Research

The Japanese women painters who moved across borders in the 1930s and 40s, and during World War II

19.06.2024 |

Toshiko Akamatsu, Moscow’s Four Seasons (Thawing Season), 1944, oil on canvas, Private Collection

Who comes to mind when you hear the phrase “Japanese women painters who moved across borders”? For those familiar with Japanese contemporary art, Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929), who moved to the US in 1957, and Yoko Ono (b. 1939), who moved to the US with her family in the 1950s before becoming active on the art scene during the 1960s, are probably the first people to come to mind. These were prominent women artists who began their careers after World War II.
But what about before that? Did Japanese women confine themselves meekly to Japan?
In the context of modern Japan, there were very few Japanese women painters who studied abroad, although Rin Yamashita (1857-1939) went to Russia in 1880 to study icon painting, while Fujio Yoshida (1887-1987) came to the US in 1903 at the age of 16 with her future husband, Hiroshi.
The three Japanese women painters featured in this essay — Haruko Hasegawa (1895–1967), Toshiko Akamatsu (later Toshi Maruki, 1912–2000), and Mitsuko Arai (later Mitsu Yashima, 1908–1988) — were active in Japan from the 1930s, experiencing transnational migration and living through the war years.1

The first of these painters, Haruko Hasegawa,2 studied in France before going to serve with the Japanese Army in Manchuria and China. Towards the end of the war, she founded the aid association called the Women Artists’ Public Service Brigade. The second, Toshiko Akamatsu,3 travelled to the Palau Islands and Yap Island in the South Sea archipelago under Japanese rule, and visited and stayed in the Soviet Union several times. The last is Mitsuko Arai,4 a painter who fled to the US and lived there for the rest of her life after being thoroughly oppressed for her participation in the pre-war proletarian art movement.
Although these three artists differed greatly in terms of both the scope of their activities and their views on the war, what they had in common was firstly, their dynamic spatial mobility, and secondly, the pursuit of their own mode of artistic expression while feeling conflicted about being both a woman and a painter at the same time. The practices of these artists represented major disruptions to existing frameworks of gender.
In Japan, the 1920s and 1930s were an extremely fruitful period in terms of the popularisation of art. After World War I, popular culture grew in the cities, bringing about changes in lifestyles and culture. There were movements for women’s suffrage, and new professions for women appeared, such as ‘bus girls’ and telephone operators. What constituted modern culture during the 1920s transformed into popularised consumer culture by the 1930s. The Japanese economy, faced with a severe recession caused by the Great Depression, turned around after the Manchurian Incident in 1931, and politics quickly became more fascist, leading to a long period of war.
At the time, women were excluded and marginalised from both the art world and art education.5 Until 1946, they were not allowed to enter the Tokyo Fine Arts School (1887–, the current Tokyo University of the Arts), considered the pinnacle of art education in Japan, so the only way to study was through the Women’s School of Fine Arts (Joshi Bijutsu Gakkō, now the Joshibi University of Art and Design), other institutions in the field or by private study. Women painters were required to paint feminine subjects such as flowers and children, and were not encouraged to paint self-portraits that questioned the ego, or landscapes that involved sketching outdoors. In order for a woman to become a painter, she had to come from an upper-middle class family that could afford to provide their daughter with an adequate education, and have the understanding of her parents. Hence, all three of these women painters came from upper-middle class backgrounds and were fortunate to have had parental understanding, support and the cultural milieu that allowed them to study art. However, they were forgotten and marginalised when they changed their family names through marriage and became obscured by the careers of their artist husbands, or even when they left Japan.

The Japanese women painters who moved across borders in the 1930s and 40s, and during World War II - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Portrait of Haruko Hasegawa in Hanoi, 1939

The Japanese women painters who moved across borders in the 1930s and 40s, and during World War II - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Haruko Hasegawa, Helene and Paris, 1936-37, oil on canvas, Ⓒ editorial republica collection, Tokyo, 2024

The Japanese women painters who moved across borders in the 1930s and 40s, and during World War II - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Haruko Hasegawa, Native Customs in South China, 1939, water color, Private Collection

Haruko Hasegawa: to the battlefield with the Japanese Army
In the 1930s, Haruko Hasegawa was at the centre of a network of women painters who travelled abroad on their own in a spectacular fashion, and created a series of associations of women painters.
Born in Tokyo in 1895, Haruko Hasegawa began studying painting after graduating from a girls’ school, and studied Japanese-style painting under Kiyokata Kaburaki and Western-style painting under Ryuzaburo Umehara. From 1929, she stayed in France, a country she had longed to visit, and thanks to the influence of Tsuguharu Foujita, she had two solo exhibitions in Paris, giving Hasegawa many opportunities to travel abroad. In 1931, on her way back to Japan from France after crossing the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Railway, however, she saw the Japanese puppet government in Manchuria that was just about to be established, and became awakened to the significance of the expansion into Manchuria, as well as the mission of Japan and of herself in Asia. On the other hand, Hasegawa had found herself disappointed with how France felt like an “old-fashioned town”. This mixture of admiration and ambivalence was what drove Hasegawa towards nationalism and war.
Hasegawa later served with the Japanese Army in Manchuria, southern China and Hainan Island, where she painted war pictures, and even travelled to Hanoi in 1939, which was under French military rule and a hotbed of political tension after the majority of the Japanese had been repatriated. Her account of her stay, The Virgin Soil of the South (1940),6 depicted a colonial gaze that likened Vietnam to a “sleeping, unawakened virgin”, in addition to including essays and illustrations filled with a certain sympathy for women of a different ethnic group, and criticism of the local French.Toward the end of the Asia-Pacific War, Hasegawa remained in Japan and gathered women artists to form the Women Artists’ Public Service Brigade (1943), which pushed forward to support the war effort on the home front.

The Japanese women painters who moved across borders in the 1930s and 40s, and during World War II - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Toshiko Akamatsu, Sketch of Moscow No. 75, (Russian Kitchen), 1937, water color

The Japanese women painters who moved across borders in the 1930s and 40s, and during World War II - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Toshiko Akamatsu, Moscow’s Four Seasons (Thawing Season), 1944, oil on canvas, Private Collection

The Japanese women painters who moved across borders in the 1930s and 40s, and during World War II - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Toshiko Akamatsu, Yap Island, 1940, oil on canvas, 60.6×72.7 cm, Private Collection

Toshiko Akamatsu (Toshi Maruki): to the Soviet Union and the South Seas

While Toshiko Akamatsu was also part of the Women Artists’ Public Service Brigade, she was not a particularly enthusiastic member. Born in Hokkaido in Japan in 1912, to a father who was a temple priest, Akamatsu studied oil painting at the Women’s School of Fine Arts. In her 20s, Akamatsu had the opportunity to be assigned to Moscow as a home tutor for the children of Japanese interpreters and the Moscow Minister, spending a year there starting in 1937 and six months in 1941. There, she was able to spend time developing as a painter by coming into contact with authentic works of art that had been difficult to see first-hand. In 1940, Akamatsu also spent six months travelling to the Palau Islands and Yap Island in the South Sea archipelago, which was then under Japanese rule, in admiration of Gauguin. During this time, she observed the lives of the people of the southern islands, making many sketches and oil paintings, dancing and spending a rich and rewarding time with them. On the other hand, her images of the South Sea archipelago also played a role in the propaganda that promoted Japan’s Southward Policy.
Akamatsu’s experiences in Moscow, where she sketched energetically every day, and in the South Seas, where she added rich colours and nudes to her repertoire, later led her to experiment beyond the conventional frameworks of “Japanese” and “Western” painting, creating the mode of artistic expression that would lead to her collaboration with her husband Iri Maruki, in The Hiroshima Panels.

The Japanese women painters who moved across borders in the 1930s and 40s, and during World War II - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Mitsuko Arai in San Francisco, 1975, all rights reserved

The Japanese women painters who moved across borders in the 1930s and 40s, and during World War II - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Mitsu Yashima, Dou Age, as the cover of New Dawn: Asian American News monthly /J-Town Collective (November 1974)

Mitsuko Arai (Mitsu Yashima): spending their latter half of their lives in America
Born into a Christian family in 1908 to a father who worked for a shipbuilding company, Mitsuko Arai grew up in a comfortable household. After graduating from Kobe College in 1926, she went to Tokyo to study art. At Bunka Gakuin, she encountered socialism and joined the Japanese League of Proletarian Artists (Nihon Proletaria Bijutsuka Dōmei), where she energetically depicted struggling peasants and workers.
The proletarian art movement, which occurred from the 1920s to the early 1930s, was based on socialist and communist ideology, but fell into ruin after being severely repressed. In 1933, the pregnant Arai and her husband Jun Iwamatsu (later Taro Yashima) were arrested, and even after their release they continued to be monitored by the Special Higher Police. In 1939, fearing for their lives, they managed to escape to the US and took the names Mitsu and Taro Yashima. Mitsu’s husband became a successful picture book author.
However, despite supporting her family in times of poverty by taking a variety of side jobs, Mitsuko was subjected to her husband’s domestic violence for many years. In 1968, when their daughter reached adulthood, Mitsuko left her husband and moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco to begin a new life, teaching painting to earn a living and participating in the anti-Vietnam war movement. She also served as a bridge between the first-generation and third-generation Japanese-American communities, and during her later years appeared on a film set in the Manzanar concentration camp.7 Mitsuko Arai’s life and artwork, which straddled Japan and the US as she divided her time between New York and the West Coast until she passed away at the age of 80, have recently gained interest from the perspective of transnationalism.8
During the 1930s as Japan was heading towards war, women painters such as Mitsuko Arai, Toshiko Akamatsu and Haruko Hasegawa lived their lives as painters with an eye on society, although their ideologies were completely different. While they were born into wealthy upper middle-class families and had the opportunity to study art, they were excluded because they were women, and had to live within a structure where this exclusion was tied to the authority of organisations and institutions.
After Japan’s defeat in the war, Mitsuko Arai moved to the US to escape oppression by the Japanese police and continue her art practice. Conversely, towards the end of the war, Haruko Hasegawa stayed within Japan in search of a place she could call her own, moving from the front line of the battlefield to the home front. Meanwhile, through her wartime sojourns in Moscow and the South Sea archipelago, Toshiko Akamatsu found the guidance and mode of artistic expression that would shape her post-war practice, centring on The Hiroshima Panels. The cross-border practices and works of these artists are full of possibilities for reinterpretation and for questioning the state of unilateralist art historical research, and the way that this research is segregated into specialised fields and disciplines.

Translated from the Japanese by Darryl Jingwen Wee.

1
Tomoko Kira, Women Painters and the War [Josei gakatachi to sensō] Tokyo; Heibonsha, 2023: Megumi Kitahara, “Wartime Women Painters Crossing Borders: Haruko Hasegawa, Fumie Taniguchi, and Mitsuko Arai”, Journal of Gender Studies, Tokyo; Ochanomizu University, 2022, pp. 65-84.

2
Megumi Kitahara, “Artist Haruko Hasegawa during the war”; Reiko Kokatsu, “What did Japanese women painters depict during the war?”, both in How Asian Women’s Bodies Were Described: Visual Representations and Memories of War, Tokyo; Seikyu-sha, 2013.

3
Toshi Maruki Centennial Exhibition: Moscow, Palau and the Hiroshima Panels, Ichinomiya City Memorial Art Museum, 2012.  

4
Megumi Kitahara, “Mitsuko Arai (Mitsu Yashima) (1): A Woman Artist Who Participated in the Proletarian Art Movement in the Early Showa Period”, Machikaneyama Ronso (Japanese Studies), Osaka University, 2021, pp.1-30.; Sho Usami, Goodbye Japan: Picture book artists Taro Yashima and Mitsuko’s exile, Tokyo, Shobun-sha, 1981.

5
Reiko Kokatsu, “Japanese Women Artists, their Position and Politics: mainly Oil Painting Artists before and after World War II”, Japanese Women Artists before and after World War II, 1930s-1950s, Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts, 2001.

6
Haruko Hasegawa, The Virgin Soil of the South: Travelogue of French Indo-China [Minami no Shojochi: Futsuin Kikou], Tokyo; Koua Nippon-sha, 1940.

7
TV Movie, Farewell to Manzanar, directed by John Korty, National Broadcasting Corporation, 1976.

8
Valerie Matsumoto, “‘A Living Artist with Open Eyes’: the Transnational Journey of Mitsu Yashima”, ADVA (Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas), 6 (1-2) Brill, 2020.

Artists
Explore the artists
How to cite this article:
Megumi Kitahara , "The Japanese women painters who moved across borders in the 1930s and 40s, and during World War II." In Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions magazine, . URL : https://awarewomenartists.com/en/magazine/femmes-peintres-japonaises-qui-voyagent-hors-des-frontieres-ou-sexpatrient-vivre-dans-les-annees-1930-1940-en-temps-de-guerre/. Accessed 23 July 2024
To find out more
Related content

Archives
of Women Artists
Research
& Exhibitions

Facebook - AWARE Twitter - AWARE Instagram - AWARE
Villa Vassilieff - 21, avenue du Maine 75015 Paris (France) — info[at]aware-art[.]org — +33 (0)1 55 26 90 29