Japanese Modernism and The Jazz Age

Early Spring (Shensun): Manners of Showa Women (Showa bijiin fuzoka), 1931, by Ito Shinsui, colour woodblock, 35.4 x 23.3 cm. Lillian Ernestine Lobb Bequest

Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) chronicled the rise of modernity and sexual freedoms among young people in Japan during the interwar years. His first major literary success, after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 that devastated both Tokyo and Yokohama and left 100,000 dead, was his novel Naomi, first published in 1924 in serial form in the Osaka Asahi Shinbun, and published in book form in 1925. The novel explored Japanese Modernism and the relationship between a conservative Japanese man Joji, and the eponymous hero of the novel, Naomi, a young Japanese girl. Social class, sexual obsession, cultural identity and flouting conventional standards of behaviour among young Japanese, in a rapidly changing society, were put under Tanizaki’s literary, microscope.

Naomi is a sexually liberated young woman whose life and interests mimic those found in Western culture of the period. She liked movies, dancing, jazz, Western fashion, lifestyle magazines, makeup, and going out. She had few inhibitions and is the epitome of a modan garu (shortened to moga) in Japan, a name derived from the acronym for ‘modern girl’. These flappers, as they would have been called in America, were financially and emotionally independent of their families. They lived by themselves, worked – often in low-paid jobs – smoked, cut their hair into bobs, and were avid consumers of fashion. For these young women, life was about lifestyle choices and there were several contemporary magazines of the period that pandered to their lifestyle choices. Viewed by traditionally conservative Japanese as decadent, hedonistic, superficial, and vacuous, today moga would be seen as nothing more than young people leading their own lives and having fun.

The cultural and social choices made by modern girls during the 1920s and 1930s in Japan lies at the heart of the exhibition Japanese Modernism showing at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) until early October this year. Over 190 paintings, woodblocks, shin hanga prints, street posters, period glassware, magazine covers and fashion (both men’s and women’s kimonos incorporating Art Deco designs are included) afford a fascinating insight into the two decades bookended by the Kanto earthquake and the horrors of the Second World War, demonstrating how moga upended traditional Japanese values and social mores by mimicking and adopting Western dress, as well as a Western way of doing things. This is the first time that these artworks, memorabilia, stylish Art Deco glassware and miso bowls decorated in bold Art Deco patterns that have been acquired by the NGV over the previous five years, has been exhibited, collectively.

I spoke to Wayne Crothers, chief curator of Asian art at the NGV and the curator of Japanese Modernism, recently. As a young man he had been a student in Japan and lived there for 18 years. Even though this exhibition is essentially about moga and the role of modern women in Japanese society and art, Crothers, cautions about seeing Japanese Modernism as a feminist exhibition. It is not, he affirmed. ‘It is an exhibition about a specific era of modern design, lifestyle and decorative arts, and about female artists and women depicted in art. It is about a period when women could get into art school,’ he explained.

Even so, the two largest paintings in the show are by women and virtually all of the two-dimensional artworks on display feature women as their subject matter, many seen in a very modern bijin-ga way. (Bijin-ga is Japanese for ‘beautiful woman’, and was an art genre practised through the 18th and 19th centuries). Virtually all of the moga seen here, although liberated socially, superficially at least, are observed through a male gaze in a country that was, and still is, conservative and patriarchal. Traditionally women were expected to be beautiful and elegant, as well as ‘ good wives and wise mothers’.

Modern Japanese Women

Ishikawa Toraji (1875-1964), who travelled widely in America and Europe in 1902, was essentially a landscape artist. But he also possessed the male gaze when it came to women. His woodblock series of Ten Types of Female Nudes (1934), for which he is well known – the complete set of 10 is featured in the exhibition – show nude Japanese women in intimate poses in modern surroundings where sofas are decidedly art deco and bathrooms are white tiled. Toraji’s women wear nothing more than bobbed hair and lipstick – although one does wear stockings and rings. All perform their toilette in a casual way devoid of any sexual overtones. They are indisputably modern, insouciant and exposed, women. Their limbs are curvaceous and their bodies luxurious. Needless to say when the series was published as woodblock prints in 1934 there was public outcry from conservative Japanese and attempts were made to ban the woodblock prints as being, well, pornographic. Today, we see them differently. They possess a languid elegance, which is only mildly lascivious.

Many of the moga in Japanese Modernism are otherwise seen as decorative accessories to whatever else is going on in the artworks. The young women are either ciphers for advertising or serve as models whose aspirational aims aligned with those featured in the lifestyle magazines.

Two large-scale paintings that stand out are both by women artists. Ayako Negishi’s Waiting for Makeup (1938) and Taniguchi Fumie’s 1935, sublime, six-panel, folding screen Preparing to Go Out (Yosoou hitobito). Negishi died from illness when she was young after a brief but successful career, while Fumie went on to lead a life that now reads like the script of a Hollywood movie, a life that perfectly encapsulated the image of a determined, thrice-married, young woman of the period.

Negishi’s large-scale ink on paper work stands almost two metres in height and shows two moga sitting casually on the floor in a bland interior. Both wear stylish Western clothes and have the latest fashionable coiffed hair style of tight waves, created by the must have fashion accessory, the French, Marcel hair-irons.

One large work on paper by Saeki Shunko, Tea and Coffee Salon, Sabo (1938), shows two modern girls wearing identical dresses – possibly waitress uniforms – and high heeled shoes. They could have been transported from the streets of any Western metropolis. Their arms are folded in acute boredom and one can sense that they cannot wait to leave work and go dancing. The café interior represents the height of 1930s modernity and comfort, with Western fittings, soft chairs, a coffee table magazine and imported ceramic jars. It is a sophisticated interior where young people would go to drink coffee and, hang out. Something that is familiar in today’s world, too.

Fumie’s six-panelled screen by comparison tells a story. Reading left to right six young women are seen discarding the traditional kimono and wooden sandals (geta) for Western dresses as they prepare for a night on the town. Sexy sheath dresses are favoured and geta give way to elegant high-heeled shoes, as a maid runs the Marcel through their hair to achieve the tight, fashionable waves that were so de rigueur. Fumie’s young women are confident, chic and sexy with lives devoted to achieving a modern, casual elegance. The kimono was never fully abandoned though and shops began selling version that incorporated Art Deco designs, several examples are on display along with fabric from the period.

Fumie was a modern girl herself and she painted women doing modern things which were emblematic of her own life. Once the allied bombing of Tokyo started in the 1940s, she left the city with her partner whom she later married, and moved to his rural hometown close to Hiroshima. They established an art school that proved to be unsuccessful, where her husband seduced female students. After two years, Fumie had had enough and left him with their two young children – there were no co-parenting arrangements for divorced couples then as indeed there are not in Japan today – and returned to a ruined Tokyo where she met a Japanese/American who was in Japan looking for a wife. She married him and went off to America (Salt Lake City) with the hope of introducing her artwork to the US public.

After two years, Fumie again exited a failed marriage and moved to Los Angeles. Tragically she never was able to establish herself in the American art world. There was a third husband, a humble gardener, and they lived together until he died, after which Fumie had to support herself as a seamstress, waitress and maid. She died in 2002 having never painted again. In 2009, a pair of her large-scale screens dating from 1937, that showed two moga enjoying their leisure time in the Japanese countryside, sold through Christies for US$47,500.

The First Subway in Asia

But the decades between the war years were not all about fashion and vacuous \young. Leisure opportunities beckoned as a result of new and efficient transportation. The first subway in Asia opened in Tokyo in 1927 and was memorialised in a poster by graphic designer Hisui Sugiura (1876-1966) The First Subway in Asia, which was less about the train and station and more a social document of the crowd packing the platform, and what they were wearing. At the far end of the platform we see women in kimonos, while foregrounded is a thoroughly modern Japanese family dressed in Western clothes. This was the age of machines and speed, and while other Art Deco designers – particularly those in Europe – placed an emphasis on trains, ships and cars, with strong colours, sharp angles and dramatic perspectives, in their designs, Sugiura captured the Art Deco zeitgeist through the clothes people wore.

Crothers said rather modestly that Japanese Modernism ‘is a pretty exciting exhibition’. It is much more than that. Japanese Modernism is actually a social document that charts the flowering over 20 years of young Japanese women’s struggle to find a place for themselves located somewhere between stultifying tradition and modernity. Popular culture and interior design are also represented in the exhibition with beautifully crafted glassware, lacquer ware and bronze ware, as well as street posters, magazines and graphic design.

Japan was devastated by the Second World War and the immediate post-war years were marred by poverty, inflation and food shortages. Even as the country rebuilt its economy and women became increasingly involved in manufacturing, they were still held hostage by patriarchal constraints that gave priority to ‘good wives and wise mothers’. The aspirational dreams seen and enjoyed by moga during the 1920s/30s dissipated in the ashes of history.


Until 4 October, Japanese Modernism, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, ngv.vic.gov.au