ceramics, lacquerware, artwork, and transistor radios. Brands include Sony, Toshiba, Sharp, Canon and other familiar brands, but they also included US brands like Mikasa and Panasonic that were US brands with Japanese product. It also includes less familiar imports like Aji No Moto and Kikkoman (that, ironically, were sometimes produced domestically).
These items are beginning to be more available on the used market as older people from the postwar era downsize or pass away.
Related: Japan’s War in Color