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San Francisco Chronicle
by Beth Hughes, Special to the Chronicle

October 9, 2005


A period of Japanese history largely unknown in the West -- or at least skipped in the popular progression from "Shogun" to Commodore Perry, Emperor Meiji, World War II, and now, kimono, Godzilla and Astro Boy -- is the subject of a UC Berkeley Museum of Modern Art exhibition, "Taisho Chic: Japanese Modernity, Nostalgia, and Deco."

It was a time, in the early 20th century when Japan struggled to define its place in the world and itself at home. It is this tension that gives the exhibition a "Where's Waldo" touch. Each work looks like what you'd expect. Women embody beauty. Nature reigns supreme. Patterns allude to classic works of literature or art. Everything's just so. Until you notice the lightbulb pull cord on a traditional red lacquer and paper lamp. Or realize that the makeup looks flapper, not geisha. That's when the fun starts, even if your knowledge of Japanese artistic techniques begins and ends with origami cranes. Each work looks like nothing you'd expect as modern, Western touches make you realize that this was a time of enormous change in every aspect of life. And each touch of change makes you wonder what on earth is going on here?

Emperor Meiji, who oversaw the end of feudalism and the emergence of his nation as a modern state with a leading role on the world stage, died in 1912. His successor, Emperor Taisho, looked the part, but his physical and mental limitations brought about the appointment of Crown Prince Hirohito as regent in 1921 until Hirohito assumed the throne in 1926.

With that imperial drama as a backdrop, tradition clashed with modernity. Women bobbed their hair yet still wore kimono unless they were out dancing, drinking and carrying on in the shapeless shifts of Jazz Age flappers. The economy shifted from agricultural to industrial, creating a vast gap in living standards. The power of economic conglomerates grew, matched only by the membership surge in proletarian groups and social criticism. Movies, magazines, newspapers, novels and radio spread popular culture throughout the population, even into rural areas. Dissatisfaction with the West grew, culminating with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Amid this tension, artists created the show's 60 works, which include scroll paintings, folding screens, woodblock screens, decorative objects and kimono. One look at "Tipsy," a 1930 woodblock print of a modern woman by Kobayakawa Kiyoshi, and you can feel the speed of change. With her short hair and sleeveless polka-dot shift, she's adapting with a cocktail or two.

The works shimmer between tradition and modernity, hinting at a life fast disappearing even as new ways still needed some tailoring to fit well. A 1936 screen painting by Yamakawa Shuho of three kimono-clad sisters sightseeing in a grand touring car fit for a Western captain of industry suggests the emergence of the leisure time that comes from substantial wealth. A table of lacquered wood with mother-of-pearl inserts is a traditional low square in nontraditional shades of pink, green and blue. A woman's jacket departs from tradition with its brightly stencil-printed fabric featuring an overall pattern of bold, overlapping magenta, yellow and gray hearts, symbols of a modern kind of romantic love.

Indeed, the kimono made its last creative stand during the Taisho era, according to Liza Dalby, the cultural anthropologist and author who gave the first in a series of lectures scheduled to coincide with the exhibition, which originated at the Honolulu Academy of Arts and will stop in Tokyo before heading home to the islands.

Kimono fabric changed, becoming bolder as sensibilities and weaving techniques changed. Traditionally white collars became richly patterned. Ties and clasps became bold. Dalby pointed out that the social changes of the era, and there were many, could be tracked by changes in women's clothing. Until 1911, most women wore kimono. From 1912 to 1926, they wore kimono most of the time but some wore Western clothing, which gained in popularity as more women entered the workforce and wore company uniforms. Girls adopted sailor-suit school uniforms during this period, the style that remains in use both in reality and in the fantasy worlds of manga and anime. During World War II, the government banned kimono.

The clothes revealed the changing role of Japanese women during the Taisho period. Avid consumers of new styles from Europe and America, the modern women, known as a modan gaaru or moga, were office workers, shopgirls or waitresses who enjoyed unprecedented economic freedom for women in Japanese society.

Artists reflected the change and the conflict by adapting traditional motifs to new Western techniques. One of the show's signature images is a painting by Nakamura Daizaburo of the beautiful film actress Takato in a kimono reclining on a chaise longue, a popular addition to the token Western-style room many Japanese families set aside in their homes. Takato's pose suggests Manet's "Olympia," said Constance Lewallen, the
senior curator at the Berkeley Art Museum. That image may have shocked Paris in 1865, but the Japanese company produced a painted ceramic figurine of Daizaburo's model, which is also included in the Berkeley exhibition.

Such mass-produced products marked the Taisho period, as did such practical household items as an aluminum condiment set and tray. Sleek and very modern, it could be featured in a design-conscious magazine or shop today in Tokyo, Milan or San Francisco, even though it captures the cross-cultural influences bubbling in Japan at the time. A simple, portable music stand with dovetail joints and sections held together by a
purple cord is just as up-to-date. Traditionally made of black lacquer and often heavily decorated, this one is plain wood.

The exhibition takes this full circle with the inclusion of a molded terra-cotta tile that resembles the family crest on a kimono from Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel, which opened in Tokyo in 1922. Built of reinforced concrete, wood and an inexpensive local tone, the building withstood the 1923 earthquake that killed 100,000 people in Tokyo and destroyed the homes of many more before the ensuing fire blazed across almost half the city. Many people believed that the materialism and changes of modern life caused the disaster.

Three of 10 songbooks in the show are illustrated with images of the earthquake and fire. "Daishinsai no uta" (Songs of the Great Earthquake, 1924), "Shinsai aiwa" (Sad Tale of the Earthquake, 1924) and "Fukko Kouta" (Song of Recovery, 1924) all topped the charts. The title song in "Daishinsai no uta," by Shibuya Hakurui, compared the earthquake to Buddhist hell as earthquake victims struggle to climb from the fires. The title song of "Shinsai Aiwa" by Satsuki-sei eulogizes a cafe waitress trapped when the building collapses. The cover shows a man holding an infant in one arm as he bends over a woman, the silhouette of a burned-out building behind them. In "Fukko Kouta," the title song by Beniya Shunsho, things are looking up. Vendors are selling dumpling soup, and the singer vows that while his house may be ash, "our Tokyo spirit did not die. Look
at us!"

And the world did, as Hirohito assumed the throne on Taisho's death on Dec. 25, 1926. Nationalism and imperial loyalty escalated and social criticism decreased. By 1931, Japan's incursion into China marked an irrevocable change.

Taisho Chic

Kimono demonstration by East Bay collector Joanna Mest will feature the bold designs of the Taisho period. 3 p.m. Oct. 16.

Gala dinner and fashion show. 5 p.m. Oct. 25. For ticket information go to:

The Modern Girl in East Asia, a panel discussion on the role of the Modern Girl, a motif that figures prominently in the Taisho Chic exhibition, in understanding the cultural and historical moment of Japan's embrace of Western modernism in the 1920s and '30s. Sunday, 2 p.m. Nov. 13. Guided tours of the exhibition are available at 12:15 and 5:30 p.m. Thursdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at the Berkeley Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft Way, , Berkeley. (510) 642-0808.

For more information on these and other events, go to www.