The Shiseido Woman: The Western Influence on Japanese Women Through Cosmetics

The 1920s brought much change for Japanese society, particularly for women. The long period of Japanese isolationism had ended. For a while after the end of this period of isolationism, Japan rejected Western culture, nationalism rose, and traditional styles and values became the “new norm.” However, by the twenties, this period had ended. People were sick of being run by old, strict, traditional rulers and government. Young people began to embrace Western culture, and Western culture was also rapidly changing. In this ad, it is clear that there is Western influence. The figure in the poster is pale and blonde, and does not sport traditional Japanese garb, but instead is dressed in more modern, flapper style clothing. Women’s suffrage was a huge movement at the time, and women began to become more empowered. Gender roles changed: more women were going to university and getting jobs instead of doing housework. “As Kathy Peiss has convincingly argued, ‘beauty culture’ should not only be understood as a type of commerce, but also ‘as a system of meaning that helped women navigate the changing conditions of modern social experience’ as they increasingly entered public life.” (Weisenfeld) Styles changed and as women took on roles that had previously been held by men, so did their fashions. Many women sported short haircuts and, as in this ad, less form fitting clothing. Clothing was more loose and practical; easier to get work done in, but still elegant and glamorous. While some of the demand for cosmetics was for professional reasons, cosmetics served other purposes as well. Women also embraced their sexuality during this time period. Free love became more common in society. There were many “new emerging Japanese female type[s] of the modern period, which included “the new woman” (atarashii onna), the “working woman” (shokugyō fujin), the café waitress (jokyū), the housewife (shūfu), and the “modern girl” (moga), all of whom were important consumer targets for Shiseido products” (Weisenfeld).


Art became more about romance and expressionism became the new popular style. Life was not depicted in a realistic style, the artistic style was freer and there weren’t as many strict rules about what was considered to be art. This poster is in a modern, avant-garde style, using primary colors and abstract shapes.


During World War 1, Japan had prospered from the amount of export due to advances in technology and industrialization, and so instead of lacking men and money, Japan’s economy was booming. People had more money and could afford more luxury. Individualism rose as people had more time to think about themselves and doing things for leisure (Buruma). Consumerism was also a big part of society, as is clear from this poster. The poster is clearly trying to sell something by appealing to the majority of society. When people have more money, they constantly have to adapt and keep up with what is popular and the latest trends. Mass media guides and identifies these trends, as is seen in the poster. This Western woman was what many Japanese women strived to be as western culture became more widespread and accepted. Sophisticated, modern women buy these products. Women who could afford these products also would have time to lounge around like the woman on this poster. Not only is the popular style represented, but it is represented in the popular style of art.


While there is a clear influence of western culture, over time this company, Shiseido, has grown to strongly represent Japanese culture- it has been the leading cosmetic brand in Japan for over 100 years (Weisenfeld). Though it was originally based on western cosmetics and practices, it has now become traditionally Japanese.




Western culture had an influence on Japanese culture, as can be seen in this advertisement, but Japanese culture used the cosmetic for much more than the ad suggests at first glance. The woman in the image is elegant but assertive, luxurious but serious. She has Western traits but Japanese ones as well. The West did not completely change Japanese culture. Japan was influenced by it and absorbed aspects of it, using these aspects to adapt to a changing world.




Works Cited and Consulted


Buruma, Ian. Inventing Japan: from Empire to Economic Miracle. Phoenix, 2005.


Weisenfeld, Gennifer. “Selling Shiseido: Cosmetics, Advertising and Design in Early 20th Century Japan.” MIT Visualizing Cultures, 2010,






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