Style in Prewar Japan
Why a “nation without style” did have a bit of style.
I’ve recently been posting images on my Twitter account of very dapper gentlemen from prewar Japan. Their existence, however, will seem to contradict a key point I lay out in my book Ametora: namely that Japanese authorities were extremely averse to the idea of men’s fashion up until the 1960s. I even call the first chapter “A Nation without Style.”
So why the discrepancy? Who were these stylish men in a “nation without style”?
First it is good to remember that the men in these photos were a minority limited to the very rich in big cities. They owned a few suits (all tailor-made), perhaps a few year-round ones in wool and a linen one for summer. And there were certainly tailors with a good sense of style who would have helped them keep up with trends. Illustrator Yasuhiko Kobayashi grew up in downtown Tokyo and told me, “Japan had a rich culture of clothing before the war. There were no ‘brands’ but everyone tried to imitate Clark Gable, Fred Astaire, and Humphrey Bogart with the clothing that was around. They could only imitate actors. My father dressed very well, taking influence from foreign films. Tokyo had many men who did their best to dress up.”
Many of the well-dressed men in the 1940s would have been former mobo (“modern boys”), rebellious young men of the late 1920s who took the suit and added stylish elements such as bold patterns or trumpet pants (rappa zubon). Kensuke Ishizu of VAN Jacket wrote later in life, “We mobo were very particular about our haircut, clothing, and hats.” His first suit in college was a green-brown tweed rather than a charcoal gray.
Japanese society, however, was not in any way comfortable with men going beyond the basics like this. Mobo faced law enforcement crackdowns and general contempt from the public. In Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, Miriam Silverberg notes that a roundtable of thinkers in the January 1928 issue of Shinchō spent pages debating the meaning of the moga but quickly decided that mobo were total “zeroes.”
Most men saw dressing expressively as “nampa” — in other words, a “feminine,” soft activity intended as a means towards lecherous ends. In Japanese Fashion: A Cultural History, Toby Slade shows how the men’s suit arrived with Japanese modernity to “rationalize” dress and help curb previous affectations of the Edo era. Most white-collar office workers wore suits by the Taishō period, but they adopted the garment as thoughtlessly as prisoners put on their jumpsuits. The garments were drab, with big-shoulders with baggy pants.
So it’s fair to say that during the prewar, a handful of affluent style rebels in great suits — but there was not yet a society-wide blessing for men to dress up. And then the war destroyed what little fashion culture Japan had. After the country entered total war with the United States in 1941, the government forced most men into combat and the ones leftover had to wear bland olive kokuminfuku uniforms. All men got short military haircuts as non-functional hairstyles such as the “regent” pompadour hairstyle were banned. After the war, these restrictions were lifted, but poverty reinforced wartime notions of austerity; only delinquent youth and gangsters dared re-establish prewar styles.
There is a case to be made that the Japanese fashion explosion of the 1960s “restored” a burgeoning culture of well-dressed men in Japan from its wartime nadir. But we should not backwards extrapolate to think that all men were on the verge of fashionable clothing in 1939. The 1960s Ivy movement was critical for breaking many long-standing taboos that helped fashion go beyond a niche upper class activity and into the middle-class mainstream.