In Japan, the images of women have undergone rather remarkable transitional changes. In her article “The Modern Girl as Militant”, Miriam Silverberg focuses on the category of Modern Girl (“moga,” or modan gaaru), a topic of debate in Japanese society during the 1920s and early 1930s. She argues that the Modern Girl was a media creation designed to portray women as promiscuous and apolitical. It was a way of displacing the militancy expressed in their political activity, her labor in new arenas and their adoption of new fashions.
Therefore, when examing the history of Japanese women during that era, the historian should not be trapped in viewing her as just an epitome of moral decadence, but rather should become conscious of her militant nature. This paper begins by focusing on some of Silverberg’s strong arguments, which defends her position on the image of Modern Girl as militant . I would then proceed to highlight some ambiguities and questions with regards to her arguments.
Silverberg begins her paper by asserting that the Modern Girl was a highly commodified cultural construct crafted by journalist during the decade of cultural and social change. She then proceed to discuss some of the contemporaries such as Kitazawa Shuichi, Nii Itaru, Kishida, Kataoka Teppi etc., who tried to define the characteristics of the Modern Girl. Despite the fact the contemporaries writing about the Modern Girl struggle to find an absolute definition, the essence of who the Modern Girl remains clear to society. The Modern Girl stood for everything modern and non-Japanese. It stood for all the materialism and decadence in Japanese society at that period, and all “modern” ideals and lifestyle that threatened the traditional social order of Japan. It was a conservative construct, a symbol of what women should not be, and a reflection of the negative social phenomena in Japan’s modernisation process.
However, Silverberg argues against that the true reality of the Modern Girl was in fact militant. She claimed that there was an increased in politicization of Japanese women during the 1920s to 1930s. For example, there was an emergence of militant feminist organizations such as the New Woman’s Association (1919) and the Red Wave Society (1921) . Silverberg also highlights that women were active in the labour movement, with the setting up of many unions and professional organizations that dealt with the problems in some of the female-dominated occupations. Women also took part in strikes, such as the Toyo Muslin strike and Florida Dance Hall strike, with some strikes seeing women as active participants and organisers . She also noticed that the threatening emergence of the Modern Girl coincided with a debate on the possible revision of the Meiji Civil Code.
According to Silverberg, the media and the government therefore sought to downplay the militancy of Japanese women by defining her image as apolitical and promiscuous. In this way, they are made to be less of a threat and easier to manage. By portraying them as decadent women who lacked any social consciousness, they can be easily discredited with the use of moral rhetoric and their increasing political demands can be denied .
While Silverberg’s article presents the reader with an alternative view of the image of Modern Girl during that era, the article only reaffirms a problematic discourse with regards to the history and identity of Japanese women as they are constantly being defined and redefined by either the historian, or by the government in its policies. Who should we rely to better comprehend this modern Japanese women? It further becomes more complicated when we recognized that women can take on multiply identities. She can be political, as well as fashionable. By limiting the definition of the Modern Girl as either militant or apolitical, we might inevitably begin to talk about them as though they formed a monolithic group with fixed characteristics.
Even within one historical period, there are countless roles within Japanese women, such as the upper-class woman, the merchant woman, the farmer, the student etc., which would give rise to countless behaviours, thoughts and experiences. One could therefore argue that most “Modern Girls” were probably just simple wage-earners working in the cities, rather than living the lifestyle of the modan gaaru the media depicted, or even the active political activists that Silverberg portrayed them to be. The article might become problematic if the reader senses an absolute position on the image of the Modern Girl, which can never hold true.
Another problem in Silverberg’s argument is that she has failed to define what militant is. Does militant necessarily mean illegal or violent? Does it mean acts of social and political bellicosity? Some historian define militant as tactics that are sufficiently combative and widely regarded as shocking. The definition of militant is crucial as it would set the boundaries of how we would view and consider the modern Japanese women, as described by Silverberg.
Moreover, this “militant” attitude might not be truly representative of majority of the female population who living in this modernisation period. Silverberg had highlighted that by the end of 1928; almost 12,010 women had joined the labour movement. Statistics shows that the total female labour force was about 933,000 during the early 1930s. That means that approximately only 1.2% of the women took part in any labour movement. These figures constitute that the “militant” women was a minority rather than a majority. In addition, it is important to note that majority of the strikes where women participated occurred after 1930, the period of the Great Depression. Could we therefore argue that the “militant” attitudes displayed through the strikes were sudden in nature, and due to the harsh economic conditions in Japan, rather than seen as a prevailing aggressive attitude that has dominated a section of the Japanese women from the 1920s to the 1930s?
In conclusion, despite the many questions raised over Silverberg’s article, it still remains an important academic research as it presents to us the multivalent symbol of the Modern Girl. Depending on the perceiver, the Modern Girl presents to us many models. On one hand, it can come to portray all the paradoxical values that were pulling Japanese society part, an “emblem for threats to tradition.” On the other hand, the Modern Girl could be seen as a negative cultural construct by the media to hide the real identity of the Modern Girl in Japan, which defined by Silverberg, was militant in character. In both cases, the description of the Modern Girl becomes a creation of either the media or the historian. As gender is a socially constructed and culturally transmitted organiser of our inner and outer worlds, this definition of the Modern Girl will continue to be an ongoing, dynamic and even problematic process.
Gordon Andrew, A Modern History of Japan, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.)
Keller Evelyn, “Making Gender Visible in the Pursuit of Nature’s Secrets,’ in Feminist Studies / Critical Studies, ed. Teresa de Lauretis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986)
Silverberg Miriam, “The Modern Girl as Militant”, in Gail Lee Bernstein ed., Recreating Japanese Women 1600-1945, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991)