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The period of relative prosperity that Japan enjoyed in the mid- to late 1920s gave rise to the country’s first recognizable youth culture.

However, this new cultural phenomenon wasn’t spearheaded by young men in Japan at that time. Instead, “modern girls” (modan gāru, or moga for short) were the talk of the town, sauntering down the streets of Tokyo in neat bob cuts and wearing chic dresses and heeled shoes.

These women were Japan’s equivalent of flappers in the United States or garconnes in France, abandoning traditional kimonos and conservative societal values to embrace Western fashion and lifestyle.

And yet the emergence of this group of young women in Japan represented more than just a passing fashion fad. Societal roles were changing during this time as Western influences increasingly forced the country to rethink its priorities.

Indeed, it’s safe to say that Japan’s modern girls were a reflection of the time they lived in — a time that was preceded by calamity earlier in the decade.

Rising from the ashes

On Sept. 1, 1923, a magnitude-7.9 earthquake struck the Tokyo-Yokohama metropolitan area. The two cities were all but flattened by the temblor, with firestorms tearing through many of the wooden structures that were left standing.

More than 140,000 people are believed to have perished in the Great Kanto Earthquake, and many more lost their homes. Tokyo was left to rebuild from the ashes.

Over the next few years, the capital underwent something of a metamorphosis, incorporating ideas from elsewhere and reshaping them into a new and improved version of what Tokyo had looked like before the disaster. Massive construction projects were undertaken across the city, erecting steel bridges and stone structures, developing large public parks and introducing a modern subway system.

A cosmopolitan capital for a new age was being created and, with it, Japan’s first period of youth culture stepped into the void.

However, the Tokyo that was born out of the ashes of the Great Kanto Earthquake lasted little more than two decades before being flattened again as Japan’s involvement in World War II moved closer to home.

Media outlets depicted
Media outlets depicted “modern girls” as “popular symbols of affluence, personal liberation and other middle-class aspirations,” says Hiromu Nagahara, an associate professor of history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
| PUBLIC DOMAIN / VIA WIKICOMMONS

On March 9, 1945, Tokyo was on the receiving end of what has been called the most destructive bombing raid in history. An estimated 1,665 tons of ordnance were dropped on the capital by U.S. bombers in little more than three hours. More than 100,000 people are believed to have been killed in the raid, with more than 1 million left homeless. The following weeks saw U.S. bombing campaigns continue nationwide.

Wedged between a deadly earthquake and a devastating war, the era of modern young women in Japan was a time of comparative stability, when new ideas and ways of thinking allowed to flourish.

“The 1920s was a period of relative prosperity, before the depression of the 1930s and before the rise of militarism,” says Vera Mackie, a professor emeritus of Asian and international studies at the University of Wollongong, Australia.

One hundred years on, the skirts and lipstick worn by young women in Japan are unlikely to create such a stir and it’s fairly standard to see someone enjoying a coffee over a magazine at a cafe in Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood these days.

The importance of moga seems to have all but been forgotten in recent times, but these young women were the first recognizable faces of youth culture to emerge from Japan, the consumers of a country that was bursting with commerce and creativity.

The making of a modern girl

In general, moga were thought to be free of strong political leanings.

Instead, they preferred to spend their time engaged in consumer activities, shopping at department stores, watching movies, listening to jazz and hanging out in cafes. They drank alcohol, smoked cigarettes and were increasingly sexually liberated.

“The figures of the new woman and the modern girl were also transnational figures, becoming the focus of attention in various countries from the late 19th century to the early 20th century,” Mackie says. “In each of these countries, the emergence of the figures of the new woman and the modern girl reflected changes in gender relations in those societies.”

The arrival of modern girls in Japan can be traced back to the evolution of women’s role in society. As the population moved away from rural life and into cities, young women also gained more financial freedom and independence while working in service industry roles away from their families.

Benefiting from compulsory education that had been introduced during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), these women had more employment opportunities and, therefore, money. This afforded the women the luxury to push boundaries with their clothing and their pastimes.

Women dressed in Western-style clothing in Tokyo's Ginza neighborhood in the early 1930s | PUBLIC DOMAIN / VIA WIKICOMMONS
Women dressed in Western-style clothing in Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood in the early 1930s | PUBLIC DOMAIN / VIA WIKICOMMONS

Conservative attire was replaced with colorful kimonos and calf-length dresses. Stylish stockings and Western heeled shoes were in vogue, eyebrows were drawn on, eyes accentuated with eyeshadow and eyeliner, lips painted a dark red and the long hair of the past snipped to a bob.

“(Moga) are associated with romantic liaisons outside the marriage system, with certain occupations such as actresses, waitresses or dancers, and with the consumption of alcohol and cigarettes,” Mackie says. “Figures of modern girls appear in art, literature, satirical cartoons and popular media. They are associated with modern Western dress and short hair, not too dissimilar to flappers (in the United States).”

One of the most notable examples of moga in literature is “Naomi,” in which the titular character of this emerging social scene is exemplified by seminal novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (1886–1965). First serialized in 1924 in the Osaka Morning News, Tanizaki’s writing was initially deemed too risque and it was instead published in the magazine Josei — the “moga bible.”

The plot follows a male narrator’s fascination with one such modern girl. Enthralled by the merging of Western culture rapidly taking root in towns and cities, he himself wishes to shed the trappings of conventional Japanese society. Fifteen-year-old Naomi, a hostess in a cafe, is the personification of this new wave of overseas influence. Boasting an exotic-sounding name, she is sophisticated and confident.

Modern girls and the media

Much like the fictitious character of Naomi, modern girls were themselves, in some ways, a fanciful creation of the times.

'Modern girls' were Japan's equivalent of flappers in the United States or garconnes in France, abandoning traditional kimonos and conservative societal values to embrace Western fashion and lifestyle. | PUBLIC DOMAIN / VIA WIKICOMMONS
‘Modern girls’ were Japan’s equivalent of flappers in the United States or garconnes in France, abandoning traditional kimonos and conservative societal values to embrace Western fashion and lifestyle. | PUBLIC DOMAIN / VIA WIKICOMMONS

The 1920s was a time of significant change, not just in Japan but in the West as well. The post-World War I landscape saw political agendas shift, class systems realign and developments in manufacturing technology that brought the world forward into a more modern era.

“Uncoincidentally, Japan in the 1920s witnessed an explosion of various media industries.” says Hiromu Nagahara, an associate professor of history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Magazines and newspapers began to boast a readership of millions as opposed to the handful of educated elites they previously catered to.”

Entertainment options also expanded. Although phonographs and records arrived in Japan during the Meiji Era, Nagahara says they became widespread in the 1920s. Companies such as Victor and Columbia established local subsidiaries in Japan around this time, creating a “mass-oriented music industry.”

“Last but not least, movies were a popular and affordable form of entertainment since the Meiji Era that further expanded into a truly mass medium in the 1920s and ’30s,” Nagahara says.

Images of American flappers in Hollywood films were “enormously popular,” he says.

According to Nagahara, Japan’s expanding domestic film industry likely played an important role in disseminating images of the modern girl to the public.

One example of the proliferation of these modern ideas in Japan’s culture of the ’20s can be found in the country’s first film to fully employ sound, “My Neighbor’s Wife and Mine.”

“The image and imagination of modern girls circulated through these newly emerging media, with some of it rubbing off onto real-life women who emulated the clothing, hairstyles and even the aspirations that appeared on them,” he says. “It was the media that essentially created the image of the modern girl.”

'Modern girls' wearing beach pajama-style clothing walk through Tokyo's Ginza neighborhood in 1928. | PUBLIC DOMAIN / VIA WIKICOMMONS
‘Modern girls’ wearing beach pajama-style clothing walk through Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood in 1928. | PUBLIC DOMAIN / VIA WIKICOMMONS

The rise of moga was seen to reflect shifts within the class system as well as fledgling capitalism.

“Many magazine readers and filmgoers in Japan found them fascinating,” Nagahara says, highlighting the frequent use of moga images in Shiseido advertisements as a testament to the fact that marketers saw them as “popular symbols of affluence, personal liberation and other middle-class aspirations.”

Even the popular “moga bible,” Josei, was actually published by Kurabu — a cosmetics company, marking a change from magazines created by publishing houses with experienced editors. Everyone, it seems, was vying for a slice of the moga market.

It’s worth noting at this point that modern girls had a male counterpart — the “modern boy” (modan bōi, or mobo for short). These men donned dandified clothing as they strutted about Tokyo, often arm in arm with a modern girl. They were almost accessories, but also constituted part of the modern media narrative of the time.

“I think (the modern boy) was created largely as a secondary, supporting figure to that of the modern girl who captured the larger share of the public imagination,” Nagahara says.

The real modern girls

While Japan’s media certainly played up images of modern girls and boys in the latter part of the 1920s, it couldn’t be said that all young people of the day could be assigned that stereotype.

A woman dressed in Western-style clothing in Tokyo's Ginza neighborhood circa 1933 | KYODO
A woman dressed in Western-style clothing in Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood circa 1933 | KYODO

Women of the 1920s were living a life that contrasted greatly with their parents and work opportunities were now available that weren’t attainable before.

“It’s worth noting that there were some real-life counterparts to the modern girl (in those times),” Nagara says. “Young unmarried women increasingly began to find work in public sectors, becoming collectively identified as shokugyō fujin (professional women).”

Such women taught in schools, or found work as secretaries, telephone operators and bus conductors.

The 1920s also marked the growth of a small but significant group of urban Japanese who eventually formed a new middle class. This new set of bourgeoisie were a collective of university-educated, salaried employees of corporations and government ministries and their families.

“The modern girls were oftentimes identified with this new type of urban dweller who, by 1920, numbered just above 20% of Tokyo’s population,” Nagahara says.

The magnetism of Hollywood stars and the allure of the charismatic moga depicted in beauty advertisements can be seen as the influencers of their time. They were the embodiment of Western ideas, reflecting the influence of entertainment, the creation of new urban environments and the freedom of having an income.

Japan’s domestic film industry likely played an important role in disseminating images of 'modern girls' to the public. | KYODO
Japan’s domestic film industry likely played an important role in disseminating images of ‘modern girls’ to the public. | KYODO

The modern girls that appeared in magazines, films and newspaper articles intoxicated consumers eager to know more.

“For many of those who were attracted to the image of the modern girl, materialism held the promise of personal advancement and liberty, even if that promise was ultimately more of a fantasy than an attainable reality,” Nagahara says. “The focus on material pleasures clearly had as much of an aspirational element to it as it did something that was purely hedonistic.”

The heady days of the 1920s gave rise to a globally shared imagination. Urbanism, mass consumption and the rise of a middle class spawned not only modern girls in Japan, but equivalents in Asia and the rest of the world.

What makes the modern girls particularly unique is that it was “likely to have been the first example of a fundamentally global youth culture that emerged in Japan,” Nagahara says.

The empire strikes back

Unlike the feminist “new women” that emerged in the late 19th century, modern girls were largely apathetic in terms of their political views. In embodying the liberalization of social and cultural norms, and thereby threatening traditional gender roles — ryōsai kenbo (good wives, wise mothers) — moga eventually attracted criticism from Japan’s conservatives.

Modern-girl ideals were fueled by an influx of Western and American culture, in particular, which in turn helped to fan the flames of nationalist anxieties. According to Nagahara, some conservatives worried that modern girls and boys would become radicalized and lend support to a communist revolution in Japan.

As a potential symbol of subversive politics, this fear was also reflected in the media.

“One famous cartoon depicts (modern boys and girls) as the figures of ‘Marx Boy and Engels Girl’ walking the streets of Tokyo wearing red caps and carrying red books,” Mackie says.

For nationalists, the materialistic modern girls represented an invasion of economic and cultural threats, but critics ultimately came from both ends of the political spectrum.

For others, they were figureheads representing an increasingly unequal society. The consumerist nature of the movement was criticized by commentators on the left as being complicit in a decadent and exploitative capitalist system led by zaibatsu (monopolistic conglomerates).

“('Modern girls') are associated with romantic liaisons outside the marriage system, with certain occupations such as actresses, waitresses or dancers, and with the consumption of alcohol and cigarettes,” says Vera Mackie, a professor emeritus of Asian and international studies at the University of Wollongong, Australia. | PUBLIC DOMAIN / VIA WIKICOMMONS
“(‘Modern girls’) are associated with romantic liaisons outside the marriage system, with certain occupations such as actresses, waitresses or dancers, and with the consumption of alcohol and cigarettes,” says Vera Mackie, a professor emeritus of Asian and international studies at the University of Wollongong, Australia. | PUBLIC DOMAIN / VIA WIKICOMMONS

As Japan beefed up its military presence in Asia in the late 1930s, the young women from a decade earlier that once enthralled the nation were removed from advertising campaigns after the government started to demand an increasingly austere lifestyle.

The situation worsened after Japan entered World War II on the side of the Axis powers with its attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

“The government’s decision to ban jazz records (and other Anglo-American music) in 1943 was the culmination of a decades-long culture war, within which the modern girl also became a target,” Nagahara says.

The modern-day modern girl

The role of women in Japan’s society has shifted over the decades since, but is still under ever-present scrutiny.

“(Women) often become the focus of various anxieties about gender roles in modern society,” Mackie says. Old values attached to the “good wife, wise mother” ideal are being challenged, however, and government officials have increasingly sparked criticism for sexist remarks in recent years.

Although modern girls may be primarily a media construct, young women of the 2020s still radiate from contemporary cosmetics advertisements on one hand, but can be subversive and outright worrying for Japanese society on the other. The phenomenon of moga is worth considering as “an early example of a social pattern that seems to be repeated in Japanese society throughout the 20th century,” Nagahara says.

“Hopes and anxieties regarding youth, material consumption, sexual norms and gender roles have continued to intersect time and again to this day, prompting critical responses that range from concerned editorials that appear in mainstream media to social stigmatization and draconian police measures.”

So while modern girls of Japan in the 1920s and ’30s may have faded from memory over the years, the country’s modern women are still a force to be reckoned with a century or so later.

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