Until junior high, I went to local public schools and only joined Keio from high school. My father was a civil servant, and I guess you could say I was raised in a pretty strict family. That may be one reason why growing up I always wanted to be independent, which is also why I chose to go to Keio Girls Senior High School. The school was known for its independent, free-spirited nature, and it was there that I found myself surrounded by a truly unique group of friends who all had lots of personality. We always had fun at school, due in part to the many events it puts on, like the drama festival in June and our school festival in October, not to mention the Halloween and Christmas parties. Sometimes students would even throw birthday parties for their teachers in the classroom. [laughs]
That was about the time I first started getting into fashion and was a so-called "Olive Girl" because I read fashion magazines like Olive and CUTiE, which I would later go on to help edit. I remember being a costume designer for a play during the high school drama festival, staying up all night making outfits for the leading actress. After high school, I thought about going to fashion school instead of university, but my parents persuaded me to rethink my decision.
-And you ended up studying law at university.
I thought that being a public servant like my father would give me the most independence as a woman and decided to study at the Keio Department of Law. I was studying under criminal law professor Hisao Kato, but at the time I wasn’t really concerned with the legal world. I got to join a student dance club that I had adored since high school and practically danced my way through school and was completely behind the ball when it came time to find a job. I only started studying to pass the Civil Service Examination during my third year of college.
-How did you end up working at the Ministry of Home Affairs (now the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications)?
My family had moved around the country because of my father's work, so I'd experienced living in rural areas and was initially interested in working for a regional government somewhere. Then, during an informal visit to the Ministry of Home Affairs, I was impressed by the wonderful people there and wanted to work together with and learn from them. After joining the ministry, I did six months of training at the National Personnel Authority before being transferred to the Gifu Prefectural Office, where I also had great co-workers who looked after me. Despite only being there for about a year, the position afforded me plenty of opportunities to broaden my horizons through discussions with the heads of different municipalities, and I was able to gain a basic understanding of how local governments work in Japan.
-You then made a sudden career change and became a fashion editor.
Gifu was actually one of Japan's first major textile producers. When I saw the city’s once glamorous shopping districts now shuttered, I knew I had to do something and felt a strong desire to work in the fashion industry. When I found out that the publishing company Takarajimasha was looking for fashion editors, I applied immediately. My boss at the Ministry of Home Affairs tried to convince me to stay, but I had already made up my mind. I was told I could stay at my current job and still pursue fashion as a hobby, but I knew that if I was going to get into fashion, I wanted to dive in head first. Looking back, I still feel like I abandoned my co-workers at the ministry and the Gifu Prefectural Office. I didn’t even discuss my decision with my parents until after the fact, when I called them to tell them about my career change. Later, my father faxed me a long letter, but I was so scared of what he’d written that I’ve actually never read it. I know I would cry if I did.
-What was it like starting your career over as an editor?
As a new editor, I had to make up for my lack of experience and threw myself into my work. I spent my initial training in the editorial department of CUTiE, of which I was a regular reader, before being assigned to SPRiNG. At the time, SPRiNG was a bi-weekly publication, so there was a crunch every two weeks when we would have to finish all of our edits. It was hard work, but every day was filled with the same excitement I felt as a student the day before a big school festival. At first it was a thrill to be on shoots with models, photographers, and stylists, but I slowly realized that I also wanted to coordinate the models’ outfits, which are the most important part of fashion photography. And when I looked into it, it turned out that fashion editors in places like Paris and London are heavily involved in the coordination process, similar to the role of a creative director, and I wanted to do that, too. That’s when I had the idea to go to the UK and train as a stylist.
-That’s quite a bold decision.
I suppose so. But I really worked myself up, being the kind of person who gets tunnel vision once they’ve set their mind to something. [laughs] I had visited London once before during a short-term study abroad program in high school, and I was studying English quite intensively at that time, so I wasn’t particularly nervous about going. Once I was there, one of my acquaintances at fashion school introduced me to stylist Marko Matysik, and I worked as his assistant on advertisements for luxury retailer Harrods.
-And you returned one year later to start your career as a freelance fashion editor.
Yes, I freelanced for about seven or eight years doing editorial work for women’s fashion magazines as well as art direction and styling for advertisements. The more I worked the more I became aware of labor issues in the fashion industry, particularly copyright issues concerning photographs and the long hours and harassment issues workers faced.
The issue surrounding photograph copyrights has to do with licensing and usage fees, which are paid to photographers who shoot the images used in posters and magazine advertisements. But a photograph is the product of the work many more people than just the photographer. This includes editors such as myself, stylists, and makeup artists. But the photographer is generally the only person entitled to image copyrights. I always wondered about this since there are many times when stylists or editors take the lead on a photo shoot. There are also many cases when licensing and usage fees simply go unpaid. The fashion industry has long been built on verbal promises without official written contracts, so licensing, usage fees, and other contract details like payment are often left ambiguous. That’s when I suddenly remembered that I had graduated from the Department of Law in the Faculty of Law—this was my field. [laughs] That was the moment I decided to become a lawyer.
-So you decided to become a lawyer and tackle these legal issues yourself?
I did. I worked as a contributing editor making proposals and providing art direction for ELLE Japon until March 2011. I began studying for law school in April and was admitted to the Graduate School of Law at Hitotsubashi University in April the following year. Some people keep working while going to law school, but I wanted to give my full attention to the national bar examination, so I quit working entirely. Even then, it was a struggle to keep up with my studies, since it had been so long since I had been in school. I even failed my first attempt at the bar exam before managing to pass the second time. I registered as a lawyer in 2016 and got a job as an in-house lawyer at Cocone Corporation, a digital company that makes online applications like games that let you dress up digital avatars. Cocone was fascinating because, despite its digital disposition, it sees itself as an apparel company. I was in charge of public relations, and the work itself was interesting, but I knew the wisest way for me to build a career as a lawyer was to enter a law firm. That's when I took my current position at Hayashi & Partners, and right now I’m trying to gain more experience in corporate law.
-I’ve heard that you’re aiming to be a pioneering lawyer in Japanese fashion law. Is this true?
When I was an editor, I always wished there was a safe place for people in the fashion industry to come and get legal advice. When I mentioned my idea to a senior colleague at my firm, he suggested that I get started right away, and with the help of the firm, I launched fashionlaw.tokyo this past January. I’ve already dealt with plenty of cases involving unpaid workers and counterfeit products, and I’m hoping that my practice will become a base for fashion law in Japan, which has yet to embrace this field of law. I’m also hoping to gradually resume my work as a fashion editor. It’s an attractive proposition for me to be involved in the fashion industry as both a creator and a legal expert because as a creator I can get real-world insights into the current state of the industry.
-Could you say a few final words to current students?
For me, Keio means freedom. I think that throughout high school and college I was able to grow in an open-minded environment that valued individuality. And luckiest of all, I was able to meet many great people here. To this day, I still go out to eat with my girl friends from high school and when I see my college friends, it’s like we’re back to being students again even though we all work in completely different fields now. I’m the person I am today thanks to these friends and many of the other people I have met throughout my career at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the Gifu Prefectural Office, and while studying for the bar exam. I think students at Keio should trust their intuition and pursue whatever it is that they want to do. Your intuition can be surprisingly spot on. If you follow it and work like mad, you'll meet great people along the way, which can open doors to all kinds of new paths and possibilities you never expected.
-Thank you for your time.
Miyuki Ebisawa graduated from the Department of Law in the Faculty of Law, Keio University, in 1998. She joined the Ministry of Home Affairs (now the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications) the same year before changing careers a year later, joining Takarajimasha, Inc., where she edited women’s fashion magazine SPRiNG. In 2003, Ebisawa traveled to London to work under stylist Marko Matysik and returned to Japan in 2004 to start her career as a freelance fashion editor.
Ebisawa was admitted to the Graduate School of Law at Hitotsubashi University in 2012 and finished her legal education at the Legal Research and Training Institute in 2016. She is a registered attorney at the Daini Tokyo Bar Association. After a brief stint at Cocone Corporation, she joined the legal firm Hayashi & Partners, where she has recently launched fashionlaw.tokyo, a legal counseling service for the fashion industry.
*This article originally appeared in the 2018 autumn edition (No. 300) of Juku.
*All affiliations and titles are those at the time of publishing.