The sisters Shigure and Haruko Hasegawa, and Women’s Art magazine

07.06.2024 |

Hisakayo Hanihara, Summer Fragrance, illustration for the cover of Nyonin Geijutsu [Arts féminins], July 1928

During the period from the opening of Japan to the outside world in 1868 until its defeat in World War II, Japanese women did not have the right to vote, had lower rates of enrolment in educational institutions than men, and did not have the right to enrol at universities. The same was true when it came to art education. The Tokyo School of Fine Arts, a national school for the arts, was for men only.
Women themselves, however, were dissatisfied with this situation. Amongst them were the sisters Shigure Hasegawa (1879–1941), a playwright, and Haruko Hasegawa (1895–1967), a painter. The Hasegawa sisters and their close female associates started a magazine called Nyonin Geijutsu (Women’s Art) that ran for a total of 48 issues from July 1928 to June 1932.
In this short essay, I will first explain the state of gender discrimination in politics, education and art in modern Japan, before moving on to a brief introduction to the history of Women’s Art and the cover art and illustrations drawn for it by female artists. Finally, I will offer an introduction to the role played by the Hasegawa sisters in the magazine.

Gender discrimination in politics, education and art
For Japan, modernisation meant Westernisation. The country embraced not only the technology of the West, but also the structures and frameworks governing its society and culture in order to forge a modern nation-state. The view of women in pre-modern Japan was strongly influenced by Confucianism. It was believed that women were naturally stupid and could not be entrusted with the education of their children. Women were considered to be only capable of bearing these children to ensure the survival of the bloodline.
The modern era saw the birth of the philosophy of the ‘dutiful wife and devoted mother’, influenced by the Western view of gender. This would go on to become widespread starting in the 1900s. The intention behind this philosophy was to educate women to become dutiful wives and devoted mothers as members of a modern nation-state, and to make them responsible for their own families. In a sense, this thinking encouraged the expansion of educational programmes for women.
It might come as something of a surprise to learn that art education was emphasised in the education of women. According to Akiko Yamazaki, from the late 1800s (Meiji 20s) to the early 1900s (Meiji 40s), male intellectuals developed the ‘theory of women’s art’, which maintained that there was a particular kind of art that was suitable and befitting for women. The theory argued for an emphasis on the role of women as mothers, and encouraged art to the extent that it did not deviate from gender norms. This view prevented women from becoming professional artists.1 While The Private Women’s School of Fine Arts, founded in 1901, contributed greatly to modern art education for women, women’s success in the art world was the exception rather than the norm.
Artists usually show their works at exhibitions organised by art associations and are selected for awards, rising through the ranks as they progress from being regular members, to associates and then to full members.2 During the 1920s, however, women artists began to hold group exhibitions to push back against this state of affairs.3 Meanwhile, male art critics demanded ‘femininity’ from these exhibitions, and criticised its lack. Writers of art criticism were mostly male, and their criticism held sway over the output of women artists.

The birth of Women’s Art
Women’s Art was a literary magazine that was first published in July 1928 and continued until June 1932. The magazine was led by the kabuki playwright Shigure Hasegawa, who limited its pool of editors and writers to women and introduced many new writers to the world.4 The purpose of publishing Women’s Art was to discover and nurture new female writers and critics, and to promote collaborations and partnerships amongst all women.5 This policy was thoroughly implemented in terms of the magazine’s cover art and illustrations, and the Western-style painter Haruko Hasegawa, Shigure’s youngest sister, drew on the network of female painters she knew for this purpose. As commissions for magazine and newspaper illustrations tended to be dominated by male artists, Women’s Art was one of the few media that provided a venue for women artists to paint.
Shigure was born the eldest daughter of a lawyer father, Fukazo, and a Japanese ryotei restaurant owner mother, Taki. After graduating from elementary school, Shigure was not allowed to continue her education, as her mother was of the opinion that women did not need to study. She married a man chosen by her parents in 1897, but her husband did not care about the family, and Shigure endured an unhappy life writing novels. After their divorce, Shigure wrote a script for a kabuki play that won a prize in a newspaper competition and was well received, and she soon earned a reputation as a playwright. During the Taisho period (1912–1926), she wrote a total of seven bijinden (biographies of beautiful women) based on successful women of the same era. These books also included women painters such as Fumiko Kametaka (1886–1977), who was invited to paint covers and illustrations for Women’s Art.
It was Shigure’s youngest sister, Haruko Hasegawa, who played the role of connecting these women painters to Women’s Art. Haruko was born in Nihonbashi in 1895. After graduating from Futaba High School for Girls, she helped out with her mother’s ryokan inn, but took up painting at Shigure’s suggestion. She first studied Japanese painting under Kiyokata Kaburaki (1878–1972) and then Western-style painting under Ryuzaburo Umehara (1888–1986). These masters were famous painters. Haruko contributed not only cover art and illustrations, but also essays to the magazine.
Haruko left for France in March 1929. In Paris, she devoted herself prolifically to her work, including preparing for a solo exhibition at the Galerie Zak in Saint-Germain-des-Prés through the introduction of the painter Tsuguharu Fujita (1886–1968) and others. After returning to Japan in March 1931, Haruko became involved once more in Women’s Art.

The sisters Shigure and Haruko Hasegawa, and Women’s Art magazine - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Hisakayo Hanihara, Summer Fragrance, illustration for the cover of Nyonin Geijutsu [Arts féminins], July 1928

The sisters Shigure and Haruko Hasegawa, and Women’s Art magazine - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Hitoyo Kai, Mutsumi, illustration for the cover of Nyonin Geijutsu [Women’s Art], December 1928

Women’s Art and women artists
From the first issue until Haruko left for France, the cover art of Women’s Art featured many motifs that were considered appropriate for so-called ‘women painters’. Kuwayo Hanihara (1879–1936), who was in charge of the first issue, depicted tableware and fruit on a table (July 1928 issue); Hitoyo Kai (1902–1963) depicted Japanese and Western dolls for the December 1928 issue ; while Fumiko Kametaka (1886–1977) painted a Caucasian girl for the January 1929 issue. These cover illustrations were considered appropriate for Women’s Art because it was a magazine for middle-class women.
After Haruko moved to France, however, Women’s Art rapidly shifted to the left during the rise of the proletarian cultural movement in the early 1930s, which also had an impact on the magazine. During this period the magazine content, which introduced the Soviet Union and reported on the lives of proletarian women, resulted in the magazine being banned three times. The cover art shifted towards photomontages of working Soviet women and geometric designs, partly due to the fact that Yuko Atsuta (1906–1983), the artist who took charge of the cover art and illustrations after Haruko, was devoted to the proletarian cultural movement. Although Shigure distanced herself from such ideology, she did not waver in terms of her original goal of providing a forum for self-expression for women of all backgrounds.
Before going to France, Haruko painted a nude woman enjoying a seaside hot spring on the cover. This image stands out among the few nude women painted by female artists. Haruko’s cartoon titled Kakarenu Saki ni – Manga [Undrawable – Manga] depicts the women of Women’s Art under a large umbrella. Meanwhile, in the lower left corner, a trembling man and another man seemingly paralysed with fear in the face of these ‘new women’ can be seen. The large umbrella is an implement used in the rituals of Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine, and is meant to celebrate the future of Women’s Art. Haruko portrayed the women of Women’s Art as free, unconstrained beings — and Haruko herself, who painted this work, was also a pioneering figure amongst these women.

The sisters Shigure and Haruko Hasegawa, and Women’s Art magazine - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Haruko Hasegawa, Bath by the sea, illustration for the cover of Nyonin Geijutsu [Women’s Art], August 1928

The sisters Shigure and Haruko Hasegawa, and Women’s Art magazine - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Haruko Hasegawa, Kakarenu Saki ni – Manga [Undrawable – Manga], illustration for the cover of Nyonin Geijutsu [Women’s Art], February 1929

Shigure and Haruko after the discontinuation of Women’s Art
Shigure decided to discontinue the publication of Women’s Art due to financial difficulties, and in the following year launched the tabloid-style pamphlet Kagayaku (To Shine) (April 1933–November 1941, 102 issues), in April 1933. She did so because women artists who had lost the platform represented by Women’s Art urged her to create a new medium. As Kagayaku was a tabloid booklet without a cover, however, these women artists were left almost completely without an outlet for their work. With the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, Kagayaku became a pro-war publication. Shigure also formed the ‘Kagayaku Troop’, an organisation that sought to offer comfort to soldiers in war zones, and made ‘comfort bags’ containing daily necessities and essays by children to be sent to these soldiers.
While assisting Shigure with this work, Haruko also began reporting on the front lines in Mongolia, China, Vietnam and other countries in the early 1930s, and published her findings in a book. However, Shigure fell ill and died in August 1941.6 In February 1943, Haruko followed in Shigure’s footsteps by forming and chairing a wartime organisation of women painters, called the Women Artists Service Corps, which held exhibitions that sought to rally young male soldiers and collaborate to produce works that expressed the nature of women’s wartime labour.7
The Women’s Art magazine founded by Shigure provided a forum in which women artists and painters, who were denied free expression in a patriarchal society, could present their works. As Shigure’s collaborator, Haruko invited women painters to become involved with Women’s Art and contributed to the creation of an artistically accomplished magazine. The two women were also involved in connecting women in both literary and artistic circles to the war effort. Although they suffered from gender discrimination, during the war they became increasingly aware of their role as leaders of Asian women across the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Moving forward, it may be necessary to examine their activities and works with a certain sensitivity, while also paying attention to the intersectional nature of this sort of discrimination.

Translated from the Japanese by Darryl Jingwen Wee.


Akiko Yamazaki, “The Gender System in Art Education”, in Shinobu Ikeda and Midori Kobayashi (eds.), Visual Representation and Music, Tokyo: Akashi Shoten, 2010, pp. 279-298


Reiko Kokatsu, “The System of Women Painters in Modern Japan: Focusing on Prewar and Postwar Western-style Painters”, Women on the Run: Women Painters Before and After World War II, 1930s-1950s exhibition catalogue, Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts (21 October–9 December 2001), Tochigi: Cogito, 2001


Reiko Kokatsu, “The Environment Surrounding Japanese Women Western-style Painters in the 1930s-1950s: Institutions and their Evaluations”, in All About Women Painters, edited by Natsuko Kusanagi, Tokyo: Bijutsu Nenkan Sha, 2003, pp. 30-34


Akiko Ogata, “The World of Women’s Art: Shigure Hasegawa and Her Milieu”, Tokyo: Domesu Shuppan, 1980


Akiko Ogata, “Women’s Art,” Women’s Art and Seito: The Women who Defined Their Era exhibition catalogue, Setagaya Literary Museum (10 October–24 November 1996), Tokyo: Otsuka Kogeisha, 1996


For more information on Haruko Hasegawa’s activities and artworks, see Reiko Kokatsu, “What Did Japanese Women Painters Draw During the War: Haruko Hasegawa and Toshiko Akamatsu (Toshi Maruki)” (pp. 25-72); Megumi Kitahara, “Wartime Artist: Haruko Hasegawa – focusing on the painting Hanoi Landscape (1939)” (pp. 73-121), in Megumi Kitahara (ed.), How Were Asian Women’s Bodies Depicted: Visual Representations and Memories of War, Tokyo: Seikyusha, 2013

Tomoko Kira, Women Painters and War, Tokyo: Heibonsha, 2023

An article produced as part of the “Women Artists in Japan: 19th – 21st century” programme.

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How to cite this article:
Tomoko Kira, "The sisters Shigure and Haruko Hasegawa, and Women’s Art magazine." In Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions magazine, . URL : Accessed 14 July 2024
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