Collection Spotlight

Shortlist | The Defiant Fringed Pink: Feminist Art in Japan

Shortlists offer thematic selections from AAA’s Collection, including overviews and annotations by invited contributors. The following shortlist by Shimada Yoshiko traces the development of feminism and feminist art in Japan from the 1990s to the present. 


Image: Cover of <i>The Stakes of Exposure: Anxious Bodies in Postwar Japanese Art</i>, by Namiko Kunimoto.
Image: Cover of The Stakes of Exposure: Anxious Bodies in Postwar Japanese Art, by Namiko Kunimoto.


Pre-feminist Art: Before 1990s

Forms of feminism (or women’s movements) have existed in Japan since the Meiji restoration in 1868, and continued to develop during the consequent modernisation of the country. However, feminist art, made consciously in reference to feminist theory, came into existence only after the 1990s. There were a few forerunners such as Katsura Yuki, Tanaka Atsuko (of Gutai group), and Tabe Mitsuko (of Kyushu-ha group). However, apart from those who actively tackled the issue of women’s roles, body, and sexuality in Japanese society, most women artists’ works in the 1950s to 80s seem indistinguishable from those by male artists, particularly in the field of abstraction—perhaps because assimilation was the only way to be recognised in the art world at that time. Women artists sometimes formed groups (like women artists associations) and exhibited together, but it was not necessarily because they shared a “feminist consciousness”; rather, it was often in order to secure space to exhibit their works. Other times, it was because their works, often smaller in scale and in traditionally “feminine” mediums (watercolor, weaving, and other crafts), were considered “less serious” and were segregated from the “serious” works of the Masters.

Feminist Art and Exhibitions in the 1990s

There are well-known, important Japanese women artists such as Yoko Ono and Kusama Yayoi, but they were active in the US and largely ignored, even ridiculed, in the Japanese art world until their work and achievements were re-evaluated in the 1990s. It was also in the 1990s when some scholars, curators, and critics started to look at women artists’ works from a feminist point of view. Chino Kaori (1952–2001) was one of the first scholars that introduced feminist theory in Japanese art history. Her 1993 essay “Gender in Japanese Art” (later translated and collected in Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field, ed. Joshua Mostow, University of Hawaii Press, 2003) was the first on the subject. She started the “Image and Gender” study group in 1995, which supported and nurtured numerous feminist artists, scholars, and curators. With this theoretical development, the first “gender”-themed exhibition, Gender – Beyond Memory, curated by Kasahara Michiko, was held in 1995 at Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, followed by more gender- and women artists-related exhibitions. Toward these new concepts of “feminism” and “gender” in the art world, some male art critics reacted with open hostility. Santa Haruo wrote in L/R art magazine in 1996 that feminism was a “foreign idea” and had no relevance in Japan, and importing such ideas was a frivolous act. This so-called “gender controversy” did not develop into a constructive discussion, as Santa and other male art critics refused to take Chino’s argument seriously.

Apart from Kasahara’s gender- and sexuality-themed exhibitions, Tochigi prefecture Museum of Art’s Kokatsu Reiko also curated several exhibitions that revolved around a historical survey of women artists in the 1990s and 2000s. Although she identifies as a feminist, the exhibitions did not differentiate between women artists whose works reflected feminist ideas and those who did not. Under the unifying umbrella of “women,” Kokatsu seemed to celebrate “womenhood” in general, without presenting in-depth critiques of works that utilise feminist art theory.

The feminist artists’ collectives Women’s Art Network and Feminist Art Action Brigade organised two exhibitions: Women Breaking Boundaries (2000) and Borderline Cases (2005), respectively. Both exhibitions included not only Japanese feminist artists but also artists from Korea, Thailand, Pakistan, and Singapore, inspired by Womanifesto in Thailand and prominent activities of Asian feminist artists. They attempted to form an international coalition of feminist artists, scholars, and curators, but unfortunately both collectives were short-lived due to lack of membership and support.


Image: Cover of <i>PostGender: Gender, Sexuality and Performativity in Japanese Culture</i>.
Image: Cover of PostGender: Gender, Sexuality and Performativity in Japanese Culture.



While feminism and related art exhibitions enjoyed short-lived prosperity in the 1990s, there came a huge backlash beginning in the early 2000s. A new “Basic Law for a Gender Equal Society” was introduced in 1999, which, while non-binding, still managed to enrage some conservative groups who claimed it would “destroy the beautiful Japanese traditional gender roles,” and so they waged a “gender bashing” campaign. One consequence was the cancellation of a lecture by a leading Japanese feminist Ueno Chizuko, after opposition from the local government’s objection to her potential use of the term “gender free.” During this time, historical revisionist groups were also fiercely denying the Japanese government’s involvement with so-called “comfort women” and other wartime crimes during WWII.

To make matters worse, Chino died suddenly in 2001. She was a central figure in the feminist art scene in Japan, and someone who could bring artists, scholars, and curators together. Since the backlash against feminism, it became increasingly difficult to even use the words “feminism” and “gender.” Some women artists’ works were celebrated for a while but in a rather dismissive manner. For example, the works of Nagashima Yurie and the colourful, pop images by other young female photographers in their twenties were labelled “girlie photos.” Meanwhile, works that leaned towards “feminist” by more senior artists, such as video art pioneer Idemitsu Mako, were largely ignored. Nagashima, dissatisfied with the way her works were received in Japan, left the country to study feminism. She has now returned and works as a feminist photographer, and, with support from feminist curator Kasahara Michiko, she presented a solo exhibition at Tokyo Museum of Photography in 2017, and is receiving more attention and appreciation.

After 2000, there were few exhibitions about feminist art, although there was an increased number of exhibitions about sex and sexuality. This was because the backlash made it difficult to organise an exhibition about feminism or feature only women artists, but meanwhile feminist theory was expanded to include LGBT- and other gender-related issues. Dumb Type’s S/N, which looked at AIDS, sexual minorities, and sex work, was ground-breaking in 1994, and opened the door for artists dealing with sexuality. But it should be noted that while the number of gay male artists exhibiting in major museums increased, there still seems to be little acceptance of lesbian artists. Ito Tari remains the sole “out” lesbian artist in Japan. This phenomenon is not limited to the art world. Compared to gay men, lesbians are nearly invisible in media, politics, and other aspects of Japanese society, due to the persistence of gender inequality even in the LGBT community.


The backlash still prevails in Japan. In 2018, Japan’s gender equality ranked 110th among 149 surveyed in the world (based on the WEF’s global gender gap index), and Japan seems to be one of the few countries where the “Me Too” movement has had little effect. Any mentions of “comfort women” were taken out of school textbooks, and sexual harassment is not uncommon in Japanese institutions, including art schools. Representation of women artists in Japanese museum exhibitions and collections remains extremely low.

Will Japan remain a “black hole” of feminism in the world? Recently, Tomorrow Girls Troop has emerged as a self-identified “fourth-wave feminist art collective.” It was formed about three years ago in California by a Japanese woman and quickly gained support, with members all around the world. It now has members in Japan, Korea, the USA, and in South America, among others. They operate anonymously and mostly in cyberspace. They model themselves after the Guerrilla Girls and wear pink masks of rabbit-silkworm concoction when in public. Their works are concerned with social and feminist issues, such as sexual harassment on campus and “comfort women,” and take the forms of performance, public events (picnics, talks), campaign posters, and more. As they do not produce “art works” in traditional sense, the Japanese art world remains rather dismissive towards their activities. Even Japanese feminists seem to be suspicious of them because of their anonymity and their use of the internet.

There are also other collectives by young Japanese women artists concerned about the increasingly misogynistic, jingoistic, and xenophobic Japanese society. For instance, Back and Forth Collective, whose members are young Japanese female artists in Indonesia and Japan, deals with immigration, racism, and colonialism from the feminist perspective. Both TGT and FFC are multinational and multilingual. Their transnational and collaborative practices may be key to bring much needed changes in the Japanese art world and society at large, which remains quite conservative and intolerant.


Image: Cover of <i>Consuming Bodies: Sex and Contemporary Japanese Art.</i>
Image: Cover of Consuming Bodies: Sex and Contemporary Japanese Art.


Recommended Readings


Japanese Women Artists in Avant-garde Movements, 1950–1975 (Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Art) curated by Kokatsu Reiko [EX.JAP.JWA2]

This was a historical survey exhibition. Kokatsu appears to define this “avant-garde movement” as one that concerns Western-influenced modern art in postwar Japan, as 1950s social realism paintings by women artists such as Tomiyama Taeko and Akamatsu Toshiko (later Maruki Toshi), did not make an appearance. Featured here are also women artists from important collectives such as Fluxus, Jikken-kobo, Gutai, and Kyushu-ha, who were previously ignored. Yoshimoto Midori’s essay focuses on women in Fluxus and unearths works by some Japanese women artists in the group hitherto eclipsed by Yoko Ono. It is a well-researched history of women artists, but not necessarily that of feminist artists.

The Stakes of Exposure: Anxious Bodies in Postwar Japanese Art (Kunimoto Namiko, University of Minnesota Press)  [REF.KUN3]

This book covers the period from immediate postwar to the early 1960s. Kunimoto’s in-depth analysis of the relationship between political developments and the genderised body in post-war Japan reveals its complex power and desire. Works by two women artists, Katsura Yuki and Tanaka Atsuko, are discussed; but also those by a male artist Nakamura Hiroshi, which makes the argument of representation of the body much more layered and nuanced.

Women? Japan? Art? (edited by Chino Kaori and Kumakura Takaaki) [REF.KUT]

This is the first book in Japan on feminist art theory. It was based on a symposium at Keio University held in 1996. It covers various topics including art history, political theory, colonialism, pop culture, and art practices. Artists Morimura Yasumasa and Shimada Yoshiko also participated in a discussion about gender in their works. Some of the essays are also translated into English and collected in Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field (Mostow 2003).

Gender – Beyond Memory: The Works of Contemporary Women Artists (Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography) curated by Kasahara Michiko [EX.JAP.GBM]

This was the first feminist art exhibition in Japan. Although there were “women only” exhibitions before, they were mostly women artists’ association exhibitions and did not have a unifying theme. This exhibition was the first one that was explicitly informed by feminism. Kasahara wrote, “[W]omen artists have been remarkably active in the field of expression. They have used the standpoint to question what women are and what it is they express while simultaneously trying to re-interpret and redefine their own image...and to create expressions that deal with contemporary problems related to sex, race, culture and class.”

Women Breaking Boundaries 21 [EX.JAP.WBB]

This is the first exhibition organised by a feminist artists’ collective, WAN (Women Artists’ Network). WAN was established by Ito Tari after her participation in Womanifesto in Thailand in 1997. This exhibition was also the first meeting of prominent feminist artists from Asia and their Japanese counterparts. However, the majority of participants from Japan were not professional artists and had no previous exhibition experience, which puzzled the participating artists from other Asian countries. There were two reasons for the lack of “professional” artists. One was that the organiser did not enforce “discriminatory” criteria for the participants—therefore anyone who wanted to participate got in—and the other was that quite a few Japanese women artists who were invited declined to participate as they did not want to labelled as “feminists.”

MOT Annual 2005: Life Actually (Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo) curated by Kasahara Michiko [EX.JAP.MOT.2005]

Another feminist art exhibition by Kasahara, featuring all Japanese women artists. The previous exhibitions she curated had more foreign artists than Japanese artists, but this time she concentrated on contemporary Japanese women and their everyday experiences. Okada Hiroko’s video piece features an ordinary housewife going slowing crazy, Idemitsu Mako’s video looked at the history of her family (a prominent oil company founder), and Sawada Tomoko’s work was a self-portrait that explored stereotypes of Japanese women. Perhaps this focus on the “everyday” is due to the backlash towards feminism. Instead of ostentatiously vocalising feminism, Kasahara chose to utilise small, daily occurrences to make the exhibition accessible to a wider audience.

PostGender: Gender, Sexuality and Performativity in Japanese Culture (Ayelet Zohar) [REF.ZOA]

This book is based on a conference and an exhibition of the same title in Israel in 2006. The essays in the volume deal mainly with bodies and sexuality. The majority of the artists featured here are male, and although the works of some feminist artists (Idemitsu Mako, Okada Yuko, Ishiuchi Miyako, Nakashima, Shimada) were discussed, there appears to be no direct mention of feminism. As the title indicates, “post” gender may imply gender without feminism. 

Consuming Bodies: Sex and Contemporary Japanese Art (edited by Fran Lloyd) [REF.LLF]

This book is an accompaniment to the exhibition Sex and Consumerism, which explored the issue of sex-work, sexuality, and memories in contemporary Japan. Some of the works discussed are the same as the ones featured in PostGender, but the focus here are the relationships between the sexualised, gendered body and the urban landscape, as well as how the private body becomes public property in hyper-capitalist societies. Aida Makoto’s grotesque painting of an amputated girl became controversial when the exhibition travelled to Wales, and gallery attendants refused to sit in the same room as the work.

n.paradoxa: International Feminist Art Journal #39 [PER.NPA]

Shimada Yoshiko and Amanda Heng are veteran feminist artists in Japan and Singapore. Here, they discuss the history of feminism and art in Asia (presided and edited by Eliza Tan). They both participated in the Women Breaking the Boundary exhibition in 2001 and pointed out the problematic lack of criticality in Japanese feminist art.

Tomorrow Girls Troop: A Fourth-Wave Feminist Art Collective” (AAA’s IDEAS Journal)

TGT is a fourth-wave feminist art collective. An overview of their work can be found in this essay on AAA’s IDEAS Journal, and on their website (in Japanese, Korean, and English). The group is currently promoting young Japanese women’s awareness of the “comfort women” issue. They are cooperating with artists to protest against the censorship of the After: Freedom of Expression? exhibition at Aichi Triennale. 



Shimada Yoshiko lives and works in Chiba, Japan. She graduated from Scripps College, USA, in 1982, and received her PhD from Kingston University, London, in 2015. Her artwork explores themes of cultural memory and the role of women in the Asia-Pacific War. Her works have been exhibited both nationally and internationally. In recent years, Shimada has been researching post-1968 art and politics in Japan. She has curated exhibitions, such as Anti-Academy (John Hansard Gallery, 2013), Nakajima Yoshio Syndrome (Atsukobarouh, 2015), and From Nirvana to Catastrophe (Ota Fine Arts, 2017), for which she wrote and edited the catalogues. She is currently working on the Matsuzawa Yutaka Archive in Nagano, and serving as Director of the Matsuzawa Yutaka Psi Room Foundation. She lectures on Japanese art and politics of the 1960s and 70s, and art and feminisms in Japan at The University of Tokyo.




SHIMADA Yoshiko, 嶋田美子

Collection Spotlight
Wed, 21 Aug 2019