Bijin-ga, Prints of Beautiful Women
The early twentieth century was a period of great modernization and radical social change within Japan. In particular, gender roles were being redefined. While previously women had been limited to domestic and family roles, they were starting to take jobs outside the home and socialize freely with their peers. Young women were beginning to define their identities as individuals, separate from their families. The active modern girl or moga was replacing the submissive geisha as the prototypical Japanese woman.
A few artists, notably Kobayakawa Kiyoshi and Ishikawa Toraji, openly acknowledged and encouraged the liberation of women. Many of their prints depict dynamic women in the popular Western clothing and short bobbed haircuts. However, most shin hanga artists ignored these social changes, designing prints of women in passive, dreamy poses and old-fashioned attire. The majority of these women appear to be geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha). Geisha, once considered subversive and overtly sensual when depicted in 18th century ukiyo-e, were used by shin hanga artists to symbolize the traditional values of Japanese womanhood. Geisha prints appealed to the older, conservative generation who were opposed to the changing appearance and behavior of young Japanese women. These prints also served as subtle propaganda in the West, perpetuating the romantic ideal of the submissive and demure Japanese woman.
Many shin hanga artists who specialized in other types of prints (landscapes, actor prints, and kacho-e) also occasionally designed bijin-ga. Most of these prints stuck to the conservative norm of traditionally dressed Japanese women doing typically feminine things: looking in a mirror, arranging their hair, or applying makeup. The bijin-ga prints of Takahashi Shotei are an exception, and are noteworthy for their erotic sensuality.