18 April 2023 -

Report: researching moga culture in early twentieth-century Japanese material culture

Erica Tso, Doctoral Researcher at the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies, University of Birmingham reports on her delayed research trip to Japan as recipient of the 2021 DHS Research Access Award (Student). This award is currently open for applications until 11:59pm UCT on 30th April 2023.


My PhD research focuses on moga (abbreviated from modan garu, meaning modern girls in Japanese), culture in early twentieth-century Japanese material culture, specifically the historical significance of women’s magazine culture which has yet to be fully realised in existing academic scholarship. I started my part-time PhD programme at the University of Birmingham in January 2020 with my supervisors Dr Francesca Berry and Dr Yunah Lee (University of Brighton). Thanks to the support of the Design History Society Research Access Award (Student), I was able to visit Japan to collect primary sources essential to my project. This research trip took place in early December 2022, after a 2.5-year delay due to Covid-19 travel restrictions. Japan has reopened to foreign travellers since late October 2022.

During my 10-day visit to Japan, I visited three key archives: Shiseido Corporate Museum and Archives, National Women’s Education Centre Library, and Bunka Gakuen University Library. I have been in touch with these museum and library staff since the end of 2019 and have kept in contact with them throughout the pandemic. It was a great relief to finally be able to visit these locations and to meet my contacts in person.

The Shiseido Corporate Museum and Archives is located in a small town, Kakegawa, in the prefecture of Shizuoka. My three-day visit to Kakegawa gave me the opportunity to take the shinkansen (bullet train) which was a fast and pleasant experience complete with a delicious bento lunch box in the shape of a train. I was greeted with professionalism and kindness at the museum; all the resources that I requested were readily laid out for me and the museum director took time to explain their collections and discuss my research topic with me. In the museum, I was able to see original furniture from the Shiseido Parlour which housed the very first soda machine in Japan, cosmetic designs from the late 1800s when Shiseido was first founded to the packaging of today, poster designs, and many more artefacts (Figures 1 - 5). From the corporate archive, I was given access to the various Shiseido magazines which will be analysed and used as key examples in my thesis.





Secondly, I visited the National Women’s Education Centre Library in Saitama, a small town two hours north of central Tokyo. The library houses over one hundred items on moga
and women’s magazines. Their catalogues of women’s magazines gave me insight into the wide range of publication that were available to different groups of women during the interwar period.

Finally, I returned to Tokyo and visited the Bunka Gakuen University Library in Shinjuku for their large collection of interwar magazines. The primary sources of Fujin Gaho (Women’s Gazette), Fujin Gurafu (Women’s Graph), and So-en (Fashion House) will form the major analytical discussions of my research. The library also houses all current women’s and fashion magazines printed in Japan (Figure 6); it was insightful to see how the longstanding Fujin Gaho and So-en have changed since their first publications from the early 1900s.


I would like to express my gratitude to the Design History Society for their generous support. This was a fruitful trip that gave me access to invaluable data essential to my PhD research. As a bonus, I visited Japan when the city was dressed in beautiful Christmas decorations (Figure 7).



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