Japan and the Jazz Age: From Flappers to Music Halls

jazz age

Japan and the jazz age imagined as one notion may seem like a paradox of east and west, especially when linked with flappers and music halls. When people consider Japan’s history during that period they usually envision imperialism or militarism. However, there was energy and vibrancy in Japan during the 1920s and 30s that shifted right along with modernization.

At its core, jazz is American music dominated by the talents of men from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Dizzy Gillespie and Wynton Marsalis. The music rose out of the merging of European and West African musical traditions at the turn of the century.

The Jazz Age in Japan came during the interwar years of powerful social and political change. The country had adapted a “western style of government” several decades earlier, and had begun to get involved in international conflicts. With those encounters came an incursion of global culture that included everything associated with jazz.

Surprisingly enough, everything from Japanese art to music –old and new, traditional and innovative – flawlessly fused together. Artistic techniques in some instances may have maintained the traditional method, but the composition reflected something thoroughly modern. In this period between the two world wars, artists transformed long-established motifs of Japanese art such as geisha and origami cranes to imitate their more adopted multicultural way of life.

The Columbia Museum of Art in South Carolina presents an exhibit, Japan and the Jazz Age that explores how the traditional transformed into the contemporary. According to the museum, Japanese artists skillfully and creatively “married the urbane” ornamental designs that were evolving in the west with “revered forms of the past.”

jazz age

The Japan and the Jazz Age exhibit highlights more than 120 pieces of art-related objects that include furniture, kimonos, printed ephemera, textiles and sculpture. Geisha become 20s flappers known as “mogas” or “modern girls” with bobbed hair and raised hemlines, and ancient origami cranes become sleek, gold statuettes. Even the museum space will reflect the art deco style with painted black, gold and dark red walls.

According to Dickson Monk, the communications manager of the Columbia Museum of Art, when people visualize Art Deco and the Jazz Age, they may think of Paris or New York City but certainly not Japan. Monk noted that the artist’s approach “retained traditional Japanese culture,” but transformed it into “Western art deco style.” In essence, the Japanese cultivated western imagery to their own forms.

Japanese artists familiarized themselves with images from popular French fashion journals such as Gazette du Bon Ton and unabashedly used the designs in their work, but with an Asian twist. On posters, women are depicted like their Jazz Age counterparts in Europe and the United States. Men and women slipped on their western Art Deco finery, danced in nightclubs, smoked, drank and enjoyed pleasurable pursuits. A disparity for what “industry and commerce” was trying to achieve, transforming society into “cogs in the machinery of mass production and distribution.”

The Japan and the Jazz Age exhibit goes well with the museum’s permanent collection; considered the largest collection of East Asian art in South Carolina.  More about the museum’s exhibit-related events is available by clicking on the event schedule link below.

By Dawn Levesque


Columbia Museum Event Schedule

Project Muse

The New York Times

The State

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