Japan in 1920s and 1930s was a time when traditional art and aesthetics merged with European life and culture. The result was a pulsating era of Japanese modernism and the creation of Asian Art Deco architecture, paintings, prints, design and fashion. Investigating the socially liberated status of young Japanese women known as moga (modern girls), a 2020 exhibition at NGV, Japanese Modernism, included two major works by young contemporary female creators of the era. These women changed tradition by seeking financial and emotional independence and adopting Western fashion styles and behaviours.
They cut their long black hair, symbolic of a traditional Japanese woman’s beauty. They removed their conservative kimonos, the very clothes that defined the upper class, and put on vibrant kimono designs and Western dresses that gave lightness to their steps. These girls took it all in and made it all their own: bobbed hair, knee-length dresses, stockings, painted eyebrows and dark rouge. All of the things their mothers would disapprove of and maybe, they thought, all the things that some boys would frown upon, but who cared about those boys anyway?
In the 1930s, they strutted down the streets of Tokyo, Osaka and Kobe, arm in arm, without chaperones, defiantly, boldly, as if they owned the streets – no, they owned the entire city and its future. They flirted with boys and men and sometimes other girls, they ignored hisses from the old, they danced and danced until their feet hurt in their pumps, but they could have danced even more if they hadn’t had to go to work the next day. They drank. They smoked. They held on tight to boys, swaying their bodies languidly to the music. The media loved to hate them, calling them ‘loose’ and ‘immoral’ and ‘independent’.
A modern girl, moga, laughed at people bound to tradition; she laughed at conventions and modesty; she laughed at being bound to men (like their mothers and some of their friends were), working from sunrise to sunset, all for their families. This was the time of the Taisho and early Showa democracy; a liberalism movement coinciding with the reign of Emperor Taisho between 1912 and 1926, and the young Emperor Showa up to the late 1930s. Following the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and 1905, and after the First World War of 1914 to 1918, Japan became an international entity rivalling the West. Just as Japan was audacious, so were these girls.
Japan during the interwar period was a complicated space where modernity clashed with the deeply rooted Ie seido (the ideal Japanese family structure, as determined by law). Moga girls walked the sunny streets of Ginza in Tokyo, while factory girls in Gunma and Nagano worked ten-hour shifts reeling silk in humid windowless factory rooms for the good of the nation, their fingers red and senseless from scalding water. It was also a time when politicians lived in fear of assassination attempts, when anarchists and socialists shared the same temporal and intellectual space with nationalists and imperialists, and when Tokyo lay in waste from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and, as quickly as the city was destroyed, began to rebuild itself with buildings seemingly reappearing overnight.
From this landscape emerged Taniguchi Fumie, a young artist, creator of the work Preparing to go out (Yosoou hitobito), 1935. Taniguchi was a graduate of the prestigious Joshibi University of Art and Design, Tokyo, an all-female art school established in 1900 that sought ‘to empower the self-reliance of women through the arts’ and ‘to improve the social status of women’.1 Joshibi University of Art and Design, Joshibi University of Art and Design, www.joshibi.ac.jp/english, accessed 29 Nov. 2019. In some sense, Joshibi encouraged girls to be bad, to have agency over themselves. Taniguchi was a rising star, collecting major art awards in the 1930s, becoming somewhat of a darling of the art world. Her other works from this period, such as Farming woman, 1932; Inside the car, 1933; and Obi, 1935 (private collection), also feature empowered women (though not necessarily moga), who often stand, their eyes averted to something outside of the frame, as if they are looking at their possible future, readying themselves for the next movement. In the artist’s own words:
Girls I know who are so full of life and so masculine; they’ve all spurned the outdated common-sense and try to live their lives in a new way … [They are] unique artists born out of the fearful time period of today.2Taniguchi Fumie, ‘About women’s beauty’, Kuni, 14 Mar. 1938, pp. 42–3.
In Preparing to go out, Taniguchi presents six moga girls, four of them standing and two sitting. They are full of life and are not dictated by the male gaze, but by their own stance, as if to say, ‘This is who we are. We are audacious. We are artists of our own lives’. There is no artificiality in their postures. They are in repose. They are there. Simple as that. This is also reflected in Negishi Ayako’s work Waiting for makeup, 1938, which was acquired through the generous support of Jennifer and Brian Tymms. The work on paper features two young women dressed in Western-style clothing and sporting popular 1930s hairstyles made famous by French hair stylist, Marcel Grateau. Taniguchi and Negishi completed these works during a time when Japan, and the rest of the world, were becoming increasingly nationalistic and militaristic. In 1938, the Japanese government would encourage women to wear kokubo-fuku (national uniform), meaning that luxuriant women’s fashions were replaced with more functional clothing in line with an increasing nationalistic culture of austerity. Kimonos with bright colours of light yellow, pink and blue, and created from luxurious fabrics such as silk and laces would appear less frequently on the streets, as Japan became increasingly involved in a war in China. Women’s lives were no longer theirs but part of the nation, intimately bound to the war effort.
In a few years’ time, the moga parties, independence, agency, defiance, art and uniqueness would all but disappear. Taniguchi, herself, would be taken by nationalistic fever, founding the Women Artists’ Volunteer Corps (Joryu Bijutsuka Houkoutai) in 1943, her works – and other artist’s works such as Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita – reflecting the militarism of the time. Though she tried to regain her artistic fame after the war, it never reached the brilliance of the interwar period, and when she divorced her husband and moved to the US to remarry to a Japanese-American man in 1955, she disappeared from the art world altogether.3Megumi Kitahara, ‘Modern to Dento ni Ikita Nihongaka Taniguchi Fumiko’ (‘Living Between Modernity and Tradition: Fumie Taniguchi, a Japanese Painter (1910–2001)’), Machikaneyamaronso, Osaka University, 48 Mar. 2015, pp. 1–25. Moga, like Fumie herself, emerged from a particular landscape of a historical moment, and then disappeared. For now, though, here they are: women as the subjects of their own lives, fully themselves.
Mariko Nagai is a Japanese-born poet and author. This article was originally commissioned for and published in the Jan–Feb 2020 issue of NGV Magazine.
Joshibi University of Art and Design, Joshibi University of Art and Design, www.joshibi.ac.jp/english, accessed 29 Nov. 2019.
Taniguchi Fumie, ‘About women’s beauty’, Kuni, 14 Mar. 1938, pp. 42–3.
Megumi Kitahara, ‘Modern to Dento ni Ikita Nihongaka Taniguchi Fumiko’ (‘Living Between Modernity and Tradition: Fumie Taniguchi, a Japanese Painter (1910–2001)’), Machikaneyamaronso, Osaka University, 48 Mar. 2015, pp. 1–25.