Art & Authority: The female body in Japanese art

From the eighteenth century bijinga art style to the early twentieth century moga, women in Japan have been defined by images; depicted as types and reduced into concepts by limited (and limiting) variations of pictorial schemes. It was through images that society upheld the world of gender stereotypes where patriarchal values could indisputably reign and where women would remain passive objects of a voyeuristic gaze.

From the eighteenth century bijinga art style to the early twentieth century moga, women in Japan have been defined by images; depicted as types and reduced into concepts by limited (and limiting) variations of pictorial schemes. It was through images that society upheld the world of gender stereotypes where patriarchal values could indisputably reign and where women would remain passive objects of a voyeuristic gaze.

In the early twentieth century Taisho era, a time of unprecedented democratisation, Japanese women began to acquire equal rights and opportunities.[1] They worked, earned money, spoke openly in public, chose their lovers, and went out to the bars and dance halls to have fun. They sought to eradicate the preconceived gender stereotypes which they externally expressed by relinquishing the traditional outfit and assuming the popular “western” fashion (including short hair, short skirts, high heels, etc); thus assaulting Japanese culture and tradition, and causing anxiety about the loss of the national identity. Their attempts at stepping out of the frame, however, were rapidly stifled by images which were used to both celebrate and condemn the progress these women exemplified.

Modern women in Taisho Japan.

Modern women in Taisho Japan.

Images turned modern women into symbols; the female body was exploited in ferocious debates about what it means to modernize and how to go about modernizing. None of these pictorial representations, including the ones that celebrated the progress that the modern women advocated, were successful in liberating the female body from the authority of the gaze. Angela Coutts, a scholar specialising in Japan, argues that the incapacity of the images to challenge the gender stereotypes and overthrow the traditional power dynamics, was due to “a failure of the imagination”; the incapacity of images (and their makers) to re-imagine the social role of women.[2] However, even at their most radical and imaginative, images inevitably enslave the female body.

4 Saitō Kazō_Song of Miss Nippon_songbook cover_1930_color lithograph, inks on paper

Saitō Kazō_Song of Miss Nippon_songbook cover_1930_color lithograph, inks on paper

As a site of power, a didactically charged object, image creates myths of our time and “closes the door on all [other] possibilities.”[3] It converts women into passive, voiceless, powerless objects that are to be owned and analysed, rather then listened to. Even when they successfully challenge our understanding of what it means to be a woman, images only do so by replacing one stereotype with another, creating yet another univocal category into which the totality of women should neatly fit. As a “labour of simplification,”[4] images violently mould women into an oppressive and limiting category of femaleness.

One of the most progressive (and today most iconic) images of the moga style is Kobayakawa Kiyoshi’s woodblock print Tipsy (1930). The female figure in the image is seated in a bar, drinking, smoking, wearing a dress that exposes her skin, red rouge on her lips. Living it up in the public, she is a far cry from the decent, traditional kimono-clad Japanese woman or, even, the subservient geisha from Utamaro’s bijinga. Her piercing gaze back towards us and out of the frame is striking and revolutionary. The oppressive voyeurism gives way to reciprocal viewing and, seemingly, a more democratic dialogue with the figure in the frame.

Image 2: Kobayakawa Kiyoshi, Tipsy, 1930. Woodblock print, 51.3 x 30.5 cm.  Honolulu Museum of Art.

Kobayakawa Kiyoshi, Tipsy, 1930. Woodblock print, 51.3 x 30.5 cm.
Honolulu Museum of Art.

By letting her return our gaze, Kiyoshi portrays the modern woman as an empowered agent that stands up for herself against any criticism. Her posture is not stiff as to suggest she is caught or alarmed by the viewer. On the contrary, she appears comfortable – her head is slightly tilted, her chin rests lightly on her left hand, her mouth opened suggesting her facial muscles are relaxed. Her whole posture is deliberately assumed, performative. What is more, she daringly lifts her cigarette towards her face and into the middle of the picture plane, thereby bringing it into the focus of our attention. With this gesture she not only asserts her right and freedom but also daringly provokes the viewer’s conservative attitudes. And what is more, her bright red lips are tantalisingly centre frame, matching the flaming, red background which heightens her sense of strength, courage and feistiness, and against which her ivory skin stands out with startling clarity.

Kiyoshi’s print, as it appears, re-imagines the previously passive Japanese woman as an active, “revolutionary force.”[5] However, as radical as it is, this print still frames and freezes the woman, transferring her once again into a two-dimensional object. Rather than giving her a voice, the image keeps her silent and allows the viewer to maintain a position of power. Kiyoshi’s attempt at re-imagining the social role of women and challenging the gender stereotypes, fails simply because the image (as imaginative as it is) can never capture the totality and the complexity of ‘womanhood’. Furthermore, the fascination with the female body and its pictorial representation is, necessarily, oppressive and disempowering because it eroticises and objectifies the female body. Kiyoshi, in fact, uses the conventional bijinga cropping style[6] which was commonly employed by Utamaro to depict typologies of geishas. This familiar frame of reference triggers an assumption that the woman in Kiyoshi’s print is to be viewed as a type (i.e. she represents all modern women in Taisho Japan) and as an object of sexual desire. Although radical and emboldened, she is still, first and foremost, a flirtatious temptress.

It is this single image that became emblematic of the era and that, with a rarely questioned authority, “constructs the figure of a common history”[7] as it communicates to a contemporary audience what the modern women in 1920s and 1930s Japan stood for. It is this, just as all the other images that upheld, rather than subverted, the role and the status of women in patriarchal Japan, preventing, rather than facilitating, a shift in conventional power dynamics.[8]

[TEXT: Ira Ferris]


 

CITATIONS:

[1] This was the time of the Taishō era (大正時代, lit. “Great Righteousness”) which lasted for loosely the first three decades of the twentieth century and saw “the shift in political power from the old oligarchic clique of “elder statesmen” (genrō) to the parliament and the democratic parties. Thus, the era is considered the time of the liberal movement known as the “Taishō democracy” in Japan; it is usually distinguished from the preceding chaotic Meiji Era and the following militarism-driven Showa Era.” Japanreference, “Taisho Period,” last modified December 23, 2011, http://www.jref.com/history/taisho-period/

[2] In Imagining Radical Women In Interwar Japan, Angela Coutts explores the relationship between imagination and revolution by studying depictions of the female body in radical Japanese journals of the interwar years. She argues that images supply information about “the ways women [are] imagined” [p326] in a particular society and a particular time and, hence, have the power to either enable or withhold change. Coutts’ analysis reveals the incapacity of the images of the time to “challenge the mainstream trope of woman” [p349] which could be seen as “a failure of the imagination.” [p350]. See Angela Coutts, “Imagining Radical Women in Interwar Japan: Leftist and Feminist Perspectives,” Signs, vol. 37, no.2 (The University of Chicago Press, Winter 2012): 325-355.

[3] In The Subject And Power, Michel Foucault defines power as “that which is exerted over things and gives the ability to modify, use, consume, or destroy them,” [p786] and writes: “A relationship of violence acts upon a body or upon things; it forces, it bends, it breaks on the wheel, it destroys, or it closes the door on all possibilities.” [p789]. See Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 8, no. 4 (The University of Chicago Press, Summer 1982): 777-795.

[4] Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image. Translated by Gregory Elliott. London: Verso, 2007, p96.

[5] Coutts, p330.

[6] The one that centeres on the figure’s upper body

[7] Rancière, p34.

[8] As expressed by Angela Coutts, Japanese society “was unable to imagine women as a significant force for social change, which perhaps prevented it from having a significant impact on society.” Coutts, p349.

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