Race as Fashion Signifier
Last time, we discussed Japanese fashion magazines’ obfuscation of Tokyo scenery to create appropriate atmosphere for consumer fantasy. This dodged a more immediate element for establishing proper context: the actual fashion models. But before even considering which individual model to use, Japanese editors make a more general decision on the race of the models representing the feel of the magazine. Historical factors and a self-identification as a “monoracial nation state” makes race a much more potent signifier in Japan than in places like the United States where a pro-diversity philosophy has intentionally de-emphasized the idea of implicit meanings in skin color.
Due to the senzoku model system, Japanese magazines hold a stable of exclusive models to represent the magazine. Other than the high-fashion magazines, editors rarely just pull together a certain group of well-known individuals from a “pool of models” to fit certain stories. They generally assemble a semi-permanent “team,” and the average racial composition of this team is linked to the magazine’s fashion category.
Magazines in the “real clothes” genre — like CanCam — aim to reflect the “real lives” of their readers. This means models who are not excessively tall, and ultimately, “pure” Japanese. CanCam uses almost all 100% Japanese models (we’ll count Yamada Yu as Japanese rather than a distinct “Okinawan” and ignore the half-Japanese Mine Erika as a rare exception.) When compared to the overwhelming number of half-Japanese/half-white models used in JJ and ViVi, this should be seen as an intentional decision. CanCam‘s power, however, is in its ability to create sympathy and self-association between readers and models. Since Japanese office ladies and junior college students have no fantastical aspirations towards the artistic side of the fashion business over in Europe, they are happy to see themselves in Ebi-chan’s shoes. Gyaru magazines like Popteen or Cawaii! are fundamentally similar in aspiration. Since Japan is the locus of legitimacy for that particular fashion, foreign or half-Japanese models would only confuse messaging.
High-end fashion magazines, on the other hand, mostly feature clothing from European houses and luxury brands, pegging the center of legitimacy in the West. In order to ensure that the presentation harks back to the larger Eurocentric fashion world, magazines like Spur or Ginza — almost without exception — use non-Japanese and mostly Caucasian models. This prevents Japanese female readers from self-association, but that’s the point. Like the old Groucho Marx quote, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member,” Japanese high-fashion fans do not want to see the clothes they desire on real-life Japanese people. There may be a tad bit of self-effacement in this sentiment, but it generally questions more elite Japanese consumers’ feelings about their own locale. The fantasy, therefore, requires an army of non-Japanese models.
ViVi and Glamorous‘ overwhelming use of half-Japanese and three-quarters-Japanese models like Fujii Rina, Hasegawa Jun, and Iwahori Seri begs a more pointed question: What does race mean when it’s not a pure reflection of either here nor there? These magazines are not targeting some massive half-Japanese readership, nor do these models look foreign enough to recenter the magazine atmosphere outside of Japan.
Herein lies lingering issues of perceived racial inferiority. I’ve been told numerous times in Japan that “clothes look better on foreigners,” by which they mean “white or black people.” This is not objectively true (nor subjectively true, in my view), but editors have long used half-Japanese models on this principle to bridge the gap between Japanese self-association and cool “foreign” fashion. A half-Japanese model looks “foreign” enough to enhance the image of the clothing, but close enough to the reader to send a message of commonality. Things are changing, however. Male fashion magazine Popeye previously used only half-Japanese models but moved to more foreigners once readers voiced less need for racial similarity in considering the clothing.
An underlying point remains: Race still has an important textual quality in Japan that impacts companies’ branding and messaging. The natural increase in racial diversity seen in Western countries, mixed with post-’60s progressive politics, has worked to de-emphasize the use of race as a personality/lifestyle determinate. I doubt that Calvin Klein’s choice of Djimon Hounsou as their spokesman was intended solely to say something “black” about Calvin Klein or limit the messaging to African-Americans. The political correctness of “neutral” race — combined with a need to emphasize inclusion to target multiple communities — has led to the “Benetton approach” in ad campaigns (except for the occasional lack of black and Asian models at NY fashion week). In Japan, however, there is still a strong idea that a Japanese face can rarely legitimize a product for which the aura is located abroad. CanCam is showing that Japanese readers often want to see Japanese models, but this only works within a narrow context of establishing horizontal commonality.
This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.