Edo in the Present

Fig. 22. Based on the photograph used in Plastic Lover’s YouTube upload of Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love,” the online digital artist Rabbit Princess portrays a two-dimensional version of Takeuchi. Plastic Love. [October 5, 2018]. Pixiv, accessed March 2, 2021. https://www.pixiv.net/en/artworks/71029401.

A brief note:

I wrote this for a class and submitted it as a final paper on May 18, 2021. This was the last paper that had I submitted as an undergraduate. My professor highlighted it as being exemplary, and he strongly suggested that I submit it for publication in an academic journal. Even if I took the time to lengthen and edit it where necessary, I still do not see it as worthy of publication. My original goals for this paper were quite ambitious, but I was forced to make drastic cuts. The final word count sits at around 5,650 words…whereas I anticipated a final length closer to 20,000. As a result, I think that the overall quality of the paper has suffered. One can find trace hints at items and subjects of interest strewn about that I intended to research further and incorporate into the paper. Sadly, I was unable to do so due to the demands of the professor. His intentions and mine were slightly at odds. Nevertheless, it still turned out decent enough. Below, one will find the final result of my efforts.

Jump to:

This is going to be a long one.
But first, a brief review.
How to proceed.
Shunga, 1600 ~ 1750
Early Ukiyo-e, 1700 ~ 1780
Bijin-ga, 1780 ~ 1910
Shin-hanga, 1910 ~ 1950
Manga and Anime, 1950 ~ 1989
Beyond Shōwa, 1990 ~ Present
In sum…
Historians must be brave!

This is going to be a long one.

Since the coercive opening of the country by American Commodore Matthew C. Perry, Japan has been commodifying and exporting its culture to the rest of the world. Though certain aspects of Japanese culture—such as Japanese cuisine—have only recently become popular in the west, Japanese art has been highly sought after from the beginning. To be more specific, it is art from the Edo Period’s (1615-1865) famous ukiyo-e genre that has been so historically prized. While some of the most famous ukiyo-e depict cityscapes and landscapes, such as Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, many also portray scenes featuring young and beautiful Japanese women. It is these flawless beauties that warrant renewed attention. However, as the ukiyo-e genre has been popular for so long, it has already been thoroughly explored by historians. Virtually no landscape, pose, expression, or kimono pattern has gone without scrutiny. Furthermore, mainstream historians have long ago linked the original genre to a string of successors. Nevertheless, it seems that some connections have yet to be made. Historians of the genre appear to have taken either one of two general approaches. On one hand, historians have traced the lives of the artists themselves and analyzed the shifts in their techniques and subject matter over time. Alternatively, historians have drawn parallels between the techniques and styles applied within the ukiyo-e of the past and that of the genre’s more modern successors. This study attempts to move beyond these notable yet limited perspectives.

In this study, images from the “floating world” are to be treated as imagistic evidence. Such evidence can uncover information about the past that cannot otherwise be revealed through text alone.[1] For example, modern Japanese artists are crafting astounding digital works that express the essence of something called natsukashii.[2] In their art, the past and present merge to form a wholly unique aesthetic. These artists have been drawing from their own idealized view of a past that never was to craft reimagined people and spaces that might never be. In this manner, an idealized portrayal of the modern Japanese woman has emerged. While exclusively focusing on portrayals of women, then, what does the imagistic evidence held within Japanese art reveal? A careful examination of Japanese art from the Edo Period to the Shōwa Era (1926-1989) reveals two items of note. Artistic portrayals of Japanese women are idealistic rather than realistic, and the cultural evidence found within these idealized portrayals evidences a substantial connection between past and present.

[1] Hayden White, “Historiography and Historiophoty,” The American Historical Review 93, no. 5 (1988), 1193. doi:10.2307/1873534.

[2] Natsukashii (Japanese: なつかしい) might simply be translated to “nostalgia” in English, but this is slightly off. Natsukashii refers more to a past that never was, while the English “nostalgia” is, more broadly, a general fondness or longing for the past in general.

But first, a brief review.

Though the genre slightly predates ukiyo-e, it would be a mistake not to begin with shunga.[3] As Christie Davies defines it, shunga translates to “spring,” or “pillow,” and artworks take the form of “very, very explicit, erotic Japanese prints and scrolls.”[4] For some, the genre serves only to objectify women and perpetuate Japan’s alleged brothel culture; however, Davies asserts that this is false, considering the unmistakable expressions of female consent, desire, and pleasure prevalent in the genre.[5] Additionally, Japan’s traditional social hierarchies and corresponding culture of restraint and conformity must be considered. As Davies states, “[e]verything is always in its place and behavior is appropriate to that place.”[6] A culture that allowed a “time and place” for everything enabled such a genre to flourish. There is a proper place for explicit eroticism, and so there is a place for more “refined” depictions as well. Understanding this concept is crucial to understanding how Japanese women were portrayed over time. To investigate further, one may turn to Wolderman von Seidlitz and Dora Amsden, whose text, Impressions of Ukiyo-e, explores the ukiyo-e genre.

In their text, von Seidlitz and Amsden trace a basic historical overview of the ukiyo-e genre. Their work includes remarks about notable art schools, groups, and individual artists, and their associated historical influences, techniques, subgenres, and subjects. For the purposes of this study, their coverage of female subjects and their eroticism is most notable. Von Seidlitz and Amsden give significant attention to feminine eroticism as a subject of the medium because, as they note, “[e]roticism plays such an important part in the Japanese late period that one has to question the significance of this whole sphere in Japan’s intellectual life.”[7] Indeed, a peculiar sort of eroticism arose within the genre and has remained prominent even to this day. The answer as to why this has occurred can be discovered, at least in part, within the words of Christie Davies. Like Davies had alluded to, von Seidlitz and Amsden note that, in Japan, “exposure of erotic desires” is in fact “a dwindling of individuality in favor of conventions.”[8] This seems almost contradictory, but evidence of this truth resides within the art itself. Before directly addressing the art, however, additional secondary texts warrant attention.

Two separate articles from Impressions, the journal publication of the Ukiyo-e Society of America, further explore societal factors that influenced Edo Period ukiyo-e. In one article, Edna S. Levine and William Green demonstrate how select cultural practices were directly reflected in Japanese art. They highlight that portrayals of women often included related features such as the presence of mirrors, combs, makeup chests, and specific hairstyles.[9] The second article, authored by Sebastian Izzard, is a case study of the artist Utagawa Kunisada. Izzard notes that changes in marketplace demands caused a shift in Kunisada’s subjects. Once a genre “usually confined to the high-class courtesans and entertainers of the Yoshiwara,” the bijin-ga evolved to depict common women.[10] The discoveries made by these historians are crucial contextual factors when analyzing the imagistic evidence. Taken together, these sources highlight that both cultural and economic factors influenced female portrayals. All the sources addressed thus far give significant insights into artistic portrayals of idealized women within the ukiyo-e genre. However, these sources have pertained predominantly to Edo Period ukiyo-e between 1600 and the late 1800s. Thus, the next step is to analyze the successive genres that emerged in the 1900s.

Unfortunately, reputable secondary sources related to the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taishō (1912-1926) Era shin-hanga genre (or, “new prints” movement) are currently limited. As such, it can simply be noted that ukiyo-e had largely fallen out of favor during Japan’s modernization period. The new prints movement aimed to revive the genre to some extent, though many prints were specifically designed for an emerging western market eager to consume “traditional” Japanese culture. Though there were other coinciding art movements, none depicted Japanese women to the extent that the shin-hanga did. Woodblock printing, however, was increasingly used in the mass-production of posters, pamphlets, and manga, which developed a cultural perception that woodblock printed materials were cheap and disposable. Thus, it can be argued that the rising prominence of manga was a contributing factor in the virtual death of traditional woodblock printed artworks. While manga once coexisted with both ukiyo-e and shin-hanga, it is now considered their modern successor. Manga offers yet another window through which one might observe the ever-shifting portrayals of idealized Japanese women.

Japanese manga convey complex narratives through serialized, often episodic, magazine releases. It is arguably more varied than the American comic book market, making attempts at a comprehensive analysis of female characters difficult. For instance, Roman Rosenbaum limits his analysis of young women to those of Japan’s shojō manga.[11] In another example, Saitō Tamaki limits her study to the “beautiful fighting girl” archetype.[12] Both of these authors assess sources of inspiration for portrayals of females found within manga, but they largely do so without addressing the potential influence of Edo Period artworks. In a compilation of essays by Mark MacWilliams, Deborah Shamoon explores the role of women and girls in shojō manga, while Shiro Yoshioka offers insights into the broader Japanese understanding of manga and anime as art forms.[13] Together, their work is markedly like that of Rosenbaum and Saitō, but it too is lacking in the same area. Historians, it seems, have yet to draw significant connections between Edo Period and present artistic portrayals of Japanese women. This gap in the secondary literature can therefore only be filled through a careful examination and interpretation of primary sources. Taken in combination, secondary literature and direct imagistic evidence reveals a contiguous link between Japanese culture and art.

Ultimately, the gap that must be addressed is this: how did portrayals of Japanese women within Japanese art change from the Edo Period to today, and why? As manga is the premier successor to ukiyo-e, it is the most relevant modern genre fit for exploration. Manga has already been studied by historians, yet important questions remain. Historians have yet to draw significant connections between portrayals of women within manga and the earlier, preceding art genres. Furthermore, manga itself is not the end of the line. Artists working in alternative mediums have been borrowing from the ukiyo-e of old for decades. Studies of such a process are missing, and this gap in the historical research is telling. The all-important question, “how did we get here?” remains unanswered. Indeed, how have the present iterations of young, idealized, female Japanese beauties arise? The impact of cultural influences on such idealized female beauties from the Edo Period’s ukiyo-e genre through the modern mediums of the recently concluded Heisei Era must be assessed.

[3] Some historians identify shunga as solely a subgenre of ukiyo-e, but erotic art in the shunga style predates the broader ukiyo-e genre.

[4] Christie Davies, “Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art,” New Criterion 32, no. 3 (2013): 49‑51.

[5] Davies, “Shunga,” 51.

[6] Davies, “Shunga,” 51.

[7] Woldermar von Seidlitz and Dora Amsden, Impressions of Ukiyo‑e (New York: Parkstone International, 2016), 85.

[8] Woldermar von Seidlitz and Dora Amsden, Impressions of Ukiyo-e, 85.

[9] Edna S Levine and William Green, “The Cosmetic Mystique of Old Japan,” Impressions, no. 4 (1980): 1‑5.

[10] Sebastian Izzard, “The Bijin-ga of Utagawa Kunisada,” Impressions, no. 3 (1979), 3. The bijin‑ga genre is often considered a subgenre of ukiyo-e. Yoshiwara is the name of Edo’s (Tokyo’s) most famous red-light district.

[11] Roman Rosenbaum, ed., Manga and the Representation of Japanese History (London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2012). Alternatively spelled “shoujo,” the genre is essentially “girl’s manga,” as the target audience is adolescent girls or young women.

[12] Tamaki Saitō, Beautiful Fighting Girl (Minneapolis, M.N.: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

[13] Mark MacWilliams, Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime (Armonk, NY: Taylor & Francis Group, 2008).

How to proceed.

Assessing the secondary literature has provided some clues as to how to proceed with the research. First, idealized female beauties must be explored as they existed in ukiyo-e of the Edo Period. Second, the subgenre of bijin-ga requires special attention. Third, as the first modern re-imagining of ukiyo-e, shin-hanga also needs to be examined. Finally, a brief look at manga and beyond reveals the relationship between Edo and the present. To draw the necessary connections across this historical timeline, direct imagistic evidence from each period and genre must be reviewed. As argued by Hayden White, such evidence helps to recreate “the scenes and atmosphere of past events much more accurate than any derived from verbal testimony alone.”[14] Existing literature is thus supplemented through the use of curated images to highlight a shortfall in previous studies.

Alas, this will only be but a brief peek through a small gap that exists in the secondary literature. Thankfully, there is no shortage of imagistic evidence available for study. However, some of this evidence is likely to be considered somewhat unorthodox. For this reason, claims of alleged “unorthodoxy” perhaps instead only reflect an outdated mode of thinking. To cite the decade-old words of Ann Rigney, “given the new media ecologies in which we are presently immersed and that are profoundly affecting the ways in which information flows and is accessed, even business as usual is no longer the same business.”[15] An exploration of female portrayals in contemporary manga, anime, and other digital mediums requires careful attention to Japanese societal trends that have thus far received little attention.

Treasure troves of artworks now exist both physically and digitally for all genres: ukiyo-e, bijin-ga, shin-hanga, manga, anime, and digital art. Most of the traditional works are accessible through online museum galleries and privately-funded online databases. The two most important repositories used in this study are the Honolulu Museum of Art and the online Ukiyo-e Database. For more modern works, the private gallery of the artist Sai Tamiya has also been accessed. In addition, art from Pixiv, one of Japan’s largest digital art galleries, is also included. Furthermore, from the 1980s to the present, shifts in music have gone together with shifts in art. The effects of music and digital art have largely been ignored by historians, yet they have undoubtedly shaped portrayals of Japanese women within Japanese art from the late Shōwa Era onwards.

[14] White, “Historiography and Historiophoty,” 1194.

[15] Ann Rigney, “When the Monograph Is No Longer the Medium: Historical Narrative in the Online Age,” History and Theory 49, no. 4 (2010), 117.

Shunga, 1600 ~ 1750

As eroticism pervades ukiyo-e and its modern successors, it is necessary to briefly explore shunga. An examination of select works demonstrates, as Christie Davies argues, that shunga does not objectify women. Two examples from the artist Okumura Masanobu are in support of this. The first depicts a man and a woman engaged in sexual intercourse (see figure 1).[16] Within the scene there are no bedspreads in sight, the tea set remains untouched, and the lovers are both fully dressed. The action depicted appears spontaneous, but it is also consensual. The woman has her legs wrapped around the man, as if to pull him in, and the subtle expression on her face indicates pleasure. The second image depicts a similar scene, albeit with some slight differences. While this pair of lovers is also engaged in sexual intercourse, the man has shed his clothing while the woman underneath him remains dressed (see figure 2).[17] Her comb has fallen out of her hair, as if she was quickly thrust upon the ground and into his embrace. It is possible that her face is expressing pleasure, but it is not presumptuous to assume otherwise. Perhaps, then, this scene is nonconsensual? On the contrary, this is an intimate bedroom scene. Upon closer inspection, one can see that the woman is fully embracing her lover. Her left leg wraps his right, while her right leg pulls him in; meanwhile, her left hand grips his right shoulder, while her right arm holds tight to his back. Both images are clearly consensual encounters.

As with Okumura, Hishikawa Moronobu often portrayed lovers engaged in sexually explicit acts. One such work is entitled Love with Compassion (see figure 3).[18] The name of the piece itself reveals the nature of the scene, and the text above the imagery contains a tale of romance.[19] The man depicted is poised for sexual penetration, while the woman pulls him in closer, welcoming him into her embrace. It could be argued that the woman might represent an exploited individual, but the title of the work, the included love story, and the positioning of their bodies all serve as evidence to the contrary. In a less explicit work, Hishikawa portrays Lovers by a waterfall (see figure 4).[20] Instead of engaging in sexual intercourse, these lovers converse over tea while on an afternoon date. The young man—someone of the samurai class, judging by his sword—is courting his lover. Both images, like the ones before, run contrary to the notion that shunga objectify women.

[16] Okumura Masanobu, Bedroom Scene, c. 1739, Woodblock print, Ukiyo-e.org Database.

[17] Okumura Masanobu, Bedroom Scene, c. 1739, Woodblock print, Ukiyo-e.org Database.

[18] Hishikawa Moronobu, Love with Compassion, c. 1680, Woodblock print, Ukiyo‑e.org Database.

[19] Hishikawa Moronobu, Love with Compassion.

[20] Hishikawa Moronobu, Lovers by a Waterfall, 1680, Woodblock print, Ukiyo‑e.org Database.

Early Ukiyo-e, 1700 ~ 1780

Imagistic evidence reveals that Japanese women were undoubtedly portrayed in an idealized fashion. For example, shunga reflects the idealized female lover. Women are expressive, and their faces convey feeling and emotion. They also have similar lusts and desires as men. Women are depicted with physically inviting bodies and minds as they engage in and daydream of love-making. Early ukiyo-e, however, is markedly different from this portrayal. Women are sensual and erotic, but they do not actively express their lustful desires, nor do they engage in sexually explicit acts. Portrayals of female beauties in ukiyo-e depict a more refined form of idealized eroticism.

In shunga, women express erotic desires alongside their partners in bedrooms and pleasure houses. However, by convention, women in ukiyo-e are more restrained in their eroticism. A revealing cultural trend that demonstrates this convention is the widespread depiction of young women performing “bathroom rituals.” As depicted by numerous artists, nearly every woman exhibits identical qualities. If a woman is partially or fully nude, she has visibly ample breasts. If partially nude, her kimono is worn with the top half wrapped about her waist. Should her hair be down, she is actively washing or combing it. In other instances, her hair is actively being pinned or is already pinned atop her head and adorned with one or more combs. Finally, no matter her actions or state of dress, she generally remains emotionless. While many of these shared traits extend beyond the eighteenth century, it is during this period that they widely emerge.

Examples of women performing bathroom rituals are everywhere. One can be found in the work of Torii Kiyomitsu (see figure 5).[21] As a woman prepares to enter the bath, she has loosened her kimono to expose her bare chest. In a print by Nishikawa Sukenobu, a half-nude girl washes her hair in a bucket (see figure 6).[22] In both examples, facial expressions appear completely neutral. The eroticism conveyed through these shared features are what Wolderman von Seidlitz and Dora Amsden had discovered: the “exposure of erotic desires” reflects “a dwindling of individuality in favor of conventions.”[23] Beautiful young women, then, are portrayed according to societal conventions. Features of these idealized washroom portrayals are prevalent throughout the eighteenth century and beyond.

It is also during this century that another hallmark of the ukiyo-e (and bijin-ga) genre begins to emerge. In a print by Nishikawa, a young woman sits partially in the nude as she styles her hair (see figure 7).[24] Her portrayal fits the conventional standards outlined above; however, in this case, she sits beside a chest and in front of a mirror. In addition to kimonos and combs, it is these two items that make recurring appearances throughout the genre and across the centuries. In an image remarkably similar in composition to Nishikawa’s A girl washes her hair in a bucket (figure 6), Suzuki Harunobu depicts two women caring for their hair (see figure 8).[25] In this print, the mirror makes yet another appearance. Ideal women, it seems, were meant to uphold high standards of beauty requiring dedication to bodily care.

As a final note, portrayals of these women in settings outside the private quarters are equally as revealing about Japanese societal conventions. Take, for example, a later print by Torii Kiyomitsu (see figure 9).[26] In accordance with conventions, the young woman remains expressionless despite her fight against the wind as she runs along the wharf. In keeping with the notion that there is a set time and place for everything, she also does not neglect modesty as she holds her kimono in place so that it does not open in the wind. Most of these conventions hold true as the genre evolves over time.

[21] Torii Kiyomitsu, Woman about to Enter Bath, c. 1704‑1789, Woodblock print, Ukiyo‑e.org Database.

[22] Nishikawa Sukenobu, A girl washes her hair in a bucket, c. Edo Period, Woodblock Print, Ukiyo-e Database.

[23] Woldermar von Seidlitz and Dora Amsden, Impressions of Ukiyo-e, 85.

[24] Nishikawa Sukenobu, Woman making her hair, 1739, Woodblock Print, Ukiyo-e Database.

[25] Suzuki Harunobu, Two Women Washing Their Hair, c. 1767-1768, Woodblock Print, Ukiyo-e Database.

[26] Torii Kiyomitsu, girl in the wind, c. 1765-1767, Woodblock print, Ukiyo-e.org Database.

Bijin-ga, 1780 ~ 1910

One notable subgenre of ukiyo-e is known as bijin-ga. In fact, most of the early ukiyo-e examined thus far could easily be considered part of this subgenre. Simply put, the genre is composed exclusively of portrayals of beautiful young girls. Notable trends from early ukiyo-e were carried forward through bijin-ga of the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. In a 1796 example by the artist Kitagawa Utamaro, a young woman pays careful attention to her makeup (see figure 10).[27] Similar to preceding examples, she wears a kimono, her hair is affixed, her expression is muted, and she peers into a mirror. Such features were still present in 1830 when Utagawa Kunisada—the artist studied by Sebastian Izzard—crafted Preparing to Go Out (see figure 11).[28] Though separated from the previous piece by three and a half decades, the composition remains remarkably similar. However, by the late nineteenth century, something had changed.

If the Meiji Era could be defined by a single word, it would be “modernization.” Instead of choosing to actively resist expanding western powers, Japan elected to embrace trade in pursuit of modernization. They wished to import scientific and technological knowledge while eschewing western values, but cultures nevertheless collided. Ukiyo‑e was undoubtedly affected by this clash. Hints of intermingling arose before the Taishō Era’s shin-hanga movement more thoroughly blended Japanese tradition with western styles.

Kobayashi Eitaku provides an early example of this in a bijin-ga plainly titled Young Woman (see figure 12).[29] Contrary to all previous examples, this young woman’s bangs are not pinned back. She also appears slightly expressive, with her clasped hands and downward gaze combining as if to indicate a fondness for something unseen. Still, her traditional kimono remains, as do her makeup, hairstyle, and comb. In an early 1900s example, Kubota Beisai portrays the Beauty Namiko (see figure 13).[30] The crisp lines and solid colors give this traditional beauty her flawless appearance. Individuals familiar with the medium will likely notice how stunningly similar this piece is to the manga that would soon emerge. First, however, it is necessary to briefly address the shin-hanga of the first half of the twentieth century.

[27] Kitagawa Utamaro, Wakaume of the Tamaya Brothel, 1796, Woodblock print, Honolulu Museum of Art.

[28] Utagawa Kunisada, Preparing to Go Out, c. 1830-1831, Woodblock print, Honolulu Museum of Art.

[29] Kobayashi Eitaku, Young Woman, c. 1890, Woodblock print, Honolulu Museum of Art.

[30] Kubota Beisai, Beauty Namiko, c. 1900-1910, Woodblock print, Honolulu Museum of Art.

Shin-hanga, 1910 ~ 1950

By the Taishō Era, Japan was a fully modern state on par with leading western nations. Woodblock printed works began to fall out of favor as the medium was increasingly used for disposable items like pamphlets and posters. An increasingly literate population drove such changes. Thus, some artists attempted to revive the medium through the shin-hanga and other art movements. Imagistic evidence within the “new prints” movement reveals how the genre serves as a link between past and present, east and west. While not fully traditional, the art is not quite yet contemporary either.

One relevant piece comes from the artist Takehisa Yumeji (see figure 14).[31] Here, Edo Period traditions are on full display. For example, the young woman portrayed sits half nude, a single breast exposed, as she coifs her hair. Though it is unclear if she is wearing a kimono or yukata, her clothing is still worn about her waist while she prepares her body. Her gaze also implies that a mirror exists just outside the frame. Her body’s outline, however, is reminiscent of western line art used in advertisements during this same period. The pattern and coloring of her clothing is also more similar to western styles than the traditional Japanese. Finally, unlike most woodblock prints, the full shape of her flawless face is left to the viewer’s imagination.

By 1950, some prints were even more drastically abandoning Edo traditions. While some traditions remained, the overall style was beginning to reflect an appearance more similar to modern manga. This can easily be witnessed in Woman of the Ginza by Sugiura Yukio (see figure 15).[32] The fact that the woman is “of the Ginza” is telling. Even today, Ginza is Tokyo’s premier high-end shopping district. It is safe to assume, then, that she was likely someone of wealth and class. Her trendy western hair and makeup serve to support this. Additionally, unlike many of the more youthful women, she wears a traditional Japanese kimono. The Edo style is still faintly present in the shape of her eyes, brows, nose, and lips, however, there are notable features that make this piece quite similar to modern manga. The sharp lines are a tradition that carried over into manga, but small details evidence a notable shift in style. The inclusion of eyelashes and added lines in her hair is, for example, more similar to manga than traditional Edo works.

[31] Takehisa Yumeji, Young Woman Coifing Her Hair, c. 1912-1924, Woodblock print, Honolulu Museum of Art.

[32] Sugiura Yukio, Woman of the Ginza, c. 1950, Woodblock print, Honolulu Museum of Art.

Manga and Anime, 1950 ~ 1989

As in the United States, Japan’s comic book market emerged and developed throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. Japan’s version of comic books, known as manga, looked to the past for inspiration. Considering Japan’s rich history of both literature and woodblock printed art, there was no shortage of references. Many stories were inspired by traditional Japanese tales, while the accompanying artwork drew from Edo Period ukiyo-e. Manga’s audience, however, remained largely male. One breakout star of the 1950s is the android character known as Astro Boy. The Astro Boy series originally ran from 1952 until 1968 and was popular enough to receive its own anime television show in the early 1960s. In the present, it remains somewhat popular in the west, having even received the Hollywood treatment in 2009. The art and story were meant to appeal to young boys in a more traditional sense—it was essentially a superhero story. It was not until later on, however, that popular manga began to appeal to these boys in another way.

It was in the final decade of the late Shōwa Era that manga truly began to explode in popularity. One infamous manga of the early 1980s took advantage of Japanese print media’s long tradition of eroticism to garner additional attention. From 1980 to 1982, Miss Machiko relied on sex appeal and crude humor to sell magazines and tankōbon volumes to boisterous young boys. The central character, Machiko Mai, is portrayed as a beautiful young teacher that is pestered by her student, Kenta, alongside his friends. The plot of both the manga and its later anime adaptation revolves around scenarios in which Kenta and his friends attempt to expose her bare skin. As a modern young woman, Machiko’s portrayal reflects a flawless and desirable beauty (see figure 16). The plot necessitated that she be depicted in vulnerable and private spaces, just as the women of past woodblock prints were. She was often seen in washrooms, changing rooms, or other private quarters in various states of undress. While Miss Machiko is an example of manga that used eroticism to appeal to boys, there were manga that did the same to appeal to young girls.

As one might recall, Japan’s shojō manga was designed to appeal to young girls. For Japan, the 1980s was an economically prosperous time in which people were optimistic for the future. Though they had developed earlier, the decade was a golden age for what are known as Japanese “Idols.” These idols are essentially, young, beautiful, and famous female pop singers and personalities. Whether solo or in a group, these young women were, at the time, the ideal youthful beauty. Manga revolving around fictious idols and their lives grew in popularity alongside Japan’s idol culture. One such manga that ran from 1989 to 1990 was Legendary Idol Eriko. The heroine, Eriko Tamura, faced tragic hardships as she pursued her idol career. The life events she experienced were meant to appeal to the manga’s young female readers. More than this, however, was Eriko’s striking appearance (see figure 17). Continuing old traditions, Eriko is the epitome of a young, modern, sensuous, and flawless beauty. As an idol, she is the quintessential portrayal of idealized beauty.

Beyond Shōwa, 1990 ~ Present

While manga and anime remain popular, a new art form has emerged with the technological boom of the 1990s and early 2000s. Digital art is the latest medium by which Edo traditions maintain their presence. Furthermore, the format is significantly related to manga and anime of the late Shōwa Era. However, despite the widespread nature of the medium, digital art is perhaps the least studied. Take, for example, Marc Steinberg’s reference to the words of one Okada Toshio, a self-purported “Otaku King.” Okada presents a unique theory that is helpful in drawing a connection between past and present. As Okada claims, “the otaku not only represent a new type of media-savvy human endowed with superior sensory faculties,” but otaku “are also the true inheritors and propagators of traditional Japanese culture.”[33] Otakus are essentially popular culture aficionados. Through their obsessive adherence to a specific aesthetic, they have kept Edo Period bijin alive in contemporary art. Not only are they alive, but they are thriving. One need not look further than Sai Tamiya to witness how Edo beauties live in modern digital art.

A modern illustrator, Tamiya’s online gallery hosts hundreds of his artworks. Like shunga of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some artworks are sexually explicit. However, due to Japan’s modern censorship laws, none are quite as sexually explicit as the unfiltered images of the past (see figure 18). Other works portray stoic beauties clad in kimono. Tamiya’s Fireflies (see figure 19) is, for example, strikingly similar to the Edo Period Hunting for Fireflies by Eishōsai Chōki (see figure 20).[34] Still more portray, like the early ukiyo-e, beautiful young women bathing in the nude (see figure 21). Though many of the women portrayed in his works carry various expressions, ones such as this appear stoic like the women of the bijin-ga. Like Tamiya, there are thousands of other artists who are reimagining Edo Period woodblock prints.[35] Other digital artists have been more directly influenced by the period of rapid change that occurred from the 1980s through the 2010s. Of particular note is the role music has played in influencing their work.

Fig. 19 (top image). Fireflies. [n.d.]. Sai Tamiya Gallery, accessed March 2, 2021.
Fig. 20 (underlying image). Hunting for Fireflies. Eishōsai Chōki. [c. mid-1790s]. From the Honolulu Museum of Art.

One genre of Japanese music that has had a significant impact on modern digital art is known as “City Pop.” City Pop emerged in the late 1970s and peaked throughout the 1980s. Today, young artists are taking inspiration from the unique audio and visual aesthetic of the time. Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love” has proven to be monumental in this. As seen on YouTube, a 2017 upload of the song has gathered nearly 63.4 million views with over one million “likes.”[36] This 1984 track has inspired digital art as seen in a creation uploaded to Pixiv by the user Rabbit Princess (see figure 22). The genre has influenced the creation of modern subgenres as well. Desired, a popular music producer, has blended both the sound and style of the recent past into a genre known as “Future Funk.” While he is not the only one working in this genre, he is one of the most prominent. The accompanying art he selects for his album and single covers is reminiscent of late Shōwa and early Heisei manga and anime.[37] For example, Desired makes heavy use of the character known as Sailor Moon from the early 1990s (see figure 23). Certainly, there is much happening in the present that is relative to the past. Unfortunately, these avenues have yet to be thoroughly explored.

[33] Marc Steinberg, “Otaku Consumption, Superflat Art and the Return to Edo,” Japan Forum 16, no. 3 (2004): 453, doi:10.1080/0955580042000257927.

[34] Eishōsai Chōki, Hunting for Fireflies, c. mid-1790s, Woodblock print, Honolulu Museum of Art.

[35] Pixiv, “#ukiyoe,” accessed March 16, 2021.

[36] Mariya Takeuchi, “Mariya Takeuchi 竹内 まりや Plastic Love,” Video, 7:56, from the 1984 album, Variety, posted by “Plastic Lover,” July 5, 2017.

[37] SoundCloud, “Desired,” accessed March 16, 2021.

In sum…

Though shunga of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries portrayed women in sexually explicit scenarios, they were not objectified. Rather, the courtesans on display were the high-class partners of samurai and other officials. These women were always depicted with astounding sensual beauty. Their idealized portrayals represent reverence, not tasteless objectification. Thus, eroticism and idealization were forever associated with woodblock prints. This trend remained prevalent throughout the broader ukiyo-e genre. The bijin-ga of the nineteenth century only perpetuated these defining conventions. As the desires of art buyers shifted, so too did the subjects. Although the women who were carved into wood and printed onto paper were no longer exclusively high-class courtesans, they were still every bit as flawless.

As Japan modernized, holdover conventions from the Edo Period carried over into the Meiji, Taishō, and Shōwa Eras. Shin-hanga mixed western modernity with Japanese tradition, causing beauties within to appear familiar, yet fresh. By the middle of the twentieth century, manga arose as the dominant medium for printed art. Until this point, female subjects had ranged from teen girls to youthful adults, but manga’s ascent led to a focus on adolescents. Teen girls simply resonated better with a modern and youthful customer base. Although these girls have been explored to some extent, their portrayals have rarely been compared to those of the past. It is here where one identifies the first of several neglected links between past and present. As manga progressed, serialized television programs took manga as their source.

Anime, as it came to be known, took Japan’s youth by storm. By the late Shōwa Era, popular music had come to influence the overall mood and aesthetic of some shows. Of course, music also reflected societal trends ranging from economics to fashion. Accompanying music videos were sometimes original animations as opposed to live-action performances. Simultaneously, animation studios hired popular music artists to increase production value. All the while, mangakas worked tirelessly on their manga, ever-aware of shifting trends in both the entertainment industry and Japan’s broader culture. Throughout the 2000s and the 2010s, authors, artists, and animators of the Heisei Era looked to the past for inspiration. Trends from the Edo period and beyond are reflected in contemporary Japanese print and digital art mediums.

Historians must be brave!

By 2010, Ann Rigney had noted that new media ecologies had taken shape in the digital age. Rigney argued that historians should use these to deliver historical narratives through a format other than the monograph. The reverse also holds true—historians should use these new media ecologies to explore the past. Japan’s popular culture environment constitutes a new media ecology. An interconnected web of manga, anime, music, and digital art has evolved into a raging whirlpool of never-ending content. As was the case in the past, young women continue to be popular subjects in the present. What messages are their portrayals conveying? How are they connected to the past? What hidden details about Japanese society can be gleaned from their study? Outside of the realm of journalists and amateur bloggers, these questions remain unasked and unexplored. Rigney’s words are now over a decade old. These portrayals of young Japanese women deserve to be investigated by professional historians. This brief study has only scratched the surface.

Historians tend not to involve themselves with the recent past, but this seems to be somewhat of a mistake. The world entered a digital age decades ago, yet historians largely avoid extensive explorations of even the 1990s and early 2000s. As western study of Japan remains a niche field, there seems to be a distinct lack of literature related to modern Japanese popular culture from the 1980s to the present. This is especially so when compared to existing literature surveying the numerous artistic genres and mediums from previous decades and centuries. Historians must be brave. The past is filled with vulgar truths that have been unmasked, but historians must risk wading into stagnant waters. So far, the only ones willing to jump in have been journalists, bloggers, and other speculators of the world. It is high time that historians understood that “even business as usual is no longer the same business.”[38]

[38] Rigney, “When the Monograph Is No Longer the Medium,” 117.


Secondary Materials

Davies, Christie. “Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art.” New Criterion 32, no. 3 (2013): 49-51.

Izzard, Sebastian. “The Bijin-ga of Utagawa Kunisada.” Impressions, no. 3 (1979): 1-5.

Levine, Edna S., and William Green. “The Cosmetic Mystique of Old Japan.” Impressions, no. 4 (1980): 1-5.

MacWilliams, Mark. Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime. Armonk, NY: Taylor & Francis Group, 2008.

Rigney, Ann. “When the Monograph Is No Longer the Medium: Historical Narrative in the Online Age.” History and Theory 49, no. 4 (2010): 100-17.

Rosenbaum, Roman, ed. Manga and the Representation of Japanese History. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2012.

Saitō, Tamaki. Beautiful Fighting Girl. Minneapolis, M.N.: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Seidlitz, Woldermar von, and Dora Amsden. Impressions of Ukiyo-e. New York: Parkstone International, 2016.

Steinberg, Marc. “Otaku Consumption, Superflat Art and the Return to Edo.” Japan Forum 16, no. 3 (2004): 449-71. doi:10.1080/0955580042000257927.

White, Hayden. “Historiography and Historiophoty.” The American Historical Review 93, no. 5 (1988): 1193-199. doi:10.2307/1873534.

Primary Materials

兎姫. Plastic Love. 2018. Digital. Pixiv.

Fandom, “Miss Machiko.” Accessed May 18, 2021.

Honolulu Museum of Art. Accessed March 2, 2021.

Pixiv. “#ukiyoe.” Accessed March 16, 2021.

Sai Tamiya Gallery. Accessed March 2, 2021.

SoundCloud. “Desired.” Accessed March 16, 2021.

Takeuchi, Mariya. “Mariya Takeuchi 竹内 まりや Plastic Love.” Video, 7:56. From the 1984 album, Variety, posted by “Plastic Lover,” July 5, 2017.

Ukiyo-e.org Database. Accessed March 2, 2021.

Zerochan. “Idol Densetsu Eriko Legendary Idol Eriko.” Accessed May 18, 2021.

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