#AsiaNow Speaks with Nozomi Naoi

Nozomi Naoi is Associate Professor of Humanities (Art History) at Yale-NUS College and author of Yumeji Modern: Designing the Everyday in Twentieth Century Japan, published by University of Washington Press and received Honorable Mention of the 2022 AAS John Whitney Hall Prize. See a media gallery to accompany the book at Art History Publication Initiative.

Cover of Yumeji Modern, by Nozomi Naoi

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

The popular Japanese artist Takehisa Yumeji (1884–1934) is an emblematic figure in the early twentieth century. His graphic works include leftist and antiwar illustrations in socialist bulletins, wrenching portrayals of Tokyo after the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, and fashionable images of beautiful women—referred to as “Yumeji-style beauties”—in books and magazines that targeted a new demographic of young female consumers. Yumeji also played a key role in the reinvention of the woodblock medium. As his art and designs proliferated in Japan’s mass media, Yumeji became a recognizable brand.

Yumeji Modern examines the artist’s role in shaping modern Japanese identity and introduces for the first time in English translation a substantial body of Yumeji’s texts, including diary entries, poetry, essays, and commentary, alongside his illustrations. Yumeji’s graphic art emerged in the context of the media landscape from 1900s through the 1910s, when novel forms of reprographic communication helped create new spaces of visual culture and image circulation. Yumeji’s legacy and his present-day following speak to the broader, ongoing implications of his work with respect to commercial art, visual culture, and print media.

What inspired you to research this topic?

My interest in printed materials and reproducible media started even before my PhD, when I had the great opportunity to be at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I was there as an unpaid intern and as a Curatorial Assistant. The MFA has the largest collection of Japanese woodblock prints outside of Japan and I was part of their cataloguing project. It was there that I became really interested in the beauty and also the power of a medium that was made for circulation and a communal viewing experience among its viewers. I felt that reproducible media really had that power and I became really interested in not just the artworks but how it exists and affects a larger social sphere.

When I eventually started my PhD program at Harvard, I was incredibly lucky to have two mentors who were leading scholars in Japanese art history. It was first through issues of gender and the female image in Japanese art that I stumbled upon the modern graphic artist Takehisa Yumeji. Then, interest in medium and materiality really cemented Yumeji as a topic for my long-term research.

To give an example of Yumeji’s output and the kind of circulation that his artworks experienced, his overall mass-media output—illustrations, cover designs, poetry, essays, and designs for free gift inserts—comprised contributions to more than 2,200 volumes of magazines, journals, and newspapers during his entire career!

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

This is something I’ve had to ask myself many times throughout my research: Who is Takehisa Yumeji and how do I deal with him as an artist, a person, and how do I deal with his art? This was particularly challenging because Yumeji is so widely known in the popular sphere in Japan, still today.

For example, ordinary stationary stores throughout Japan sell items with his images or design (like the cute cat or botanical motifs) and Uniqlo, a well-known apparel company launched a line of light-weight kimono (yukata) for its 2007 summer season that were inspired by Yumeji’s designs. So, the self-fashioning and branding of the Yumeji name, the “Yumeji brand,” which I discuss in my book, remains alive and sustained by Japanese consumers today. Yumeji’s popularity is likewise reflected in the number of museums dedicated to his work. There are six museums and one gallery in Japan dedicated to his work, which is an astonishing number compared to other artists of his generation and earlier.

It was a challenge to deal with the popular image of the artist—one that is in fact still influenced from the kind of “self-branding” that Yumeji himself created—and to engage with his artworks and their importance in the larger artistic production of modern Japan from a scholarly approach.

Yumeji became quickly famous for his iconic images of beautiful women, known as “Yumeji-style beauties” (Yumeji-shiki bijin). The dainty, melancholic expression of the women in these images were often discussed as part of the artist’s scandalous romantic affairs and rumors, which fed into shaping the perception of Yumeji as a romantic, self-taught artist. Yumeji was adept at programing his own reception and was fully aware of the impact this had on his work and image. There is a posed photograph of the artist from 1910 (which is in the Introduction of the book) that shows him sitting on a windowsill, intensely introspective, dressed in a full suit and looking slightly downward, his head tilted to the side. The composition is intended to convey the figure of the modern, cultured bohemian artist—the Italian mandolin in his lap, an exotic foreign item newly introduced to Japan in the early twentieth century reinforces this. Yumeji was a master of self-fashioning, and even today we are drawn into this “spell” as we attempt to separate the interpretation of the artist and his work from the “Yumeji” image.

This is why it was important for me, as I wrote the book, to deal with the wide range of works by Yumeji. It was my attempt to discuss the artist with some distance from his self-fashioned image that led me to analyze his illustrations in socialist bulletins with images of anti-war and leftist sentiment (Chapter 2), his collaboration and impact on younger avant-garde artists of the time (Chapter 4), to wrenching portrayals of the devastation and rebuilding of Tokyo after the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 (Chapter 5).

It was this challenge of dealing with the image of the artist that allowed me to look at Yumeji’s production in a holistic manner. His subject matter is frivolous and mundane, at the same time serious and profound. Both apolitical and political, he remained outside official art spheres, despite his influence. An artist of many contradictions who defies art historical definition, Yumeji occupied a different “space” in Japanese visual and cultural history at a time when official definitions of art were being formed. In many ways his art offers a perfect lens through which to examine this particular moment in early twentieth-century Japanese art, one that coincided with the rise in new types of reprographic technology, emerging concept of the “fine arts,” and when concepts of design/designer were taking shape.

What is the most memorable story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

The earthquake series has personal meaning to me and it led to an unexpected encounter with a special person!

I end my book with the analysis of the series, Sketches of the Tokyo Disaster, which is a response to the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake and I was incredibly fortunate to have an understanding editor and team at UWP for letting me include all 21 installations of this series (and its translation) in the Appendix.

While doing research for this book in Japan, the Tōhoku Earthquake struck northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, followed by countless aftershocks and a massive tsunami. It was in the aftermath of this event and during Japan’s collective efforts to restore, reconcile, and narrate this disaster, that my host professor at Waseda University suggested that I look into Yumeji’s responses to the Great Kantō Earthquake, the greatest natural disaster during his lifetime.

There was a small exhibition at the Tokyo City Reconstruction Memorial on Yumeji’s earthquake series and there I had a chance encounter with Takehisa Minami, the artist and granddaughter of Yumeji! When I told her I was writing about Yumeji, she was delighted, and she told me how much Yumeji’s earthquake series meant to her.

This experience permitted me to approach this series with a better understanding of and insight into Yumeji’s heartfelt reactions to the 1923 earthquake and I decided to devote my last chapter of the book on this series and include the entire series translation in the appendix. I completed the translations and analysis of this series with the 2011 disaster in mind, which even years later affects the many people who are still unable to return to their homes today.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

There were many works and people that have inspired me along the way. My research took a significant turn when I was introduced to Elise Wessels and her collection of Yumeji’s works at the Nihon no Hanga Museum in Amsterdam and it was an absolute honor to work with their collection and co-curate the first solo exhibition on Yumeji outside of Japan (Takehisa Yumeji: Artist of Romance and Nostalgia, 2015). I believe this exhibition truly helped put Yumeji on the international stage and aided in my further research for the book.

In writing the manuscript, I was fortunate to have Gennifer Weisenfeld, Alicia Volk, and Sarah Frederick along with my mentors Yukio Lippit and Melissa McCormick to engage in a one-day manuscript workshop. This dream team of scholars helped me so much in conceptualizing and finalizing my ideas for the book. I was inspired by all of their books, and I would especially recommend these two to be read in tandem with mine: Sarah Frederick’s Turning Pages: Reading and Writing Women’s Magazines in Interwar Japan and Gennifer Weisenfeld’s Imaging Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan’s Great Earthquake of 1923.

Finally, what has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, scholar, professor, or person living in the world?

My current projects stem from my work with Yumeji and interest in the larger media environment in Japanese artistic production. It builds on my research of Japanese poster design (Mitsukoshi posters by Yumeji in the book) to examine the role of department stores, designers, and global modernism during the early 20th century.

I am currently drafting my second book, Modern Design and the Japanese Department Store: Visualizing the New Lifestyle, based on this research. My monograph inquires into the relationship between the rise of department stores and the development of modern design, and how they co-evolve to generate visualizations of Japan’s new lifestyle through the nexus of commercial art and design. In addressing this relationship, this book tells the story of the meeting and negotiation between different worlds: business and art; specialty store and corporation; traditional crafts and modern design; fine arts and commercial design; Western artistic styles and Japanese visual culture; the value of children and nation-building; and Japan and its Empire.

As part of my current project on modern design and posters, I am co-curating the exhibition, Made in Japan: 20th Century Poster Art at the Poster House Museum in New York (March 4-September 10, 2023). Along with my colleague, Erin Schoneveld (Associate Professor, Haverford College), I am working closely with the Merill C. Berman Collection of postwar Japanese posters for this exhibition. This will be the first major exhibition of postwar Japanese poster design at the Poster House Museum. So please stay tuned!