The Japanese Jazz Age and the Modern Girl

Modan Gaaru - Or Modern Girls Enjoying the Beach at Kamakura

Modan Gaaru – Or Modern Girls Enjoying the Beach at Kamakura

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

Marxist Author Takiji Kobayashi who was killed by the secret police in1933

Marxist Author Takiji Kobayashi who was killed by the secret police in 1933

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.

Beach Pajamas

Beach Pajamas Started The Revolution ! ! !

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.

A Poster for the bar Yorobobu - It is easy to see what the attraction is ! ! !

Advertising Poster for a Bar – It is easy to see what the attraction is ! ! !

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.

Moga in Ginza

Moga in Ginza

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









15 thoughts on “The Japanese Jazz Age and the Modern Girl

  1. “Advertising Poster for a Bar – It is easy to see what the attraction is ! ! !”

    Indeed, geckos are amazing creatures and so cute too, I’d certainly be happy to visit a gecko bar. If only that woman would get her great fat legs out of the way.

    A very interesting read, too bad it all went shape of pear in the 30s.

    • Mr P ! ! !

      Those legs are very shapely indeed ! ! !

      I am pleased you found it interesting ! ! !

      Thank you very much for reviewing it for me and the corrections you suggested ! ! !

  2. The post Great War period was one of increasing liberation and freedom across much of the developed and developing world. I think it was a reaction to the War and also to the world-wide wave of deaths caused by the Influenza pandemic, which killed a huge number of people, at least 50 million. Old certainties were challenged and thrown aside, traditional views were rejected and people began to question authority and the established order of society.

    Societies also changed because of technology, the rise of mass media with radio and film, because of the collapse of empires and political systems and because of massive economic and demographic changes around the world.

    Unfortunately, the inherent instabilities of the 20s led to the rise of authoritarian governments of the left and right, and to a return to militarism, as you mention in the Japanese context.

  3. Hi Carol ! ! !

    It is a very interesting period of history I think. Of course there are whole books written on the period and several only about Moga, so in a a few words I could only hope to give a little taste of the period in a short post

    Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.

  4. Very interesting read Sakura, thank you. And pyjamas in the vanguard of revolution; perhaps that’s where John Lennon got the idea for Bed-ins! Were there any notable curtailments of women’s freedoms when the military gained control of government?

    • Hi Brendan

      Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment ! ! !

      I really love the beach pajamas also ! ! ! In the 1930 decade women continued to work but there was a considerable curtailment of their freedom and they had to go back to the ryōsai kenbo or good wife and wise mother traditional ideal.

      I am happy you found the post interesting ! ! !

  5. Facinating post Sakura. I’ve read a few Japanese history books, but they all sem to stop at the Meiji Restoration, as if everything was sorted after that!

    Would have loved to stroll along Kamakura beachfront in those days…


    • I am really happy ypu found the post interesting ! ! !

      I think it is a fascinating period of our history and always wonder what would have happened if Taisho had lived another ten years . . .


      Sakura x x x

  6. Enjoyed it very much. Glad you shared it with us, Sakura! Bet those lovely ladies kicked up their heels to the swinging, jazzy tunes. Indeed, a spirited time in Japanese history.
    There are many things about Japan that we’ve not had the chance to learn.
    I really like those beach pajamas, as you call them. They’re super. They look comfy and fashionable. A fashion piece I’d like to see revived !

    • Hi Oldiebutgoodie ! ! !

      I am pleased you liked it ! ! !

      I have a set of beach pajamas actually ! ! ! I hope I will wear them soon as I am visiting my Sister in Okinawa before we go to visit my parents for a few weeks.

      Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment ! ! !

  7. Very interesting post thank you for writing it! I love the parasols held by the mods gaaru in the first photo. I have my own parasol, but in a lacy style, those are so pretty. It is a fascinating period of history.

    • Hi Beth ! ! !

      I think the parasols are really lovely also. I have one in that style but it is a plain dark red colour and not patterned. I like the Lacey ones also, there are very nice and feminine and romantic ! ! !

      It is a really interesting period and I am reading a lot about this period at the moment.

  8. That was an interesting bit of history. Love the parasols and the beach pyjamas. I must try that on my next holiday.
    I’m also fascinated by the Japanese versions of western phrases. “Modan Gaaru” is a great expression. What did you call “Riot Grrrl”?

    • Hi Severin ! ! !

      I am really pleased you found the post interesting ! ! !

      Beach Pajamas are really practical as they keep the sun from your skin and so you do not burn but they a loose and cool also. And of course you look super stylish when taking an iced tea in a beachside cafe ! ! !

      There are far too many Rs in Riot Grrl for us to use that expression in Japanese ! ! !

  9. Fascinating article Sakura !! The 1920s were a very interesting decade world-wide. The first recordings were made in 1917 so the radio was suddenly playing records as well as live music. I think it was a liberated time for women in America too. These moments always invoke a reaction though, like the tide going in and out. Interesting to discover that Filipino bands were playing jazz in Japan !! Great detail ! Thank you

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