The Modern Girl and the Cigarette

Kaoru TACHI (Ochanomizu University)

   Cigarettes are indispensable items in the representation of the Modern Girl. It served as a symbol for women suffragists who appeared in public in the US and Europe in the latter half of the 19th century. Elegant women of Art Deco and movie stars smoked cigarettes gracefully. Typists and café waitresses also smoked cigarettes. Many women in Japan who appeared and were represented as a new social phenomenon from the late 1920s through the 1930s smoked cigarettes. This study attempts to elucidate the Modern Girl in Japan as a social phenomenon, through examining the act of cigarette smoking and the consumption of cigarettes as commodities.

    Cut-tobacco smoking had prevailed in Japan for a long time, and private companies started manufacturing cigarettes in the 1890s. By 1903, however, the government monopolized the sale of tobacco. Soon after, tobacco became a “national” product, as it was only produced in government-owned factories and sold exclusively through the Tobacco Monopoly Bureau. A new tobacco tax was imposed to provide a major source of national tax revenue. Simultaneously, tobacco also became “colonial,” as it forayed into the markets in China and Korea through the establishment of Toa Tobacco Company.

    From about 1900 to the end of the 1920s, a taboo was formed in Japanese society regarding women who took up cigarette smoking. It was a result of the fact that cigarettes were preferentially allocated to the military during the periods of the Sino-Japanese and the Russo-Japanese Wars. Cigarettes were thus perceived as items of men. Women appearing in cigarette advertisements were housewives offering cigarettes as presents to acquaintances and bosses in order to yield their husbands’ promotion/success in career. However, when consumer culture culminated in the late 1920s in Japan, the cigarette was perceived as a symbol of modernity, and cigarette smoking prevailed among women with various backgrounds, encompassing differences in age, class, educational background, and occupation. At the same time, some women also picked up smoking as a signifier of identity to express their sexuality and desires.

    In this paper I intend to examine modernity as seen in the flow of cigarettes in the markets in Japan, China, and colonial Korea, and the multiple facets of modernity embraced in the act of cigarette smoking by women.