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The Japanese Modern Girl: Beyond Gender

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Modan garu

Modan garu

Japanese Modan Garu

The concept of the modern boy and girl was one which swept the Japanese political consciousness throughout the period of the Taisho democracy of the 1920s. These young individuals were socially detached from established social and family structures, and perceived as vulnerable to both dangerous political concepts and decadent immorality. Critiqued by both social conservatives and intellectuals, indeed by almost everyone in Japanese society it seems, the modern boy and the modern girl - the latter much more prominently - nevertheless represented a fundamental transformation in Japanese social relations and a monumental break in Japanese society. Their position and the critique expressed against them was about more than just their gender; it was also heavily influenced by class concerns, as will be shown in the following two articles.

“New Women, Modern Girls and the Shifting Semiotics of Gender in Early Twentieth-century Japan” is a review article by Vera Mackie, but it is also one which sets forth a body of arguments about the way in which the figure of the “modern girl” was encapsulated in different ways and the different facets of its identity. A complex and polysemous idea, the idea of a modern girl, if universally tightly bound up in the idea of modernity, had greatly varying political, economic, and cultural ramifications and origins.

Modan Garu was, as Mackie illustrates, not a term which stood alone, but was linked to a wave of terms developed to deal with a variety of different female behaviors and lifestyles in early 20th century Japan. Feminist terms such as the “New Woman” were proclaimed by Hiratsuka Raicho in the January 1913 edition of Chuo Koron (Cultural Review), remodeling a term which had previously been used for unrespectable women who had failed to obey social regulations.

I am a New Woman. I am the Sun! I am a unique human being. At least, day after day I desire to be so. The New Women not only desire the destruction of the old morality and old laws built on men's selfishness, They also try day after day to build a new world where there will be a new religion, a new morality, and new laws….

The “New Woman” thus had distinctly self-applied political feminist connotations, and even if it was used in an offensive or derogatory appellation, it was also one which could be proudly worn by its intellectual-oriented bearers. By contrast, the modern girl was a figure associated with consumption and the media. She was a figure that, alongside her modern boy male counterpart (who mostly existed as her foil), was particularly present after the Great Kanto Earthquake, in a period of intense reform and modernization in Tokyo. With an upswing in modern capitalist consumption, the figure of the modern girl was deployed to help sell modern consumer items such as toothpaste, soap, and cosmetics on behalf of corporations such as the Shiseido corporation. Although she was a working girl, she both overlapped with and yet was distinct from the working woman, the shokugyo fujin whose identity was constructed partially in reference to the modern girl. Naturally, this new modern girl was suitably mobile, associated with modern transportation where she would sometimes work with trolley conductors, travel around cities or engage in newly mobile outside activities or even travel to the exterior of Japan such as the empire.

Japan modern girl

Japan modern girl

The Role of Media

Thus for Vera Mackie, the modern girl can be viewed as a product of capitalist modernity. Newly mobile, bound up in commercialism and advertising, and a product of Japan’s economic growth and changes, the modern girl was more than just a concrete reality, but a product created and nurtured by the Japanese media and capitalist system, simultaneously its imagination and reality. Indeed, in absolute numbers the "modan garu" was limited in her proportions: a 1925 survey of women in the Ginza district in Tokyo found that only 1% dressed in Western-style clothing. The representation was far more important than the actuality.

One of the key features of the modern girl was that she was given relatively little opportunity to define herself, but instead was objectified by others for their various aims -- most often in a negative way. This was not merely from the Right but also from the Left, as is explored in “The Moga Sensation: Perceptions of the Modan Garu in Japanese Intellectual Circles during the 1920s,” by Barbara Hamill Sato.

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Just like with new women, modern girls, Hamill Sato (or the authors she presents most often with no counter-evidence and at times backing them up) argued that the media played a highly influential role in the creation of the modern girl, circumventing previous intellectual networks which had served as the transmission medium for Western culture’s influx into Japan and its adaption there, through a much more direct and popular flow. This allowed women to interact with the broader, extra-Japanese world -- and specifically the American world -- in a way which was untrammelled by previous elite controls over its circulation. Of course, the concept of the modan garu extends far beyond the simple creation of the transfusion of American culture and American styles of dress and fashion, it gave it peculiar visual modernity which would function as the defining identifier of the modern girl.

Naturally, these intellectual groups looked with hostility on the modern girl who did not follow the rules assigned to her, decrying it as a fad. There were ways in which women would be able to break from their subservient status, such as education and reading (Magazine of Women’s Learning,1885-1904 by Iwamoto Yoshiharu 1885-1904 is an example) or the structured attempts for female empowerment through mass organisation. The modern girl too broke from the system, but in a dramatically different way than these previous ones, and in one which was much more frivolous and ostensibly less political. While intellectuals such as Kitazawa Shuichi could look on certain elements of the modern girl with support, their attitude, in general, was one of condescension, the modern girl as embracing only the trappings of modernity, her mind still corrupted with old values even if she draped her body in Western dresses.

This focus on the superficiality of the modern girl was a denial of the agency and independent capacity of the women to choose their own way of life and their own interaction with the forces of modernity. But in addition to her unrestrained female sexuality and independence, she also was tightly bound up in class concerns. It was not merely a question of controlling female sexuality, but instead of controlling and judging poor and middle-class female sexuality and lifestyles. Hostility was far more than just the actions she undertook, but also who she was, a woman unconnected to the traditional intellectual milieu which had monopolized control over what it meant to be both modern and Japanese, and who was the target of critique from both high and low. Wealthy women, by contrast, could wear the same distinguishing clothing and fashion without rebuke, distinguished from their lower counterparts by their social position. When a survey of women in the Ginza district was taken in 1925, only a small minority of women wore Western-style clothing, and a strict distinction was made between the modern girls and the wives and daughters of government officials and peerage.

A Fool's Love

A Fool's Love

A Big Change for Japanese Gender Stereotypes

Similarly, the modan garu, in keeping with her lower-middle class origins, was stereotyped as greedy and materialistic, using her sexuality to gain wealth. One of the stories concerning the modern girls for example was Tanizaki Jun’ichiro’s character Naomi, in the book Chijin no ai (A Fool’s Love), who married the narrator Joji, a salaryman, adopted with him a Western lifestyle, proceeded to become unfaithful, and then left and returned only when promised further luxuries. Lower class greed would help her grasp her way upward. This was confirmed further with her comparison to a more respectable, and by contrast middle class, Russian dance teacher Madame Shlemskaya, showing distinctly a class based element to morality beyond simple sexuality.

This confluence of sexuality, modernity, and class represented the nexus of the modern girl. Real or imagined, she was nevertheless a dramatic change for Japan, with effects which continue to reverberate to today, a predecessor of modern Japanese society and of its complicated relationship with modernity.


Mackie, C. Vera. “New women, modern girls and the shifting semiotics of gender in early twentieth century Japan.” Intersections : Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific 32 (2013): 1-13.

Sato, Barbara Hamill. “The Moga Sensation: perceptions of the Modan Garu in Japanese Intellectual Circles during the 1920s.” Gender and History 5 no. 3 (Autumn 1993): 363-381.

Tipton, K. Elise, and Tipton, K. Elsie. “Cleansing the Nation: Urban Entertainments and Moral Reform in Interwar Japan.” Modern Asia Studies 42 no. 4 (2008) 705-731

© 2018 Ryan Thomas

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