How many drinks do you think she’s had? The bijin (beautiful woman) has a cocktail in front of her, but her eyes suggest there have been more. On view in the Modern Styles of Women series in the Japanese Art Gallery through May 8, Kobayakawa Kiyoshi’s woodblock print Tipsy is an iconic representative of the Taisho Period that spanned 1912 to 1926. It was also considered very risqué when it was printed in 1930—a time when Japan was experiencing social upheaval.
The beginning of the 20th century signified the end of an era in Japan, marked by the death of Emperor Meiji. Just as the new emperor struggled to portray an image of strength, the country was struggling to find its cultural identity. The museum’s 2002 exhibition Taisho Chic: Japanese Modernity, Nostalgia, and Deco explored how Japanese culture transitioned during this period, acknowledging that women were “at the very core of the social and cultural tension in interwar Japan.”
The Taisho Era integrated Eastern and Western cultures, giving rise to the moga—the modern girl. Epitomizing modern femininity in Japan, moga openly drank, smoked, and dressed in the latest Western fashions. The moga’s very existence threatened to disrupt the established social order. Drastically different from the previous ideal of a woman as a “good wife, wise mother,” the moga received plenty of criticism. She exemplified “cultural and social liberation” through her actions and frequent visits to cafés and urban streets.
There are many moga-related prints in the museum’s Japanese art collection, but Tipsy is truly fascinating. Kiyoshi’s subject dares to be confident, ignoring the criticism aimed at the moga. She’s not hiding her cocktail or her cigarette. She’s sports a short bob, accessories, and a playful dress—her appearance is similar to the America’s 1920s flapper. The subject captivates the viewer as her eyes invite you to join the social transformation.
Robert F. Lange Foundation Curator of Japanese art Stephen Salel explains how relevant these themes are today. “In the context of our current political climate, when memes such as ‘nasty woman’ and ‘nevertheless, she persisted’ make ironic reference to women defending their civil rights, the print Tipsy is all the more meaningful,” he says. Tipsy’s confidence and lack of fear speaks volumes today as women continue to battle for social liberation—like the millions who participated in the January Women’s March. The “modern girl” in Tipsy may have been controversial in 1930s Japan, but her bold self-acceptance is inspirational today.