Erotic Grotesque: The Authenticity Complex of Japan’s Modern Girls

Fig. 7. In a markedly different style, this shin-hanga painting is another display of the moga’s Western appearance as described by the scholars Barbaraō and Miriam Silverberg. Café and Flapper [1927]. From the Honolulu Museum of Art.

A brief note:
I wrote this for a class and submitted it as a final paper on May 12, 2020. I did not receive a perfect score, but I did do quite well on it. I figured, why not add it here? I had a hard time finding much about the topic online when I started researching it. This is fine though, as all the best information is from books and “real” articles…not bloggers and fluff pieces. So, here it is: one undergrad history major’s interpretation of these modern girls.

Jump to:

Let’s set the mood.
East vs West.
Apples to oranges.
Who the hell are these women?
Splitting hairs.
“My big debut!”
Mail-order fashion.
“It’s called ‘hentai’…and it’s art.”
When past meets present.
Ero, guru, and nansensu.
Let’s be clear…
Harajuku girls.
Waitresses and Hostesses.
Let’s wrap this up.

Let’s set the mood.

Sexuality remains the hallmark of the 1920s; whether this distinction is golden or gilded remains debatable. The implicit sexuality of the era was made manifest through the visual, literary, and performing arts. Twenties advertisements were sexy, the music was sexy, the books were sexy, and even the buildings themselves were sexy. The American flapper stands proud, like a vaunting Art Deco sculpture, arms upstretched towards the heavens, rising in her superiority as the ultimate representation of 1920s culture. Her innate sexuality and eroticism are as unmistakable as her charismatic personality and expressive display of style. As mythical as the American flapper has become, though, the flapper is not a cultural icon unique to the United States. The 1920s flapper was but one rendition of the global “Modern Girl” phenomenon. The Modern Girl was identified throughout the globe by names as diverse as the women who took on her persona. In America the modern girl was known as the flapper, but in France she was la garçonne, in Germany she was the neue Frauen, in India she was the kallege ladki, in China she was the modeng xiaojie, and in Japan she was the modan gāru (shortened as moga).[1] Any one rendition of this modern girl simultaneously paralleled another, yet each was also unique; Japan’s modan gāru of the late Taishō (1912-1926) and early Shōwa (1926-1989) periods serves as an interesting example. The moga, according to sociologist Ruri Ito, was a woman who was characterized through her “drive toward gendered consumer culture, conspicuous consumption, defiance against patriarchal control over women’s body and sexuality, and cosmopolitan urban taste,” all of which led to a new Japanese “sense of femininity.”[2] However, the moga’s debut in her own contemporary Japanese society brought to light concerns regarding this form of Westernization and its challenge to Japanese tradition. During a decade of rapid change, modernity created within Japan an identity crisis in which the broader Japanese culture suffered from an “authenticity complex;”[3] the moga embodies the clash between East and West in Japan’s late Taishō and early Shōwa periods, and this clash within her reveals how her eroticism was at once both uniquely Japanese and universally Western. Thus, an exploration of the moga in the East must first begin in the West.

[1] Alys Eve Weinbaum et al., The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 1. Modan gāru is a term that does not mean “modern girl” in a broad sense, but is specific to the unique “Modern Girl” of the 1920s and early 1930s in the same manner that “flapper” is a unique American word used to identify America’s own “Modern Girl” of roughly the same time period. Attempting a direct translation of “modern girl” from English to Japanese might result in an entirely different phrase such as gendai no shōjo (literally, “girl of present day”).

[2] Ruri Ito, “The ‘Modern Girl’ Question in the Periphery of Empire: Colonial Modernity and Mobility among Okinawan Women in the 1920s and 1930s,” in The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization, eds. Alys Eve Weinbaum, et al. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 241.

[3] To understand the meaning of an “authenticity complex,” one needs to recall one of Sigmund Freud’s proposed phases of childhood development: the “Oedipus complex.” In Japan’s modern popular culture, a variety of various “complexes” have been extrapolated from Freud’s proposal. Slang terms such as “brocon” and “siscon” refer to a brother or sister “complex.” In this manner, an “authenticity complex” can be likened unto a strong and passionate desire to be authentically Western, while perhaps, but not necessarily, detesting (or at least shedding certain aspects of) traditional Japanese culture.

East vs West.

In the United States, the flapper is the primary symbol of peak 1920s eroticism. Beyond her eroticism, she is typically viewed as being intelligent, quick-witted, and independent. For many, she represents the progress that early 1900s modernity brought to American women, yet she is perhaps equally representative of the fall of America’s traditionally conservative values and its further decline into hedonistic decadence. Whatever one might believe her iconography to represent, she was undoubtedly the product of a new consumer culture that itself arose from unprecedented levels of economic prosperity.[4] This newfound prosperity was not unique to the United States, as many nations also found themselves to be in similar economic situations during the interwar period. As noted above, Modern Girls paralleling the American flapper sprang up across the globe not only in the West (France, Germany, and the United States), but in the East (China and India) as well. Japan was no exception to this global phenomenon, and it is there that one can find their own modan gāru. Japan’s modan gāru,shortened as moga, is more difficult to define than the American flapper.[5] Existing research of the moga is relatively scarce when compared to other Modern Girls. The late historian Miriam Silverberg and historian Barbara Satō seem to be the moga’s two foremost experts. Sarah Frederick, an Associate Professor of Japanese and Comparative Literature at Boston University, simply points to Silverberg and Satō when discussing the moga in her book, Turning Pages: Reading and Writing Women’s Magazines in Interwar Japan.[6] The Modern Girl Around the World Research Group, a collective of history and women’s studies professors based out of the University of Washington in Seattle, also defers primarily to Silverberg and Satō for chapters relating to Japan’s Modern Girl.[7] To further complicate attempts at defining the moga, her few prevalent researchers appear to disagree to some extent on matters of terminology.

[4] Lynn Dumenil, The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), 144.

[5] In the context of this paper, unless otherwise stated, the terms “Modern Girl,” “modan gāru,” and “moga,” should be understood as being interchangeable terms.

[6] Sarah Frederick, Turning Pages: Reading and Writing Women’s Magazines in Interwar Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006), 16.

[7] Weinbaum et al., The Modern Girl Around the World. The editors had even dedicated the book in memory of Miriam Silverberg.

Apples to oranges.

In the United States, the flapper was often referred to as the “New Woman.” In Japan, was the “New Woman” (atarashii onna) the same as the “Modern Girl” (modan gāru)? To answer such a question, it is perhaps best to first explore how the moga has been defined by twenty-first century researchers. For historian Miriam Silverberg, the Modern Girl was in part a “cultural construct” created by male journalists who were critical of the New Woman phenomenon.[8] To those men, Silverberg asserts, the New Woman was a “serious social threat,” therefore the Modern Girl, as a construct, was an opportunity for them to strip the New Woman of her power to challenge “political certainties and respectability.”[9] The moga, however, was more than a media icon constructed to challenge the New Woman’s newfound agency. There was, in fact, a very real “existence of a small minority of women in Modern Girl style whose everyday life was defined by iconoclastic mores.”[10] Thus, Silverberg, unlike some of her fellow scholars of Japanese cultural history, asserts that the New Woman is not simply synonymous with the Modern Girl; rather, the New Woman was the intellectual who was meant to be heard, while the Modern Girl was meant to be seen.[11] It is important to establish such a distinction, since some researchers use “New Woman” and “Modern Girl” interchangeably, while others do not. In this context, flappers, often referred to as “New Women,” might also be viewed as Modern Girls.

[8] Miriam Silverberg, “After the Grand Tour: The Modern Girl, the New Woman, and the Colonial Maiden,” in The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization, eds. Alys Eve Weinbaum, et al. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 356.

[9] Ibid., 358.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

Who the hell are these women?

The moga, much like the American flapper, serves as Japan’s 1920s icon of modern promiscuity and sexuality that challenged its sociocultural order.[12] Being an icon, then, who served as her agents of expression? For Miriam Silverberg, these agents included the young girls who did no more than dress “in cosmopolitan Modern Girl uniform,” the “young women in bobbed hair who were aware of wanting to make cultural and social revolution,” and the young “women workers…ranging from the professional journalist to the factory girl.”[13] All of these women could be called Modern Girls, respectively ranging from “those whose commitment to change was limited to a change of clothing, those who were activists, and those whose everyday actions were a challenge to the social order.”[14] With such a broad definition, Silverberg incorporates the café waitress (jukyu) and working woman (shokugyō fujin)—two other groups of Japanese women new to the era—into the ranks of the moga. This is different from Sarah Frederick, who, though also treating the New Woman as a completely separate entity, believes the café waitress and working woman were distinct from the moga.[15] Barbara Satō, Professor of History at Seikei University in Tokyo, also treated the working woman as a separate entity.[16]

[12] Ibid., 357-358.

[13] Ibid., 356-357.

[14] Ibid., 357.

[15] Frederick, Turning Pages, 44, 65, 88.

[16] Barbara Satō, The New Japanese Woman: Modernity, Media, and Women in Interwar Japan (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 48.

Splitting hairs.

With such conflicting opinions from leading scholars, how should one best define the moga? Should one revisit Ruri Ito’s defining characteristics? Modern Girls were certainly women who were driven towards a new gendered consumer culture and partook in conspicuous consumption. Their newfound cosmopolitan urban taste, whether intentional or not, was certainly in defiance against existing patriarchal hierarchies of control over their bodies and sexuality. It can safely be concluded that this shared set of characteristics among the agents of the moga is what led to a new Japanese “sense of femininity.” Her agents then, are perhaps the moga in the image of a “Japanese flapper,” the moga as the jukyu, and the moga as the shokugyō fujin. The question remains then, did the moga derive her new modern eroticism from the West in an attempt to simply emulate being “Western,” or were her agents and iconography unique to Japan? In the search for her influencing factors, most would likely assume that the moga, having derived her style from a booming consumer culture, must have been swayed by the powerful new influence of Western advertisements.

“My big debut!”

Advertisements of all types in the 1920s collectively served as an important influencing force upon Japan’s rapidly shifting culture. The advertisements that appealed to the moga were crafted with care so as to target her own specific sensibilities. The moga, like other Modern Girls, had no interest in child-rearing and homemaking. In modern advertisements across the globe, the Modern Girl was depicted not as the domestic housewife caring for children, but the young woman “caring for her own body in front of her vanity.”[17] The Modern Girl Research Group suggests these depictions contained a dual meaning: depictions of erotic self-touching celebrated her sexuality, while her gaze into the mirror suggested she felt a “constant obligation to judge herself against the beauty and social standards presented in the ads and elsewhere.”[18] These advertisements found in magazines, catalogs, and posters the world-over were not necessarily funded and manufactured by Western companies. Kathy Peiss, Professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that most of the West’s advertising and marketing campaigns in Japan did not occur until the late 1920s and into the 1930s.[19] For this reason, she asserts that Western advertisements were perhaps “a response to the early presence of the Modern Girl” (original emphasis), rather than the driving force behind the moga’s appearance in Japan.[20] When, then, did the moga first make her debut? Barbara Satō credits Japanese writer Kitazawa Shūichi as the first to introduce “the term ‘Modern Girl’ to Japanese readers in 1923.”[21] Less than a year later, predating the onset of major Western advertising campaigns, “the outward displays that were to characterize the Modern Girl in Japan had surfaced and crystallized.”[22] Perhaps it was the proliferation of mass women’s magazines that served as a vector for the spread of this new cosmopolitan style.

[17] Weinbaum et al., The Modern Girl Around the World, 36.

[18] Ibid., 36-37.

[19] Kathy Peiss, “Girls Lean Back Everywhere,” in The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization, eds. Alys Eve Weinbaum, et al. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 349.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Barbara Satō, “Contesting Consumerisms in Mass Women’s Magazines,” in The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization, eds. Alys Eve Weinbaum, et al. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 264.

[22] Ibid.

Mail-order fashion.

The popularity of Japan’s mass women’s magazines serves to demonstrate how Western culture reached even the most rural of Japanese women. Women’s magazines were popular with Japan’s middle class even before the 1920s. Fujin sekai (Women’s World), Fujokai (Woman’s Sphere), and Shufu no tomo (Housewife’s Companion) were established in 1906, 1910, and 1917, respectively.[23] Women’s magazines were originally a niche commodity accessible only to Japan’s middle class, but that swiftly changed by the year 1920. In 1920, Barbara Satō informs, “before the conspicuous aspects of consumerism were firmly in place in Japan,” four separate Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department surveys found that working-class women preferred (women’s) magazines to newspapers and books.[24] Quite clearly, they were the media of choice for Japan’s working-class women. Such women’s magazines served to connect the lower classes of Japan’s young women to commodities that were previously available only to those of the society’s upper-crust.[25] Many of them contained mail-order catalogs, which, combined with installment plans, allowed for even the most rural women on the outskirts of society to connect with the new cosmopolitan lifestyle.[26] Recalling the fact that the West did not engage in heavy advertising campaigns in Japan until the late 1920s, this serves as evidence that such specifically Western advertisements were not a primary determinant for the birth of moga culture. Rather, Japanese women of all backgrounds were taking part in a universal Western culture through their engagement with consumerism and modernity as facilitated by Japanese women’s magazines.

[23] Ibid., 265.

[24] Ibid., 275-276.

[25] Ibid., 263.

[26] Ibid., 282-283.

“It’s called ‘hentai’…and it’s art.”

Though the advertisements for modern commodities found within Japanese women’s magazines were not quite yet from Western companies, many were certainly done in what might be considered a similar style. Japanese advertisements contained the same Western-style line-drawings of young women performing sensual poses, caressing themselves in front of their vanities as could be seen in actual Western advertisements.[27] Though sensual depictions of Japanese women in Western-style art and clothing were present in women’s magazines, such “Western” eroticism was in no way new to Japan. This eroticism was criticized heavily by Japan’s intellectual elites, yet Japan already possessed a long history of engagement with eroticism dating back hundreds of years. As Western eroticism was shining through in Japan’s own advertisements, Japanese artists were also busy blending their own traditional expressions of Japanese feminine eroticism with the newly emerging Western styles. Woodblock printing is a common and traditional Japanese art form, and the ukiyo-e genre dates back to the 1600s. Many ukiyo-e prints are those of the “beautiful girl.” One popular Edo period (1603-1868) subgenre, shunga, consisted of erotic art that was essentially pornography (see figure 1).[28] The Meiji Restoration period—of the Meiji era (1868-1912)—is what spawned the shift towards industrialization, the adoption of Western thoughts and practices, and the drive towards modernity. The Westernization of Japan during the Meiji Restoration period brought with it a decline in shunga’s popularity, and perhaps, a more general decline in such brazenly forthright displays of eroticism. Shunga, however, still evidences Japan’s preestablished history of eroticism.

[27] Ibid., 279.

[28] Katsushika Hokusai, The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, 1814, Woodblock print, Public domain, accessed April 20, 2020. Shunga literally translates to “spring painting,” with spring being a Japanese euphemism for sex. Hokusai is likely best known for his work, The Great Wave off Kanagawa.


The shin-hanga (new prints) art movement, beginning in the early Taishō period, demonstrates how 1920s artworks portrayed the unique blending of traditional Japanese art forms with content depicting Western influences in Japanese culture. In Yumeji Takehisa’s Young Woman Coiffing Her Hair (c. 1912-1924)—a woodblock print—one sees a beautiful young woman sitting in a chair (see figure 2).[29] Her figure was carved in a way that resembles the sleek lines of Western-style line-drawings, and the viewer’s focus is immediately drawn to her erotic figure and alluring gaze. Her gaze implies she is watching herself in the vanity mirror as she coifs her long hair, and her yukata hangs from one shoulder, exposing her right breast. The overall style and pose are similar to the West’s own Modern Girl, but her hair and clothing remain traditional. Shūhō Yamakawa’s later 1927 woodblock print, Aki (Autumn), depicts a more thoroughly modern girl than Takehisa’s (see figure 3).[30] She wears a similarly seductive gaze as one sees in Young Woman Coiffing Her Hair, but she is drawn more traditionally, even retaining hints of the more traditionally depicted rounded face. Although she is wearing a traditional kimono, she covers it in a jacket that depicts the symbols of Western playing cards, and tops her outfit with a Western-style shawl. Her eyebrows are high, her lips beet red, and her hair is bobbed to complete the total cosmopolitan style of the moga.

[29] Yumeji Takehisa, Young Woman Coiffing Her Hair, c. 1912-1924, Woodblock print, Honolulu Museum of Art, Honolulu.

[30] Shūhō Yamakawa, Aki (Autumn), 1927, Woodblock print, Honolulu Museum of Art, Honolulu.

When past meets present.

Woodblock prints were not the only medium by which 1920s Japanese artist mixed Japanese tradition with Western modernity. In Ako Fujiki’s Kaisuiyoku no Zu (c. 1930), one can directly view this dichotomy between tradition and the West (see figure 4).[31]

In the foreground, a moga casually leans back in her beach chair. Even on the beach, dressed in a Western bathing suit and matching cap, she is wearing her fashionable high-heeled shoes and makeup, which includes the ruby-red lipstick favored by Modern Girls everywhere. Her hair is cut short, as hints of her bob stick out from underneath her cap, which contrasts the woman standing beside her. The moga’s acquaintance, likely a friend, is dressed in a traditional kimono, even donning the traditional socks and footwear meant to accompany it.[32] However, like the obvious moga, this woman is wearing makeup to include the bright red lipstick. Makeup itself is not Western, but given the context, her lipstick implies her makeup is more Western than traditional. The standing woman’s hair, though long, is in pigtails that are tied-off with large red bows as opposed to being in the more traditional tight bun. Her hair and part of her face are hidden beneath a large hat that appears more European than Japanese. Would such a woman be considered a moga? Indeed, her unique mix of traditional and Western dress distinguishes her from the Modern Girl of the West, be it an American flapper, French garçonne, or Germany neue Frauen. She was both uniquely Japanese, and universally Western. These examples serve to illustrate how various shin-hanga artists portrayed a new generation of “beautiful girls” as the embodiment of the period’s unique blend of Western modernity and Japanese tradition. As Barbara Satō informs, for some Japanese women, modern consumerism meant a blending of the old with the new.[33] While some of these women elected to mix tradition and modernity, others chose to fully embrace Western fashion as they cast all tradition aside. Both types of women were meant to be dramatically seen, however, it was those “who paraded the streets of Tokyo’s Ginza or Osaka’s Shinsaibashi in knee-length skirts and silk stockings, sported cloche hats, and favored red lipstick” that were exceptionally striking.[34]

[31] Ako Fujiki, Kaisuiyoku no Zu (Scene of Swimming in the Ocean), c. 1930, Ink and color on silk, Honolulu Museum of Art, Honolulu.

[32] The shoes are clearly not pumps or high-heels, as the moga is wearing. The visible top portion of the shoe, combined with her white socks, is enough to determine that the shoes are either the traditional thonged zōri or geta footwear. It is difficult to tell which one, as the primary difference is determined by the platform upon which the thonged portion rests. Both are quite similar to “flip-flop(s)” sandals.

[33] Satō, “Contesting Consumerisms,” 272.

[34] Ibid.


Tokyo’s Ginza district is where the moga most similar in style to the flapper boldly displayed her new cosmopolitan fashion; cafés, dance halls, and department stores abounded within Ginza.[36] Barbara Satō describes such Ginza moga as being “clad in a brightly colored one-piece dress reaching only to the knees or a little below, favoring high-heeled shoes and sheer stockings that showed off her legs.”[37] A large portion of her erotic allure came from her short hairstyle, but especially from her legs. Apart from her clothing and short hair, she was a woman defined by her “long, straight legs…a product of the ability of the human spirit to shape the human form.”[38] Like some of the women depicted above (notably in figure 3), they had shaven eyebrows with thin, high-arching, penciled-in replacements.[39] This moga often wore a “wide-brimmed floppy hat or cloche made of a soft material” that might have “partially concealed her short hair.”[40] Miriam Silverberg described her as being “highly animated,” “brightly breezy,” and “shockingly fond of the double entendre and other erotic come-hithers.”[41] Her style is clearly Western (see figures 5, 6, and 7), but how did it develop within Japan? No doubt, women’s magazines aided in their Westernization, but this is only one part of the equation.

[35] Steve Sundberg. “‘Modern Girl’ (and ‘Modern Boy’), c. 1930.” Old Tokyo. Accessed April 18, 2020.

[36] Satō, The New Japanese Woman, 49.

[37] Ibid., 51.

[38] Miriam Silverberg, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 55, ProQuest Ebook Central.

[39] Satō, The New Japanese Woman, 51.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Miriam Silverberg, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, 54.

[42] Kiyoshi Kobayakawa, Horoyoi (Tipsy), Woodblock print, 1930, Honolulu Museum of Art, Honolulu.

[43] Ippei Okamoto, Kafe to Modan (Café and Flapper), Ink and color on paper, 1927, Honolulu Museum of Art, Honolulu.


For Kathy Peiss, the near-simultaneous birth of Modern Girls throughout the world was the combined result of “unpredictable encounters and rapid movement of images, people, and products across national lines.”[44] In this context, the global circulation of Hollywood films played an early role in the Modern Girl’s sudden international appearance.[45] Intellectuals, like the literary critic Hatsunosuke Hirabayashi (1892-1931), cited American cinema as the wellspring from which the moga drew her inspiration.[46] As Hirabayashi lamented, “[e]ven Japan is under Hollywood’s yoke.”[47] For Hirabayashi, as well as other intellectuals, “the modan gāru was the offspring of American cultural influence.”[48] More than anything else in Japan, be it the popularization of the “Lloyd glasses” (of American actor Harold Lloyd’s namesake), or the American bob haircut, Hirabayashi viewed the moga as the “greatest offshoot” (emphasis added) of American cinema.[49] Indeed, her hair was “bobbed in the style of Hollywood idols Clara Bow, Pola Negri, Mary Pickford, and Gloria Swanson,” and her eyebrows were even in the so-called “Swanson tradition.”[50] The moga’s eroticism was associated with foreign (American) films, whose stars commonly appeared “only in a chemise (shimiizu).”[51] However, as author Kiyoo Yasuda wrote for an article in 1931, Japan had its own “Japan-specific ero.”[52] For Yasuda, this Japanese-specific ero could be found within the way Japanese women physically moved their bodies as “adopted during the Tokugawa era” and still “seen in the moves of the knowing geisha.”[53] This Japanese ero was not something that could be found “in the obscene gestures of the waitresses in the bars and cafés who ‘blaspheme[d] the sanctity’ of ero.”[54] Perhaps this charge against the moga’s eroticism was indicative of a desire for a more traditional Japanese eroticism, yet Yasuda simultaneously “equated ero with Western technique.”[55] He praised German-American film director Ernst Lubitsch for his skill in “feigning ero…only to pull back and not offer it to his audience.”[56] Critically, the moga only served to showcase “the Japanese inability to emote and the inferiority of the Japanese female body in comparison to the Hollywood model.”[57] Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, a professor at Kyoto University specializing in Japanese cinema, asserts that Japanese cinema itself “was marked, from its inception, by the cinema’s Western origins in France and the United States.”[58] The Japanese “learned how to make films in the presence of these preeminent cinemas…[a]s a result, the Japanese films contain an ‘authenticity complex.’”[59] Japan’s movie industry saw Japanese actresses imitating famous American stars, especially in the Modern Girl style. Such a complex extended beyond Japanese cinema. Just as their cinema was, so too was the moga both “globally influenced” yet “culturally specific.”[60] Despite their complex with Western modernity, the environment they found themselves in was unique to Japan. The manner by which intellectuals defined the moga and situated them within Japanese society reveals much about the moga’s unique situation.

[44] Peiss, “Girls Lean Back Everywhere,” 349.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Barbara Satō, “The Moga Sensation: Perceptions of the Modan Gāru in Japanese Intellectual Circles During the 1920s,” Gender & History 5, no. 3 (1993): 372.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid., 373.

[50] Satō, The New Japanese Woman, 51.

[51] Silverberg, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, 99.

[52] Ibid., 101. “Ero” will be discussed further at a later point. For now, it can be thought of as shorthand for the essence of “eroticism.”

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid., 102.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid., 105.

[58] Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, Nippon Modern: Japanese Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008), 77, ProQuest Ebook Central.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid.


Intellectuals largely had a difficult time coming to grips with modanizumu’s (modernism) sociocultural effects. Generally, Japanese intellectuals of all ideological backgrounds united in joining “the general public in denouncing what they deemed an outright imitation of tainted Western styles with American roots.”[61] The agents of the moga were, from the very beginning, viewed by most intellectuals as nothing more than a passing Tokyo fad.[62] As Miriam Silverberg has differentiated, the moga were not the same as the “New Woman.” In fact, it can be said that the moga’s primary critics were themselves the New Women that emerged in the 1910s. This previous generation of women, the progressive feminist intellectuals who constituted the “New Woman,” sided with the moga’s male critics.[63] To such women, the moga was a disappointment, as she failed the New Woman’s expectations for this new generation’s deeper (intellectual) engagement with modernity.[64] The moga was supposed to continue the New Woman’s efforts to “duplicate those values historically associated with men.”[65] Kitazawa Shūichi, the writer who first introduced the term “Modern Girl” to Japan, believed the moga possessed two distinct features. First, “she exuded a new sense of self, apparent in her desire for self-expression and individual fulfillment.”[66] Second, the moga’s “free spirit that she possessed was not the result of a conscious effort to achieve intellectual awakening.”[67] For Japanese literary critic Nii Itaru (1888-1951), the moga was a woman who “aimed to better herself, not society.”[68] Like Shūichi, Itaru viewed the moga as possessing an awakened sense of self.[69] Nearly all of her critics, the New Woman included, looked down upon the moga as an entity that “embraced modernity only in its most superficial form.”[70] The moga was all about mindless fashion, not progressive intellectual feminism. Barbara Satō summarizes the intellectual consensus regarding the moga’s motivations: “Her changes in consciousness did not result from a calculated effort to improve her lot or participate in social movements, but were more the result of a fascination with a fashionable new lifestyle.”[71] Worse still, she was a sex object in the same vein as the modan café waitress (jukyu) and working woman (shokugyō fujin) were.[72] Downstream from the politics of the intellectuals, the Japanese media presented the moga in the same way. All moga were seen as possessing lose morals, no doubt the fault of the “love scenes commonplace in American movies.”[73] Perhaps capitalizing on the power of sensationalism, and perhaps even an effort to encourage traditional gender roles, the mass media spread the “fictionalized moga image” of a promiscuous and sexually deviant woman to the general public.[74] It seems not everyone in 1920s Japan was fond of modanizumu and all the changes it entailed.

[61] Satō, “Contesting Consumerisms,” 264.

[62] Satō, “The Moga Sensation,” 364.

[63] Ibid., 366.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Satō, The New Japanese Woman, 48.

[66] Satō, “The Moga Sensation,” 368.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Satō, The New Japanese Woman, 48.

[71] Ibid., 365.

[72] Ibid., 369. As alluded to earlier, both the café waitress and working woman were new phenomenon around this time period. Café waitresses would occasionally provide sexual or other erotic services in the newly-established cafés. Satō compared such waitresses to geisha. The working woman was also viewed as an erotic figure, as gossip asserted that such women would engage in sexual acts with their coworkers in the workplace. Following Miriam Silverberg’s definition, both might also be considered a form of moga.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Ibid., 370.

Ero, guru, and nansensu.

As conservative intellectuals had little to say of the moga, most of the moga’s critics were Marxists.[75] Marxists tended to categorize the moga as “bourgeoise.”[76] Such intellectuals believed the moga to be the “by-product (sanbutsu) of the conspicuous articulations of a middle-class consumerism.”[77] Japan’s intellectuals held such American popular cultural influences with suspicion, and, as Barbara Satō states, “indeed, the guiding force behind [the moga’s] actions was American culture.”[78] The moga was part of the new system of rising capitalism and “the transformation in urban lifestyle” that came with it, all due to America’s influence.[79] Japan’s intellectuals did not despise the moga herself so much as they more generally despised Amerikanizumu—the term such intellectuals used as a disparaging synonym for modanizumu.[80] Similar to the Modern Girls of the West, Japan’s moga were generally denounced as both “‘decadent’ (taihaiteki) and ‘hedonistic’ (kyōrakuteki).”[81] The Amerikanizumu culture that they were a part of was denounced by intellectuals through the symbolic use of the words ero guru nansensu.[82] As defined by Satō, the words are “a neologism formed by combining the foreign words erotic, grotesque and nonsense, which consisted of equal parts of decadence and depravity.”[83] Ero was already discussed to some extent above in relation to the moga and cinema, but what was so guru about the moga? Perhaps it was her attempt to break from tradition through her emulation of the West in all manners related to her fashion. In film, Kiyoo Yasuda criticized the Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame “as embodiments of the grotesque,” because their “external strange weirdness” was married with “the devilish, the vulgar, the coarse,” and “the low-class.”[84] Their freakish subjects, the Phantom and Quasimodo, were grotesque in their attempts to escape their true forms; such persistence to escape one’s own “form” was characteristic of the grotesque.[85] Perhaps it was the moga’s desire to change her own form that constituted her being guru. Her desire to be ero, in the same way the Western Modern Girl was, was absolutely guru, and this was especially true considering her complex represented a break from the Japan-specific ero Yasuda had described. The moga’s shortcomings in pursuing such ero only made them all the more guru, but what of the moga’s nansensu? Silverberg once again defers to Yasuda for an explanation. Nonsense was something that “serious people who talked of ideology could not grasp” (original emphasis).[86] Nonsense was fully Western, as only yankii (yankees) could “fully understand” nonsense.[87] All things modan were viewed in this light, thus the moga had nothing new to offer the intellectual who could not fully understand her nonsensical ways. The New Woman was “New” in that she “had been associated with social demonstration and a conscious self-awakening.”[88] Compared to such a woman, what did the superficial moga have to offer? Satō once again provides an answer. The moga’s importance becomes clear when viewed within a broader historical context of Japanese culture. As her appearance in Japanese society spurned “the first time a majority of Japanese intellectuals…engaged in a serious debate on gender change in Japan,” her existence and “seeming indifference to or unawareness of the wider implications of her behavior cut the intellectuals out of the loop of social change which they had for many decades molded.”[89] The moga was written-off as nansensu because such intellectuals, concerned with ideology, could not comprehend such a Modern Girl. Challenged in her legitimacy by Japan’s intellectuals, mass media, and general public, the moga simply carried on in her erotic, grotesque, and nonsensical fun.

[75] Ibid., 371. Satō notes that conservative intellectuals were likely more focused on criticizing Marxists and paid relatively little attention to the moga.

[76] Ibid., 373.

[77] Satō, “Contesting Consumerisms,” 264.

[78] Satō, “The Moga Sensation,” 371.

[79] Ibid., 373.

[80] Ibid.

[81] Satō, “Contesting Consumerisms,” 264.

[82] Satō, “The Moga Sensation,” 373.

[83] Ibid. Here ero is likely short for erochikku (erotic) or erochishizumu (eroticism). Ero might generally be recognized in today’s modern Japanese slang as anything related to eroticism (i.e., eroge—Japanese erotic video games). Additionally, guro can be viewed as being short for gurotesuku (grotesque). In modern slang, guru is often related to anything involving gore. The use of nansensu requires no further explanation. As Satō mentioned, these are appropriated foreign words that have been Japanized in the same way aisukurīmu is essentially a Japanese pronunciation of “ice cream.”

[84] Silverberg, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, 102.

[85] Ibid.

[86] Ibid., 103.

[87] Ibid.

[88] Satō, “The Moga Sensation,” 370.

[89] Ibid., 377.

Let’s be clear…

A concrete definition of the moga is still likely to be unclear, as even the leading scholars Ruri Ito, Barbara Satō, and Miriam Silverberg, all have slightly different definitions. How does one determine a moga’s influences and motives if scholars and researchers cannot agree upon whether or not any given Modern Girl is indeed a “true” moga? The views and opinions of Japan’s 1920s intellectuals received a critical analysis by these modern scholars; therefore, these scholars’ own definitions should receive a similar level of critique. Perhaps there is no such thing as a true moga. Satō’s summary of what constitutes the “moga sensation” offers some clarity within uncertainty:

The modan gāru was a multifaceted, unstructured social phenomenon; not all modan gāru were the same in either their motivations, beliefs or behavior. The modan gāru, who represented a relatively small segment of the female population, remained misunderstood by most intellectuals as well as the general public.[90]

Barbara Satō

Did all moga fit into Ruri Ito’s assertion that they were in defiance against patriarchal control over their bodies and sexuality? If one follows Miriam Silverberg’s definition, some simply engaged in Western fashion without any concern for making a statement against the patriarchy. Such young women were experiencing an exciting new period in Japanese history; it is not unreasonable to believe, like any generation of young people, that they were simply doing what was “cool” without any other thought. Were all moga so simple that they could be ignored as being nothing more than the “Japanese flapper?” According to Silverberg, even the café waitress (jukyu) and working woman (shokugyō fujin), in their outward displays of Western style, could be considered moga. What is certain about the moga, as noted above, is that she was a part of an unstructured social phenomenon. Both Satō and Silverberg agree that not all of them had common motivations, beliefs, and behaviors. They were certainly misunderstood then, and they are likely still misunderstood now. As Silverberg attests, “more often than not the Modern Girl represented conflicting fantasies about class, gender, and culture that were projected onto her.”[91] Much like the flapper, their impact is debatable as well. How did the interwar flapper disappear, only to reveal the post-war domestic housewife? Such an American icon of sexual liberation did not reappear until the flower children of the 1960s. In Japan, the moga eventually faded away as the nation increasingly militarized in the lead-up to World War II. These questions and their implications warrant further investigation. There are, however, modern remnants of the trends that were established by the moga of Japan’s late Taishō and early Shōwa periods. As Silverberg attests, “by merely equating the Japanese Modern Girl with the flapper we do her a disservice, for the Modern Girl was not on a Western trajectory.”[92]

[90] Ibid.

[91] Silverberg, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, 69.

[92] Ibid., 53.

Harajuku girls.

Although Ginza served as the moga’s fashion center, it does not serve the same function today. Indeed, Ginza is still the upscale, fashion-forward center of Tokyo, but Harajuku is where today’s “moga” reside.[93] Harajuku fashion, and more specifically gyaru culture, is perhaps directly descended from the moga (see figure 8).[94] Like the moga, gyaru (meaning “gal,” appropriated from the English slang term for “girl”) are young women who adopt an exaggerated form of Western fashion. Their version of Western fashion, however, tends to be expressed in a way that is entirely unique to Japan. The kogyaru (shortened as kogal) are “high school gals.” Also calling themselves gyaru, these young women adopt and modify (shortened skirts, heavier makeup, and loose socks) their Western-style Japanese schoolgirl uniforms to serve as the foundation of their style. Such Western uniforms were first introduced in a “sailor-style,” as they were considered “both Western and the height of schoolgirl fashion in 1926.”[95] For females, they are called sērā-fuku (sailor suit), and they are still in widespread use today. High schoolers tend to wear a modified version of the sērā-fuku that might be considered even more Western than the older “sailor suit” version. These newer high school uniforms often include a pleated skirt, blazer, and a sweater vest. It is this version that is most typically seen modified by kogal. Though originally meant to emulate the West, most people today view Japan’s use of sailor-style school uniforms as distinctly Japanese. These fashion trends have even reached Japan’s popular animation industry, as recently depicted in shows like Hajimete no Gal (see figure 9).[96]

[93] Singer Gwen Stefani has famously performed with four Japanese backup dancers dubbed the “Harajuku Girls.” Her 2008 song of the same name contains lyrics describing their fashion: “A subculture, in a kaleidoscope of fashion…Harajuku Girls, you got the wicked style.” For more, see her official music video.

[94] Tokyo Fashion, Blonde Shibuya Gyaru, July 28, 2011, Photograph, Flickr. The gyaru pictured are actually in Tokyo’s Shibuya ward, but their gyaru style is not unlike that which can be found in Harajuku.

[95] Ruri Ito, “The ‘Modern Girl’ Question,” 247. They were modeled after European (British) naval uniforms, and therefore considered Western.

[96] Funimation, promotional image for Hajimete no Gal (My First Girlfriend is a Gal), 2017, Digital image, My Anime List.

Waitresses and Hostesses.

The other moga of the 1920s, the jukyu and shokugyō fujin, have their modern counterparts as well. Tokyo’s Akihabara district is famous for its own unique style, and cafés of various types abound. Maid cafés employ young Japanese women as waitresses, typically wearing Western-style maid outfits complete with stockings and garters (see figure 10).[97]

They often call their patrons “master” while they engage in conversation with them. Male patrons enjoy a pleasant view, atmosphere, and conversation as they engage in this light role-play with their own personal maid. In some ways, it is a way for lonely men to feel some form of affection, however temporary. Perhaps even more similar to the jukyu, are the hostesses of Japan’s equally (in)famous hostess clubs. While maids of the maid café allow lonely men to indulge in their maid-girl fetish, Tokyo’s hostess clubs provide the stereotypical Japanese salaryman with “classier” company and entertainment (see figure 11).[98]

Like the jukyu of the 1920s was, these hostesses are often likened unto a modern-day geisha. The kyabakura (cabaret club) in which they work is a much closer relative to the café of the past than the maid cafés of Akihabara are. The shokugyō fujin, like the jukyu, also never fully disappeared. Their modern counterpart is found within modern male fantasies of the alluring, promiscuous, and sexy working woman. Although the shokugyō fujin might have worn a traditional kimono with her Western makeup and jewelry, the modern Japanese working woman dresses exactly the same as many professional women in the West. Sexual fantasies about the alluring shokugyō fujin have been extended to the modern working woman. These fantasies are most obviously present in Japanese media, especially in that of Japan’s pornography and animation industries.[99] Moga of all types do not seem to have disappeared; their connection to the twenty-first century can be seen through the modern examples above. Hatsunosuke Hirabayashi framed the culture of Japan’s late Taishō and early Shōwa periods in the context of the West: “Western civilization put its stamp in a more direct way on everyday life, reaching into every nook and cranny, and permeating tastes and interests. We call this period the universalization of Japan by Western civilization.”[100]

[97] Untitled image of maid café waitresses, n.d., Photograph, Japan Powered.

[98] Yuli Weeks, “The hostess Mineri Hayashi at Club Celux in Tokyo,” n.d., Photograph, The New York Times.

[99] As part of Japan’s larger “idol” culture, Japanese Adult Video (JAV) Idols are popular and recognizable adult stars who often star in roles depicting office workers (usually secretaries), flight attendants or other uniformed workers, and even maids. Japan’s animation industry often produces television shows featuring overly-sexualized “mature” women in Western working woman clothing. Japan’s pornographic animation industry also often depicts such women in the same dress and scenarios that JAV Idols are.

[100] Satō, The New Japanese Woman, 33.

Let’s wrap this up.

When Japan became open to outside influence, it ceased to be unique, but has any civilization ever been truly unique? After all, China’s past influence on Japan is undeniable. All cultures borrow from one another to some degree. When Japan entered into Western modernity, it simply adopted some of its universal characteristics. From the very beginning, without delay, these characteristics merged with Japan’s preexisting culture. The moga was no exception. She was Western within the ubiquity of Western consumer culture and fashion, but she was unique within the context of Japan’s late Taishō and early Shōwa sociocultural setting. Her motives, whatever they might have been, were likely universally similar to other Modern Girls throughout the world, but they were unique to the specific Japanese traditions and beliefs that had oppressed her. It was not Victorian values that oppressed Japanese moga, as it was for the American flapper, but the Meiji Restoration and the Shinto state that it brought with it. Critical intellectuals did not concern themselves with morality as related to Protestantism, instead they looked to their own traditions to evaluate the moga by. In an era of rapid change, the moga simply had a complex with Western fashion. Miriam Silverberg was correct: the Modern Girl was not on a Western trajectory. The moga’s descendants, in their own authenticity complex with Western fashion, have formed something entirely unique to Japan.


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