Des.8 (sat), 2018 - Mar. 17 (sun), 2019


Major transformations in Japanese fashion and aesthetic ideals started in the Meiji period (1868 – 1912) and continued through the early Showa period (1926 – 1989). Under the fast pace of European influence at the time, traditional Edo-period (1603 – 1868) make-up, hairstyles, and clothing gradually disappeared with the adoption of Western modes. During the Taisho period (1912 – 1926), particularly with the booming economy and social advancement of women following World War I, desire grew for modern chic and new lifestyles and forms of entertainment.
   In this milieu, Western-style painter Okada Saburosuke (1869 – 1939) played a central role in the creation of fashion icons and images of ‘ideal beauty.’ Having been engaged from the late Meiji period in department store work, and also involved in Japan’s first contest of beautiful women, he was sensitive to fashion trends and able to create new standards of beauty. The characteristic large eyes and oval faces of Okada’s female figures featured in department store posters and magazine covers came to be favored and highly admired.
   Okada Saburosuke was an oil painter who well understood women’s lifestyle and sense of beauty. In this exhibition, we trace his influence in the emerging new concept of ‘beauty’ through historical examples of paintings, posters, photographs, textiles, cosmetic utensils, jewelry, and printed materials.


Okada Saburosuke, Kimono with Iris Pattern, 1927

1. Arrival of the Modern: Westernization from late Edo to Meiji

Though Edo period (1603 – 1868) conventions remained strong in the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), Japan’s opening to Western influences brought gradual shifts in hairstyles, make-up, and clothing preferences to Western models. Westernization was an important aspect of Japan’s approach to Western powers as a civilized nation on equal footing. Starting with the Emperor, Western clothing for men was promoted.
Westernization of women’s fashion accelerated with the completion in 1883 of the Rokumeikan (Deer Cry Pavilion), a venue built by the Japanese government for the purpose of socializing with Westerners in the interest of unequal treaty revision. At the Rokumeikan, upper class ladies and gentlemen attended almost nightly parties and balls. The women appeared in beautiful dresses fitted with fashionable bustles. By the late Meiji period, members of the aristocracy and the imperial family set the pace in fashion, replacing the ukiyo-e woodblock print image of the geisha as the standard of beauty. Oil paintings the Meiji Emperor and Empress were commissioned and their portraits were distributed among the general public. The first rendition of the ideal modern woman fit for international society was the figure of the Empress dressed with Manteau de cour (court coat) and magnificent accessories.
Traditional Edo-style make-up practices that were strange to Westerners, such as the blackened teeth for married women or shaved eyebrows for women with children, gradually disappeared. The Bridal Cosmetic Set with the Family Crest of Five and Three Paulownia Blossoms in Maki-e Lacquer made in the Meiji period contained no tools for tooth blackening or eyebrow treatment. The importation of Western style cosmetic sets reflected dramatic change in the appearance of the upper class by the end of the Meiji period.


Yoshu Chikanobu, Horse Races at Shinobazu, Ueno, 1884


Yoshu Chikanobu, Western Clothes from the series An Array of Auspicious Customs of Eastern Japan, 1889


Bridal Cosmetic Set with the Family Crest of Five and Three Paulownia Blossoms in Maki-e Lacquer, Meiji period


Silver Dressing Set with Iris Design, Goldsmith's and Silversmith's, 1903-1907

2. Okada Saburosuke’s Representation of the Modern Beautiful Woman

Though many images of the new modern woman appeared in both nihonga (Japanese-style painting) and Western-style oil paintings, Okada Saburosuke (1869-1939) played a decisive role in the creation of the ideal modern beauty of the time. Okada was born in Saga prefecture and was a major figure in the world of Japanese oil painting. He was also profoundly involved in women’s fashion trends of the time.
A nationwide photo beauty contest, the first such full-scale competition in Japan, was organized in 1907-1908 by the Jiji Shimpo newspaper. Okada was not only selected as a judge for the contest, but he also painted Woman Wearing a Diamond Ring (Fukutomi Taro Collection) for the contest promotion campaign. The image he created came to represent the ideal ‘beauty’ for the new age. It featured a woman with symmetrical oval-shaped face, plump lips, large sparkling eyes and pronounced eyelids. A photograph of Suehiro Hiroko, 16 years old at the time, won the contest. Her features mirrored those of Woman Wearing a Diamond Ring. It was as if she were the real life model for the painting.
Okada often painted female figures with what for Japanese people might have appeared excessively distinct facial features and large eyes. He had studied oil painting in France for around four years. After returning to Japan, he applied Western conventions of white skin and diminutive faces to his paintings of female figures, though his models were Japanese. The “Okada-style beauties” graced the covers and gravure pages of ladies magazines and reached a wide audience. Thus, the convergence of printing technology and new media such as magazines or posters worked in tandem as diverse elements creating a new Japanese ideal of feminine beauty.

Okada Saburosuke, Woman Wearing a Diamond Ring, 1908, Fukutomi Taro Collection


Okada Saburosuke, Portrait of a Girl, ca.1908


Okada Saburosuke, Virginia Creeper, 1909, Sumitomo Collection, Sen-oku Hakukokan Museum, Tokyo

3. Creating Trends: Okada Saburosuke’s Aesthetic Sense and Department Store Promotions

Aside from his affiliation with beauty contests and women’s magazines, Okada Saburosuke was also deeply connected with the world of department stores. With its 1904 Department Store Declaration, Mitsui Gofukuten, renamed Mitsukoshi, became Japan’s first modern department store along the lines of those in Europe and the United States. As Western designs in clothing were still at this time difficult for Japanese people to adopt, department stores such as Mitsukoshi and Takashimaya actively engaged Okada and other Western-style painters to promote their efforts to create fads and sell ‘modern kimonos.’
Okada created paintings for Mitsukoshi posters and signboards at train stations. Mitsukoshi launched a campaign to sell ornate kimono with Okada’s 1907 Portrait of a Lady (Bridgestone Museum of Art, Ishibashi Foundation). The poster became symbolic of a ‘Genroku period’ (1688 – 1704) retro boom. Okada’s emphasis on large eyes was suitable for a new image of beauty for use in modern department store advertisements.
In parallel with his department store activities, Okada painted many portraits of Japanese women dressed in kimono. He was an avid collector of textiles and antique cloth and owned a large number of modern examples of kosode (short sleeve kimono) that he would drape across his models to create decorative effects for his paintings. He aimed to harmonize traditional Japanese decorative and aesthetic ideals, as symbolized by an elegant female figure in kimono, with Western photo-realistic techniques. Considering his role in department store creation of popular culture and social trends, it is more likely that Okada was creating the image of the modern woman rather an expressing traditional ‘Japanese style’ through depictions of kimono.


Okada Saburosuke, Kimono with Iris Pattern, 1927


Kosode with a Design of Irises and a Bridge of Eight Planks in Resist-dyeing on Dark Blue Crepe, Edo period, Matsuzakaya Collection (J. Front Retailing Archives Foundation Inc.)


Okada Saburosuke, Portrait of a Lady, 1907, Bridgestone Museum of Art, Ishibashi Foundation

4. Modern Girls and the Advancement of Urban Style

Westernization of women’s lifestyle advanced in the context of newly emerging department stores, increasing numbers of trend-setting magazines and posters, the post-World War I economic boom, and the changes that followed the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. However, in 1925 only 1% of people in Ginza, the trendiest section of Tokyo at the time, dressed in Western apparel, evidence of lingering reluctance to wear Western-style clothing.
The kimono continued to dominate daily wear but, paired with Western-style accessories and wave hairstyles, it also could be identified with the Japanese-style ‘modern girl.’ Women conscious of Western fashions wore colorful meisen silk kimono designs, positioning obi sashes chest high to give the impression of long and slender legs. Japanese cosmetic companies produced Western-style make-up that gained popularity, including convenient compacts for the working woman.


Enomoto Chikatoshi, Spring by a Pond, 1932, Iwami Art Museum


Yamada Kisaku, Spring by a Pond, 1932, Iwami Art Museum


Poster of Nakayama Taiyodo: Katei food, 1928,


Compacts, Taisho-Showa period


Nakayama Taishodo,Club Face Powder (natural skin color), Showa period



Hayami Gyoshu, By the Flowers, 1932, KABUKI-ZA CO., LTD.

5. The Female Image: Style Transformation and Diversity

Distinctive and diverse examples appeared among the many renditions of the ‘beautiful woman’ and modern urban trends. After returning from study in France, Kuroda Seiki (1866 – 1924) introduced the nude, an established subject in Western art, to Japan, opening possibilities for expression of the female figure.
    In the Taisho period (1912 – 1926), with its atmosphere of free expression, painters could explore their unique sensibilities and create their individual expression of the female image. Murayama Kaita (1896-1912)'s portraits of women, composed of overlapping images of several of his lovers, were more eerie than beautiful. Kishida Ryusei (1891 – 1929), in his series of paintings of his daughter Reiko, incorporated a northern Renaissance realistic manner of expression.
Paintings of Japanese women in Chinese dress started to appear after Japan annexed Korea in 1910, and continued through Japan’s establishment of Manchukuo in 1932. Japan dispatched scholars and artists to survey the scene in these territories. Fujishima Takeji (1867 – 1943) and Umehara Ryuzaburo (1888 – 1986), inspired by the local customs and scenery, painted images of exotic women in Chinese dress.
In the atmosphere of impending war, female figures came to symbolize the zeitgeist and Japanese national intentions. This is deeply relevant to us today, given the current complex international situation and concomitant heightened importance of gender issues.


Fujishima Takeji, Profile of a Woman, 1926-1927


Murayama Kaita, Lake and Woman, 1917


Kishida Ryusei, Portrait of Reiko Sitting, 1919