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  • Pictures of Beautiful Women:A Modern Japanese Genre and Its Counterparts in Europe, China, Korea, and Vietnam
  • Kojima Kaoru (bio)

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European and Chinese idealized images of women played a critical role in the emergence of a major genre of modern Japanese art that focused on the image of one or more beautiful women. Termed bijinga, “pictures of beauties,” this genre emerged in modern Japan, in part, from the Chinese ideal of female beauty, the kara-bijin, and as a response to Western art. While modernization in Japan constituted, to a great extent, the Westernization of Japanese culture, it also involved the process of attaining autonomy from the Chinese-influenced culture that was deeply rooted in Japanese history. Until the end of the Edo period (1615-1867), Japan remained within the penumbra of the China-centered cultural sphere and kara, literally a reference to only one period of Chinese history, the Tang Dynasty (618-906), served as a term for various changing Japanese perspectives of Chinese culture. In the Muromachi period (1333-1573), karamono, literally “things of Tang,” designated prized objects imported from the continent and in the Edo period, kara-e, or “Tang painting,” referred to Ming and Qing Dynasty paintings imported through Nagasaki. In fact, starting as early as the Heian period (794-1185), the term kara-e had also been used to refer to Japanese paintings that dealt with themes derived from Chinese painting. While kara-e became institutionalized and stylistically defined as a category of Japanese painting in relation to a second type of painting known as yamato-e, Japanese painting focused on more indigenous themes.

According to the pioneering Japanese feminist scholar Chino Kaori, as the binary structure of Kara (China) and Yamato (Japan) developed in Japanese history, Japanese subjects tended to identify with Yamato, but still maintained a strong consciousness of Kara influence.1 In Chino’s analysis, Kara was associated with masculinity and Yamato with femininity. In the modern era, starting in the Meiji period (1868-1912), the role of China was replaced by the West in Japanese culture, and Western culture [End Page 50] came to be regarded as a public, masculine sphere. This structure of modernization, including the development of modern painting, which was abetted on the one hand, by the incorporation of Western elements and, on the other hand, the withdrawal from Chinese-derived forms, was not limited to Japan, for similar developments can be seen throughout the various Asian cultures with close historical ties to China. This shared structure of modernization invites a comparative approach to the analysis of modern art in East Asia, though such study must take into account other historical factors such as the lengthy Japanese colonization of Korea (1905-45) and Taiwan (1895-1945). This study attempts to assess the commensurability of bijinga, Japanese paintings, and other visual imagery of the beautiful young woman, with similar representational practices in Europe, China, Korea, and Vietnam.

Sino-Japanese Pictures of Beautiful Women of the Meiji Period

The First Domestic Industrial Exhibition (Dai-Ikkai Naikoku Kangyō Hakurankai) was organized in 1877 by the Meiji government to promote Japanese industry by improving future Japanese submissions to anticipated world’s fairs overseas. While developing Japanese industry was the primary objective of this exhibition, Japanese art was also displayed at the fair in an art museum that had been constructed in the Western architectural style. For the Second Domestic Industrial Exhibition in 1882, the government constructed a larger building designed by Josiah Conder for the display of art, a building later used as the Tokyo Imperial Museum. Altogether, five Domestic Industrial Exhibitions were held between 1877 and 1903, serving as important venues for bringing artists’ works in contact with large audiences.

Archival research has shown that in the early stages of planning for the Third Domestic Industrial Exhibition, the organizers intended to call this undertaking the Great Exposition of Asia (Ajia Dai Hakurankai).2 This plan was abandoned due to an insufficient budget, but official invitations were sent out to various Western nations, Qing China, Korea, and India to visit the Third Domestic Industrial Exhibition.3 While, in the end, the Great Exposition of...