MIT Visualizing Cultures

Selling Shiseido – Lesson 01

The Images in the Mirror: Women as
Reflections of Social & National Change
By Lynn Parisi

As noted in the Selling Shiseido essay, the “gaze” is a visual centerpiece of Shiseido advertising. Ads regularly exhibit women gazing at themselves in the mirror, or utilize mirrors as a mechanism reflecting women’s images to an outside audience—that is, the general gaze of society. In this activity, students consider how the image of women depicted in Shiseido advertising and magazine covers reflected Japanese social, economic, and national change from the 1920s through the 1940s.

Since the beginning of modern times, women have been a critical component of the economy as members of the work force, but also as the individuals who run households and thus play a major role as consumers. In Japan, Shiseido was a leader in marketing to women and packaging female identity within a larger national identity since the late 1800s. The depictions of women in Shiseido advertising provide visual tools for identifying change over time, including social and economic change, changes in gender roles, and perceptions of national identity.

In this activity, students will analyze Shiseido advertising to women during particular periods in the first half of the 20th century, including the Taisho (1912 to 1926) and early Showa (1926 to 1989) eras. These early decades of the 20th century were a time in which Japan assumed a greater role in the international arena and became a major nation in the world—economically, politically, and militarily. From their analysis of Shiseido advertising, students will identify ways in which women reflected and shaped a changing, increasingly modern and cosmopolitan society. Students will identify ways in which changing depictions of women reflected national changes and set norms as well as ideals for the people of Japan. Students will consider how women were seen by advertisers and how they saw, or wished to see, themselves. Students will culminate their analysis by creating an illustrated poster using the mechanism of the mirror to reflect the role of women at these specific times in Japanese history.

Grade Level and Courses
Secondary social studies and history

Time Required
Two class periods

Materials and Preparation
This lesson is designed to be used with a unit on early-20th-century Japan, particularly the Taisho (1912 to 1926) and early Showa (1926 to 1989) eras and/or the early stages of World War II. During this time Japan continued to modernize and internationalize, and became an important nation on the world stage. Students should be familiar with the major events and developments of the early-20th century, in Japan and the world, to successfully undertake this lesson. Students will also require:

Access to the Selling Shiseido I and Selling Shiseido II units
Handout 01-A and Handout 01-B (online or printed for students in advance)

At the conclusion of this activity, students will be better able to:

1. Analyze advertising to identify social, economic, and political messages.

2. Identify ways in which women reflected and shaped a changing Japanese society in the first half of the 20th century.

3. Consider the role of one corporation, Shiseido, in developing definitions of women and modern Japan in the early-20th century.

4. Synthesize findings through a visual and written project.

1. Begin the activity with an advance homework assignment, if all students have access to the Internet to accomplish an online reading. If not, the reading should be assigned in class. Provide students with access to the Visualizing Cultures unit Selling Shiseido I. Assign students to read the essay “Selling Shiseido: Cosmetic Advertising and Design in Early 20th-Century Japan,” by Gennifer Weisenfeld.

Handout 01-A, which includes the discussion questions below, may be distributed to guide student reading.

Instruct students to pay special attention to the visuals within the essay. In particular, ask them to note at least one example of advertising in which a mirror figures prominently. Ask students to note for class discussion what is reflected in the mirror and what symbolism the mirror might have.

Discuss the essay content in class, focusing on the big ideas that come across in the reading. The following questions can guide initial discussion and can be printed and distributed to students during reading.

Discussion Guide:

• How did Shiseido visually present modern women in the 1920s? What features did women have? How did they dress? Did they appear sophisticated? Modern? Have students explain their answers.

• What values for women and, by extension, Japanese society came across in Shiseido advertising? Have students give examples. Students should recognize that an ideal of modern, sophisticated, and/or cosmopolitan came across in the advertising, through dress, style, poses, pastimes, and activities.

• Based on Shiseido advertising and magazine covers, briefly discuss the “ideal woman” in 1920s Japan and also later, in the 1930s and 1940s. Ask students to consider the ideal woman as an individual as well as a member of key groups such as the family, community, and the nation. What did the contexts of these advertisements say about women’s roles, but also about the roles and norms for family, community, and the nation? Note that these contexts may be obvious in some of the images accompanying the Weisnefeld essay images but not others.

• What changes appear in the depiction of women and Japanese society between the decades of the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s? What was going on in Japan and the world that may account for these changes?

• What knowledge of the world and world history did the consumer need to appreciate Shiseido advertising during different time periods?

• Give examples from the illustrations of how Shiseido advertising promoted an image of women as members of a modern international community? What, in turn, was the message about Japan as a nation?

2. Introduce the idea of the “gaze” as a visual mechanism of Shiseido advertising, as noted in this lesson’s introduction. Explain that many Shiseido ads featured women gazing at themselves in the mirror or using mirrors to “reflect” women’s images to an outside audience—that is, the general gaze of society. Ask students to share specific examples of the use of mirrors in the Shiseido advertising from their reading assignment. Explain that you will come back to this symbol of the mirror later for final projects.

3. Divide the class into small work groups of 3-4 students each. Assign each group to one of the following Visual Narratives within the Selling Shiseido II unit:

Group 1: Appealing to Modern Families: Shiseido Geppō (monthly), 1924–1931

Group 2: Leisure & the Smart Set: Shiseido Graph (monthly), 1933–1937

Group 3: Mobilizing a Retail Work Force: Shiseido Chain Store, 1935–1940

Group 4: Commercial Advertising & the War: Chain Store & Hanatsubaki, 1936–1941

For classes larger than 16, more than one group will be working with each narrative.

Assign groups the following initial task of preliminary research and allow one day to complete research. Provide students with Handout 01-A, Research Guide. When research is complete, give students time to share their research findings in their groups.

4. Next, have groups study the images in their assigned Visual Narrative. Students may divide the images within their group for more efficient analysis; or choose to look at all images together; or the teacher may direct the task based on time available. Each group should have time to talk about all the images in their Visual Narrative and compare findings.

Direct students to analyze what they see in the images and to put into words the messages embedded in the advertising about Japanese women of the time. They should pay special attention to how women saw themselves, how they wanted to be seen by others, advertised ideals of women, and women’s roles in different key groups—family, society, and nation.

Some questions to guide student observation are provided below and on Handout 01-B, Picture Analysis Guide.

• Who is portrayed?
• What is she doing?
• What is she wearing?
• What do you know about her from the picture?
• Where is she?
• What other objects, people or activities make up the picture?
• How do the pictures relate to the information you gathered in your research about Japan during this time period?

5. Once groups have analyzed the images and compared notes, so that they have a group understanding of the images, their culminating task is to create their own illustration for an advertisement. They may cut and paste artwork from the ads on the Website or create their own artwork. Their ad must use the mechanism of the mirror as a key feature. Each group’s ad must feature a woman gazing into a mirror or a mirror otherwise being used to present information. Through the mirror, students should convey a minimum of six specific and important points about women’s roles in society, the economy, and the nation during the time period in question. Student illustrations should include visuals and written text.

6. Allow a class period to complete the project. Have groups exchange their illustrations and have other groups analyze the illustrations for the messages they present.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology © 2010 Visualizing Cultures