For decades now in the Western world, men’s fashion has been largely defined by suits, athleisure, and utility wear — functional pieces that arguably give little space for creative expression. While individuals like Harry Styles are shaking up the industry, men’s fashion in the West is still largely dominated by plains and darks.
As early as the 90s, J.C. Flügel noted that “If heterosexual men are ‘to dress a little more to please women,’ rather than striving for respectability from their fellow males, some very concrete pleasures would result.” He believes that turning to the female gaze would improve the progression of men’s fashion, hence increasing its attractiveness as well.
Today we will be reviewing Japanese fashion content, we will look into the relaxed relationship of Japanese men with fashion.
The Japanese Approach
Is this true? Looking into the fashion in Japan, we get a clue. Rather than being preoccupied with gender roles, we see that young Japanese men appreciate and incorporate all kinds of styles regardless of their intended wearer. This seems to be an attempt to reject the “salaryman” persona, a more established image of masculinity in the country.
Looking through Japanese magazines, we can see the prevalence of three themes in the Japanese men’s fashion industry: the coexistence of Japanese and Eurasian models on its pages, the presence of more elegant male aesthetics, and the varying factors that motivate Japanese men to take an interest in fashion.
Japanese Men’s Fashion Magazines
Sociologist John Clammer points out the lack of fashion magazines that cater to heterosexual young men in Euro-America. Yet in Japan, the consciousness towards appearance and fashion has even led to different variations to describe the styles of contemporary Japanese men.
With the emergence of six unofficial categories of style, magazines have also been launched to correspond to these niche interests. In this article, we will discuss three: Popeye, first released in 1976, defined as “The Magazine for City Boys”; Men’s non-no, launched in 1986, initially only as a special edition to the girl’s magazine non-no, and; Fineboys, also launched in 1986.
These three magazines are similar in that they:
(1) have a fairly large and established readership,
(2) target heterosexual males, particularly those in college,
(3) highlight the neat and conservative kireime style or casual high-fashion, and
(4) lack the presence sexualized women and other erotic images.
In fact, on average, around 60% of the content of these magazines revolve around fashion. This is far greater than the average 30% in Western men’s magazines, which typically focus on other topics like cars, business, and women.
Coexistence of Western & Japanese Models on the Cover
Looking through the three aforementioned magazines, the presence of various figures and races is noticeable. In Popeye, the majority of the models are Caucasian or black. In Men’s non-no, the models lean more towards Euro-American and Eurasian, along with some Japanese.
In Fineboys, the presence of Japanese and models with Asian features is more noticeable. The immediate conclusion would be to connect this to colonial mentality — the belief that people and things from the West are far superior to their Asian counterparts.
And this wouldn’t be completely wrong, given that Popeye was first launched as a lifestyle magazine promoting trendy American lifestyle items and sports.
However, looking more closely, we find some differences in the style of dress between photographs of these different races. For example, Euro-American men tend to be presented in more conservative and trim clothes. On the other hand, the Japanese men’s photographs appear in more flamboyant and colorful styles. Whether these truly reflect the countries’ fashion or not, these differences just serve as a reminder to their readers — their fashion culture is not entirely standardized to that of the rest of the world. Hence, the juxtaposition tells them that they have their own culture and that there are other cultures out there.
Another more practical reason for this coexistence? Advertising. It may be as simple as Japanese advertisers preferring Japanese features to model their products, while Western advertisers prefer Western models to convey their values. However, what is most notable is despite the presence of non-Japanese elements in mainstream Japanese media, they are still largely influenced by Japanese culture. Thus, the image of America and Europe in Japan is an imagined one.
The most significant difference? Slenderness. Among the different images of masculinity in Japan, the most compelling seems to be the slender and almost androgynous body. This is a contrast to the overtly muscular figures that always grace the covers of popular Western magazines.
The Reinvention of the Dandy Style in Japan
In previous eras, a dandy referred to a man who took great care in his neatness and style, both in dress and appearance. This form of elegant fashion also seems to have been adopted by Japan with the introduction of the European style to the country in the late 19th century. This style usually involved the coordination of standard pieces such as the shirt and tie with a jacket or pea coat.
This evolved into different genres of style, including the so-called “boy’s elegance”. The June 2007 issue of Popeye featured Brazilian model Lucas Mascarini in suits and jackets styled in a boyish fashion. Described as “adding sensuality to boyishness”, this parody of classic masculinity further highlights how young Japanese men truly reject the image of the masculine salaryman.
With the typical salaryman being portrayed in a white shirt, dark suit, neat hair, and no accessories, the boyish dandy style signifies their embrace of a more youthful and unconventional style. These magazines offered a whole new world: uniqueness and creativity in fashion, all while remaining business-appropriate and respectable to their peers.
The Two Factors Behind Men’s Fashion-mindedness
There are two seemingly conflicting desires behind why Japanese men have become more fashion-conscious — the pursuit of romance and the desire to look good for themselves. Miller also argues that while women appreciate new styles because of aesthetic and erotic purposes, men’s emphasis on their physical appearance is a way to remove themselves from the typical salaryman image.
On the other hand, Megumi Ushikubo writes that women in their twenties to thirties tend to be more attracted to fashion-minded men rather than those who seem to restrict themselves within rigid gender roles. Both the desire to improve one’s self-image as well as the desire to attract women are key factors as to why Japanese men are so much more fashion-conscious than their Western counterparts.
Thus, as Japanese men begin to embrace all sorts of styles, including those typically for women, the visual difference between the clothes for either gender diminishes. Of course, it should be noted that before the introduction of Western wear in the country, the traditional kimono offered much less distinction between clothes for men and clothes for women. The appeal of the three-piece suit during that time was the division between the two genders — does this mean that the reintroduction of female elements to men’s fashion threaten the idea of “masculinity”? This remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, the one thing clear is that fashion is not merely fashion. It is a way to reject oppressive stereotypes, an avenue with which one can express themselves and their culture, and a tool to blur the divide between people.