'Cultured life' (bunka seikatsu) was a Japanese term from the 1920s era of industrialization that encompassed a vast wave of Westernization that swept the new middle class of the exploding urban centers. Beginning in the 1910s, heavy industry and the service sector grew to dominate the economy, expanding from a 59% share of the national income against agricultural production in 1907 to 82.4% in 1930. Cities such as Tōkyō and Osaka gained up to a million new residents over the course of a decade as rural tenant farmers migrated en masse to fill positions in factories cranking out textiles, munitions, and chemicals for export to Asia and allied forces fighting World War I. In the wake of the Treaty of Versailles, Japan found itself populated by an entirely new educated class of 'salary men' (sarariman) and 'modern girls' (moga) with significant disposable income.

Much of this wealth fed into the mass purchase of 'Western' goods. Since the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese intellectual elite had devoured Western literature, customs, and fashion as part of an effort to elevate the new centralized nation following the Meiji coup d'état that overthrew the Tokugawa feudal government to a level of equal footing with the imperialist powers of Europe and North America. Fundamental to this near obsession was the concept of Bunmei Kaika (文明開化, enlightened culturization). From the perspective of the Meiji intellectual oligarchs, the West was in possession of bunmei kaika, 'civilization,' while the Japanese and their Asian neighbors were only 'half-civilized.' This 'enlightenment' was the key to Western success. In order to stave off the aggressive, often brutal imperialistic expansion of Europe and the United States of America, Japan would have to obtain bunmei kaika. Quickly.

The urban culture of the 1880s to the 1910s began a mass importation of everything Western with precisely this goal in mind. The bureaucracy poured over German philosophy, British political thought, and American technical knowledge. The government imported Western engineers, teachers, and cultural figures to aid in modernization, a concept tied intrinsically to mimicking the cultures of Europe. Upper urban classes donned Western clothing and hairstyles as they scrambled to master the languages of 'civilized nations.' For a brief time, the Meiji government even considered decreeing English the new national language of Japan.

Beginning in the 1920s, this obsession with the West turned into a near-fetishization as everything from across the Pacific spread to popular culture. Newly installed radios broadcast the first baseball games. Social dancing became the must-have skill for a proper nightlife. An encyclopedic knowledge of actors and actresses from imported movies was the least one could do to keep up with the urban lifestyle. Poetry was out, fashion magazines and one-yen pulp novels were in. All these trends fell into the general phenomenon of 'cultured life.'

Important distinctions differentiated this bunka culture of the new middle class from the bunmei kaika enlightenment of the old middle class. In the late 19th century, Europe was the only source of all things 'Western.' The United States was considered a vulgar, derivative culture, almost half-civilized itself with its salacious behavior between the sexes and total lack of etiquette or style. But among the rowdy and profligate sarariman and moga, America was the bastion of chic. English terms tripped off the tongue of every fashionable ~leidii~ or ~jieintaaruman~ as they entertained in their American-style 'cultured houses' (bunka jutaku) with food cooked in 'cultured pots' (bunka nabe), surrounded by the warmth of 'cultured heaters' (bunka ~stoubu~). Bunka was an inherently American movement.

The 'cultured life' was not necessarily embraced by the other strata of Japanese society, however. The older middle class looked with disdain upon the hedonism and shallowness of these nouveau riche upstarts, especially their worship of the distasteful Americans. The poverty-stricken rural classes despised the showy urban lifestyle, representing everything out of their reach, and by association vented their frustrations against an invasion of 'American barbarians.' The Marxist and anarchist movements of the college intellectual classes and rural activists declaimed American capitalism in favor of social-justice under a recently revolutionized Soviet Union-style government. Bunka did not spread without resistance.

As the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s blighted Japan and the Meiji government's long-running policy of colonization and economic exploitation of their Asian neighbors accelerated, a doctrine of 'total war' and the stoicism it entailed overtook the frivolities of bunka. The 'cultured life,' however, did not fade from Japanese consciousness entirely. With its fetishization and transformation of all that seemed Western, it laid the bedrock in post-World War II Japan for a renewed mass-borrowing from the United States that continues to this day.

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