26 Feb 20

Japanese Modernism: between earthquake and war


Glamorous department stores, fashionable cafes, popular movie theatres, swinging dance halls and high-tech transportation. During the 1920s and 1930s, Japan’s great metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka pulsated with youthful optimism and creative energy. A new generation of confident and financially liberated youth challenged conservative views and delighted in rocking the establishment by making their own lifestyle choices. Work by day, dance until the early hours of the morning, and take vacations to the beaches in the summer and ski slopes in the winter. This new generation playfully known as moga and mobo – modern girls and modern boys – represented the arrival of modernity to Asia and, in turn, became the inspiration, icons and dynamism behind a creative movement that energised Japanese textile production, painting, printmaking, and bronze, lacquer and glass artisanship in the early twentieth century.1Moga and mobo are acronyms that abbreviate the Japanese romanised spelling of modan garu (modern girl) and modan boi (modern boy).

Similar to the nation’s history filled with natural disasters and ambitious recoveries, Japan’s modernist era is dramatically bookended by the destruction of the Great Kantō earthquake (1923) and the calamities of the Pacific War (1942–1945). At 11.58am on 1 September 1923, Tokyo’s largest earthquake of the modern era struck with a magnitude of 7.9. What was not destroyed by the quake was soon engulfed in the fires that raged through the city. Tokyo and Yokohama were razed to the ground by the earthquake and its aftermath, resulting in an estimated 140,000 deaths and 700,000 people left homeless.2Maribeth Graybill, The Artist’s Touch, The Craftsman’s Hand: Three Centuries of Japanese Prints from the Portland Art Museum, Portland Art Museum, Oregon, 2011, p. 273.

Tokyo’s reconstruction and its celebration of modernity was epitomised by the opening of the first subway in Asia in 1927. It consisted of four stations and linked the recreation park and zoo area of Ueno with the thriving temple, shopping and river precinct of Asakusa. The futuristic novelty of riding the subway was so popular that passengers were known to wait in line for more than two hours to make the short five-minute ride. Sugiura Hisui, the leading graphic designer of the time, created an iconic 1927 poster that proudly states in modern type fonts, ‘The only subway in the East’ and ‘Service between Ueno and Asakusa has started’. Using a dramatic diminishing point perspective, Sugiura creates a feeling of arrival with the train approaching a station platform brimming with eager travellers dressed in their finest attire. Alluding to the past, several women in the distance can be seen wearing kimono with traditional hairstyles. In the foreground, a girl holds a teddy bear, pointing to the train’s arrival and an excited group of men, women and children are dressed in of-the-moment fashion, as they are about to be transported into the future on this new mode of transportation.

With the enhanced quality and wide distribution possibilities of mechanised colour printing, graphic designers, illustrators and photographers found themselves at the avant-garde of visual aesthetics and social trends. In the same manner that 1960s and 1970s record jackets were to inspire imaginations of that era, visually evocative music scores of the 1920s and 1930s represented the modan (modern) and youthful dreams of the time.3Modan is a phoneticised English word in the Japanese language to mean things that were new and modern. Tunes echoing from cafe gramophones and playing in popular cinemas formed the soundtrack to modern daily life. Musical scores composed for the bohemian instruments of the young generation, the harmonica and ukulele, were produced by companies such as the Japanese subsidiary of the Victor Talking Machine Company and Japanese film studio Shochiku.4Kendal H. Brown, Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture 1920–1945, Art Services International, Virginia, 2012, p. 220.

The leading avant-garde art movements predominant in Europe at the time – Fauvism, Cubism, Suprematism and Futurism – were influencing Japanese designers and illustrators and resulted in a new, playful and often humorous East–West hybrid style of art and design that not only appealed to young adults but also children.5International Library of Children’s Literature, National Diet Library, no Kuni and Its Artists, <www.kodomo.go.jp/gallery/KODOMO_WEB/commentary/artists_e.html>, accessed 14 Jan. 2020. At the forefront of progressive Japanese illustration was the children’s magazine Kodomo no kuni (Children’s Land). Leading artists, such as Takei Takeo, Okamoto Kiichi and Honda Shotarō, regularly contributed with innovative works that combined edgy geometric shapes with shadow play, featured children in the latest fashion set against traditional flower motifs, and employed diminishing point perspectives to dynamic effect. Published in the year following the opening of Tokyo’s first subway, Takei’s cover illustration of children riding a train or street car by candlelight would have greatly appealed to Japan’s upcoming generation of adventurous and creative minds.

Moga: the modern girl

The heart and soul of Japanese modernism was the moga (modern girl) and their male counterpart the mobo (modern boy). A growing acceptance of women in the workplace combined with a burgeoning consumer culture, modern modes of transport and recreation activities, created new jobs that women were seen as more socially equipped to do than men. Attractive and well dressed, women in smart uniforms operated elevators in department stores, greeted customers in restaurants, cafes and teahouses, worked as conductors on buses, and transformed the experience of visiting a petrol station by serving as ‘gasoline girls’ filling cars with fuel and washing windscreens.6Frederic A. Sharf, The Brittle Decade: Visualizing Japan in the 1930s, MFA Publications, Boston, 2012, p. 150.

These modern young women were regarded as among the first generation of females in Asia to be liberated from traditional roles. Before this, an unmarried woman would remain with her family and assist with home duties or, in the case of rural families, undertake farm work. The opportunities for employment and a career that modern city life offered enticed many young women to leave their family home in regional areas and head for the city. Finding work and earning a personal income – as low as it may have been – provided them with the means to rent a small apartment, live by themselves and make their own decisions. Holding regular jobs by day, these independent and self-empowered women could conduct their lives as they pleased. Drinking, smoking and choosing their own friends, they frequented cafes and dance halls, often partying until late, before returning to their professional roles and dutifully being on time for work the next morning.

Although modern young women were seen by some to endanger conservative traditional values, they became an important part of the new Japanese economy not only as workers but also as active consumers of products, services and entertainment never before associated with the image of a young Japanese woman.7ibid. As consumers, a favourite activity and symbol of independence for moga was to choose, buy and wear their own clothes and accessories, rather than wear those deemed suitable by their parents. The easiest departure from tradition was to wear Western-style clothing; however, with a strong sentiment for Japanese culture many moga actively acquired new styles of vibrantly patterned kimono and obi waist sashes, matching them with a personal selection of Western- and Eastern-inspired accessories to create new fashion styles that their parents would find unimaginable. Beaded handbags, picnic baskets, Bakelite hairpins, parasols, headbands and straw hats, when matched with a kimono and obi featuring bold and colourful geometric designs, were guaranteed to turn heads and announce, in no uncertain terms, their newly attained social status with confidence.

Mobo: the modern boy

Similar to a Japanese man’s dignified outer appearance giving no indication of his inner personality, the mobo modern boy’s outer attire was a sombre plain kimono simply adorned with small mon (family emblems). Certain aspects of a mobo’s personality and interests, however, could be revealed through glimpses of the designs featured on his nagajyuban (long kimono undergarment) and haura (interlining of a haori; the outer coat worn over a kimono). Nagajyuban was often covered with lively repeating patterns, known as omoshirogara (interesting or amusing designs) depicting cars, boats and planes, vinyl records and comic book characters, or even the latest sport craze such as tennis, golf and athletics. Similarly, haori coats were dark and plain on the outside, but concealed sophisticated illustrations on the haura. These would be revealed during the appropriate moment at a party, or perhaps at relaxed personal encounters. Popular haura designs included baseball players, or motifs adapted from the burgeoning film industry from travel and literature, or of patriotic images that celebrated Japan’s recent militaristic exploits and ambitions. One popular format of design was to dramatically divide the composition diagonally to contrast scenes of traditional and modern Japan. A scene of travellers walking the Old Tokaidō Road juxtaposed with a modern locomotive making the same journey at rapid speed between Kyoto and Tokyo, or samurai galloping on horseback alongside contemporary warriors in modern tanks racing across a battlefield, or even a nostalgic scene of olden-day travellers camping at the foot of Mount Fuji juxtaposed with a cityscape celebrating Japan’s modernity featuring biplanes flying over an idealistic Tokyo skyline of New York–inspired skyscrapers.

During the latter half of the 1930s the social liberalism, freewheeling lifestyles and abundant creativity of Japan’s modern metropolises were gradually superseded by military ambition and nationalism that led to conservative government ideologies and campaigns of social austerity. Just as modernism had been born out of the tragedy of the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, a mere two decades later, it lurched towards a calamitous end with the Allied bombing of Japan’s major cities from the autumn of 1944 to the summer of 1945. Poignant photographs of central Tokyo in 1923 and 1945 display similar apocalyptic scenes of devastation. This was a tragedy the nation did not recover from until the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964 and the Osaka World Expo of 1970. Both were hallmark events that ushered in Japan’s second creative and economic rise of the modern era.

Notes

1

Moga and mobo are acronyms that abbreviate the Japanese romanised spelling of modan garu (modern girl) and modan boi (modern boy).

2

Maribeth Graybill, The Artist’s Touch, The Craftsman’s Hand: Three Centuries of Japanese Prints from the Portland Art Museum, Portland Art Museum, Oregon, 2011, p. 273.

3

Modan is a phoneticised English word in the Japanese language to mean things that were new and modern.

4

Kendal H. Brown, Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture 1920–1945, Art Services International, Virginia, 2012, p. 220.

5

International Library of Children’s Literature, National Diet Library, no Kuni and Its Artists, <www.kodomo.go.jp/gallery/KODOMO_WEB/commentary/artists_e.html>, accessed 14 Jan. 2020.

6

Frederic A. Sharf, The Brittle Decade: Visualizing Japan in the 1930s, MFA Publications, Boston, 2012, p. 150.

7

ibid.