New Youth: Shinseinen’s Suicidal Playboy

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W. David Marx looks at one of Japan’s first modernist magazines, Shinseinen, and the tragic life of Japan’s first fashion columnist, Nakamura Shinjirō.

In 1920, a new publication called Shinseinen『新青年』(“New Youth”) hit Japanese newsstands, filled with short stories and writings on culture for urban, modern men. At first, the editorial focused on the joy of international adventures, encouraging readers to board ships to foreign lands like Brazil and the new Japanese colonies in China, Manchuria, and Karafuto (Sakhalin). The magazine later became a clearinghouse for unauthorized translations of foreign texts sent in from readers.

By the mid-1920s, most readers picked up Shinseinen for its iconic detective stories. But in January 1929, the magazine started Japan’s first-ever column dedicated to men’s fashion. The first one was called “Vanity Fair” 「ばにちい・ふえいあ」written by Kudō Akiko (工藤晃子). In January 1930, this morphed into a new column called “Vogue en Vogue” 「ヴォガンヴォグ」. From the Meiji Restoration onward, Fukuzawa Yukichi and other luminaries had publicly advocated Western dress, but “Vogue en Vogue” was cut from a different cloth: chic illustrations, wry observations on Tokyo fashion trends, educational tutorials for dressing up on the town, and even short skits.

The man behind “Vogue en Vogue” was 24-year-old Nakamura Shinjirō (中村進治郎), a notorious philanderer and the living embodiment of the mobo modern boy. Nakamura knew how to write about Tokyo glamour because he lived it daily. He wrote lyrics for musical reviews at Casino Folies. He hit the town with novelist Kitabayashi Tōma, actor Egawa Ureo, and his roommate, fiction writer Watanabe On. Often described as a “beautiful young man,” he was most well known for his chronic concupiscence. According to later court documents, he dated “four female students and two waitresses” back to back. He moved through women so quickly he once broke things off with a woman simply through a telegram that read, “Sayonara.”

Tokyo’s mobos hung on to Nakamura’s every word in each month’s installment of “Vogue en Vogue.” But between the shallow history of Western fashion in Japan and the author’s own lack of sartorial experience, Nakamura’s fashion advice was often times dubious. VAN Jacket founder Ishizu Kensuke went to Meiji University during the peak years of “Vogue en Vogue” and learned all his style basics from Nakamura. Ishizu’s adherence to the column, however, often got him in trouble. After reading Nakamura’s review of an amazing new cologne, Ishizu bugged every department store in Tokyo until he finally found a bottle. Ishizu proudly wore the fragrance around town, despite the fact that it made him smell like a sweaty animal. Turns out that it was not a cologne at all, but pure musk oil.

This was the least of Nakamura’s problems: at the end of 1932, his transgressions escalated to national infamy. On December 12, newspapers reported that he attempted a double-suicide with the brooding 18 year-old Moulin Rouge Shinjuku-za soprano Takanawa Yoshiko (高輪芳子). Takanawa often talked about dying at a young age, and after meeting Nakamura, she finally decided to take matters into her own hands (source). Despite a platonic relationship, the once-cynical playboy Nakamura fell so hard for the young woman that he decided to join her plunge into death. Nakamura poisoned them both with gas in his apartment.

But the couple failed to enter the afterlife together: Nakamura survived, while Takanawa died. Police prosecuted him for his role in the suicide. In the courtroom, the judge accused Nakamura of ruining the lives of countless young virgins from good families, but Nakamura argued that it was the girls who kept begging him for relationships. Perhaps his explanation resonated with the judge, as he only received a suspended sentence. And as further proof that all publicity is good publicity, the incident put Tokyo’s Moulin Rouge Shinjuku-za theater on the early Shōwa pop culture map.

After the scandal, one of the hit productions at the Moulin Rouge was Nakamura’s own self-written play about his double suicide — “Shinjuku Souvenir.” He played himself. And then on November 15, 1934, Nakamura again attempted suicide with sleeping pills, this time with the actress who played the Takanawa role in the play. But in an ironic reversal, Nakamura died this round, and his female companion survived.

Living only to the age of 29, Nakamura was a great mystery in his day and fell into obscurity in modern times. Magazine Brutus asked older readers to send in personal accounts of Nakamura in a 1980 issue but came up dry.

Like most liberal modernist culture in Japan, Shinseinen faced tough times in the fascist 1930s. The magazine expanded its readership to women during that decade, and “Vogue en Vogue” came to cover fashion trends for both sexes. Translator Hasegawa Shūji took over under the column, writing under the female pen name Hara Narako. But “Vogue en Vogue” ended in December 1938 just as the Pacific War took on a new intensity in China. Shinseinen dropped its stylish modernism for jingoistic war reports.

In the peace of the postwar, the magazine returned to its roots with detective fiction. But unable to keep up with increased marketplace competition, Shinseinen folded in 1950. With 30 years on newsstands, the magazine lived just one year longer than NNakamura Shinjirō.

Sources and Further Reading
Yasuko Claremont: Shinseinen in the Interwar Period (1920-30)
湯浅篤志・大山敏編『叢書新青年 聞書抄』
中野正昭: 新興芸術派とレヴュー劇場

W. David MARX
September 8, 2015

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

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