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  • Facing Modernity:Japanese Women and Hygienic Facial Culture (Biganjutsu) in the Early Twentieth Century
  • Jennifer Evans (bio)

This article aims to capture a discrete historical moment—the emergence of "hygienic facial culture" or eisei biganjutsu (hereafter referred to as biganjutsu, the art or technique of the beautiful face)—in early modern Japan.1 Hygienic facial culture was an important feature of middle- and upper-class Japanese women's lives from 1905 to the late 1920s, and it was both a professional career option for the upwardly mobile and a form of cosmopolitan leisure for the wealthy. Originally denoting a method of facial massage performed with electrovibratory machines, the term biganjutsu eventually came to include cosmetic surgery, care of the hair, nails, and other extensions of the skin, as well as makeup application and fashion advice. Imported from the United States and practiced throughout Europe, hygienic facial culture marks Japan's early participation in an international beauty dialogue whose boundaries were set by the physiological discourse of modern biomedicine.2 The present exploration of biganjutsu contributes to the larger history of early twentieth-century Japan by providing critical insight into how middle and upper-class women shaped and were shaped by changing beauty practices in a rapidly transforming society.

An understanding of biganjutsu is particularly useful for exploring the connections between women and consumption in modern Japan. In the early twentieth century, the media sensationalized biganjutsu —presenting it both as ultra-modern and questionably [End Page 3] extravagant—while simultaneously proliferating advertisements for beauty schools and facial products to a wide audience. In this way, biganjutsu played heavily into the conflicting media constructions of female identity in early twentieth-century Japan described by Barbara Sato in The New Japanese Woman (2003) and expanded on in Sarah Frederick's (2006) analysis of the production and consumption of women's magazines in the interwar period. Shifting cosmetic practices not only provided women with new products and techniques to consume but also avenues for professionalization. As recent academic studies further our knowledge of the careers available to Japanese women in the burgeoning consumer culture of the first decades of the twentieth century—from shop girls to elevator girls to dance hall girls (Freedman et al. 2013)—and the urban landscape in which they operated (Tamari 2018), it is important to define the phenomenon of hygienic facial culture because it comprises another largely unexplored facet of working life for Japanese women.

Hygienic facial culture is also important for what it can tell us about the complex relationship between women and beauty. Within facial parlors, Japanese women did not just encounter Western products and practices, they redefined their relationship with their own skin. Biganjutsu was enmeshed in a national hygienic campaign to rationalize women's lives by promoting a new standard of beauty that emphasized health instead of whiteness (Yoshimi and Hidenori 2012, 179). Biganjutsu both set a new standard for Japanese beauty that remains widespread today and functioned as the precursor to the massive Japan esute (aesthetics) industry (described in Miller 2006). Indeed, many of the earliest hygienic facial parlors continue to hold an esteemed place in the urban Japanese beauty scene, and facial massage remains a popular aesthetic technique.3

Although beauty practices are sometimes dismissed as inconsequential to the larger scheme of history, they are an essential aspect of the everyday lives of most women, and understanding how they change over time offers us unique insight into the transformation of what Mikiko Ashikari (2003, 4) termed "the public representation of ideal womanhood." In the early twentieth century, beauty parlors were an important site for disseminating new conceptions of beauty and enforcing gender roles as part of a larger modernizing process. Indeed, Harry Harootunian (2000, 17) notes that for Japanese women, "Western clothing, cosmetics, and the beauty salon" were essential markers of modernity. The technique of hygienic facial massage played a key role in promoting a transnational beauty ideal through the consumption of Western techniques and goods. Just as the dancehalls of the 1920s and 1930s provide a useful space for "reflecting on the movements of people, products, practices, and ideas under the conditions of colonial modernity" (Mackie 2013, 69), so too is the...


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