CEL Masthead Winter 18

A rare look at early Japanese feminists

Emma Macdonald

When you think of feminist images, you may conjure the grainy black-and-white photos of the suffragette movement in the late 19th Century, or perhaps the colour and movement of the 1970’s women’s liberation marches.

But the National Library of Australia is opening a new exhibition on Wednesday 2 May which puts a new cultural perspective and beautiful aesthetic to women’s self-expression, self-determination and representation in the media.

Wife's Heart

Eisen Tomoika (1864-1905) Tsuma no kokoro (A wife’s heart) 1901.

The glorious and delicate multi-colour illustrations of Japanese woodblock prints, known as kuchi-e, are on show over the next three months at the Library during Melodrama in Meiji Japan.

The exhibition is made possible by the largess of landscape architect and University of NSW Emeritus Professor Richard Clough, who bequeathed the largest private collection of its kind to the Library.

Depicting the Meiji period, from 1868-1912, the images chronical mainly women during a time of great upheaval in Japan as it evolved from a feudal society to a modern, western-style state.

This led to dramatic changes in people’s lives and the publishing industry was at the forefront of recording this quiet revolution as it began to adapt the West’s mechanical ways of reproducing text and image, using younger artists to do so.

The images in the exhibition illustrate the uncertainty of the times, particularly stressing the melodramatic and focus on women.

According to exhibition curator Dr Gary Hickey ”this collection, along with other works acquired by the Library, forms one of the most significant collections of this genre in the world and the largest focussed collection of Japanese art in Australia.”


Dr Gary Hickey, curator of the National Library of Australia’s latest exhibition, Melodrama in Meiji Japan.

Chief Japanese Librarian Mayumi Shinozaki said the images were melancholy as they depicted women considering their societal expectations of marriage and motherhood.

It was also the first time women were drawn in an emotional state, having previously been depicted in a more one-dimensional mode.

Mayumi says the Meiji period provided Japanese women with “20 years of emotional freedom to be expressed.”

And for any visitors who have children in tow who also need to express their “emotional freedom”, the exhibit includes a kid’s space with dedicated Meiji artwork and activities.


The Meiji-inspired kids’ space

the essentials

What: Melodrama in Meiji Japan
Where: The National Library of Australia, Parkes Place
When: from May 24 to August 27.
Cost: Free
More information: www.nla.gov.au/meiji


Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author

Handmade Leaderboard AW18