‘Heisei retro’ gaining even younger devotees

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The cassette tape section at the Tower Vinyl Shinjuku record shop in Tokyo

“Heisei retro” is gradually spreading throughout Japan.

This seems a little odd, since the Heisei era (1989-2019) ended only two short years ago. Nevertheless, items that created a buzz during the early Heisei years appear to be making their way back into limelight. I did some digging to find out why.

The personal computer owned by Tomomi Iizuka, 24, is a trove of photos with a taste of the past.

Iizuka snaps pictures of everyday life with her Utsurundesu, a disposable camera with a Fujifilm Corp.-produced lens known as QuickSnap outside Japan. She then has the pictures developed and digitized.

“I like pictures that have charm and whose colors reflect days gone by,” Iizuka said.

According to Fujifilm, the market for disposable cameras peaked in 1997, the ninth year of the Heisei era. In 2014, such cameras were added to the list of essential historical materials for science and technology, which is compiled by the Center of the History of Japanese Industrial Technology.

That news inspired young people to once again popularize the cameras.

“I guess young people, who are used to digital [photos], find the texture of film photos fresh, and are intrigued by the fact that they don’t know exactly what will show up until the pictures are developed,” said a representative from Fujifilm.

During the early years of the Heisei era, photo sticker machines called “puri kura” were popular among high school girls. A toy printer small enough to hold in one’s hand, modeled after the original, is now available from T-Arts Co. Users need to first download a special app on their smartphone. Then they can create pictures after making adjustments to the phone settings. The result is photos with a somewhat old-fashioned feel.

“Young people created a buzz [about these printers] on social media, saying they have a retro look and are cute,” said a T-Arts employee.

Other analog items that require an extra step to operate have returned to the spotlight, including cassette tapes.

Even though they’re regarded more as a product of the Showa era (1926-1989), demand for cassette tapes peaked at 500 million in 1989, the first year of the Heisei era, according to industry statistics. Demand has declined since then, although some artists have started releasing new songs on cassette in recent years.

The Tower Vinyl Shinjuku record store in Tokyo has a section where cassette tapes and players are also available. According to the store, many of the customers who purchase the tapes are in their 20s.

“Listening to music on a cassette tape requires extra steps compared to digital media, but I get the sense they like the comforting sound,” said shop employee Tsuyoshi Tanoue.

According to Naoka Ohara, manager of the Knowledge Development Room of ltochu Fashion System Co., loosely fitting clothes that are reminiscent of street fashion in 1990s are again gaining popularity, especially among people in their early 20s.

“The early years of the Heisei era were over before these people were born. Things you’ve never experienced in your own life tend to feel fresh,” Ohara said.

There are also efforts to carry on the era through food. Last year, the recipe sharing and search service Cookpad introduced a series of recipes for foods and sweets that became popular in Japan during the Heisei years, including tiramisu and motsunabe hot pot.

“It was an interesting project that looked at Heisei as a part of history,” said a staff member of the service’s operating company.

Ibaraki University Prof. Kohei Kono regards Heisei retro as a continuation of Showa retro, a trend that started several years ago.

“To the current young generation, the idea that all you need is a smartphone to take photos, listen to music and do many other things is the norm. Some people find such convenience stifling and become attracted to an analog way of life,” he said.

But Kono also thinks it’s necessary to be well informed of the trends if Heisei retro is to stick around.

“The term alone is spreading [without substance],” he said. “The key is how to make a distinction between the late years of the Showa era and the early years of the Heisei era.”

Courtesy of Mero Yamasita
Mero Yamashita stands in front of a collection of key rings that were popular during the early years of the Heisei era.

Present-day man of the past

The term Heisei Retro is said to have been coined by Mero Yamashita, 40, who describes himself as a Heisei retro culture researcher. He collects pagers, early cell phones and other items that were popular at the time and studies its fashion and culture through books and magazines.

Yamashita started using the term in February 2017, the 29th year of the era.

“Nearly 30 years have passed since the early Heisei days, and society has changed drastically. I wanted to make a statement that part of the era deserves its nostalgia,” Yamashita said.

To him, Heisei retro refers to things that were all the rage from 1989 to 2000, or the first 12 years of the era.

“With time, the period represented by Heisei retro will expand to the mid-Heisei years and the late Heisei years,” he said.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to experience Heisei retro culture firsthand because services that supported some of the era’s typical products, such as pagers and personal handy phones, no longer exist.

“Looking at the things that were in fashion in those days can bring back memories. I want to continue documenting the culture of Heisei,” he said.