electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Discussion Paper 6 in 2003
First published in ejcjs on 20 October 2003

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Japanese Women's Magazines

Inspiration and Commodity


Stephanie Assmann

PhD Candidate
Department of Oriental Studies
University of Hamburg

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About the Author


The Japanese market shows a high turnover of different magazines. Tanaka Keiko (1998) has pointed out that thirteen hundred magazines were launched or re-launched between 1980 and 1985 (Tanaka 1998: 113). Magazines targeted at women play an important part in the Japanese print media. There are almost 1,000 commercial magazines that contain a high percentage of advertisements. More than 140 of these magazines target female readers exclusively (Skov and Moeran 1995: 59).

Women’s magazines fulfil several roles in Japanese consumer behaviour. On the one hand they may be seen as mere ‘tools’, which provide useful information about the latest trends in consumption, but on the other hand they can also be viewed as “commodities themselves” as the sociologist John Clammer has argued (Clammer 1997: 115). Moreover, an analysis of Japanese women’s magazines also provides an insight about social changes in contemporary Japan.

Based on quantitative surveys since the 1950s[1] Japan has been viewed in many respects as a very homogeneous middle class society. Few ethnic differences, an equal income distribution, equal access to education and occupation as well as similar consumer patterns have been perceived to be major characteristics of Japanese society. Also, according to these quantitative surveys a significant majority of about 90 percent of Japanese citizens identify with the middle class. However, it has been argued that this identification with the middle class is less seen as a middle class consciousness in a concrete sense, but is derived from middle class oriented patterns of consumption. However, the view of Japanese society as a more or less classless society has increasingly come under scrutiny, especially after the burst of the economic bubble. Clammer argues that social differences do exist in Japan and are expressed in the form of status competition[2], which is implicated in acts of consumption (Clammer 1997: 4).

Especially during the second half of the 1980s a diversification of consumer patterns has been more intensely discussed and linked to the increasing importance of lifestyle. The recognition of more individualistic consumer patterns and the identification of distinct consumer groups have also led to the recognition of value changes [kachikan no henka] in Japanese society. The results of surveys (sōgō shikō chōsa), which were conducted by the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS), show a combination of seemingly contradictory values. These values include an interest in fashion, travel, pleasure and free time on one hand but also show the importance of more frugal values such as caring for a family and building up savings for one’s old age on the other (Watanabe 1994: 155-157). These changes of perception are also reflected in women’s magazines.

In this paper I propose to develop the following argument. At first sight, women’s magazines seem to focus on the purely “non-utilitarian” (Clammer 1997: 162), on enjoyment and diversion focused solely on the individual’s fulfilment. However, while suggesting freedom of lifestyle and consumer choice, women’s magazines also reveal information about age segmentation, the identification of different consumer groups and socio-economic differences. In addition, magazines contain precise instructions about certain rules to adhere to, for example which clothes to wear or which make-up to use.

History of Women's Magazines in Japan

The history of women’s magazines goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. For example, the women’s magazine Fujin Gahō [Illustrated Women’s Gazette], which is still published today, was established in 1905. The so-called lifestyle magazines evolved during the 1970s and 1980s (Rosenberger 1996: 20) Readers of these lifestyle magazines like AnAn and Nonno, magazines that are still popular today, are young women in their late teens and early twenties. Between 1977 and 1988 a variety of magazines with English and French names were launched. Among these were the magazines Croissant (1977), More (1980), ViVi (1983), Classy (1984) and With (1981) (Ueno 1992: 152 and Tanaka 1998: 112). Moreover, between 1980 and 1985 Japanese editions of Western magazines were launched, such as Cosmopolitan (1980), Elle and Marie Claire (both in 1982) (Tanaka 1998: 112)[3].

These lifestyle magazines focus mainly on issues of consumption. They contain information about the latest fashion trends, cosmetics, lifestyle, local restaurants and cultural events. However, some of the magazines, like Keiko to Manabu, also provide information on further schooling and education, language courses and the use of computers. Other magazines concentrate mainly on household issues like electrical appliances and storage in small Japanese homes.

Almost all of the magazines contain large sections of visual elements and commercial advertisements often focusing on brand clothes and expensive cosmetics. Headlines are often printed in bold letters; visual elements consist of a combination of photography and manga [comic] elements whereas written text remains restricted to a minimum (Clammer 1995: 200-201).

Women’s Magazines and their Role for the Individual

Bearing in mind the argument put forward in the introduction, I would now like to turn to the role of magazines for the individual. Magazines which primarily focus on household issues contain useful information for the individual which can be easily implemented in consumer decisions.

However, many of the glossy lifestyle magazines focus on expensive brand goods that the majority of their readers are not able to afford. Yet, these lifestyle magazines seem to suggest an almost unlimited freedom of consumer choice. Despite the fact that many of the products advertised are not affordable, readers can view these magazines as a source of inspiration and information and may be able to purchase cheaper substitute products instead.

Magazines can also be seen as a commodity, as entertainment. The content of the magazines does not necessarily have an immediate influence on consumer decisions. Rather, magazines emphasize playfulness and diversion as well as the possibility of momentary withdrawal from work and family responsibilities in everyday life.

Identification of Consumer Groups

The above argument centred on the ‘non-utilitarian’ role of magazines for the individual. Now, I would like to turn to the meaning of magazines with regards to the identification of consumer groups and socio-economic groups.

A magazine with the Japanese name Hanako, which was launched in 1988, idealized and influenced the development of the so-called Hanako-tribe (Hanako-zoku)[4], a group of women who were in their late twenties at the height of the bubble period. The readers of this magazine were seen as extremely consumer-oriented and interested in frequent trips abroad, brand products, going to expensive restaurants, music and theatre (Sugawara 1991: 110). Hanako provided advice about how to handle these matters of consumption - how to book a hotel room abroad, how to have the ‘correct’ conversation at the hotel reception and also suggested what kind of brand products to buy. As Clammer (1997) has argued, Hanako represented a “guide to consumption” (Clammer 1997: 118). Hanako’s main target groups consist of university students, housewives and younger professional women (Clammer 1997: 116).

The term Hanako has survived until today: The Dentsū Research Institute has coined the term ‘Post-Hanako’ (posuto Hanako ga shōhi o kaeru) to describe the consumer patterns of the successors of the Hanako-zoku, unmarried working women between the ages of 25 and 34 years who spend their disposable incomes largely on consumption. The fact that these terms have been created to identify consumer groups shows how consumption and the print media are interwoven (Dentsū 1999).

Nancy Rosenberger (1996) has described the standardization of consumer groups: “… high school students; women students in higher education; young, unmarried working women; and young housewives.” (Rosenberger 1996: 20) Furthermore, women’s magazines centre strongly life-cycle of a woman and offer the ‘appropriate’ magazine for each age, situation in life, and for transition periods in life. When entering a Japanese magazine store this standardization of consumer groups becomes obvious. Magazines for teenagers and women in their early twenties are clearly separated. Between 25 and 30 years of age, some magazines focus on bridal fashion, household goods, and the education of children while other magazines target the mostly unmarried career woman (kyaria ūman).

However, increasingly during the 1970s clearly defined roles of married and unmarried women and of working women and housewives were beginning to break down (Tanaka 1998: 111). Life-cycles of women are not as predictable any more and biographies are more strongly shaped by changing work situations. Earlier, I mentioned the importance of both frugal and pleasure-oriented values. The increasing break-up of defined roles and a combination of different value sets may also eventually lead to a break-up of the standardization of consumer groups.

Enjoy the Freedom but Follow the Rules

Above, I referred to the role of magazines in shaping the perception of freedom of choice as well as their entertainment role. However, taking a closer look, magazines are subject to rules and regulations, to which their readers are subtly encouraged to adhere. Often the language of the magazines employs imperatives to give detailed instructions about which clothes to wear or which make-up to use. As Tanaka Keiko (1998) has argued: “The prescriptiveness of the language employed in women’s magazines is a striking characteristic. The tone of many of the features is blunt and hectoring, a curious point, given the alleged Japanese concern with politeness and the avoidance of confrontation.” (Tanaka 1998: 117)

Magazines also give advice about how to create a different self according to the situation. A double page in the magazine CanCam (February 2001: 168-169) shows different combinations of clothes so that the reader can either look like a poised and elegant adult (otonappoku ereganto) or cute and casual (kawaiku kajuaru). A scale between 20% and 100% determines how ‘cute’ or how ‘elegant’ a woman can appear in different clothes.

Magazines convey ideas on how to play with different selves and personalities. The reader is able to choose from a menu of possible combinations. The Japanese sociologist Ueno Chizuko (1992) has mentioned the “staging of the being like me” (watashi rashisa o enshutsu suru) (Ueno 1992: 097) in this context. The following interview, which I conducted with a 36-year-old Japanese woman supports this argument:

… at times it can happen that I discover a new self … When I was getting divorced and I felt miserable, my face looked dreadful …. I somehow looked different even though I was still using the same make-up as before. … I went to a cosmetics store and said: I want to change. … Also artists (ātisuto) use make-up … yes, [I am] such an artist. (Excerpt from an interview conducted with a hospital employee, 25th February 2001 in Kyoto.)

Reinforcement of Gender Divisions and Socio-economic Differences

In addition to the functions of entertainment, self-actualization and normative behaviour already discussed above, some authors have emphasized the reinforcement of gender roles and socio-economic divisions reflected in women’s magazines. Nancy R. Rosenberger (1996) has argued that women’s magazines stress individuality, enjoyment and sexual attractiveness while at the same time emphasizing the home/work divide.

Going back to the 1920s, women’s magazines targeted “women of the new middle class who were married to salaried businessmen and government officials.” (Rosenberger 1996: 20). These magazines were intended for the middle-class suburban housewife who centred her consumption on the home and the well-being of her husband and children.

Taking the upscale magazine Fujin Gahō as an example, John Clammer (1997) has pointed out the correlation between magazines and social stratification[5]. There is a division between lifestyle magazines for teenagers and young women, which rather reflect a segmentation of age and magazines like Fujin Gahō, which

… is clearly intended for the relatively wealthy, leisured upper-class housewife. Its restrained elegance …, its use of older models, the spacious interiors depicted in interviews with successful women, all these speak volumes. This is not the world of the OL, of the university student still living at home or of the young housewife of a junior salaryman in a 2DK …. (Clammer 1997: 125.)

Conclusion and Outlook

Japanese women’s magazines show many contradictions. Magazines seem to suggest almost unlimited freedom of individual choice and fulfilment but yet at the same time stress the importance of conformity and societal expectations. Magazines can be a source of practical information and inspiration on the one hand, but also provide precise rules about the appropriate way to make use of the products advertised in the magazines on the other. Magazines represent a microcosm of societal rules and behaviour but also offer the possibility of enjoyment and momentary diversion. The non-utilitarian function stands in sharp contrast to the educational tone used in many of the magazines.

As commodities women’s magazines reinforce age segmentation and have an influence on the recognition and identification of consumer groups. I have mentioned the importance of socio-economic differences reflected in women’s magazines. This is especially remarkable in a society like Japan, which has long been regarded a middle class society without major differences in social stratification. However, magazines like Fujin Gahō reflect the existence of upper class women who exhibit a distinguished taste with regards to consumer decisions. I have shown that within a supposedly homogeneous society the identification of subgroups, especially in consumer behaviour, is a striking phenomenon, which suggests that Japanese society is indeed more fragmented than was generally supposed.

Diversifying biographies and changing work situations increasingly shape consumer patterns in contemporary Japan, especially among females. These changes in the lifecycles of Japanese women will also have an influence on women’s magazines. Moreover, value changes in Japanese society will influence future consumption patterns as well. Combinations of pleasure-oriented and frugal values are likely to be reflected in women’s magazines. Apart from issues of consumption, a growing interest in the areas of further schooling, education and work opportunities are being increasingly featured in women’s magazines and will continue to gain importance in the future.


1. There are two quantitative surveys, which are conducted on a regular basis in Japan. The first of these is called yoron chōsa or kokumin seikatsu chōsa [kokumin seikatsu ni kansuru yoron chōsa, survey of public opinion] and was conducted in 1930 by the Prime Minister’s Office [sōri-fu naikaku sōri daijin kanbō kōkoku-shitsu] for the first time and has been carried out on a yearly basis since 1953. In this survey participants are asked to rate their own living standard according to one of the following five categories (upper (ue), upper middle (naka no ue), middle middle (naka no naka), lower middle (shita no naka) and lower (shita)) (Naoi 1994 [1979]: 366-367). The second survey is called SSM-survey and was conducted in 1955 for the first time and has been conducted since then every ten years by a group of sociologists from various Japanese universities. The term SSM stands for social stratification and social mobility. Similar to the yoron chōsa participants are asked to rate their own living standard according to one of three social classes (kaikyū) (Naoi 1994 [1979]: 367).

2. André Béteille points out that although there is often no clearly defined distinction made between classes and status groups, it is useful to do so. While relations between classes are shaped by conflict, relations between status groups are characterized by emulation. Referring to Max Weber, Béteille explains that “… a class is defined by its position in the system of production, whereas what characterizes a status group is its pattern of consumption.” (Béteille 1996: 848)

3. For a more detailed overview of the history of Japanese women’s magazines from 1900 until the 1980’s see Tanaka 1998: 110-113.

4. The meaning of the suffix –zoku can be translated as ‘tribe’ to identify groups of people in society. There are several examples of the suffix –zoku used in Japanese. At the beginning of the 1980s the term kurisutaru-zoku was coined, which referred to the famous novel Nantonaku, Kurisutaru (Somewhat Crystal) written by Tanaka Yasuo. In this novel Tanaka described the frenzied consumer behaviour of teenagers and their obsession with expensive brand products. Also, the terms AnAn-zoku and AnNo-zoku have been created to describe the readers of the magazines AnAn and Nonno.

5. Béteille (1996) defines the term social stratification as “… the division of people into layers or strata which may be thought of as being vertically arranged, in the same way that layers of the earth are arranged above or below other layers” (Béteille 1996: 846). Social stratification refers to the fact that individuals occupy unequal positions in society. There are different criteria such as income, wealth, occupation and education that determine an individual’s position in society. However, the importance of these criteria may be ranked differently according to a given society: “Social stratification manifests itself typically through differences in styles of life among members of the same society …. Such differences relate to both the material and the non-material sides of life and may manifest themselves in gross or subtle ways …” (Béteille 1996: 848).


Béteille, André (1996) “Stratification” in Kuper, Adam and Jessica Kuper (eds) The Social Science Encyclopedia, 2nd Edition, London: Routledge: 846-849.

Clammer, John R. (1997) Contemporary Urban Japan: A Sociology of Consumption, Oxford: Blackwell.

Clammer, John R. (1995) “Consuming Bodies: Constructing and Representing the Female Body in Contemporary Japanese Print Media” in Skov and Moeran (eds) Women, Media and Consumption in Japan: 197-219.

CanCam, Shōgakukan Publishers, February 2001.

Dentsū Research Institute (ed.) (1999) Trendbox Report: Posuto Hanako ga shōhi o kaeru (Post-Hanako [generation] change consumption).

Naoi, Michiko (1994 [1979]) “Kaisō ishiki to kaikyū ishiki” (Stratum Consciousness and Class Consciousness) in Tominaga, Ken’ichi (ed.) Nihon no kaisō kōzō (The Stratification System of Japan), Tokyo: Tōkyō Daigaku Shuppankai: 365-388.

Rosenberger, Nancy R. (1996) “Fragile Resistance, Signs of Status: Women between State and Media in Japan” in Imamura, Anne E. (ed.) Re-Imaging Japanese Women, London: Open University Press: 12-45.

Rosenberger, Nancy R. (1995) “Antiphonal Performances? Japanese Women’s Magazines and Women’s Voices” in Skov and Moeran (eds.) Women, Media and Consumption in Japan: 143-169.

Shiine, Yamato (1997) “‘Hanako’ to 80-nendai to ha nani ka” (‘Hanako’ and the 1980’s) in Kawai, Hayao and Chizuko Ueno (eds.) Yokubō to shōhi: Gendai nihon bunka-ron (Desire and Consumption. A Discourse on Japan Today), Vol. 8, Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten: 77-100.

Skov, Lise and Brian Moeran (eds) (1995) Women, Media, and Consumption in Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Sugawara, Mariko (1991) Kawaru shōhi shakai: Seikatsu jūshi he no tenkan (Changing Consumer Society. A Shift towards Lifestyle Priorities), Tokyo: NTT Shuppan.

Tanaka, Keiko (1998) “Japanese Women’s Magazines: The Language of Aspiration” in Martinez, D.P. (ed.) The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture: Gender, Shifting Boundaries and Global Cultures, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 110-132.

Tanaka, Yasuo (2001 [1981]) Nantonaku, kurisutaru (Somewhat Crystal), Tokyo: Shinchō Bunko.

Ueno, Chizuko (1992) ‘Watashi’ sagashi geemu: Yokubō shimin shakai-ron (The Search for the ‘Me’ Game: a Social Theory of Desire for Self-hood), Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō.

Watanabe, Hisanori (1994) “Shōhisha kōdō to kachikan no henka” (Consumer Behaviour and Value Change) in Akuto, Hiroshi (ed.) Shōhi kōdō no shakai-shinrigaku (Social Psychology of Consumer Behaviour) Tokyo: Fukumura Shuppan: 152-172.

About the author

Stephanie Assmann is currently a PhD Candidate in the Department of Oriental Studies at the University of Hamburg, Germany. She completed a MA degree in Japanese Studies, History and Political Science at the University of Hamburg in 1997 and has worked for various Japanese companies in Japan and Germany, including a German-Japanese mail-order company in Tokyo. From 1999 to 2001 she received a Japanese Ministry of Education (Monbushō) scholarship from the Japanese Ministry of Education to do research towards her doctoral dissertation at Dōshisha University in Kyoto.

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Copyright: Stephanie Assmann
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