The Price of Historical Accuracy

Recently I received an email from a novelist out on the West Coast who is working on a historical novel set in 1946 Japan. She wanted to know how much things cost at that time. Being an anthropologist and not a historian, I really had no idea where to look, other than to say that in 1946 prices must have been really unstable because of inflation, SCAP’s attempt to engineer the market while at the same time implement labor-friendly policies, and the proliferation of the black market. A great description of the social landscape at that time is in John Dower’s superb Embracing Defeat, especially the first section where he takes you right to the streets of postwar Tokyo so that you can smell the cheap kasutori liquor and see the pan-pan girls hanging onto U.S. servicemen. (Another book I have read that deals with this same time period is Chalmers Johnson’s gripping Conspiracy at Matsukawa).

But I asked around to see if there are easier ways of finding out other than combing through long passages, and sure enough our ever resourceful Jonathan Dresner recommended two reference books: Estimates of Long Term Economic Statistics of Japan since 1868 (bilingual) and the Historical Statistics of Japan.

He also had a brilliant suggestion of looking at microfilms of newspapers at that time and picking off prices of products through ads. I would never have thought of that!

(For those wishing to have questions answered, a more helpful place to ask might be over at H-Japan, a resourceful user group that focuses on Japanese history. They cast a much wider net of scholars there, so you might get more in-depth responses.)

I have to say, its nice to see fiction writers taking the time to do some historical research for their writing. When films like The Last Samurai mutilate history, it really is a travesty because a little veracity would have made the film truly powerful (my opinion). Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it is also that much more convincing to the reader. So perhaps it’s worth paying the price of meticulous research to push for historical accuracy.

But then, I also think that if you’re writing a novel like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Pale View of Hills, then accuracy doesn’t really matter because it is all about how memories from one moment of your life become all confused with things that happened in other moments. (This is not to say that Ishiguro’s novel contained historical inaccuracies.)


  1. Although I grew up in Japan in the 1950s, my memories are shaped by movies such as “High and Low.” The question of what life was like in Japan of the 1940s and 1950s brought back memories of a series of pulp fiction detective mysteries written by an expat American (whose name I cannot recall) and set in Tokyo. Each novel was titled “Kill Me in….(a district of Tokyo)”. As a voracious reader in middle school (1960-1963), I recall fondly pouring through books like “Kill Me in Roppongi” and “Kill Me in Asakusa.” Looking back, I bet these novels gave an accurate, gritty portrayal of life in a Tokyo now long past.

  2. Hey Tak-

    You just left our place and I’ve got the book you need! Asahi publishes a little book with prices for all sorts or things since the Restoration. Want to know how much a bowl of soba was in 1945? It’s in there!


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