The Brittle Decade: Visualizing Japan in the 1930s

IN THE TWENTY-TWO YEARS between the day the 1923 Kanto earthquake razed Tokyo and the months in which American bombers demolished it anew, modernity arrived in Japan. Ushered in by the creeping popularity of Western fashions, the rise of mass communication and transit, and the Europeanizing of urban public life, the “brittle years” of the early 1930s marked an uneasy encounter between Japanese traditionalism and Western cosmopolitanism, and nowhere did the attendant anxieties play out more than in the modan garu—Japan’s “modern girl.” The equivalent of the ’20s-era flapper, modan garus dressed like New Yorkers and smoked like Parisians; they held jobs, slept around (precipitating a decline in geisha services), and rebuffed the “good wife, wise mother” role that Japanese women had long been expected to play. In the image above, modernity meets the Yuki-onna—a malevolent female snow spirit known for preying on men—in the figure of a fashionable sportswoman, who grips skis and waves to an off-canvas companion while her lupine dog stares off into the distance. Painted with mineral pigments in the traditional nihonga style, Snow (Yuki) was a departure for artist Matsushima Hakko, who entered the work in the 1934 state-sponsored Teiten art exhibition before reverting to more conventional depictions of femininity. In other modan garu images from the era—which ranged from department-store ads to avant-garde portraiture—women were seen boating, waitressing, and lounging on balconies, happily acclimatized to newly introduced notions of luxury and freedom. These modern girls started to vanish from the scene within a few years, as government austerity programs dialed back opportunities for leisure, and they disappeared entirely by the 1940s, when militarization was in full effect and members of nationalist groups patrolled the streets handing out cards that read, “Let us refrain from luxury dress.” But for a few brief years, modan garus were striking icons of a new and rapidly changing Japan. —Jessica Loudis