Historians of modern Japan often discuss the “Fifteen Years War,” referring to the period that stretches from the invasion of Manchuria in 1931 to Japan’s surrender in August 1945. Tokyo Boogie Woogie: Japan’s Pop Era and Its Discontents narrates an even longer conflict, what Hiromu Nagahara calls the “long war on popular song.” The contested object of this tumultuous struggle, an entity known as “popular song” (ryūkōka), was not a specific musical genre: it encompassed multiple styles and sounds. Rather, it was a commodity form, one defined by the new recording industry structure that produced it, by the nationwide audience saturation it achieved, and by the often negative critical reaction it provoked. For Japanese intellectuals and music critics, the popular song was very much a problem.

Nagahara’s long war begins with Satō Chiyako’s 1929 hit “Tokyo March,” composed by Nakayama Shimpei with lyricist Saijō Yaso. The record, in both its musical and lyrical content and in its reception by a new mass audience, became a lightning rod for debates about the impact of modernity and mass media in Japan. As a completely in-house production generated by Japan Victor, it also provided the prototype of a new modus operandi for the record industry, which would now take a more active role in managing all stages of the production process for the music it marketed to a rapidly expanding audience. The record’s unprecedented success alarmed the intelligentsia, who saw popular song as vulgar and, worse, symptomatic of possible class conflict. Critics called for the banning of “Tokyo March,” and NHK, Japan’s new national radio network, acceded. Defenders also emerged, claiming the song was merely an authentic reflection of the new modern urban culture emerging in Tokyo and other cities. With this, Nagahara argues, all of the components of the popular song era were in place.

The 1930s and early 1940s saw similar debates over the ostensibly negative impact of hit records. The increasingly fascist (and somewhat tone-deaf) Japanese state imposed new censorship regimes, even as it also mobilized the power of popular song for propaganda purposes. Defeat in 1945 did not bring an end to censorship, formal and informal. Debates over the threat to public morals posed by popular songs continued to echo through the 1950s and 1960s. Postwar leftist critics in particular turned against popular songs, seeing them as instances of corrupting mass culture and Americanization. The PTA and other child welfare advocates likewise attacked popular songs for the dangers they supposedly posed for Japanese youth. Nagahara deftly traces through a number of controversies that arose in the 1950s around specific songs that critics deemed especially troubling.

A ceasefire finally arrived around 1970. With it the popular song itself also vanished: “Even ryūkōka, a term that embodied the fundamentally modern characteristic of the record industry in the 1930s, had a distinctly retro feel by the 1960s, attesting to the loss of a near-universal appeal that it once had” (p. 200). The rise of television diminished the social influence of the record industry, and a new fragmentation of pop music charts into generationally distinct segments shattered the notion of a shared national canon of popular music. Moreover, the earlier critiques of popular song grounded in class-based notions of taste suddenly lost their footing in a Japan where virtually everyone identified as middle-class. By the 1970s, Nagahara argues, the canon of popular songs had transformed from a symbol of troubling vulgarity to an object of nostalgic reverence. The war was over.

Tokyo Boogie Woogie joins a rapidly expanding field of popular music studies focused on Japan. Nagahara’s distinctive contributions arise from his position as a historian of modern Japan. In terms of periodization, most studies of popular music in Japan posit a decisive break at 1945 and another around 1990. Nagahara, by contrast, participates in a recent trend among historians of modern Japan to challenge the assumption that 1945 comprises a decisive discontinuity. He shifts the temporal boundaries, arguing that we should understand the key era as beginning in the 1920s and continuing through about 1970. Nagahara the historian also introduces a new set of players into his narrative. In addition to the musicians, record industry figures, and listeners at the heart of most recent studies, he identifies a group of elite music critics as key figures. The rise of modern mass culture and the desires for ‘democratization’ that underpin modern nationalism created an opening for new social hierarchies based on musical taste — and for self-appointed arbiters of that taste. This move is in synch with such recent cultural histories of Japan as Aaron Gerow’s Visions of Japanese Modernity: Articulations of Cinema, Nation, and Spectatorship, 1895-1925 (2010), which traces the rise of a discourse of cinema in early 1900s Japan. Nagahara’s exploration of the productive role played by censors, such as Ogawa Chikagorō, likewise has a forerunner in Peter High’s The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931–1945 (2003), which analyzes the process of consultation by the film industry with government censors. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, as a historian Nagahara re-centers the study of Japanese popular music on questions of class. While many have noted the emergence in the 1960s and 1970s of a widely shared sense that most Japanese were middle-class, Nagahara breaks new ground by exploring the concrete ramifications of this new form of class (and perhaps false) consciousness for cultural history.

His positioning as a historian, however, also limits his approach. My main complaint about the book is that it doesn’t give a good sense of what distinguished popular songs from other mass culture commodities. This complaint no doubt reflects my own biases as a humanities scholar who values aesthetic and formal analysis, but it seems to me that Nagahara misses something in largely avoiding this sort of analysis. My guess is that popular songs could be swapped out for some other popular media form in the book without much else having to change in the argument. This risks reducing the objects in question to the status of examples of broader historical forces; more attention to what formally distinguishes popular songs and made them a unique force in the culture of modern Japan might have helped avoid this tendency. But this complaint reflects my own disciplinary biases rather than a problem in Nagahara’s historiography. Grounded in substantial archival research, Tokyo Boogie-Woogie is lucidly written, grounded in substantial archival research, and makes a sophisticated argument that situates the history of Japanese popular music within media studies, the sociology of culture, and censorship studies, among other areas. The book clearly realizes the aims that Nagahara brought to it as a historian of modern Japan.