In the early 20th century, Japan pursued first-class-nation status in the international arena. As the country dove headfirst into modernization and Westernization, Japanese intellectuals and politicians pushed to elevate the status of women, and, at the same time, maximize national profit and stimulate economic growth. Many girls’ schools serving middle- to upper-class families, inspired by Christian and Confucian ideals and teachings, adopted the principle “good wife, wise mother (Ryösai Kenbo).” Education for females focused on good housekeeping, which included such tasks as caring for husbands and nourishing and educating children who would one day be important national assets.
The lifestyles of such schoolgirls and “good wife, wise mother” figures became an idealized image of femininity to which all women were encouraged to aspire. However, as time passed, some women, especially those educated in the new school system, began to be aware of the value of self-achievement and individualism. “Modern girls” (moga) started to appear in public—at cafés and on the street.
A selection of prints depicting images of modern femininity from the first part of the 20th century offer a rare opportunity to see the world-renowned work Tipsy, which from 2004 to 2008 traveled to venues across the United States, Japan, and Australia as part of the popular exhibition Taishö Chic: Japanese Modernity, Nostalgia and Deco. The subject of Tipsy is dressed in the latest contemporary Western fashion. She wears a ring and watch, has bobbed-hair and heavy make-up, and smokes a cigarette, epitomizing the modern woman who might have resisted and questioned the role of “good wife, wise mother.” Donated to the Academy by Philip H. Roach, Jr., Tipsy demonstrates the contradictory interpretations of femininity that characterize this fascinating period of Japanese cultural history. —Sawako Takemura Chang, Assistant Curator of Japanese Art & Robert F. Lange Foundation Digital Imaging Manager