top of page

Bijin Beauties

Kōjien defines bijin-ga as a picture that simply "emphasizes the beauty of women",[1] and the Shincho Encyclopedia of World Art defines it as a depiction of "the beauty of a woman's appearance".[2] On the other hand, Gendai Nihon Bijin-ga Zenshū Meisaku-sen I defines bijin-ga as woodblock prints that explore "the inner beauty of women".[3] For this reason, the essence of bijin-ga cannot always be expressed only through the depiction of a bijin, a woman aligning with the beauty image.

In fact, in ukiyo-e bijin-ga, it was not considered important that the picture resembles a "mirror image" or photographic portrayal of the subject in question. Which is why the depiction of women in ukiyo-e bijin-ga is stylized rather than an attempt to create a realistic image;[4] For example, throughout the Edo period (1603-1867), married women had a custom of shaving their eyebrows (hikimayu), but in bijin-ga, there was a rule to draw the eyebrows for married women. Interestingly women were not allowed to partake in the kabuki theatre, leading to some interesting circumstances and twists that only men dressed as women can inevitably produce. Originally, both men and women acted in Kabuki plays, but eventually, only male actors were allowed to perform the plays; a tradition that has remained to the present day despite the "forward thinking" of today's world. 

Kitagawa Utamaro  (1753-1806)

The bijin-ga prints created by Utamaro around 1790-1795, remain some of the most sought-after bijin prints produced. The print, "Three beauties of the present day", depicted three girls who were reknown for their beauty around the Edo capital. The first girl Ohisa was the drawing card girl of the teahouse Takashima at Yonezawa-cho, Ryogoku. The girls father owned the tea house which Utamaro visited and he was so taken by her beauty he sketched the 17 year old girl after asking her father, he would go on and visit each of the three girls prior to composing his famous print.

Toyohina, the girl in the center, was a famous geisha in Yoshiwara. She also happened to be the master of Tomimoto-bushi and a personal entertainer of a wealthy merchant Tamamura-ya. 

The last girl Okita was the drawing card of Naniwa-ya, and the daughter of the teahouse Naniwaya within the precincts of Sensoji temple. After the print was released to the public, all three of the girls suddenly became the most famous people in Edo, Japan. It got so bad, that the crowds that came to view the girls would disrupt any business conducted at the teahouses.

The three girls look almost exactly the same in the famous woodblock Utamaro published in 1793, and that is not to say that all Japanese people look the same, they actually look alike. The three girls each looking in a different direction with the bottom two facing each other portrays the stylized representation of bijin in ukiyo-e, other Japanese paintings, and artwork during and after the Edo period, and well into contemporary and modern times. 

Artists: Nearly all ukiyo-e artists produced bijin-ga, as it was one of the central themes the woodblock artist's relied upon for materiel. However, a few, including UtamaroSuzuki HarunobuItō ShinsuiToyohara ChikanobuUemura Shōen and Torii Kiyonaga, have been described as the greatest pioneers of the genre(Wikipedia)

bottom of page