Shima Seien - "Young Rebel"

Shima Seien 島成園

(February 1892 - March 5, 1970)


The youngest of the three most famous female nihonga artists of the Taishō era (1912-1926), Seien, along with Uemura Shōen 上村松園 (1875-1949) and Ikeda Shōen 池田蕉園 (1886-1917), was known as one of the "three 'en' of the three cities," Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo.[1] She became best known for breaking with the traditional idealized/romanticized portrayals of women in the genre known as bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women). She brought personal insight and experience into much of her early, pre-1924, work resulting in a realism absent in traditional bijin painting. These aspects of her work are epitomized in her 1918 painting titled Untitled an expressive self-portrait, discussed below. 

Seien became an Osaka media sensation for her skill as a painter of haunting bijin scrolls (see right), her success at the government sponsored Bunten exhibition in 1912 at the age of twenty, and her "striking looks".[2] 

Primarily a painter in the nihonga style, a mix of various Japanese styles and traditional materials often tinged with western influences, she was sought after as an illustrator for popular novels, women-focused magazines and, on occasion, a designer of woodblock prints. 

[1] 三都三園 - the "three cities" were Shima's Osaka, Uemura's Kyoto and Ikeda's Tokyo. "en" is a reference to the last syllable of their names.

[2] Dangerous Beauties and Dutiful Wives: Popular Portraits of Women in Japan, 1905-1925, Kendall Brown, Dover Publications, Inc., 2011, p. XVI. 

Woman (Black Hair Passion), 1917

おんな (旧題名・黒髪の誇り)

161.3 x 63 cm

note: this work was rejected for exhibition at the 4th Inten (exhibition of the Reorganized Japan Fine Arts Academy)

Prints in Collection

click on image for details

IHL Cat. #2589 

A Beauty and a Hero (2)  from the Righteous Samurai Collection, 1920

美人と烈士(2) 義士大觀

image: 9 7/8 x 13 5/8 in. (25.1 x 34.6 cm) 

sheet: 9 7/8 x 13 5/8 in. (25.1 x 34.6 cm) 

IHL Cat. #2631

The Heroine Yūgiri in Yūgiri Awa no Naruto from the series Woodblock Print Supplements to the Complete Works of Chikamatsu, 1923

夕霧阿波鳴渡 の夕霧

大近松全集 付録木版 

image: 15 1/8 x 11 3/6 in. (25.1 x 34.6 cm)

image measurement includes gray border

sheet: 18 x 11 1/2 in. (45.7 x 29.2 cm) 


A creator of provocative images of women which asserted, rather than restrained, female sensuality.[1] 

Biography compiled primarily from the following sources: 

Given name Narue 成栄 (なるえ), Shima Seien 島成園 was born in Sakai City just south of Osaka in February 1892[2]. The family register (koseki) shows she was adopted into her mother's family, surname Suwa 諏訪. Her father Shima Eikichi 島栄吉 and her older brother, given name Ichijirō (1885-1968), were both nihonga style painters.[3] Attending elementary and high school in Sakai, she obtained the usual education for girls focusing on domestic duties and crafts. To what degree she had any formal teaching at home from her father and brother is unclear, but sources suggest they played a supportive role in developing her talent, with her assisting her brother in fan painting.

At the age of thirteen in 1905 her family moved to Shimanouchi, a busy cultural and entertainment district of Osaka. It would be in Osaka that her formal teaching would begin, studying under the nihonga and print artists Kitano Tsunetomi 北野恒富 (1880-1947) and Noda Kyūho 野田九浦 (1879-1971). While her entry into the male dominated art world was aided by the earlier success of the older female painter Uemura Shōen 上村松園 (1875-1949), credited with "legitimizing bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women) as a major genre within nihonga," it was her own extraordinary talent, with the required introductions by her teachers, that allowed her entry into the conservative government-sponsored exhibitions that were important vehicles for gaining recognition and commercial success.[4] 

At the age of twenty her painting Evening in Soemon-chō 宗右衛門町の夕, picturing two maiko standing on a street corner, shown below as a reproduction, was accepted for exhibition at the 1912 6th Bunten (Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition). The following year her work Festival Attire 祭のよそおい, shown below, was selected, receiving a certificate of merit. While winning recognition and awards for her work exhibited at the Bunten and at department store exhibitions (important venues for the display and sale of work by prominent contemporary artists), notoriety and controversy came with her 1918 self-portrait titled Untitled, pictured and discussed below.

 Evening in Soemon-chō, 1912


(a postcard reproduction)

Festival Attire (Matsuri no Yosooi), 1913,

color on silk

22 x 56 in. (142 x 284 cm)

Osaka City Museum Modem Art

Here Shima contrasts the two young girls from a wealthy family on the left, dressed in sumptuous attire , to the more  modestly dressed girl sharing their bench, casting a perhaps envious glance at them, and the even more modestly attired girl off to the side, seemingly afraid to approach them. 


The long history of paintings of beautiful women, bijin-ga, did not encompass introspection and social criticism. With her introspective and provocative work Untitled, first shown at the first "trial" exhibition of the Osaka Discussion Group (Osaka Sawakai 大阪茶話会) in 1918, Seien broke the traditional model.[5] The very act of self-portraiture in the bijin-ga genre was a radical break from tradition, let alone a figure who directly engages the viewer with her stare. The title alone, Untitled, was seen as a provocation leading a critic writing for the newspaper Osaka Nichinichi Shinbun to rant that not giving the painting a title was "cowardly." In the article an accompanying illustration of the print mocked it as a "courtship advertisement" and dismissed Shima's depiction of the bruise on her face as non-existent.[6]

Contemporary commentaries in English on this painting varyingly describe the bluish tint below the figure's eye (痣 aza) as a nevus or bruise and all recognize the work as pioneering. Writing for The Japan Times on the occasion of the 2021 exhibition “Ayashii: Decadent and Grotesque Images of Beauty in Modern Japanese Art," held at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, Alice Gordenker, comments:

In her remarkable work “Untitled” (1918), a woman in a black kimono sits on the floor, her hair disheveled, staring directly at the viewer. Under one eye spreads an ugly bruise, as if she has just been struck. Rather than use a model, Shima studied her own face in a mirror when working on this painting. The bruise, she said, was symbolic of the many abuses routinely inflicted upon women by men. [7]

Shima Seien, Untitled 無題 , 1918

color on silk 49 1/2 x 74 7/8 in. (125.8 x 190.2 cm)

Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts

[I've painted] "a bruised woman who cursed her fate and cursed the world." - Shima Seien [8]

In addition to some critics, even some established male and female artists denounced the work of the emerging young women artists in Osaka and Kyoto. The famous yōga (Western-style oil painting) artist Kishida Ryūsei (1891-1929), best known for his portraiture, singled out Shima in "denouncing the 'women like ghosts' recently on display."[9] Even the female artist Uemura Shōen did not hide her irritation with these younger rivals. In a 1920 magazine article, she remarked, "Nowadays 'Woman Painter' has become a kind of fashion. Everyone is so boasting about herself and is falling into ecstasy, that no one would be able to build her own sanctuary of the fine arts.  Newspapers and magazines irresponsibly praise them and show their unskillful works in photographs and make their heads swell. I cannot find any trace of originalities in works by such young women nowadays, maybe because they have become painters so thoughtlessly." She went on to complain that young artists had emulated her name by taking names ending with "-en."[10]  

In 2008, along with her works Festival Attire (shown above) and Fragrance of Aloeswood (shown below), Untitled was designated as a Municipal Tangible Cultural Property of Osaka (度大阪市指定有形 文化財).[11]

A Painter and an Illustrator

Supplementing Shima's paintings was her work designing sashi-e 挿絵  (magazine and book illustrations; sometimes also included in the kuchi-e genre) of bijin to illustrate serialized novels and for placement in various popular women's magazines such as Shufu no tomo (The Housewife's Friend) and Fujin Gahō (The Lady's Graphic). In commenting on the role of female artists as illustrators, Kendal Brown states, “Female artists are disproportionately better represented in bijin kuchi-e than they are in other areas of the Taishō art world…since many female artists found it impossible to make a living by selling their paintings, work for magazines was essential. [B]ecause consumers of bijin kuchi-e were primarily women, females artists were thought to have a special affinity with both the subject and the audience."[12] 

Most of Shima's illustrations were not woodblock prints but rather reproduced as offset color lithographs, the technology of choice for Taishō era magazines for faithfully reproducing the colors and brushwork of painters. Her woodblock print design production was quite limited, a web search revealing only the examples shown below.

Various illustrations (color lithographs) designed by the artist

note: all dimensions approximate

Utamaki from the magazine Fujin Gahō,

No. 100, September 1, 1914


婦人画報 第百號


A Girl in Sorrow, Tazuko from The Gold Fan (Kinsen), a novel by Watanabe Katei serialized in the magazine Shufu no tomo, April 1920

Hisako from The Gold Fan, a novel by Watanabe Katei serialized in the magazine Shufu no tomo, June 1920

Youth from the July 1921 issue of the magazine Shufu no tomo




New Year from the January 1922 issue of the magazine Shufu no tomo




untitled work from the January 1923 issue of the magazine Shufu no tomo


1月 大正 12

Crescent Moon from the Asahi Shinbun calendar for 1924




Untitled cover illustration, Weekly Asahi Autumn Special Issue, October 1926

週刊朝日 1926年 秋季特別号 

Woodblock prints designed by the artist

The artist's two best known woodblock print designs

note: all dimensions approximate

The Heroine Yūgiri in Yūgiri Awa no Naruto from the series Woodblock Print Supplements to the Complete Works of Chikamatsu



大近松全集 付録木版 

sheet: 18 x 11 1/2 in. (45.7 x 29.2 cm) 

After a Bath, July from the series Collection of New Ukiyo-e Beauties, 1924

 [see below note]

新浮世絵美人合 七月 ゆあがり

Shin ukiyo-e bijin awase

15 1/16 x 11 1/8 in. (38.3 x 28.1 cm)

Note on Collection of New Ukiyo-e Beauties: There is a complete set of twelve designs from this collaborative series in the collection of the National Diet Library, Tokyo, which is dated to 1918. However, in that set there is a different design for the month of July by another female artist, Shima Seien (1892-1970). In addition to July, there are four other duplicate months identified thus far for this series (April, May, July, August and November). This could suggest that this design, along with the other duplicate compositions, may be from a later grouping, possibly dating to 1924, the date which is usually assigned to this series. A slip of paper attached to an impression of another print from the series, (May, Early Summer Rain, also by Shuko), a design also found in the 1918 group, credits the Publication Society of Shin Ukiyo-e Bijin Awase [新浮世絵美人合], which may have been run by a Mr. Murakami.[村上].  [source: website of Scholten Japanese Art]

Shima's design was re-carved and re-printed c. 1980s by Ishukankokai 遺珠刊行会 as part of the series "Twelve Masterworks of Women" 名品おんな十二題 ."

Other woodblock prints designed by the artist (not part of this collection)

untitled (courtesan), undated

sheet: 11 13/16 x 9 in. (30 x 23 cm)

untitled (maiko), 1931

sheet: 20 5/8 x 12 7/16 in. 

(52.5 x 36.7 cm)

The cover and two of the artist's prints from, the book One's Younger Days, New Book of Nishiki-e, volume 4, 1921

新錦絵帖. 4の卷, 処女の頃  (Shin nishikiejō, v4, Shojo no koro)

note: all dimensions approximate

cover and woodblock illustration

Flower Buds


image: 6 1/8 x 4 3/4 in. (15.5 x 12.5 cm )



image: 6 1/8 x 4 3/4 in. (15.5 x 12.5 cm )

Students and Artist Associations

Shima's Seien's Art School (c. 1924)

In a common practice, student's sketch as a fellow student models for them. 

Below: The members of the Four Women Association, 1916

from left to right: Okamoto Kōen, Kitani Chigusa, Shima Seien, and Matsumoto Kayō.

They were known as the "Setsu Getsu Ka Sei"  "Snow, Moon, Flower, and Star."

As her reputation grew, Shima gathered students and "by 1914 she had about ten female students, and nearly thirty by 1918, some coming from around Japan and others simply wealthy wives and daughters from the area."[13] Students said to have studied with Shima are Akita Seikō 秋田成香 (1900-?), Ito Seikin 伊東成錦 (1897-?), Kikuchi Seiki 菊池成輝 (1871-1934), Takahashi Seibi 高橋成薇 (1902-1994), Yoshioka Mie 吉岡美枝 (1911-1999), Okamoto Seikun 岡本成薫 (1907-1992) and Shima Aoi 島あおい (1896-1988).[14] 

Seien was a member of the Osaka bijutsukai (Osaka Art Association), likely joining shortly after it was formed in 1915 with the assistance of her teacher Kitano Tsunetomi. In 1916 Shima, along with three other young female artists Okamoto Kōen 岡本更園 (1895-?), Kitani Chigusa 木谷千種 (1895-1947) and Matsumoto Kayō 松本華羊 (1893-1961), formed the Joshi-ri no kai (also seen romanized as Onna yonin no kai) 女四人の会 (Four-Woman Society) for mutual support and to promote and exhibit their own work. The group held a single exhibition in May 1916, showing paintings based on the work Kōshoku gonin onna (The Sensuality of Five Women) written in 1686 by Ihara Saikaku 井原西鶴 (1642-1693). It's unclear how long this association continued, but during the time these four women were sensations on the art scene, evoking both positive and negative reviews of their work and themselves, the mutual support must have been comforting. 

In January 1918 nine Osaka artists, including Seien, organized the Osaka Discussion Group (Osaka sawakai 大阪茶話会) to proclaim the creative independence of painters and promote self-reflection and the portrayal of individual "spirit" as legitimate artistic goals. Other artists in the group were Seien's former teacher Kitano Tsunetomi 北野恒富, Kanamori Kan'yo 金森観陽 (1884-1932),  Mizuta Chikuho 水田竹圃 (1883-1958) and Yamaguchi Sohei 山口草平 (1882-1961). The group held a "trial" exhibition in June of that same year.  It is unclear how long this group, whose manifesto declared the importance of the artist's individuality and sharing their "spirit" through their work, existed.

Marriage and Moving

In 1920, at the age of twenty-eight, Shima reluctantly accepted an arranged marriage to Morimoto Toyojirō 森本豊次郎, a bank employee. With her father on his deathbed, her family, concerned about her lifestyle, arranged this marriage without her knowledge. Shima wrote: "I am not sure if a woman like me, whose only life is painting, will be able to live the same life as her husband...although I will try my best to do so."[15]

Her marriage would take her away from her beloved Osaka. Starting in 1924 until after World War II, as her husband's job demanded his presence, she would live in Shanghai, Manchuria, the port city of Dalian in China, Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture and Otaru, Hokkaido.[16]  For a period she would commute back to Osaka from Shanghai, likely via ferry, a two day trip. 

Whether it was her marriage in 1920, or leaving Osaka in 1924, or society's growing conservatism, the tenor of her work began to change after her marriage. Critics' response to her first post-marriage solo exhibition in 1923 at the Osaka Takashimaya Department Store found her work skillful and even beautiful, but also found it "lacking in spirit" and "individuality," hallmarks of her previous work.[17]

Some modern-day art critics have written that Shima lost her "desire to paint such provocative work" because of her marriage and that her style became "bland" after marriage.[18] Others point out that her early provocative works were part of a movement towards Taishō Realism rather than the romanticism associated with earlier times, particularly in the bijin-ga genre, and that losing her edginess in her work corresponded with the shift back to romanticism by many artists at the end of the Taishō era and beginning of Showa.[19] 

In the period between her marriage in 1920 and her return to Osaka in 1946, Seien would continue to submit work to the government sponsored exhibitions, with her work Fragrance of Aloeswood, shown below, picturing an aging oiran (the figure reportedly modeled after her mother), being accepted at the second Teiten exhibition (the follow-on to the Bunten) in 1920 and her work Musical Accompaniment 囃子, shown below as a reproduction, being selected for the 1927 8th Teiten.

Makeup, 1915

化粧 大正4

color on silk

50 1/8 x 9 3/8  in. (127.4 x 23.8 cm) 

Fragrance of Aloeswood, 1920

伽羅の薫 大正9

color on silk

83 1/2  x 32 1/2 in. 

(212.3  x  82.7 cm)

Tooth Blackening, 1920

鉄漿 (おはぐろ) 大正9

color on silk

16 3/4 x 17 3/4 in.

(42.5 x 45 cm)

Musical Accompaniment, 1927

囃子 大正16

[a postcard reproduction of the original color on silk painting]

A Girl in Shanghai, 1924

 上海娘  大正13年  

color on silk

52 x 15 5/8 in.

(132 x 39.8 cm)

In Shanghai, 1925

上海にて 大正14年 

color on silk

15 3/4 x  20 1/8 in.

(40 x 51.2 cm)

Shanghai Lady, c. 1925


color on silk

Young Wife, 1929 


color on silk

59 x  16 5/16 in. (150 x 41.5 cm)

Red Pipe Stem, 1934

朱羅宇 昭和9年

Child Apprentice, 1951-1955

幼弟子 昭和26~30年

In 1928 and 1929, her submitted works were not accepted by the Teiten and she seems to have stop submitting works after that. During this period she continued to create illustrations for novels and magazines and held multiple exhibitions at the Takashiyama Department Store in Osaka.

There is a blank period in her record during the time she spent in Hokkaido with her husband (1937-1946) until her return to Osaka at the age of 54, upon her husband's retirement. According to Seine's own accounts (see "I am Moving to Hokkaido"), her production of work during that period was limited. There is some unclarity about her work and exhibitions after her return to Osaka, but multiple sources report that her first exhibition after her return was not until 1951 at Osaka's Daimaru Shinsaibashi department store where she held annual exhibitions until 1956. Other recorded exhibitions are in 1960 at the Osaka Women's Association Exhibition 大阪女人社展  and in 1966 at the Tokyo Daimaru. Tobunken (National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo) does state in their brief outline of Seien that "After the war, she held a solo exhibition at the Takashimaya Department Store in Osaka every year" but does not specify the years.[20] The Osaka e-museum timeline of the artist lists a 1963 exhibition at the Osaka Takashimaya with her student Okamoto Seikun 岡本成薫 (1907-1992). These joint exhibitions may have continued until Seien was into her 70s. 

In preparing for her departure for Hokkaido in 1937, Shima wrote a poignant article about her upcoming move in the Osaka journal Daimai Bijutsu. In the article, translated on the right, Shima laments leaving her beloved Osaka to go with her husband to Otaru, Hokkaido. She worries about her increasingly fragile health and the snow and cold that awaits her, but reminds herself that it will be a new experience learning Hokkaido's manners and customs and that she will get used to the weather. She will miss her grown daughters and a place rich in character where she was happy.


She praises the literature, art, humanity and customs of Osaka, and how her work was dependent upon the literary arts of Osaka. But, perhaps, she writes, I might be better able to see certain parts of Osaka better from afar, as perhaps she has been too close to it.

Death and Legacy

Shima worked almost until her death. Just before her passing she moved to the city of Takarazuka, northwest of Osaka. She passed away on March 5, 1970 after a heart attack. Her husband would outlive her, passing away in 1977.  

Recent years have shown an increasing interest in Japan in her work and her life, particularly in her hometown of Sakai and her beloved city of Osaka. While she gained fame at a young age, that fame faded after she left Osaka to follow her husband. Today she is recognized as paving the way for many women artists who wanted to take their rightful place and make their mark on the art world. She is recognized for the longevity of her career, even if much of it was out of the limelight. An admirer of the towering woman writer, activist and poet Yosano Akiko 与謝野晶子 (1878-1942), Seien joins Yosano as a favorite daughter of Sakai where they were both born.[21] 

left: Shima Seien (1892-1970)

right: Yosano Akiko (1878-1942)

photos undated

I am Moving to Hokkaido

The below is a somewhat condensed and edited translation of the transcription in Japanese of Shima's article in the Osaka journal Daimai Bijutsu 大毎美術, May 5, 1937, Vol. 16, No. 5, go to: Shima SeienI Moving to Hokkaido - E Museum Osaka (


I am leaving my familiar hometown of Osaka to go to Hokkaido, where forests of onco and birch trees are budding in the blue fields of  May - and I will be living in Otaru City.


My husband works in Otaru.


I have been to Shanghai in the past, but never to Hokkaido. When I think of Hokkaido, I immediately think of snow, and I feel intimidated by the cold. I have been sickly in recent years, so I am somewhat concerned about my health, but the snow has already melted in Hokkaido, and if I take care to get accustomed to living there now, I don't think I have much to worry about.


I am looking forward to experiencing the customs and the human nature of Hokkaido more than anything else. I do not intend to do much work there, so I will bring with me only a few small pieces of my painting equipment, but I would be more than happy to see things different from there, to light up different things, and to nourish my art mind, which is so limited.


It is with great sadness that I must part from my daughters, who have been learning to draw, mainly from me. I was born in Sakai, but grew up in Osaka, became a daughter in Osaka, married in Osaka, and have lived and painted in Osaka ever since. I have lived in Tokyo and Kyoto, and I am happy in all of them, but in my case, there is no place I am happier. To this day, I am fully satisfied with being an Osaka girl and proud to be an Osaka woman. This is because Osaka is a land rich in artistic traditions and emotional currents that help our minds to grow and nurture our character. I believe that everyone who has known me to this day would agree that I have spent more than half of my life immersed in this place called Osaka and have become a total Osaka girl.


I must now say "good-bye" to Osaka.


The literature, the arts, the humanity, and the manners and customs of Osaka - they are for me both a retrospective and a nostalgic shadow of what it used to be.


I am moved to tears when I think of how much my artistic spirit has been nurtured by the Kamigata theaters, the men and women in the plays, the purity of Bunraku, the puppets, the writings of Saikaku and Chikamatsu, the people of Senba-jima, their faces, their bodies, their dress, their customs, and their manners. My life as an artist began with "An Evening in Soemon-cho," which was exhibited at the Bunten Exhibition, and I have produced a large number of works. I have been so absorbed in Osaka, both physically and emotionally, that I can say that no matter what or when, there has never been an artwork that did not have Osaka as its foothold. I am confident in saying that there is not a work of mine, be it portrait, floral, or still life, that does not have Osaka as its artistic and cultural center.


I am parting ways with that Osaka.


But I guess it depends on how you look at it. My leaving such an "eternal lover" for Hokkaido may be an opportunity for me to admire and observe Osaka even more closely from there. On the other hand, by leaving Osaka and seeing Osaka, I may be able to see certain aspects of Osaka that I have not been able to see until now, more than if I had stayed in Osaka and seen Osaka.


Hokkaido is a land of deep snow, and from December to February of the following year, the people live in the snow, and during this time, the cities and fields are completely covered with deep snow. In the Kansai region, no matter how severe the winter is, there are always some green plants in the fields and no shortage of vegetables all year round. [I imagine that ] after several months of not being able to see even a speck of greenery, the human spirit is so excited to see the colors of the plants and trees that it is impossible to describe the joy that is contained within. It is a joy that cannot be described in words, and it is a joy that gives birth to the poetic spirit in non-poets, and to the artistic spirit in non-artists. I have lived only in the Kansai region of Japan, and this will be a new experience for me that I have never experienced before, so I am looking forward to it. 


To all my friends in Osaka who have been so close to me over the years, and to those of you who have yearned for Osaka, I wish you all the best and hope to see you again soon.

[1] Modern Masters of Kyoto: The Transformation of Japanese Painting Traditions, Nihonga from the Griffith and Patricia Way Collection, Michiyo Morioka, Paul Berry, Seattle Asian Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1999, p. 23. 

[2] Her given name is also seen romanized (likely incorrectly) as Narie, as it is in A Dictionary of Japanese Artists : Painting, Sculpture, Ceramics, Prints, Lacquer, Laurance P. Roberts, Weatherhill, 1976, p. 147 and Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: 1900-1975, Helen Merritt, University of Hawaii Press, 1992, p. 134. 

[3] Her brother's name is variously given as Issui (The Female Image: 20th Century Prints of Japanese Beauties, Amy Riegle Newland and Hamanaka Shinji, Abe Publishing Ltd and Hotei Publishing, 2000, p. 211),  Shima Gifū 島御風 (likely his artist name) and Ichijirō 市次郎 for his given name. 

[4] Modern Masters of Kyoto, p. 138.

[5] also seen romanized as Chawakai.

[6] review of the 2019 Sakai City Shima Seien Exhibition appearing on the website of Kitanoda Art School located in Sakai City 

[7] "Bewitching, beguiling and downright disturbing: Unconventional views of beauty in Japanese art," Alice Gordenker, The Japan Times online March 19, 2021.

[8] My translation of the artist's comment on the work「痣のある女の運命を呪い世を呪う心持ちを描いた」See: blog, in Japanese, of the Kitanoda Art School

[9] Performing "nation": Gender Politics in Literature, Theater, and the Visual Arts of China and Japan, 1880-1940, ed. Doris Croissant, Catherine Vance Yeh, Joshua S. Mostow, Brill, 2008., p 304, fn76.

[10] The Image of Woman as a National Icon in Modern Japanese Art: 1890s-1930s, Kojima Kaoru, PhD thesis, University of the Arts London, 2006, p. 133, 134. 650322_vol1.pdf (; Interestingly, Seien's brother Ichijirō studied under Uemura and  Seinen as a girl often visited Uemura's residence. [source: Japan Wikipedia entry for 島成園 , fn 3] 

[11] website of Osaka City

[12] Dangerous Beauties and Dutiful Wives: Popular Portraits of Women in Japan, 1905-1925, Kendall Brown, Dover Publications, Inc., 2011, p. XVI. 

[13]  ibid.

[14] Japan Wikipedia entry fo Shima Seien Japan Wikipedia entry for 島成園 , fn 3]

[15] Full quote is:  "あまり自分にとつては突然のことで結婚に対する総ての用意は勿論、心持さへ人に語ることができません、私の様な女、画を唯一の生命とする女が家庭に入つた時、たとへ力の限り努力はして見ますが夫とぴつたり同じ生活続けていけるかどうか" [Japan Wikipedia entry for 島成園 , fn 12]; Shima’s father passed away in 1921 and her mother in 1930. 

[16] The Year Book OF Japanese Art, 1928, League of Nations Association of Japan. National Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, Tokyo reported Shima's address in Osaka as 47, Nishlkiya-machi, Minami-ku, Osaka. This is likely her last address in Osaka before leaving for Shanghai with her husband.

[17] Osaka Nichinichi April 10, 1923 as quoted in the Japan Wikipedia entry for 島成園

[18] "A Place for Women" by Matthew Larking, November 6, 2008 appearing in The Japan Times online and review of the Osaka Art Museum exhibition Shima Seien, "Naniwa's Female Painter, 50 Years After Her Death" by Kawata Yukari カワタユカリ, September 8, 2020 appearing on the website of the Internet Museum] 

[19] "Evaluation of the Art of Shima Seien," a reprinting from the exhibition catalog appearing on the E Museum Osaka website

[20] Tobunken website []  

[21] Born 14 years apart, Yosano and Shima likely lived within 500 meters of each other and in 1914 an exhibition at Osaka Daimaru featured both artists. However, it seems that Shima, who was in awe of Yosano, never met her in person. [雑記帖 (Zakki cho) No.253]

The Brief Flowering of Taishō Democracy


The Taishō era (1912-1926) brought with it the rise of political and cultural liberalism. On the political front representative democracy became more inclusive (though women would not have the right to vote until 1946), labor unions flourished and power further shifted to Japan's Diet, as the ill emperor withdrew from public life. On the cultural front, especially for those in the major urban centers, there was a proliferation of mass market magazines and books, literature clubs flourished, film, theater and cafe-culture blossomed and  a nascent feminist movement arose as more women entered the workforce. It saw the rise of the female urban intellectual epitomized by a group of young women writers known as Seitōsha (Bluestocking Group), formed in 1911 by Hiratsuka Raichō 平塚 らいちょう (1886-1971) who called "out to Japanese women to reclaim their sense of self-worth, reaffirm their creativity, and fulfill their human potential."[1] 

Along with this liberalization, the early Taishō years, overlapping with WWI (1914-1918) in which Japan fought on the side of the Allied Powers, brought an increasing concentration of wealth and power to the zaibatsu (a small number of family-controlled businesses who dominated finance and industry, e.g. Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo) and increasing inflation and joblessness, resulting in growing labor unrest and the traumatic 1918 Rice Riots (米騒動, kome sōdō). This social instability combined with the devastation from the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake provided the opportunity for a power shift to more conservative politicians and the Japanese military and a resurgence of Japanese imperialism. With the passing of the Peace Preservation Law (治安維持法, Chian iji hō) in April 1925 the era of Taishō Democracy was effectively over.


Traditional Japanese Society dictated women to identify themselves essentially within the context of their subservient relationship to men. Only with the self-emancipatory movement during the Taisho period, serious investigation of themselves as an autonomous individual became available to Japanese women. 

- "Changing Images of Women: Taisho Period Paintings by Uemura Shoen (1875-1949), Ito Shoha (1877-1968), and Kajiwra Hisako (1896-1988)," Morioka Michiyo, PhD diss , University of Washington, 1990, p. 243.

With the rise of educational opportunities for women and the international suffragette movement, women's rights advocates and issues came to the fore in the Taishō era. Well educated and outspoken “new women” (atarashii onna) vigorously challenged the traditional social norms and moral ethics that had confined women to a domestic role. They demanded that the state extend to women the same rights enjoyed by men of citizenship and inclusion in the state and for equity in social laws regarding marriage. Framing these demands as being supportive of the conservative social norm of, "good wife, wise mother" (ryōsai-kenbo) inroads were made in expanding women's traditional roles in both the home and in the political arena. At home, the definition of the role of "housewife," was expanding from its earlier constraints, but little legal headway was made in changing the male-centric marriage laws. In the political arena, in 1922 restrictions against participation in political gatherings by women were lifted although the right to join political parties would not be granted until 1945. 


During Taishō advocates of women’s rights, well educated and outspoken 'new women' (atarashii onna), "vigorously challenged the traditional social norms and moral ethics that had confined women to a domestic role."[2]

More women began to take their place in the public arena as laws allowed, with the art world being one such space where women could make their mark, particularly in the more traditional art genre of nihonga. The below excerpt from the December 28, 1916 issue of The Japan Weekly Chronicle noted that there were "six or seven hundred female artists in Japan gaining their living practicing their profession."

"In 1915 the Bunten accepted the work of nine women artists in the nihonga division, including [Uemura] Shōen [上村松園 (1879-1945)] and [Itō] Shōha [伊藤小坡 (1877-1968)] along with the younger artists Ikeda Shōen [池田蕉園] (1888-1917) in Tokyo, and Shima Seien (1892-1970) and Yoshioka Chigusa [木谷千種] (1895-1947), later known at Kitani Chigusa [木谷千種], in Osaka. All nine specialized in bijinga." While some, such as Uemura Shōen, "continued to embrace the conservative bijinga mode, others, reflecting the changes in contemporary society, began to pioneer new subjects and styles" helping to craft a more modern woman.[3]

Kajiwara Hisako 梶原緋佐子 (1896–1988), was among the new women who challenged the idealized female images codified by Shōen’s work. Hisako expanded her subjects to include members of the lower classes in a radical departure from the refined gentility of the “feminine style.” Shima Seien, who was only twenty when her work was first accepted at the Bunten in 1912 likewise created provocative images of women which asserted, rather than restrained, female sensuality.  Self-portraits by Shōha, Hisako, and Seien showed their emerging awareness of themselves as individuals.[4]

While Taishō society’s "tremendous curiosity and interest in women" brought young female artists such as Hisako and Seien enormous public attention, "the sheer number of women artists ultimately occasioned a backlash."[5] Criticism of the work of younger women artists came from both art critics and older and more conservative women artists, such as Shohin Noguchi (1847-1917), the first woman to be appointed Imperial Household Artist, and Uemura Shoen. Critics "ridiculed the 'bijinga hall' as 'the room of lewdness' or 'the room of perfume and cosmetics," and its content as 'childish expressions by young women" or as "only for those stupid women who consider kimono shopping the ultimate pleasure.'"[6] While not all criticism of women artists was negative, the tone of even critical reviews of male artists was decidedly different and more respectful.