Pan Pan Girls in Postwar Japan

It’s interesting how sometimes the smallest thing, something that is just mentioned in passing, can light a spark of interest that grows and grows. Last month I was reading a book that my brother had given me, Japrocksampler by the inimitable Julian Cope about post-war Japanese music, which has a great chapter at the beginning that gives a great background overview of Japan’s journey from their self-imposed isolationist feudalism to their defeat in WWII to the MacArthur led recovery. No discussion of the occupation is complete without analyzing the impact that the young American GI’s had on Japanese culture, which this book does in detail (particularly the influence of their music) but there is also a mention of a phenomenon I had never heard of yet which seemed totally obvious. Cope writes, “Young Japanese women known as pan-pan girls began to dress in the styles of modern Hollywood in the hope of enjoying a romantic liaison with a GI.” I was intrigued by the idea of these Japanese women, in a country that was a complete economic wreck and where most still wore traditional peasant mompes, trying to emulate Hollywood fashions. Once I started researching pan pan girls I found out that they were basically amateur teenage prostitutes, completely different from the traditional geishas and completely new. This book, Japan & the Allied Occupation, gives a great description with photos of the time period and, in particular, Japanese prostitution. These photos all come from the book and were taken by the writer, John W. Bennett, when he was working in Japan as part of the American occupying force.

A slum on the outskirts of Tokyo- it’s quite remarkable that only 60 years ago there were areas around Tokyo that looked like this. It was from there rural slums that pan pan girls came from.

A Tokyo slum.

Teenage pan pan girls in their Western fashions. Bennett says of them that they “were the direct result of the presence of GIs as sources of income and images of liberation.” Even though their outfits were fashioned out of desperation, the quirkiness of their outfits is pretty amazing.

More pan pan girls, these ones more feminine with their printed frocks, ankle socks and sandals.

These were semi-professional prostitutes who worked around bars (most pan pan girls solicited around public transport stations or on the street). I love the combination of the Western wide trousers with traditional geta sandals.

More semi-professional prostitutes soliciting.

Some of the cheaper professional prostitutes- professional prostitutes all worked out of houses, so this would have been taken at one of the less expensive and less elaborate ones. These prostitutes were not trying to appeal to the GI’s so retained their traditional outfits.

A traditional house of prostitution. The women here would be older and very different from the casual prostitution of the pan pan girls. Note the sign put up by the Army Military Police warning of VD.

Higher end prostitutes made up to look like geishas (who were more entertainers than prostitutes). The fabric on these kimonos is just gorgeous- I would love to see the colours on them.

I’m on the lookout for some firsthand accounts of what life was like for the pan pan girls- reading Bennett’s account of the period was a great introduction, especially in the comparison of the different strata’s of Japanese prostitution in the postwar period, but I want to find out more about the teenage prostitutes and their lives. This was from a journal entry of his from July 1949;

Now these girls are all teenage kids, runaways from farms or city homes, who are not bound by contract, and are in the business in an amateur way. It appears that all of them love the work, they are all highly motivated sexually, and go out for it in what can only be described as irrepressible girlish glee. You can see it on their faces–they eagerly come out in the best kimonos or dresses as soon as twilight falls, and compete with one another for the men, as if it were no different than picking up dates at the corner drug store in the states. What is behind the phenomenon is hard to say–something of the sort always existed in Japan–the pan pan or street girls are not new. But the magnitude and garishness of the present situation is unheard of. In Shinjuku alone there must be at least 3000 of these kids–this is no exaggeration.

Bennett now states that it was unlikely that they were gleeful about becoming prostitutes, but it is interesting to read his contemporary thoughts about the girls.

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4 comments

  1. robyn · March 9, 2009

    Hey Laura. It’s Robyn from VIP =) Saw your comment on Luxirare and recognized the name. Anyways, great post about pan pan girls. My mom calls me this when she thinks my outfit is trampy. Now I know what she means lol.

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  2. mieke.89 · May 20, 2009

    I accidentally found your blog about the pan pan girls, and i really like the know more about them. I searched in google for more information because it was mentioned in one of my modern history books on Japan. I really like this blog entry you’ve written about them.

    Greets,

    Annemiek

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  3. Anonymous · October 19, 2012

    My understanding about these women is that most of them weren't runaways, but victims of forced sex trade. These women were essentially brought in to try and reduce the great number of rapes committed by the GIs on regular women. Many of the prostitutes had no idea what they were getting into and then were trapped. I don't think there is anything particularly romantic about this.

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  4. Geeky Dave · February 20, 2014

    Hi. You might want to check out 'Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II' by Dower. He has a section specifically on this topic, and the rest of the book is pretty darned interesting too. (It won a Pulitzer by the way.)

    The situation was complex. After the war there was a wide scale disillusionment with the militarism of the war years. Some girls were reveling in their sexuality – rejecting social convention and the constraints of the past. Others were in it for the money — and the food which was otherwise hard to come by.

    Immediately after the surrender the Japanese government did recruit women to serve in government run brothels in hopes that having them available would keep the GIs from raping the Japanese women. Interestingly, there is some reference to the idea that this was also an attempt to maintain racial purity.

    There are many layers to the story. I do recommend Dower's book if you are interested in the pan-pan girls and the historically unique context in which they operated.

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