30 June 2017 -

Report: DHS Student Travel Award by Erica Tso

With the generous support of the DHS Student Travel Award, I had the opportunity to visit Tokyo for a week in May 2017. The primary and secondary sources I collected during this trip will form the core evidence for my research on the identity of modern Japanese women during the interwar period.

Whilst in Japan, I visited various museums and collected invaluable primary sources. I paid a visit to Showakan, a seven-storey modern building in the Chiyoda area, which houses a video archive, a library, and a museum that showcases artefacts from the Showa period. With the assistance of the Bodleian Japanese Library at the University of Oxford, who arranged my visit to the Bunka Gakuen University Library in Shinjuku, Tokyo, I was able to view primary sources that would become the key focus of my dissertation. This included two Shiseido company magazines - The Shiseido Geppo (The Shiseido Monthly, 1924-1931) and Hanatsubaki (Camellia, 1937-) - 35 years of Fujin Gaho (Illustrated Women's Gazette, 1905-1940), and a number of books that were published in the 1920s and 1930s, which explored the phenomenon of moga, defined in the 1937 Japanese publication Desk Top Encyclopaedia of Modernity as: "[a] present-day girl with a modern appearance, wearing stylish Western clothes and donning [a] short hairstyle". They were "lively, progressive...but also poorly educated with a weak head, and only focus on chasing pleasures in life" (quoted in Asai, 2016:14). This portrayal reflects society's view of moga as being at the forefront of modernity, but also promiscuous, and a threat to the ideal of ryosai kenbo (good wife, wise mother).

Another highlight of my field trip included ten interviews I carried out with Japanese women. These were especially useful in informing me about the use of kimono among moga. Most literature focuses on moga donning Western clothing and frequently supports the binary of moga in flapper dresses and traditional housewives in kimono. With the lack of secondary sources on this topic, my analysis has relied on data from these interviews where I learned about the usage and conceptions of kimono through my interviewees' memories of traditional dress owned and worn by themselves, or by their grandmothers and mothers. I also collected a number of catalogues from contemporary kimono shops, which collectively explain the long-lasting influences moga kimono has had on Japanese aesthetics and the concept of beauty, comfort, and functionality.

In addition to the ten women I interviewed, I was also very lucky to have met with Ms Asai Kayo (pictured above), the Founder and President of the Modern Girl Society of Japan. Ms Asai kindly invited me to her house situated in the suburbs of Tokyo where she has completed extensive refurbishment to transform this into a Taisho-style two-storey building. Ms Asai also showed me her incredible collection of interwar clothing, handbags and accessories, magazines, and a wide array of everyday practical objects from the modern era. Some of these amazing items include a massage machine, gramophone, traditional tiled bath tub, non-electric fridge that stays cool via the storage of one large ice block, hand-dialled phone, and many more fascinating artefacts from the 1900s to 1940s. I was able to discuss topics such as ideas of Japanese-ness, femininity and material culture with Ms Asai in length. Our meeting concluded with some wonderful Japanese jazz music that she played for me on her hundred-year-old gramophone!

I also visited the Shiseido Parlour in Ginza where they were celebrating their 115th year at that location. It was an amazing feeling being there physically where thousands of moga have visited, with Ginza being the prime spot for moga and foreigners to meet since the interwar period. Time spent browsing shop windows also informed me on contemporary cosmetic packaging and graphic design: comparisons among brands and with interwar designs will shed light on how perceptions of beauty and femininity have changed over time. These examples reinforce my argument that, in Japan, women were taught unspoken rules about the aesthetics of beauty and etiquette, a national identity for women that has been in force since the Meiji era. I hope to reveal consumption trends that started to permeate interwar Japan, and the intricate relations between society's expectations of women's roles as working professionals, mothers, and wives, and their newfound consumption power. I am grateful for the DHS's funding, which enabled me to carry out this field trip, vital to my dissertation research.

Erica Tso
MSt Student, Department for Continuing Education, University of Oxford

Headline image: Picture provided by my interviewee, depicting women in kimono and men in Western style clothing.


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