Modern Girls on the Go: Gender, Mobility, and Labor in Japan


This spirited and engaging multidisciplinary volume pins its focus on the lived experiences and cultural depictions of women's mobility and labor in Japan. The theme of "modern girls" continues to offer a captivating window into the changes that women's roles have undergone during the course of the last century.

Here we encounter Japanese women inhabiting the most modern of spaces, in newly created professions, moving upward and outward, claiming the public life as their own: ...

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Modern Girls on the Go: Gender, Mobility, and Labor in Japan

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This spirited and engaging multidisciplinary volume pins its focus on the lived experiences and cultural depictions of women's mobility and labor in Japan. The theme of "modern girls" continues to offer a captivating window into the changes that women's roles have undergone during the course of the last century.

Here we encounter Japanese women inhabiting the most modern of spaces, in newly created professions, moving upward and outward, claiming the public life as their own: shop girls, elevator girls, dance hall dancers, tour bus guides, airline stewardesses, international beauty queens, overseas teachers, corporate soccer players, and even female members of the Self-Defense Forces. Directly linking gender, mobility, and labor in 20th and 21st century Japan, this collection brings to life the ways in which these modern girls—historically and contemporaneously—have influenced social roles, patterns of daily life, and Japan's global image. It is an ideal guidebook for students, scholars, and general readers alike.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Modern Girls on the Go takes us around Japan and around the world to discover how Japanese women have represented and shaped the technologies of modernity—among them capitalism, print culture, consumerism, and transportation systems—throughout the twentieth century and beyond . . . This is a book not only important to scholars engaged in the study of Japanese women's and gender history, but also excellent for classroom use at both the undergraduate and graduate level."—Elyssa Faison, Journal of Japanese Studies

"The volume highlights the importance of interdisciplinary analysis to fully understand a complex phenomenon in an unprecedentedly shifting era—the phenomenon of 'historical and cultural contingency.' This collection also clearly depicts what working outside the home meant to these modern girls, showing how to step boldly out of the shadows of gender norms. Japanese women were engaged in gendered labor. This book mirrors these women's diligent efforts and pride in their occupations, which provided an innovative and meaningful life beyond their home—as many girls moved to the public sphere on a quest for independence and a new persona."—Maku Yoshida, Asian Studies Review

"In Modern Girls on the Go: Gender, Mobility, and Labor in Japan, editors Alisa Freedman, Laura Miller, and Christine R. Yano have compiled an important collection on women and work in the 20th and 21st centuries Japan . . . As a result of the interdisciplinary structure of this collection, the assembled essays offer useful contributions to a variety of fields and are accessible to academic and general readers alike. The editors organized the volume into four sections . . . this organization of chapters serves to guide the reader through distinct sociohistorical periods while masterfully weaving together the connections between 'gender', 'mobility', and 'labor' throughout Japan's period of modernization . . . It is difficult to pinpoint any shortcomings in the volume; rather, it only left this reader wanting more . . . In reading Freedman, Miller, and Yano's outstanding collection, one hopes that these two debates will cease to be seen as oppositional pathways for Japanese women, and that—following in their 'modern girl' predecessors' footsteps—they will take the lead in moving Japan into a more prosperous and egalitarian era."—Kristie Collins, Social Science Japan Journal

"Broad in scope, Modern Girls on the Go will be of use to students of gender, mobility, labor, and visual media within the field of Japanese studies, as well as to anthropologists and scholars interested in hybrid or interdisciplinary research methods. Spanning Japan's modernization era to the present day, the scholarship presented here is a valuable reminder of the light a historical approach can shed on anthropological study . . . This edited volume draws some truly original conclusions and offers an ambitious and far-reaching account of the methods and theories with which we may approach the image of the modern girl. Modern Girls on the Go is a valuable contribution to extant scholarship which indicates the future collaborative potential of a variety of disciplines within Japanese studies."—Jennifer Coates, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology

"[A] serious contribution to intercultural studies and gender sensitivities—scholarly, well written, and often moving. . . . Highly recommended."—R. B. Lyman Jr., Choice

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804781145
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 4/17/2013
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Alisa Freedman is Associate Professor of Japanese Literature and Film at the University of Oregon. Laura Miller is the Ei'ichi Shibusawa-Seigo Arai Professor of Japanese Studies and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Christine R. Yano is Professor and Chair of Anthropology at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.

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Read an Excerpt

Modern Girls on the Go


By Alisa Freedman, Laura Miller, Christine R. Yano


Copyright © 2013Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-8113-8




Cultural Meanings of Gender, Mobility, and Labor

Alisa Freedman, Laura Miller, and Christine R. Yano

This volume investigates the lived experiences and cultural depictions of women who worked in service industries and other jobs that were inspired by ideas of mobility in twentieth- and twenty-first-century Japan. Dignified uniformed women operating elevators and rhythmically announcing floors represented the height of luxury in twentieth-century department stores but were scorned in the global media as symbols of a regimented society. Especially in the 1920s, young women coveted employment as department store clerks, an occupation they perceived as a step toward self-cultivation. Artists and writers, both before and immediately after World War II, objectified women paid to dance with men in dancehalls as tantalizing aspects of foreign allure in the Japanese city, while providing glimpses of their real physical and emotional exhaustion. During the Jet Age, stewardesses on Pan American World Airways were paragons of glamour and the public face of Japanese economic and technological progress. Beauty queens competing in international pageants embodied new possibilities for women in the postwar era. Students and educators led the way toward cosmopolitanism as some of the first Japanese people to travel to the United States during two pivotal historical moments: the years of modernization following the 1868 Meiji Restoration and the years of recovery after the war. Female soldiers have changed the composition and image of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, while female soccer players have promoted women's roles in competitive sports and corporate culture. Ladies League soccer in the 1990s paved the way for the victory of the national team, Nadeshiko Japan, in the 2011 World Cup Finals, an event touted by the mass media as the most hopeful in a year marred by the triple disaster of the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. Tour and charter buses are still staffed with female guides, who turn an ordinary ride into a memorable event.

All of these modern working women, often conspicuous in their various uniforms, have influenced social roles, patterns of daily life, and Japan's global image. Some have led lives that were ordinary and routine; others enjoyed rare privileges. What binds them together as the focus of this volume are the ways in which their lives, and the modernity they circumscribe, have been defined by their mobility, both literally and figuratively.

These women have labored in new places, which they have made more inviting by their presence and have used their jobs as means to move into spaces once exclusive to men. Not only have they occupied urban spaces, but they have also defined them, both enacting the cosmopolitanism of their moment and serving as a domesticating salve. They have been featured in photographs, artworks, and stories about the growth of Japan. They have performed jobs that were considered fashionable at their inception and thereby represented ideas of modernity at different historical times. Their presence has been taken for granted by Japanese consumers: if these women were not seen working, many people would feel that something was amiss.

Crossing the traditional borders between anthropology, history, literature, and visual studies, Modern Girls on the Go tells the stories of these women who have affected how Japanese history has been experienced and is remembered. We discuss aspects of modern women's labor that are rarely analyzed, including hiring and recruitment, training, job performance, manners, uniforms, interpersonal communication, and physical motion. Our chapters question what employment outside the home has meant to women and how women, in turn, have changed the look and meaning of "work."

We profile these employees and use them as a framework for viewing general opinions about women in the workplace and family and to bring to light unexpected ways women have supported, even challenged, the corporate structures underpinning the Japanese economy, currently the third largest in the world. Our chapters highlight how work has been a major factor in shaping women's attitudes toward marriage, childrearing, sexuality, and self-improvement. By exploring how female laborers have been conceptualized simultaneously as model employees, erotic icons, and domesticating presences, our research exposes contradictions inherent for women in the workforce.

In fictional accounts and often in reality, working women have been young and unmarried, raised in the countryside but seeking employment in the city. Their accounts disclose differences between values associated with Tokyo and the rest of the nation. The symbolic meanings ascribed to women's laboring bodies provide insight into the relationship between gender, technology, and modernity and how mobility has been associated with sexuality in the popular imagination. Although some jobs have been phased out by technological advances or economic recessions, the employees who held them opened doors, some literally, for women in Japan today. This volume demonstrates how seemingly ordinary workers may be reconfigured as pioneers of modernity. Modern Girls on the Go details the symbolic places working women have led themselves and others to go. We do not attempt here to catalogue all the places where they have gone. Rather, by selecting a representative sampling of jobs, experiences, historical time frames, and class positions, we take gender (particularly, the image of young adulthood) as a guiding frame that binds our discussion of the constitutive ties of modernity, mobility, and labor in Japan.

The Mobile Modern Girl

Many of the jobs we analyze were created in the 1920s and 1930s, a time of unprecedented change in Japan, the effects of which are still felt today. Tokyo, more than other cities, became a construct through which to view the advances and contradictions of national modernization characterized by both capitalist growth and control of the police state. Rebuilt after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake into a modern metropolis, Tokyo was filled with mass transportation, new architecture, and crowds at work and play in bustling business and entertainment districts. The urban labor force grew, and new middle classes arose. Yet economic recessions were a source of social instability, and numbers of the unemployed and the homeless increased.

Women, who could be paid less than men and were believed to be better mannered and more subservient, replaced male employees in several service sector jobs. Their hire followed the expansion of employment opportunities for women in Europe and the United States and was similarly the object of both critical analysis and media curiosity. Tokyo versions of American and European jobs, such as bus guide and elevator girl, spread to other parts of Asia. Women also staffed new urban entertainments where men and women mixed, including dancehalls and department stores. These workers were associated with the erotic allure of the modern metropolis, while their lives were usually far less glamorous than their images. As explained particularly in the first part of this volume, some social critics saw the women in these sites as symbolizing the threats urban culture posed to the patriarchal family, which was promoted as the backbone of the nation, especially as Japan mobilized toward war.

In the interwar period, urban modernity was experienced through the circulation of images, such as photographs in magazines, movies, and department store windows, rather than through the purchase of goods. The Japanese publishing industry flourished, though subject to strict censorship, and a variety of magazines became available for a diverse readership (see, e.g., Frederick 2006). Authors and journalists shared a prevalent desire to document and classify the material culture of daily life (see, e.g., Silverberg 2007). As we discuss in the chapters, media accounts of female workers convey the promises and failures of consumer capitalism and paradoxes underlying new gender roles. In the 1920s, social critics coined words to describe the social advances and contradictions that were visually apparent in Tokyo and to make sense of rapid historical change. For example, "modan," from the English "modern," was used playfully and pejoratively to denote a kind of modernity characterized by spectacles of newness and consumption.

The "modern girl" (modan garu, abbreviated as moga) is the media figure that best represents this complex time and is the category in which women employed in new urban jobs were often placed. The neologism "modern girl" might have been used first by journalist Nii Itaru in an article published in the April 1923 issue of the highbrow journal Central Review (Chuo koron) discussing the "Contours of the Modern Girl" (Modan garu no rinkaku) (Silverberg 1991b: 241). The term has also been attributed to social critic Kitazawa Shuichi's essay titled "Modern Girl" (Modan garu) in the August 1924 issue of the magazine Woman (Josei) (Silverberg 1991b: 240; Sato 2003: 57; Yonekawa 1998: 14).

Especially from the second half of the 1920s, the word "garu," a loanword based on the English "girl," was included in the titles of several fashionable jobs, particularly those with Western-style uniforms, and in nicknames associated with receiving money (Yonekawa 1998: 22, 38-39). "Marx girls" (Marukusu garu) and "Engels girls" (Engerusu garu) were criticized for their radical fashions and politics. "Stick girls" (sutekki garu) and "steak girls" (suteki garu), perhaps more imagined than real, were paid the price of a beefsteak to be fashionable accessories to men as they strolled Tokyo's entertainment districts (Onoda 2004: 79-80). "Kiss girls" (kissu garu) allegedly exchanged kisses for a modest fee (Nakayama 1995). "One-star girls" (wan suta garu) played bit parts in films.

Although plastic mannequin dolls had been produced in Japan since 1925, the Takashimaya department store employed two movie actresses, Sakai Yoneko and Tsukiji Ryoko, to stand silently and model fashions in their show window in 1928, launching the job of "mannequin girl" (manekin garu). Their less alluring male counterparts were sandwich men and advertising clowns. Women assisted cab drivers as "one-yen taxi girls" (entaku garu). Three women were chosen from 141 applicants to be Japan's first "air girls" (ea garu) and began work as attendants on an April 1, 1931, flight operated by the Tokyo Air Transport Company (Tokyo koku yusosha), one year after "sky girls" were first employed in the United States on a commercial flight between Chicago and San Francisco (Inagaki and Yoshizawa 1985: 30). The "air girls" resigned on April 29 because of working conditions and salaries. All of these workers did new things in spaces that were new in Japan. They were seen as simultaneously attractive and dangerous because they flaunted a new agency premised on consumer culture.

Images of the modern girl at work and play filled Japanese journalism, literature, and film in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The modern girl was understood by postwar scholars, including Miriam Silverberg, to be a media construct that represented anxiety that Westernization and consumer capitalism had advanced too far in Japan. According to Silverberg (2007: 148), the modern girl "existed largely as a phantasm of the anxiety-ridden critics who clung to a seemingly established order during a period of rapid transition." The modern girl was represented by her striking physical appearance—sporting short hair and wearing either Western fashions or Japanese kimono with the obi sash tied high to emphasize her hips and make her legs look longer—and her perceived licentious behavior. As observed by members of the scholarly collective Modern Girls around the World (2008a: 9), which has been devoted to studying gender in the global interwar context, the modern girl projects "an up-to-date and youthful femininity, provocative and unseemly in its intimacy with foreign aesthetic and commodity influences."

Yet the modern girl, in Japan and elsewhere, was not merely a passive consumer of goods; she was also an active producer of customs. Among the many traits assigned to the modern girl, her overdetermined physical mobility, seeming autonomy from the family system, and extended sexuality most vividly illustrated her subjectivity in and subjection to this moment of rupture with the past. This notion of the modern girl was predicated on the urban act of seeing and the appearance of more young women in public places, developments made possible by increased educational and employment opportunities and mass transportation. Arguably, the few favorable and mostly derogatory assessments of the modern girl involved her ability to leave home to go to work. While many scholars have analyzed images of the leisurely modern girl, few have acknowledged the iconography of her labor.

Interwar modern girls were often shown in motion. Especially from the mid-1920s, female legs, standing or walking, symbolized a new kind of urban woman. The cover illustration of Maeda Hajime's 1929 Story of Working Women (Shokugyo fujin monogatari), a study of more than twelve progressive new jobs and problems in marriage that these employees faced, contrasts a uniformed female bus conductor (often called a "bus girl," basu garu) and a passenger clothed in ornate kimono, looking as if she could be either going to work or shopping. In 1931, ethnographer Kon Wajiro (1888–1973) and his "Modernology" (kogengaku) associates, whose work is cited in several of the following chapters, carefully diagrammed the legs of bus conductors and other working women as they walked or rode about Tokyo and sketched their sock wrinkles to see patterns of both social and physical mobility. They mapped the patterns dancehall girls etched on the dance floors during their working hours (Kon and Yoshida 1931: 35–55).

Especially between 1929 and 1931, the height of modernist artistic movements depicting Tokyo life, photographic montages of women walking and getting in and out of buses and taxicabs were published in magazines to convey the rhythms and tempo of the city. These images were often given musical titles, such as the many "Symphonies of Ginza Women" (Ginza nyonin kokyokyoku) included in the Shiseido geppo (Shiseido Monthly), the publicity periodical for Shiseido. Some of the women pictured in this periodical might have been "Shiseido girls" (Shiseido garu), models who traveled around Japan to give demonstrations of new beauty techniques. In literature ranging from Natsume Soseki's late Meiji novels like Sanshiro (1908) to Tanizaki Junichiro's 1925 Naomi (Chijin no ai), a fictional character's ability to traverse the city showed his or her level of acclimation to modern practices.

We adopt the mobile modern girl as a heuristic device to show how she has been visibly present in other time periods and places. Aware that the modern girl moniker began life as a historically tethered reference, we appropriate the idea, not only for its potency, but because we wish to semantically extend its meaning and thus provide new ways of understanding the significance of women's labor. The concept of the modern girl offers the possibility of seeing in working women of many eras and locations the qualities that first led to the creation of the term. We argue that women in Japan after the 1930s have often been viewed through her image. We show that women continue to be associated with spectacles of modernity premised on the possibilities of mobility, consumption, and technological advancement. In addition, we give examples of modern girls incarnate to underscore how images of female employees often differ from their real material and social conditions and the discrimination they face on the job.

Whether they have realized it or not, stewardesses, soldiers, athletes, beauty queens, educators, and the other women we profile not only exemplify larger economic, political, intellectual, and social forces, but also have actively changed the notion of work in Japan. We recognize the importance of examining how historical terms originated and do so in our above discussion on Silverberg and the modern girl. At the same time, we view the extension of academic concepts to other domains as a productive method for stimulating new lines of research and understanding. Recognizing genealogies while extending concepts to new realms is one of our primary goals with this volume.

Another theme here is the language used by and for women to describe their jobs. Modern girl is a prime example of the Japanese historical custom of labeling women who mark a break in preconceived notions of gender, thereby making their lifestyles easier to comprehend and less threatening and turning them into symbols of social progress and problems. Jan Bardsley (2000) explores early postwar concerns about potential ruptures in gender politics in her analysis of the new types of working women who were debated in the pages of the magazine Fujin koron (Women's Review). One of these new workers was the 1950s "salary girl" (saraii gyaru), a type described as desiring independence through work and leisure. Many denigrating labels were created in subsequent decades. For example, women who take too long for their lunch breaks, who wear sexualized clothing to the office, and who use a baby-talk register when speaking to male coworkers have all been labeled in negative ways (Miller 1998, 2004). A twenty-first-century example is "arafo" short for "around forty," voted the top media buzzword of 2008 in the U-Can survey (Jiyu kokuminsha 2008). Arafo is one of a series of value-laden terms used to designate women around age forty who theoretically have more choices in family and employment than earlier generations; the word has been applied most often to single members of this demographic who have prioritized careers over marriage and are thus believed to shoulder the blame for Japan's falling fertility rate (See Freedman and Iwata-Weickgenannt 2011).


Excerpted from Modern Girls on the Go by Alisa Freedman. Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Figures....................     ix     

Preface: Modern Girls in a Global World Carol A. Stabile....................     xi     

1. You Go, Girl! Cultural Meanings of Gender, Mobility, and Labor Alisa Freedman, Laura Miller, and Christine R. Yano....................     1     

PART I NEW FEMALE OCCUPATIONS....................          

2. Moving Up and Out: The "Shop Girl" in Interwar Japan Elise K. Tipton....................     21     

3. Elevator Girls Moving In and Out of the Box Laura Miller....................     41     

4. Sweat, Perfume, and Tobacco: The Ambivalent Labor of the Dancehall Girl Vera Mackie....................     67     

PART II MODELS AND MODES OF TRANSPORTATION....................          

5. "Flying Geisha": Japanese Stewardesses with Pan American World Airways Christine R. Yano....................     85     

6. Bus Guides Tour National Landscapes, Pop Culture, and Youth Fantasies Alisa Freedman....................     107     


7. The Modern Girl as Militarist: Female Soldiers In and Beyond Japan's Self-Defense Forces Sabine Frühstück....................     131     

8. The Promises and Possibilities of the Pitch: 1990s Ladies League Soccer Players as Fin-de-Siècle Modern Girls Elise Edwards.........     149     

PART IV MODERN GIRLS GO OVERSEAS....................          

9. Miss Japan on the Global Stage: The Journey of Ito Kinuko Jan Bardsley....................     169     

10. Traveling to Learn, Learning to Lead: Japanese Women as American College Students, 1900–1941 Sally A. Hastings....................     193     

11. A Personal Journey Across the Pacific Yoko McClain....................     209     

Bibliography....................     227     

Contributors....................     253     

Notes....................     257     

Index....................     267     

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