Unpinning History : Japanese Posters in the Age of Commercialism, Imperialism, and Modernism

Bijin: Posters with a Beautiful Woman

Early posters in Japan leaned toward the subject of bijin, or a beautiful woman, because she had a universal appeal. In the Taishō period, women became important consumers and producers of modern fashion and lifestyle. Thus, bijin posters often reflected newness and modern taste—through hairstyles, Western accessories, unconventional kimono designs, or dynamic actions. Simultaneously, the image of bijin provoked nostalgia as a foundation of the beautiful and conventional Japan in a rapidly modernizing society.

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Additionally, an image of beauty is one of the established pictorial genres in East Asia. In Japan, ukiyo-e woodblock prints of famous courtesans or “poster girls” of teahouses, as seen in the works of Suzuki Harunobu, for example, popularized the genre. Technically, early bijin posters often involved preparing numerous hand-drawn color plates—as many as thirty or more in some cases—as opposed to contemporaneous posters in the West, which generally required four or five plates.[1] This was, in part, to meet viewers’ expectations of bijin pictures in richly colored kimono and accessories contrasted by flawless complexions and dark hair. Such images were attained only by the mastery of print engineers (gakō) and commissioners’ abundant budgets. The selections here represent the result: posters for large corporations that marked Japan’s industrialization, such as steamship and sugar companies, and the Nippon Sake Brewery’s poster referring to a special event, the Enthronement of the Emperor. (Rika Hiro)

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