The Age of the Middle Class

The Age of the Middle Class

Throughout the centuries, the cultural ethos of a particular social class has stamped its image indelibly on Japanese history. The tenth and eleventh centuries were the Age of the Aristocrat, when noble families in Kyoto amassed fortunes, took their leisure in palatial mansions, and ushered in a golden age of high culture by becoming both patrons and practitioners of tanka poetry, courtly gagaku music, and other patrician arts. Samurai turned the medieval period into the Age of the Warrior, adding martial arts and the virtues of bravery, courage, and loyalty to the lexicon of Japanese self-identity. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the merchants and artisans of Edo and other cities forged an Age of the Commoner, and playwrights for the Kabuki theater, wood-block print designers, and haiku poets created new art forms that both identified the values of the merchant class and made up what we now consider as primary hallmarks of traditional Japanese culture.

In similar fashion, the twentieth century belonged to the middle class. That particular social formation began to take shape at the turn of the century, and during the next two decades the nascent middle class quickly assumed a national importance by embracing modernity, introducing new models of family organization and fresh conceptions of gender roles, and asserting itself as cultural arbiters in regard to housing, fashion, recreation, and consumerism. As a consequence, even though its numbers remained small in the pre-World War II years, the new middle class significantly influenced how all Japanese thought about themselves and how they expressed their aspiration to be regarded as an integral member of the international community of modern, cosmopolitan societies. Not surprisingly, given its ambitions to cultural leadership, the middle class also became the prism through which noted foreign critics viewed Japan and judged its progress in achieving modernity.

By the end of the Meiji period (1868-1912), decades of rapid industrialization and energetic participation in a rapidly expanding global economy gave Japan one of the world’s strongest and most vital economies. Those same processes called into being a complex socio-economic structure that included a small but vibrant urban middle class. Although the term middle class never was defined precisely, scholars have tended to use occupation, income, and education as the standards by which to define a category of salaried professionals who could be distinguished from persons who farmed, engaged in manual labor, or ran small-scale commercial enterprises. In general, surveys conducted in the 1910s and 1920s routinely included male government officials, military officers, policemen, teachers, doctors, company executives, and bank employees as the core of the middle class. Another characteristic of economic modernity in Japan was that working women became increasingly conspicuous within the ranks of white-collar employees. By the early 1920s, a wide range of occupations were open to women who possessed a high school or college diploma, including those of teacher, bus conductress, telephone switchboard operator, typist, office worker, department store clerk, midwife, nurse, and even doctor after Japan’s first medical college for women received full accreditation midway through the Taishö period (1912-1926).

The overall size of the middle class and the proportion of working women expanded dramatically throughout the 1910s and 1920s. Although reliable statistics are scarce, scholars estimate that the middle-class population of Tokyo swelled from roughly 6 percent of the city’s work force in 1908 to nearly 22 percent in 1920, when approximately 8.5 percent of Japan’s total population of 56 million persons fell into the middle class. Concurrently, by 1922 approximately 3.5 million of Japan’s 27 million women worked outside the home, slightly more than one-quarter of them in middle-class occupations. Moreover, the trend lines arched upward. By 1926 there were 57,000 female nurses, in contrast to just 13,000 in 1911, and the number of female white-collar workers in government offices doubled between 1926 and the end of the decade.

The new middle-class carved out for itself a lifestyle that stood in visible contrast both to the traditions of the past and the preferences of other contemporary Japanese. For one thing, the middle class created new sorts of family units. Before the twentieth century, the so-called ie— a multigenerational household where grandparents, parents, and children lived under the same roof — had been held up as the ideal family configuration, and in the 1920s most farm families still hoped to have three or more generations share the same hearth. In Japan’s urban centers, however, the preponderance of middle-class families consisted simply of a conjugal couple and their offspring. More specifically, a great deal of social commentary pictured the new nuclear family as consisting of a working father and stay-at-home mom who cared for the growing children.

As more married women entered the workforce, however, some social critics began to valorize dual-career couples who succeeded in their chosen professions while deftly raising two or three well-adjusted children. One of the more prominent spokespersons for that new family orientation was Hani (née Matsuoka) Motoko. A member of the initial graduating class of the prestigious Tokyo First Higher Girls’ School in 1891, Motoko established another benchmark when she became Japan’s first woman reporter, writing for the Höchi shinbun, then the country’s most popular daily newspaper. Not long thereafter, in 1901, Motoko married Hani Yoshikazu, a fellow journalist. The couple soon had two daughters; launched the monthly Fujin no tomo (“Woman’s Friend”), whose paid circulation of three million copies made it one of the most widely read magazines in the Taishö period; and founded a college, the Jiyü Gakuen, which opened in 1922 in a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Fujin no tomo featured public intellectuals who trumpeted the Hani’s vision of middle-class modernity. In issue after issue, writers called on Japan’s “new women” to cultivate their talents and abilities and have the courage to pursue careers in such professions as teaching and medicine. At the same time, articles explored issues important to modern wives and mothers, including women’s suffrage, household budgeting, and children’s education. In all, the influential monthly celebrated marriage and family and created the vision of a Taishö Supermom, an idealized woman capable of balancing the demands of a career with a home life. Motoko herself saw the publication as a means to awaken “new visions” and encourage the “genuinely free development of the individual.” Similarly, she often explained, the jiyü in her school’s name meant “freedom” and signified that modern women should be “free” to think for themselves and seek individual self-fulfillment. In her autobiography, Motoko held up herself and her husband as an example of the new middle-class couple. “Our home has been the center of our work,” she wrote, “and our work has been an extension of our home life; the two are completely merged without demarcations of any kind. I am truly grateful for this ideal union that is the very essence of both our work and marriage. Together, we have found our place in life.”

Motoko’s glowing rhetoric about blissful marriages notwithstanding, the middle class included a considerable number of single women. Indeed, more than 10 percent of the female respondents to a survey conducted in Tokyo in the early 1920s identified themselves as unmarried. Many young women, as might be imagined, preferred to hold a job for a few years between school and marriage, while more often than not widows and divorcées had to work to support themselves, and perhaps dependant children or parents as well. But the availability of socially respectable occupations also had made it possible for some women to opt out of marriage all together, yet lead economically stable and emotionally satisfying lives. “I am making no preparations for marriage,” wrote one female telephone switchboard operator to a 1922 survey question, “and I want to learn an occupation that will make me self-reliant.”

Whether single or married, the middle class occupied a physical as well as a psychological space in Japan during the 1910s and 1920s. In Tokyo, most of the new professionals worked downtown, in the Kasumigaseki, Marunouchi, and Ginza districts. Located near the expansive grounds of the Imperial Palace, the Kasumigaseki area rose to prominence in the early decades of the century when the government put up modern brick structures to house the Supreme Court, Metropolitan Police Department, and other bureaucratic agencies. Eye-catching, up-to-date office buildings also sprang up in the Marunouchi district, which was rapidly emerging as the center of big business and corporate Japan. Symbolic of that transformation was the construction of the world’s largest office complex, the Marunouchi Building, in 1923. Other middle-class men and women worked nearby in the Ginza, Japan’s best known center of banking and retailing.

Many middle class families lived in detached houses located on the outskirts of the city or in emerging suburbs, where land for new construction was more affordable. In the 1920s, Japan’s major dailies joined magazines such as Fujin no tomo in lavishing praise on what was being dubbed the bunka jütaku, or “culture house.” That idealized structure typically was two-storied and adorned with Western-inspired architectural flourishes such as flower boxes, colored roof tiles, and fixed windows and walls in place of traditional sliding doors and partitions. Inside, the residence usually included a wooden-floored reception parlor or sitting room, a comfortable tatami room where the family could gather in the evening, separate bedrooms for the parents and children, an up-to-the-minute kitchen, and an indoor toilet and plumbed bath. Other members of the middle class chose to live in apartments in fashionable downtown neighborhoods. Well-heeled families could enjoy layouts that resembled single-family residences, with a sitting room opening onto a small garden, while singles tended to settle into smaller but still stylish units. As unmarried women became a more visible presence in Japan’s urban centers, builders even reserved separate buildings for them and designed apartments with their needs in mind.

The middle class furnished their homes and apartments with a mix of traditional Japanese and chic European-inspired accruements. Mother and father most likely slept on futon, and the family room typically included a familiar tokonoma, or alcove, where a special vase, hanging scroll, or flower arrangement could be displayed. The more formal parlor, in contrast, usually featured Western-style easy chairs and side tables, although a painting with a conventional Japanese motif might grace one wall. Throughout, electric lamps spread brightness and cheer, while electric fans made humid summer evenings more bearable and electric heaters provided winter warmth. Housewives, if advertisements in middle-class magazines are any guide, took delight in kitchens equipped with gas or electric cooking burners and even refrigerators.

The metropolitan middle class popularized new forms of recreation. Family togetherness emerged as one attribute of middle-class leisure. Within its “culture home,” children joined parents around the gramophone to enjoy Western classical music and the latest hit tunes produced by the stars of the emerging Japanese recording industry. The first radio stations began operations in 1925, and by the end of the decade nearly one-quarter of all urban households owned a receiver. As pictured in newspapers, many middle-class families would huddle together around a low table in the cozy tatami-floored room to hear the evening news and listen raptly to domestic comedies and “radio novels” written by some of the nation’s leading playwrights.

Mom, dad, and the kids also used modern public transportation to explore the pleasures of the city together. By the Taishö years, more than 100,000 passengers a day boarded Tokyo’s electric trolleys; taxi cabs cruised city streets from 1912: and Asia’s first subway (part of today’s Ginza Line in central Tokyo) began operations in 1929. As depicted in wood-block prints and newspaper accounts (as well as advertisements for the subway), middle-class families gaily set out on Sundays and holidays to partake in many of the same delights that Tokyoites had enjoyed for generations, such as outings along the Sumida River in spring to enjoy the blizzard-like blossoms of the cherry trees, first planted atop the embankments at the end of the seventeenth century, or trips to famous shrines and temples on sunny autumn fête days to pay respects to the deities, purchase good-luck charms, and enjoy special foods dispensed by street vendors.

Intriguing new diversions drew Tokyo’s middle-class families to the city center. Hibiya Park, adjacent to the Imperial Place and the Kasumigaseki government center, opened in 1903. There, while the children did wheelies on bicycles in an area dedicated to that new sports craze, middle-class couples could wander pebbled walkways laid out so as to afford fine views of seasonal flower beds and then pause to admire an exquisite pond that featured a magnificent water-spewing crane. On national holidays, classical orchestras and brass bands held forth in a stunning band shell, and everyone seemed to enjoy the exotic treats served up at a Western-style restaurant. From Hibiya Park, it was a just few minutes’ walk across the Ginza to the unabashedly modern and innovative Mitsukoshi and Shirokiya department stores. The Shirokiya (forerunner to today’s Tökyü chain) made headlines in 1911 when it reopened in a new four-storied building equipped with Japan’s first elevator and staffed by female clerks attired in identical Western-style uniforms. Three years later, the Mitsukoshi countered by putting up a five-storied building — said to be the largest building east of Suez — that featured banks of elevators, the country’s first escalator, and rows of glass display cases. Both companies bid for customers by including exhibition halls and game rooms within their buildings, opening affordable Western-style restaurants with special “kiddie selections” on the menus, and turning their rooftops into gardens with panoramic city views.

The middle class also enjoyed spending time with friends. Young adults made Ginbura, or “hanging out on the Ginza,” into an art form. While in that downtown area, adventurous youngsters could relax at beer halls, drop into jazz clubs, visit art galleries, and take in plays at theaters that staged original dramas by Japanese playwrights and translations of Western luminaries such as Henrik Ibsen and Maurice Maeterlinck. Middle-class youth also frequented Asakusa, in the northeast quadrant of the city, drawn there by “Asakusa opera,” a colloquialism that applied to a diverse range of theatricals that included burlesque farces, chorus line reviews, and even productions of Western grand opera, such as The Magic Flute and Carmen, acted and sang by Japanese casts.

Participation in trendy sports also became a middle-class affectation. In the 1920s, middle-class housewives joined tennis clubs. In addition to exercise, an afternoon at the courts provided an opportunity to make new friends, exchange gossip and trade household tips with other modish women, and feel thoroughly modern. During the Taishö period, nose-to-the-wind entrepreneurs and village cooperatives opened ski areas. Some of those new wintertime playgrounds were tucked away in the mountains of central Japan, others were closer to urban centers, such as the slopes on Mt. Hiei, just outside Kyoto. Swimming at ocean beaches took its place as a summertime vogue. In some locales, such as just outside the city of Kanazawa on the coast of the Sea of Japan, enterprising businessmen constructed boardwalks, opened refreshment booths, and provided long slides, swings, and other attractions that appealed to family members. Other beaches were the preserves of young adults. The beach towns south of Tokyo, for instance, were served by the suburban Odakyü Electric Railway Company, whose express trains were filled with young unmarrieds on sunny weekends. Away from prying family eyes, those couples seemed to spend as much time in shoreside inns as they did on the beach, thus lending a sense of validity to the expression that middle-class youth were too absorbed in the Three S’s — the screen, sport, and sex.

The middle class also used fashion to distinguish itself. As might be imagined, youth relished making loud statements. Many “modern girls” (modan gaaru, or moga in the argot of the day) paired boldly patterned short skirts with sheer stockings to show off their legs and then added another erotic touch by cropping their hair short to leave the ears and neck exposed. One popular song, meanwhile, described the “modern boy” (modan boi; mobo) as wearing bell bottoms trousers with a blue shirt and green tie while sporting a bowler hat and horn-rimmed spectacles. In contrast to his partner’s clipped coiffure, smart young men combed their comparatively long hair straight back with no part.

While youth might grab the fashion spotlight, middle-class adults and families also were easy to recognize as they moved about the city. The subway advertisement and wood-block print of the family at Hibiya Park offered typical representations of a urbane father-husband: a trim, fit (and sometimes mustached) figure wearing a business suit, conservative tie, pocket kerchief, and top hat. Suave wives-mothers apparently had more fashion options. In the Hibiya print, the artist dresses his middle-class matrons in exquisite, classical kimono topped, in one case, with an elegant shawl. In an advertisement announcing the opening of Japan’s new subway, the women standing in the middle of the platform appear in kimono, with hair done up in a tradition coiffure, while those crowding the foreground sport short hair and have donned the sort of Western-inspired dress, including dashing pillbox-style caps, that would have made them feel right at home on the streets of New York, Paris, and Berlin. The children, for the most part, also appear in cosmopolitan garb: knickers, suits, and caps for boys; sweaters and skirts for girls.

The relationship between fashion and modernity came to life in the work of Kitazawa Rakuten, famous for his caricature-like portraits of urban life. One color sketch, executed in 1927, shows members of the middle class, as well as working class types, traveling pell-mell in one direction aboard all manner of modern conveyances — taxis, buses, and bicycles. In the foreground, a debonair middle-class woman — headed along the same course and shown in a well-tailored dress, high-heeled shoes, and close-fitting hat — passes another woman walking in the opposite direction and dressed in traditional kimono and footwear. The two eye each other suspiciously, and the traditional woman appears uneasy about what is happening around her. To the side, a young girl, depicted in a Western-style dress, merrily jingles a bell to call attention to the newspapers she is selling, broadsheets that perhaps herald the news that Japan, as uncomfortable as it might be for some, is rapidly moving down the road toward modernity.

Finally, the emerging middle class self-identified itself by its consumption habits. The glass display cases in the Mitsukoshi and Shirokiya department stores were filled with imported jewelry, handbags, and neckties, as well as such made-in-Japan products as Morinaga-brand milk chocolates (first sold in 1913), Pilot fountain pens (1918), Calpis, a milk-based soft drink (1920), Pine sewing machines (1924), and Shiseidö cosmetics. Advertisements clearly established the impact of middle-class tastes on broader, pan-Japanese consumer aspirations. Calpis posters, for instance, frequently showed thoroughly middle-class women, identified by their dress and cropped hair, using their products. So, too, did Shiseidö, which sometimes also inserted sporting women into its ads. Similarly, a Toshiba brochure for its new electric fans featured a modern woman cooling herself after a game of tennis. Even Ajinomoto, which marketed monosodium glutamate and other popular seasonings, got into the act by prominently displaying a “culture house” on an advertising leaflet in 1922.

As they took up their new occupations, settled into their apartments and single-family homes, experimented with Western-style fashion, pursued novel leisure activities, and popularized new products, the urban middle class increasingly positioned itself as the cultural standard-bearer for other Japanese. That in not to say that the middle class lacked detractors. Conservative critics regretted the demise of the traditional family system and were scandalized by what they saw as decadent behavior on the part of the “modern girl” and “modern boy,” while those with more avant-garde inclinations dismissed as tiresome, warmed-over traditionalism the emphasis on home and family advanced by women such as Hani Motoko. Whatever controversy they engendered, however, the new lifestyles of the middle class elicited comment not just from a broad sweep of Japanese, but from foreign observers as well. When the noted American sociologist Thorstein Veblen visited Japan in the early Taishö period, he tirelessly reiterated his theory of social evolution: In the countries of Western Europe and North America, the rise of science and industry had produced comparable cultural values and analogous political arrangements. His visit to the islands, Veblen claimed, revealed an “intellectual similarity” and “psychological equivalence” between Japanese and Euro-Americans. Thus, he averred, the Japanese soon would turn their backs forever on the “Spirit of Old Japan” and embrace the “ideals, ethical values, and principles” that characterized the peoples who lived in the most advanced nations of the world. In short, under the tutelage of the middle class, Japan was well on its way to achieving a universal and cosmopolitan modernity.

History, however, has a habit of taking some surprising twists and turns. Despite Veblen’s optimistic predictions, in the 1930s Japan’s imperialistic excesses led to an unexpected and ultimately doomed conflict in China that unfolded into a disastrous war with the United States. As Japan set foot into the dark valley of the war years, the government attempted to build national strength and unity by insisting that people embrace traditional values and abandon cultural habits deemed as being excessively Western and individualistic. The middle class responded as loyal citizens and marched off to war, and then suffered through defeat. Yet, together with renewed prosperity, the middle class itself rose phoenix-like in the postwar decades to once again become the nation’s trendsetters, a powerful economic and political force, and the image that shaped foreigners’ views of Japan. That renaissance fulfilled the promise of 1910s and 1920s, when the curtain rose on a drama that reached its climax decades later and made the twentieth century the Age of the Middle class.

i Chieko Irie Mulhern, ed., Heroic with Grace: Legendary Women of Japan (Armonk, N. Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1991), p. 233.

ii Margit Nagy, “Middle-Class Working Women during the Interwar Years,” in Gail Lee Bernstein, ed., Recreating Japanese Women, 1600-1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), p. 207 (modified).

iii Thorstein Veblen, Essays in Our Changing Order, ed. Leon Ardzrooni (New York: Viking Press, 1943), p. 257.

iv For more on the postwar “new middle class” and its connections with prewar developments, see my Japan: A Modern History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001), pp. 345-56 and 582-91.