- 美人 Bijin/Beauty
Bijin wa iwanedo kakure nashi, miyako no jōge katsu shitte
It is no secret: everyone knows what a bijin is.(Japanese proverb)1
The term bijin is defined by the Dictionary of the Japanese Language (Nihon kokugo daijiten) as: “A beautiful person. A beautiful person, superior in appearance to others. […] A woman, beautiful in appearance. Bijo (a female beauty). Kajin (a beauty). […] A man, beautiful in appearance. Bidanshi (a beautiful man).”2 Although the term bijin existed well before the Meiji period (1868-1912) and would have been understood to refer to both women and men during the Edo period (1603-1867), in the modern era it came to refer exclusively to women. What accounts for the popularization of the term bijin and why did bijin become a gender-specific term in the Meiji period? Why was bijin with the character bi (美)—rather than, for instance, kajin (佳人 · a beauty) or reijin (麗人 · a beauty)3—the term commonly used to specify beautiful Japanese women? The term began to appear with increasing frequency in literature and art from the Meiji 20s (1887-96) onward, surfacing in many forms: on the one hand, as a linguistic representation in novels, short stories, aesthetic debates, poetry, and proverbs; and on the other hand, as a graphic representation in paintings, sculptures, illustrations, posters, postcards, and photographs. The bijin later emerged as the subject of the Nihonga genre bijinga (paintings of beauties in the Japanese-style) around the time of the first Ministry of Education Art Exhibition (Bunten) in 1907. So seamlessly was the term bijin accepted into the cultural discourse of the Meiji period that few have thought to question why or at what juncture its modern usage came into being. [End Page 43]
Part of what makes the analysis of the term bijin so difficult is that the term slides through different registers, arising where a number of cultural and epistemological disciplines merge. Not only does the term defy the boundaries of a consistent conceptual framework, it is nearly impossible to explore the term bijin without conflating it with its representation, for it was through literary and artistic representation that the term solidified in meaning. In addition, the difficulty in defining the term is further compounded by the fact that the aesthetic concept of beauty, or bi, on which the identity of the bijin relies, belongs to a discourse that is generally accepted as defying explanation. In Japanese Beauties (Nihon no bijin, 1913), Aoyagi Yumi, for instance, notes how the general structure of relativism under which beauty operates ensures that the question of the bijin remains at the core of aesthetic abstraction.
Not only does the opinion about what constitutes beauty or ugliness in men and women differ in each part of the world according to race, it also differs according to period and education. However, variations in race, period, and education only produce small changes in the form of beauty or ugliness; as for the principle of human beauty, throughout time from East to West, there has been barely any change of which to note. For example, in algebra the unknown quantities x and y change, but the ratio between x and y always remains constant. A is forever A, and B is forever B; it is the same logic with beauty.4
“The x and y’[s],” or examples that illustrate the principle of beauty, may change, depending on the time, place, or culture in which the question of beauty arises, but the measure of beauty, the equation to which the question of beauty must be deflected, “x is as beautiful as y,” remains, in all instances, the same. That is to say, beauty is an absolute ideal that can only be qualified through a never-ending chain of comparisons. Thus, any definition of beauty, or human beauty, presents a challenge, for the more one tries to define it, the more the figure eludes definition. The very definition of feminine beauty is contingent, as Francette Pacteau, the author of The Symptom of Beauty, explains: “Behind the woman there is, always, the image to which the question of her beauty must be referred. As beautiful as...