Monday, November 5, 2007

Strolling through Meiji Japan

Somehow or other, all the rest of my papers for this semester are about exchanges between Japan and the West in the late-nineteenth century. For my class on Japanese prints, we had to pick a topic relating to Yoshitoshi, considered the last great master of the ukiyo-e tradition. One of his most popular prints is "Stolling: the appearance of an upper-class wife of the Meiji era," which depicts a woman in (gasp!) western dress. This is particularly surprising coming from the traditionally oriented Yoshitoshi.

But it turns out that when this print was published in 1888, western dress was incredibly popular amongst upper-class women and even amongst geisha. Men adopted western dress first; it was mandated for military uniforms and then for bureaucrats. The empress and her court adopted western dress in 1886 and recommended that other women do the same in a mandate of 1887. There are many prints of the empress from this time that surely helped promote the fashion. Below we see the empress dressed in black in the middle, accompanied by the crown prince and flanked by court ladies sewing western clothing. The inscriptions on top are instructions in these new techniques.

Many of the pictures of the imperial couple wearing western clothing show them at some event that similarly symbolizes the modernization of Japan: the opening of a railroad, instructing school children, riding in a carriage, etc. But other images show them engaged in the rather traditional Japanese activity of viewing blossoms or foliage. "Strolling" similarly references the iris gardens in Tokyo, the Horokiri, which are shown below in a hand-painted photograph from the late nineteenth century.

So I'm interested in this tension between tradition and modernity, as well as the changing role of women that the print might represent. Part of the reason why upper-class Japanese women wore western dress was because they were entertaining westerners at balls and other new social events. Not only was it impossible to do the polka in a kimono, it was also entirely new for wives to interact socially with men at entertainments, since traditionally men were entertained by professional geisha. And as part of the social upheaval happening at this time, some geisha were actually marrying their patrons, themselves becoming wives of highly-placed men in government and hostesses at these international gatherings. Other geisha were wearing western clothing just to retain their usual places at the forefront of fashion. Since western dress eradicated tradition sartorial signs of rank and class, the emergence of this foreign dress may have reinforced the blurring of distinctions between the "upper-class wife" that is specified in "Strolling" and a geisha.