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.

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5 Responses to “Race as Fashion Signifier”

  1. statiq Says:

    This is an interesting subject because it is both extremely visible (given the ubiquity of fashion and advertisement in Japan) and full of meaning.

    Has this ever been studied on an academic level?

    It seems that foreigners (as in: not of Japanese ethnicity) are more likely to give conscious attention to the race of models. They will pay attention to the way they (as foreigners) are being represented. If my image is used, it’s not just about advertisement, but also about identity, whereas for Japanese race will just be an element amongst others (that can, as you pointed out help build a specific image), but it probably won’t be as consciously perceived.

    Not that it matters since foreigners are not the target here. But it is funny how this seems to be a sensitive point:
    “Hey, why did they use a white kid in that ad?”

  2. Modeling » Race as Fashion Signifier Says:

    […] sexy girls wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptA 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 … […]

  3. nina Says:

    Personally I haven’t noticed a large number of “hafu” models in JJ… there are only about two or three, right?

    Also, sometimes “senzoku” models appear in other magazines, too. I have seen Anne, Tanaka Miho, and Christina in various magazines (or are they non-senzoku?)

    Editors are definitely thinking about this topic, though. In the steady. magazine editors blog, when editors asked readers for advice about improving the magazine, there were quite a few readers who commented that they couldn’t relate to the hafu models.

    Slightly related: why is it that almost 100% of the time, white models are used in underwear advertisements? Many people have wondered about it but I’ve never heard an answer. If you could somehow score an interview with an advertising department and find out I would be grateful. 😀 It seems strange to me that many people are quick to point out that foreigners (non-asians) bodies are “different” than that of Japanese (asians) bodies, yet they supposedly prefer models with different body types than their own.

    I have asked Japanese friends about it, and most of them said they had never thought about it before, so as statiq said above I guess non-Japanese people are more sensitive towards the topic.

  4. W. David Marx Says:

    I have seen Anne, Tanaka Miho, and Christina in various magazines (or are they non-senzoku?)

    JJ, Vivi, Glamorous, and 25ans seem to share a lot of models, so the senzoku system is more flexible. This has mostly to do with modeling agency politics, I believe, than with editorial direction. JJ cover models, however, are still less likely to be these more mobile models.

    Slightly related: why is it that almost 100% of the time, white models are used in underwear advertisements?

    The Peach John catalog uses people like Jessica Michibata, so maybe things are changing. Also, the point with underwear may be to show “glamorous” items, and white people would be thought to “glam” it up.

    Has this ever been studied on an academic level?

    Dorinne Kondo has a book called About Face: performing race in fashion and theater that may be of use. It’s pretty pomo anthro in tone though.

  5. matt Says:

    In response to Nina:

    Perhaps it’s because Japanese pornography is so ubiquitous in Japan, the image of a Japanese woman in underwear is on some collective level associated with the smutty. Advertisers don’t want to associate their brand with that smuttiness, and instead they use foreign models in an effort to avoid or at least distance the mental connection that could be made to pornography.

    Funnily enough, American Apparel is attempting the exact opposite.