Following Japan’s success during World War I, the country witnessed a boom in industry, with European and American brands quickly jumping into the market. Worldwide, a reckoning was underway as the Roaring Twenties catapulted.
Japan was no exception. From the years 1920 to 1929, the modern girl and modern boy were the main stars in Japan’s own Roaring 20s. Much as the new woman reigned in the 1910s, the modern girl, or moga for short, took on a larger life thanks to mass media and academic discourse.
Her male counterpart didn’t attract nearly as much attention. If anything, the mobo simply existed to balance out the moga.
But as much as she was talked about, the modern girl with her short hair, bold makeup, and knee-length dresses wasn’t easy to pin down. Was she merely feigning participation in modernity? Or was she acutely aware of her autonomy? Why did the mobo fail to make waves? And what did it even mean to be “modern” anyways?
The modern girl emerges
The early years of the Taisho era witnessed rising consumerism and social democracy. Tokyo’s Ginza flourished in its resurrection as the mecca of consumerism and Western fashion following the devastating Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.
At the same time, more women moved into the workforce, taking on jobs as secretaries, teachers, factory workers, and waitresses. They educated themselves on social issues through magazines like Seito (Bluestocking) and Josei (Woman).
Women in factories formed unions and engaged in strikes for better pay and working conditions. In 1925, the Women’s Suffrage League (婦選獲得同盟; Fusen kakutoku domei) was established with the goal of securing national suffrage for women.
Among these working-class women emerged the modern girl. She was typically in her late teens and early twenties and cut her hair in the short bob or finger wave style. Her go-to attire included a floppy hat or the bell-shaped cloche hat and shapeless lightweight anpapa dresses with hemlines below the knee . She wore heavy makeup with thinly painted eyebrows.
The moga shopped and dined in Ginza, saw the latest American films in Asakusa, and strolled down beaches in Kamakura. In Osaka, she strolled down Shinsaibashi in kimono with bold modern designs ranging from stripes to playing card motifs .
Modern women challenge the norm
Of course, women bucked tradition long before the term “modern girl” arrived in 1923. Early on, though, following Western trends often meant inviting scorn and ridicule.
Following her return from Europe after the end of WWI, young writer Mochizuki Yuriko took the risk and cut her hair into a bob. She felt too keenly the trappings of traditional aesthetics of kimono and long hairstyles, later writing that “[l]ong Japanese hair was…beautiful, but that, too, had become anachronistic” . Mochizuki later recalled her mother’s reaction to her new hairstyle:
My mother took one look at me and cried out in indignation, “You must be crazy! If you go out, everyone will call you one of those new women”—the term modern girl was not in use yet… .
Barbara Sato in her book The New Japanese Woman (affiliate link) traces the first appearance of the modern girl to 1923 by writer Kitazawa Chogo in an article for Josei kaizo (Women’s Reform). But the term and its shortened appellation moga gained exposure in an article by Kitazawa Shuichi on the modern girl in England and foreshadowed the emergence of her Japanese counterpart.
What to read next
 海外がビビった。戦前の日本人女性のファッションがモダンすぎる. Trip Editor.
 派手好みの系譜をたどってみると（下）明治〜大正〜昭和 モガが美を競った心斎橋. Sankei News.
 Sato, Barbara. The New Japanese Woman: Modernity, Media, and Women in Interwar Japan. Duke University Press, 2003.
 Selling Shiseido: Cosmetics Advertising & Design in Early 20th-Century Japan. MIT Visualizing Cultures.
 Inoue, Mariko. “The Gaze of the Café Waitress: From Selling Eroticism to Constructing Autonomy.” U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal. English Supplement, no. 15 (1998): 78–106.
 Centeno Martin, Marcos Pablo and Morita, N., eds. Japan beyond its borders: transnational approaches to film and media. Seibunsha, 2020.