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Haikara is a pseudo-English Japanese word from the Meiji period derived from the phrase “high collar.” (It originally had a long final a: haikarā, ハイカラー.) You might summarize its meaning as “fashionably Westernized,” but of course, the full story is more complicated.

In his Thoughts on Haikara (ハイカラ考), Kimura Shōhachi (木村 荘八) traces the origin of the term, via a passage in Ishii Kendō (石井研堂)’s Origins of Meiji Phenomena (明治事物起原), back to Meiji journalist Ishikawa Hanzan (石川半山). According to Ishii, Ishikawa used the word repeatedly in the last years of the 1800s to “icily criticize persons who had returned from overseas, such as Kaneko Kentarō (金子堅太郎).”

Originally, then, Ishikawa intended the word to be derisive. He used it, Ishii says, to describe people whose “adoption of the especially high collars fashionable in the West and smug-faced manner seemed a gratuitous implication of their recent return from abroad — the utmost limit of affectation.” This negative tone is what lies behind the ateji often applied to the word in those days: 灰殻 (hai-kara) “ash husk”, implying uselessness and insubstantiality.

But haikara was just one of many similar Ishikawa-isms. His work lampooned not only the Haikara Party (ハイカラア党) and their allies the Necktie Party (ネクタイ党) but also their conservative enemies: the Pistol Party (ピストル党) and the Chonmage Party (チヨム髷党). None of these other words, Ishikawa admitted in a later memoir, caught on. So why did haikara?

Ishii claims that haikara’s big break came in 1900, by way of a speech given by Komatsu Midori (小松緑) at a farewell party for Takekoshi Yosaburō (竹越与三郎) held in Tsukiji’s Metropole Hotel.

In our world to-day [sic], Komatsu said, the word haikara is generally used with derisive intent — but this is mistaken. Haikara evokes a civilized person of pure and noble character. Indeed, has not even our good Ishikawa, who spends so much of his life attacking haikara, honored us this evening with an exceedingly haikara ensemble?

Komatsu’s speech brought down the house, made all the papers, and gave haikara a decisive positive spin on its way to nationwide fame. Before long, Ishii writes, it came to mean “fashionable”, and then just “new”, until even schoolchildren were running around pronouncing baseball mitts and overcoats haikara.

(Naturally, not everyone went along with this positivity. One of the charms of the word is that two people could agree that a third was haikara based on diametrically opposed opinions of their taste, intelligence, and character.)

In the 1920s, Kishida Kunio (岸田 国士) wrote an article entitled The Thing Called “Haikara” (『ハイカラ』ということ) in which, after some stern get-off-my-lawning regarding the word’s semantic evolution, he gives some concrete examples of its broader use, particularly regarding literature: Akutagawa Ryūnosuke and Murō Saisei are haikara. Kawabata Yasunari is haikara. Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book is haikara. Minamoto no Sanetomo is haikara.

On the other hand, Kishida says, the “new-form poetry” (新体詩) of the Meiji period, though “no doubt considered haikara at the time,” is “the very model of an un-haikara phenomenon.” The mere inclusion of katakana English and translationese like “nani-nani suru tokoro no sore wa” (i.e., using tokoro no to translate an Indo-European relative pronoun, as had been common since the days of Rangaku) this is not sufficient to render writing haikara, and just because a married couple holds hands when they take their constitutional, and has their children call them “Mama” and “Papa,” they are not necessarily haikara either. Iki is not haikara; indeed, it is the yin to haikara’s yang.

Then there were the derivatives: a verb, haikaru; subcategories like binbō haikara (“ghetto haikara”) and inaka haikara (“bumpkin haikara”); mutations like bankara, meaning “barbarian-kara“, that is, the opposite of haikara — although Kishida points out that this could have positive connotations too: something simple, unpretentious, and culturally native.

As the years passed, haikara in the positive sense came to often mean not something modern, but something Modern, something of fashionable Western derivation back in an earlier Japan where such things were precious and rare. The title of manga/anime/movie Haikara-san coming through (ハイカラさんが通る), set in the Taishō 1920s, is an example of this trend in action.

Haikara hasn’t become quite as archaic as moga and mobo (“modern girl” and “modern boy,” respectively), though, probably because its generalized negative meaning has survived: scornful synonyms for “(Westernized) poseur” are always in demand. Only a few years before Haikara-san began publication, Happy End released multiple versions of their cryptic song Haikara hakuchi (meaning both “Haikara moron” and “Blood puked from the lungs”), tellingly including it on Kazemachi Roman, their concept album about the old Japan that the 1964 Tokyo Olympics — that is to say, money and globalization — swept away.

Addendum: Excerpt from Ginza has always been a haikara place (銀座は昔からハイカラな所), by Awashima Kangetsu (淡島寒月)

“In Meiji 5 [1872], when the train line between Yokohama and Shinbashi was first opened, a great number of red lanterns were hung in celebration in front of the Shinbashi station, and all of those lanterns were lit by imported candles. I remember that the boxes the candles had come in were all piled up like a mountain near Shinbashi. This was probably the first time that Western candles had been used in such great numbers. Using Western candles back then was still quite uncommon, and the display was very well received by the public.”

January 29, 2009

Matt Treyvaud is a writer and translator living near Kamakura. He is Néojaponisme's Literature/Language editor and the proprietor of No-sword.

9 Responses

  1. Peter Says:

    Great post. ‘Haikara’ is one of those words I laugh at, because it would be a dead word (shigo), except that there is still a smattering of people out there keeping it alive, still using it as an adjective for some anachronism of Japanese culture (which, at the time, was probably unmistakably ‘haikara’).

    Cf. ‘nauii’

  2. W. David MARX Says:


  3. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Cf. ‘naui’ indeed!

    … Maybe I need a new gimmick for these pieces.

  4. Connor Says:

    To Matt: Awesome piece. You do not need a gimmick, much like Obie Trice did not need a gimmick. I bet the readership will go for “this is a fun word and let’s all check it out.” I’m always in.

    To David: I want more, more, more Capsule references.

  5. Peter Says:

    Yipes, I didn’t even realize you had done an article on ‘naui’ when I wrote that.

    I agree with Connor. Except about Obie Trice.

  6. Harvey Says:

    Wow this is a great piece of research! I imagine you must have had to dig pretty deep to find all this background info on ハイカラ – great stuff!

  7. Ryan Says:

    Very fine work, indeed. I say the world needs a little more bankara and less haikara.

  8. Jarvis32 Says:

    Fine article. Just one thing to add:

    My wife tells me the word bankara has long been associated with Waseda University, and, by extension, with the Naturalist writers associated with the school’s literary magazine.
    This is in contrast to the “haikara” of Keio University, and the tanbishugi associated with it.


  9. Etl World News | HAIKARA. Says:

    […] of No-sword has another essay up at Néojaponisme, this one about the old-fashioned Japanese word haikara, from […]