In 1918 following riots and civil unrest in Japan Emperor Taisho dissolved the Military Government and appointed Hara Takashi as Prime Minster and he became the first ever elected official to become Prime Minister and so began the most exciting and liberating period in Japanese history in more than a thousand years.
The era of the Taisho Democracy had started – and with it Japans Jazz age and era of the Modan Gaaru, or modern girl.
Japan grew prosperous following the first world war and capitalism took hold over the economy and with it a middle class emerged and the old social
structures and class systems were undermined.
The new prosperity and the arrival of new ideas from the west created an environment of intellectual freedom that revolutionized art, literature, politics and naturally music.
The communist party was founded, Marxism became a topic of conversation in the cafes and bars of the main cities, and feminism was discussed for the first time. Modern Art became and everyday topic of conversation and western style painters achieved great success.
Sexuality was openly discussed in mainstream literature and the the boundaries of what was acceptable pushed with the Ero Guro genre of bizarre erotic novels.
For the first time many women started to work in businesses and achieved financial independence from men.
For the first time in Japanese history, there was social freedom.
It was into this social and intellectual storm that the Modan Gaaru or modern girl was born.
Actually the Modan Gaaru ( usually shortened to moga ) was born in Kamakura.
Kamakura is a beach resort near Tokyo which became very fashionable. Sea bathing was never really popular until after the first world war and the relaxed and modern atmosphere sea side gave the first space for the modern girls to express themselves.
In fact the first truly moga fashion was beach pajamas ! ! !
The modern girls of the era quickly took the freedom they found at the sea side to cities and adopted the fashions of wester women of the time.
The modern girls of the era were very controversial. The adoption of western fashion was seen by many as a rejection of the traditional Japanese values, and of course this was correct.
The moga were not only finically independent, but they claimed their independence in regards to their sexuality and social behaviors.
Moga smoked, drank and went dancing without a male escort, but most of all they went shopping ! ! !
At this time Ginza grew to be the most fashionable shopping district in Asia and it was built on the moga’s spending power.
Naturally the moga who shopped in Ginza were usually the daughters of the middle classes and not the workers but even so through out the main cities in Japan shops opened to cater for the moga and her love of western fashion.
Cafe waitress became a popular occupation for working class girls and many girls became waitresses or jokyū in the cafes and bars. Some jokyū became well known and jokyū became a major attraction for the cafes and often they were able to earn enough to support siblings or parents as well as being able to be independent . They were the predecessors of the Hostesses in the Hostess Clubs that are common today in all over Japan. The jokyū were famous for being sexy, flirty, maybe available or maybe not, and this flirting and border line erotism that they employed largely created the reputation of the moga for being sexually promiscuous. ( These days hostess is a normal occupation, and a hostess in a reputable Hostess Club today would not normally have a sexual relationship with a customer )
Actually Japan has always been more sexually liberated than the west and I do not believe that moga were any more promiscuous than any previous generation. Maybe they were more open about their lovers and sexual relationships and certainly they were more in control of them than any previous generation. I think it was this that actually caused the accusations of promiscuity and degeneration that were leveled by conservative forces against the moga. I think the conservative men at the time resented their freedom.
The Taisho democracy was a very unstable time politically. There were strong forces in the military and conservative elements that opposed the new freedoms and thought the western influences were too much. There were 64 political assassination during the period including the prime minister Hara Takashi.
As expected it was all to good to last ! ! !
Emperor Taisho died in 1926 and he was succeeded by his 15 year old son. Unsurprisingly without the support of a strong Emperor to hold the Military back the democracy could not last for very long and slowly the Military began to exert its influence.
In 1931 the Military finally reclaimed power and Japan’s first short experience of democracy was over. The secret police and censors crushed any liberalism and Japan began the journey that would lead to the tragedy for all Asia that was the second world war.
The sound track to this exciting and liberating time was Jazz.
I must admit, I am not a great fan of traditional Jazz, but i recognize how revolutionary it must have been at that time in Japan. I think it must have been something like punk was in the 1970 and 1980 decade ! ! !
It was alien, loud, had strange rhythms and it was foreign and worse still . . . .it was black music ! ! !
It is extremely hard to find examples from this time of Japanese Jazz as there were no real Japanese Jazz bands that recorded until 1928. The Jazz that was played in the cafes, dance halls and bars was played by Filipino Jazz bands who learnt form the American colonists in the Philippines and often came to Japan after working on Ocean Liners. They played the standard american Jazz repertoire of the time and as is expected no recordings exist of them that I have been able to find out about.
So, although I can not find any authentic Japanese Jazz from the time, will you forgive me if I share this track classic track played by a US jazz band – it is one which the moga would have known well and I love to imagine them dancing to it ! ! !
Charleston – Bob Wilson and his Varsity Rhythm Boys