Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Demon Slayer anime.
In case anyone would like to read it from there, a version of this article was also published on ANN.
What’s the first image that pops into your mind about Japan? When people bring up their ideas of Japanese aesthetic, their minds probably gravitate to two images. For Japanophiles and history buffs, they might think something “traditional:” homes of cedar or clay-tile roofing, opaque paper sliding doors, eave-sheltered porches of wood surrounded by serene, immaculate, miniature displays of nature. For futurist aficionados and cyberpunk doomsayers, they might think something Ghost-in-the-Shell: vistas of tall glass and steel, towers into the nighttime skyline, darkness displaced vaguely by multi-colored hues of strobe and neon. The first image hearkens to a period in Japan “untouched” by the influences of the outside world. The second image conjures a picture of Japan “consumed” by it. Regardless of how totally accurate these images are, they’re probably the two most people gravitate to when thinking about Japan…
…except there’s a third image that’s also memorable to many Japanese. It’s a moment of transition in Japanese history, the traditional aesthetic of Edo Japan intersecting with the imported aesthetic of the West unleashed during Meiji. Kimono and business suits, obi wraps and hats, men and boys, women and girls amble the sumptuous Western-inspired streets of day-lit Ginza or the sultry electric-lit thoroughfares of nightlife Asakusa in traditional, Western, and syncretic (traditional-and-Western mixed) fashion. It’s this fashionable third of transitory excitement that Demon Slayer manages to capture pretty well. Let’s explore some of that mixed fashion and discuss how urbanites in Japan fell in love with it, historically.
Tanjiro, the Demon Slayer Corps, and the Gakuran
The audience’s first acquaintance with this iconic mixed-image fashion comes from Tanjiro. After successfully joining the Demon Slayer Corps, his wardrobe gets a significant makeover from his previous get-up. Besides the green-black checkered haori jacket that he’s almost always seen wearing, he replaces both the faded white-grey kimono he starts with and the flow-blue and white-cloud kimono given to him by his identically-dressed mentor during the Demon Slayer exam in favor of a Western-inspired uniform.
The uniform Tanjiro wears resembles a gakuran. The gakuran is a type of male student clothing schools adopted on the orders during the Meiji era. It has survived the Meiji era and World War II to be common student dress code to this day. Breaking down “gakuran” by its kanji etymology (学蘭), “gaku (学)” refers to the Japanese for school or student, while “ran (蘭)” refers to the shortened Japanese pronunciation for Holland. “Ran” part also refers more generally to the Occidental West.
During the Edo Period (i.e. the era before the Meiji period), the only legal contact that the Tokugawa shogunate permitted Japanese to have with white Westerners was through Dutch traders. Holland (aka the Netherlands) was the only Western power that professed no interest in coupling Christian missions with regular trade, and the Tokugawa had no interest in tolerating a new religion that they couldn’t control and could endanger their political grip over the country. The novel information, technology, thinking, and learning that arose out of this Dutch trading relationship became known as Dutch Learning, or “rangaku (蘭学).” Then Dutch Learning also became Western Learning. Eventually, because the Dutch were the only port of access to the Japanese to anything Western during the 200+ year Edo period, the “ran” part of “rangaku” and “gakuran” was conflated with and became associated with everything Western.
Thus by the time of the Meiji period, it seemed natural fit for the Japanese for to coin the word for this Western-style Japanese school uniform based on “ran” as well as “gaku”.
Uniforms promote a sense of socioeconomic equality between those peoples wearing them, and they also lend their wearers a stronger sense of identification to the institution that those uniforms signify a belonging to. Why Meiji officials demanded that schools specifically adopt the gakuran though, especially when it is Western-modeled and requires imported wool to make, is due to their plans for modernizing Japan. In order to catch up to the West in power and influence, Japanese leaders during the Meiji wanted both to promote feelings of national unity in future generations and create a large and disciplined modern army. The gakuran is the product of those two priorities.
The gakuran is a product of nationalism and war. The design is based off the Waffenrock, a Prussian-inspired military uniform. To put briefly, the Prussians were famous for fielding one of the best 19th century armies in Western history. If only in one respect, Japanese men enlisting (or being conscripted) into the army would find wearing a military-style uniform familiar. As aforementioned, the gakuran was adopted as male dress code for Japanese schools starting from Meiji era, through post-WWII, and into the largely pacifist. While no longer serving a war-related purpose, today’s gakuran remains common staple of winter uniform for elementary to high school male students, though it’s now currently vying for popularity in the secondary education level with Anglo-style dress shirts and blazers.
Given that Tanjiro is supposed to be straightforward kind of protagonist hero that’s supposed to appeal to a shounen demographic, it makes well-enough sense from a meta marketing perspective to dress Tanjiro in clothing that young school boys also wear somewhat often and can consequently identify with more readily. But Demon Slayer also leverages the gakuran’s school-war pipedrain history to fabricate a scenario that feels familiar, intuitive even, and thus engaging to Japanese viewers: a history of united militancy. A young boy in a gakuran is an active member of the Demon Slayer Corps. The Demon Slayer Corps is a centuries-old supernatural warrior organization dedicated to unceasing war against demons for the sake of all Japanese.
Demon Slayer also gives thought in grounding Tanjiro’s gakuran into the era he’s living in — comparing his uniform to his mentor’s. Tanjiro is an active Demon Slayer of the Taisho era. His mentor figure Urokodaki is a once active Demon Slayer from the Edo era. The show has present moments of currently active Demon Slayer Tanjiro killing demons in his gakuran uniform, and flashbacks of a once active Demon Slayer Urokodaki who did his demon killing in kimono vestments. Appearance-wise, the Demon Slayer Corps is keeping up with the times. But interestingly enough, Tanjiro still wears fashion articles that keep his character looking very traditionally Japanese whilst giving him a strikingly memorable look. The green-black checkered haori he wears over his gakuran is very much a visual reminder of his still strong connection to his family…
…even as its living members have been reduced to one, with that last one being now a demon.
But then there’s his hanafuda-like earrings, which, if not traditional Edo fashion, sport a very Japanese subject. Emblazened with images of the midday sun, and colored in a way to match his reddish hair, they pair well, thematics-wise, with the katana he carries – the sword’s properties bearing the same power to destroy demons as the sun does when it catches them in the daylight. Sun and sword scorch all they catch into blackness and nothingness. The picture we have of Tanjiro is not that of the Japanese copy-pasting Western fashion, but rather creating a new fashion style: a veritable Japanese-Western composite and reinvention.
Meiji Origins of Western Fashion
While the anime takes place in the Taisho era, about when Western-style fashion became vogue in cities, the origins of Western and syncretic fashion in Japan can be found in the preceding Meiji. While the Meiji restorationists who overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate fought under the slogan of driving Western “barbarian” influence out, those same people came to later realize that they’ll need to modernize like the West if they’re going have a snowball’s chance of doing so. The Japanese have sequestered themselves in their little pond of control for the longest time. They were content enough with internal peace and the lack of outside threats to feel no need to learn too much about the the outside world, not until it was too late for the Tokugawa shogunate. The Meiji restorationists found themselves unavoidably having to navigate the wide seas with big Western fish, hoping they won’t get gobbled up like China until they developed the strength to resist.
The early years of the Meiji government were as such: accepting and adopting as many things Western as possible. These included initiatives such as: leasing and importing Western industrial machinery; inviting and hiring Western modernization advisors; establishing mandatory primary-level Western-modeled education for all Japanese (plus a public university system); and converting their small, elite class of dated-ly equipped warrior-samurai into a massive, commoner constituted army of conscripted armymen (plus a modern steel-oil navy). All these modernization efforts cost money however, and the initial challenge for the Meiji government was how to obtain that capital. Unequal treaties imposed on Japan by the West, in addition to humiliating the Japanese, hampered their efforts to earn cash through tariffs. The treaties stripped Japan of control over tariff autonomy. Japan exported its oriental raw materials and exotic artisan goods, and it borrowed from Western creditors.
A major priority for Japan, ultimately, was renegotiating back its tariff autonomy, and important Meiji officials early on also believed that adopting Western culture would impress the West enough to make that happen. Japanese elites in the Meiji Era adopted Western-styles of attire and mannerisms in ballrooms, classrooms, and barracks, all in an attempt to make Japan look culturally modern, sophisticated, and “enlightened” like their Western peers.
Emperor Meiji retired the traditional Japanese imperial raiment in photos for the Western regalia of a decorated general (though he took part in no wars himself). The Rokumeikan, built with a facade and décor mirroring the dance halls of European courts, entertained important Western visitors together with Japanese elites (dressed deliberately in high Western fashion). Taken alone, these efforts at impressing the West by culturally emulating them saw mixed-to-negative success.
This attraction for Western culture during the Meiji stayed mostly within Japanese circles and was driven in-large part for political purposes that ultimately seemed to catch few bites. What did bring the big fish in was Japan’s military victories over China and especially Russia with its successfully modernized army and navy (the Russian part you can read more about in this ANN article). In the aftermath of those military victories, Japan found certain Western powers more agreeable to treaty revisions with the hope of getting in good with Japan as a powerful ally. Western powers gradually granted Japan’s tariff autonomy back, and Britain in particular forged a military alliance with Japan. This Anglo-Japanese alliance would bring Japan into war on the side of the Allies during the First World War. Japan would go on to have a minor role in the war militarily, capturing small German holdings in both China and the Pacific Ocean.
Much more significant to Japan during WWI was the war’s impact on its economy and living standards. While Japan able to successfully build up and modernize its export industries since the Restoration days, Japanese still exports arrived late as a player in the international free trading circuit. Japanese industries to compete with Western ones in many of the same categories of products until WWI happened. The Western powers dedicated the entirety of their economies to winning the war effort. Japan was able to avoid a war economy transition because it wasn’t forced to contribute as much martially. As a result, with Western industries unable to supply manufactured consumer goods like they did before, Japanese ones stepped into the void and successfully expanded their manufacturing capacity to satisfy consumer demand.
More Japanese were at work more than ever, export industries were raking in more profit than ever, and the government was collecting more taxes than ever. The damage that sustained disruption to productivity would bring during this prosperous time the Japanese labor movement the leverage it needed to secure better working conditions and higher working pay for employees. WWI fueled the rise of a Japanese urban middle class, a class far more numerous if not quite as wealthy as the elites. That class had the spare change to buy some of the finer things in life… like more fashionable clothes.
Taisho Western and Syncretic Fashion
While the Japan’s display of interest into Western appearances during the Meiji era was limited mainly to its few-in-number socio-economic elites, the Taisho era saw people from its more numerous urban middle class find affinity with Western sensibilities, including fashion. Emperor Meiji eventually passed away and was succeeded by Emperor Taisho – marking, symbolically, the end of one dynamic period and the start of another. The Meiji era commenced with a select group of oligarchic figures called the Genro directing the course of virtually all national policy in Japan. The Taisho era began with elected leaders in the Diet legislature competing and compromising for control of Japan’s national destiny.
While the seeds of liberalism were sown in the preceding era of Meiji Restoration, it’s during the era of “Taisho Democracy” that these they hit their peak of flourish as political and social movements. The initial fervor for the Japanese people to learn about and adopt, indiscriminately, everything Western during Meiji led to many Japanese by Taisho learning about and identifying with Western liberal ideas, up to and including: constitutional democracy, social equality, and free expression. With oligarchic control losing fervor and popular rule becoming fashionable, the Taisho era was a momentary period of tolerance and experimentation: a time both remarkable for its vibrant aesthetic and short-lived duration.
Outside those subjective determinations of cute, cool, beautiful, sophisticated, and every aesthetically-pleasing adjective in-between, Japanese urbanites wore Western attire because it made them look modern. “Modern” carried liberal connotations in the context of the Japanese modern boy and girl (mogo and moga). Bedecked from head to toe in Western designer suits and dresses, the moga especially were known for their financial independence, their spending habits, their workplace ambitions, and their sexual freedom – all traits decried by mostly male social conservatives for being an aberrant stain to their proud Japanese heritage. Arm-in-arm with their fellow moga or mogo man, moga girls flaunted their fashion choices in the daylight of sumptuous Ginza, the nightlife of sultry Asakusa, and other places for trendy urban socialites.
Not every trendy urban socialite was trying to make a statement though, and not every one of them could afford a complete Western outfit. Shorter-brimmed hats for men would do for many, and wider-brimmed ones for ladies plenty sufficed, plus maybe a watch and shawl, shoes and a purse, and stuff done to regular hair and facial. With Tanjiro and his haori and gakuran, and others with their mixed fashion in Asakusa and elsewhere, the Taisho scene is not so much a scene of the West conquering Japanese culture, but a rude harmony of Japanese adopting aspects of what they like about the West on the popular level. The result at the end is the image mentioned in the beginning, “the traditional aesthetic of Edo Japan intersecting with the imported aesthetic of the West unleashed during Meiji”, consummated into its iconic fame by Taisho.
From the gakuran to modernized Asakusa, Demon Slayer captures that third image well: not so well known to outsiders, perhaps, but iconic to many Japanese — like an open Taisho secret.