Book and Humanities Day lecture trace history of Japan’s postwar period through popular music

In 1950, Japanese performers were permitted to travel overseas for the first time since the end of World War II. Iconic artists like Misora Hibari, Yamaguchi Yoshiko, and Kasagi Shizuko swept through the United States on multi-city concert tours. They were greeted by throngs of Japanese-American fans in cities like Honolulu, Sacramento, Los Angeles and Chicago.

The concerts were a significant moment of postwar healing, and they allowed Japanese Americans recently released from internment camps to publicly celebrate their heritage. But no recordings of these concerts had ever been found—until 2009.

That year, a Canadian collector contacted Michael Bourdaghs after buying a box of unmarked wire recordings on eBay.

The collector thought they might be recordings of Yamaguchi and Misora on tour in the United States, but Bourdaghs was skeptical. “At that time, no recordings [of the tour] existed, and it didn’t occur to me that they might exist,” says Bourdaghs, Associate Professor in East Asian Languages and Civilizations and the College.

Yet as soon as he began listening, Bourdaghs knew he had found something important. “It was just astonishing,” he said. “These concerts I’d been thinking about for years and writing about, were sitting on my desktop, and I could listen to them.”

The forgotten history of the concert tours is revealed in Bourdaghs’ new book Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon (Columbia University Press). The book traces the history of Japanese popular music from the tumultuous years after World War II to the post-bubble period of the early 1990s.

Bourdaghs will discuss his research on Japanese pop music of the 1950s at Humanities Day on Saturday, Oct. 20. For more information, please visit

Bourdaghs argues that the music of this period, from the boogie-woogie of the 1940s and ’50s to the bubblegum of the 1980s, reveals the simmering cultural and political issues of the era. Chief among these concerns was a fraught relationship between wartime enemies: the United States and Japan. 

The ubiquity of pop music made it “an obvious place for working through the desires and the fears and the anger about the relationship between Japan and the United States,” Bourdaghs says.

‘Tokyo Boogie Woogie’ comes to the U.S.A.

Beginning with “Tokyo Boogie Woogie” in 1947, Andrews Sisters-influenced songs like “Hei Hei Hei Boogie,” “Shopping Boogie,” and even “Home Run Boogie” had topped the charts in Japan. (Samples of many of the songs mentioned in Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon are available from the book’s online companion.)

These upbeat tunes valorized the growth of consumerism in Japan and portrayed the United States not as an aggressor but instead as a “paradise of consumption,” Bourdaghs writes.

The rediscovered recordings of the American concert tours gave Bourdaghs new insight into the American reception of the Japanese boogie-woogie craze.

He was intrigued to learn how familiar Japanese-American audiences were with the popular music from Japan. It was clear from the laughs and cheering of the crowds that many Japanese Americans had maintained ties to the popular culture of their homeland.

The recordings, which were donated to the University of California, Los Angeles, created a stir in Japan. Bourdaghs has made them available to the estate of Misora Hibari, who passed away in 1989. He even had the opportunity to share them with Yamguchi Yoshiko, now 92.

Yamaguchi remembered the concerts well. “I sang with hope that I could offer consolation to the Japanese Americans, as I heard that they had gone through hardships during the war,” she told the Kyodo News.

‘Happy End’ and beyond

Boogie-woogie gradually gave way to rockabilly, the rebellious, rock-influenced “Group Sounds” style, and eventually to folk-rock groups like Happy End.

The members of Happy End—still one of Japan’s best-regarded bands—dominated popular music through the 1970s and 1980s, and Bourdaghs suggests, helped to forge a new understanding of what Japanese music could be.

Until Happy End, authentic rock was never sung in Japanese; many musicians felt the rhythm of Japanese didn’t “fit” with rock.

“You had to choose: either you sang rock and you sang it in English, or you sang in Japanese and you sang in other styles,” Bourdaghs says.

Happy End’s lyricist Matsumoto Takashi directly addressed the challenge faced by Japanese musicians, writing in 1971, that his generation was caught between a “pseudo-West” and a “sham Japan.”

“The only means left to us is to seek out our own Japan. For me, ‘Happy End’ is a gamble on this, an attempt at a new kind of Japaneseness … The crucial point is that what we do from now on will become a new tradition,” he wrote.

Happy End revolutionized Japanese music by taking conversational Japanese lyrics and fitting them to traditional folk-rock melodies, often altering conventional pronunciation in the process.

Rather than choosing sides, Happy End invented a new kind of music, typified by songs like “Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon,” which inspired the title of Bourdaghs’ book.

The song’s simple lyrics (“Sayonara Amerika, sayonara Nippon/ Bye bye bye bye bye bye”) summed up many of the preoccupations of the postwar period.

“One of the great things about that song is that you can’t tell me if it’s in English or Japanese. It’s completely on the borderline,” Bourdaghs said. “A lot of the performers I’m intrigued by are people who are faced, supposedly, with this choice between singing in American style or singing in a Japanese style, and found a way to do something that was neither or something that was new.”

Why pop music?

Questions about what it meant to be American or Japanese were certainly present in other forms of pop culture, including television, film and literature. But Bourdaghs thinks that music has an especially important role to play.

“Popular music is one of the most intensely lived forms of culture in daily life, and it’s one of the most pervasive forms of culture in daily life,” he explains.

What’s more, he says, pop music is worth taking seriously because it helps us understand what it was like to be alive in a certain era. “Music is a crucial cultural form because it affects us viscerally—we enjoy it not just through our minds, but through our bodies. This is especially true for popular music, which is so closely related to dance,” he says. “When we take pleasure in a pop song, we are putting our body and mind in a different kind of relation to the world around us.”

Bourdaghs says he’s been gratified by the response to the book in Japan. After presenting a paper on the “Group Sounds” style at a conference, he was approached by a Japanese woman who thanked him for having seriously studied the music she had loved as a teenager.

Such intense personal responses show that Group Sounds “really meant something,” Bourdaghs says. “It was real to the people who loved it.”