Japanese Women’s Magazine History: Meiji to Early Showa

Do you read print magazines anymore? These days we seem to hear a lot about famous magazine after famous magazine folding. PingMag is, of course, online but it’s also a magazine of sorts. The internet has radically changed our lifestyle and this includes a drift away from reading magazines. Do we need them in our lives today?

There is no easy solution to this. It might prove instructive, then, to go back to the origins of magazines and see how things all began.

With this in mind, PingMag has collected together some magazines from the past that blazed a path through Japanese media history. Magazines come in all shapes and sizes, so this time we’ve narrowed it down to just women’s magazines. It goes without saying that women are very sensitive to fashions. What were they looking for back when magazines first came about? We tried to find out.

Meiji: The Dawn of Magazines

To unravel the history of magazines in Japan we have to go back to the Meiji period (1868-1912). At first the idea of the magazine was to be educational material for intellectual readers, sharing theories and doctrines on lofty topics. This led to the birth of magazines that dealt with literature, such as philosophical and political novels. Magazines in the early period were restricted to more learned readers, and weren’t bought by regular consumers like today. In the same way, women’s magazines were initially tools for “enlightening” women, who were yet to receive the right to vote. Later the format came to be accepted by mainstream society, and with this came an evolution of the content from not only political or philosophical subjects, to lifestyle and fashion as well.

Covers

A large number of the ratherly serene covers feature illustrations, and perhaps we can see here how at the time a magazine was something for the upper classes. Certain publications also liked to make use of Roman alphabet and English lettering.

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[Left] Fujingaho (Ladies Pictorial): October 1907. The front cover is exotic and artistic, and very classy.
[Right] Fujinkoho (Ladies Public Opinion): January 1916. A minimal and rather mellow design.

Content

Articles were high-brow, philosophical and thought-provoking. Fujingaho was slightly lighter, with news-like articles that used photographs. Refinement meant not only learning and knowledge: With fashion and the latest trends you could also be a real “lady”.

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[Left] Fujingaho: October 1907. “What should ladies learn?” You can see that the magazine was aimed at learned reader with good breeding.
[Right] Fujinkoron: January 1961. The title of the article is “The Path that Contemporary Ladies Should Travel”.
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Fujingaho: October 1907. A rare thing at the time, a photos page. Here it’s showing a Japanese play performed in Paris.

Taisho: Becoming a Media for the Masses

As Meiji gave way to the Taisho period (1912-1926), magazines became less something with lofty discourse for an elite and more focused on worldly topics for larger numbers of ordinary readers.

Covers

Now we start to see lots of magazines with design to pique readers with more informal tastes. Putting aside the use of illustration in place of photography, we can actually already see the foundations of today’s magazine design emerging. However, article copy as we know it was yet to develop fully and the magazines still retained a sense of the highbrow.

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[Left] Shufunotomo (Housewives’ Friend): May 1926. The cover design uses bold illustrations, which is not dissimilar to today’s covers.
[Right] Shukujogaho (Ladies Pictorial): January 1914. The design is modern, with dynamic use of color and graphical layout.

Content

Rather than erudite topics, now there are articles useful for everyday life, along with gossip-style pieces. There is also a notable increase in pages with photographs and color, looking to create a publication that was interesting and fun for average people to read.

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“100 Secrets of Husband Control”: This is the sort of ambitious article you might find in a publication today! Manipulating your spouse is apparently the eternal dream of wives. But look closely and you’ll find anachronisms like “Don’t gripe about your husband”.
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Shukujogaho: January 1914
This article is a report on marriage consultation places, which feels very similar to the kind of features that weekly women’s magazines run today.
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Shukujogaho: January 1914
Now we can see lots of photographs being employed. The layout and graphical design is playful. The photos here are demonstrating a type of puppet theatre.
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Shufunotomo: May 1926
Advertising is starting to appear. On the left is a calling for votes on “ten modern beauties”, a similar idea to contemporary Japanese fashion magazines and their use of dokusha moderu (“reader models”) in articles.
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Shufunotomo: May 1926
A women’s magazine means a fashion magazine. Being a publication for housewives, here we have a piece on fashion for children. These are some stylish-looking kids!
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And of course, there was manga just like today! That’s not to say it was particularly good, though…

Specialist Magazines

Magazines and journals specializing in certain topics, like fashion, also start to appear around now, beginning the war of the magazines!

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Ryuko no Ryuko (Fashion of Fashion): January 25th, 1910
This publication collects trends and fashions about fashion, toys and all kinds of things. In terms of design it freely mixes photography and illustrations, not to mention it features nude portraits. Rather avant-garde for the time!
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Ryuko no Ryuko (Fashion of Fashion): January 25th, 1910
Comparing Tokyo and Osaka fashions. Can you tell which is Tokyo and which is Osaka?
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Ryuko no Ryuko (Fashion of Fashion): January 25th, 1910
Introducing the latest news from Yoshiwara through photos. In the center there is a dog worth 10,000 yen. In today’s money that would be over 10 million yen!

Early Showa to Pre-War

As we enter the Showa period (1926-1989), women’s magazines had become such an element of everyday life that they could be purchased easily at convenience stores. And as magazines began to become viable in a business sense, so too did advertising in them then also become standard, along with photography and other elements that made magazines fun and enjoyable forms of entertainment. From around this time we also start to see calendars and booklets included with issues as giveaways to increase sales.

Covers

There aren’t such big changes to the cover itself. From around this time it had become the norm for the magazine title to be placed over a full-sheet illustration.

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Fujokai (Women’s World): January 1928
This issue features stories about how to get ahead in life.

Content

The majority of the content is made up of advertisements, serialized novels and gossip-style articles. By this point, the fundamental form of the magazine had become fixed. The content of the articles also compares not too badly with contemporary publications.

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Just as in women’s magazines today, magazines often featured serializations of novels. Later, the likes of Yukio Mishima also wrote numerous columns and novels in magazines for women. However, as opposed to literary journals, there were also lots of pictures in order to keep the reader interested.
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There are so many adverts, perhaps somethiing like a third of the magazine! This one is for a hair product.

Well, that was a whirlwind tour — but we hope you’ll agree that magazines from the past actually already resemble today’s magazines from a surprisingly early stage. And there’s not a world of difference between the topics and themes they deal with and those featured in publications today. While naturally reflecting the background of their respective eras, nonetheless the information that readers want in a magazine seems essentially to always be mostly the same. We haven’t answered the question of what magazines should now do in order to survive the media crisis, but at PingMag we still keep up our own efforts in the media!

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  • Porky Rottenham

    Need is a strong word. You ask if we need magazines in our lives today. No, we don’t. But then, we don’t need the internet either.

  • Becca

    Somehow my earlier comment wouldn’t show on the page, so I’ll try it again.

    I am writing part of my bachelor thesis about this subject and it would be really great if you could name some further research material or the sources used in the article.
    Thank you in advance. It would be greatly appreciated!

  • sunwoo

    We most definitely need the internet. It is the core basis of our current culture.

  • SecretCatPolicy

    I studied at one time under a German academic named Andrea Germer who specialised in the field of Japanese women’s magazines from a historical/feminist perspective. You should search for her work.

  • Becca

    Thank you very much! I searched for her works online and find her articles to be very useful for my thesis.

  • Elisabeth

    Jan Bardsley (UNC-Chapel Hill) has also done some work that might be related, depending on your focus: http://www.unc.edu/~bardsley/

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