Home > Publications > NDL Newsletter > No. 212, June 2017

National Diet Library Newsletter

No. 212, June 2017

Bikan gaho―a pictorial magazine featuring geisha, launched by Kunikida Doppo

Administrative Division
Administrative Department

This article is a translation of the article in Japanese
in NDL Monthly Bulletin No. 672 (April 2017).

<<Cover of the sixth issue of the Bikan gaho>>

Bikan gaho
Published by: Kinjigahosha; NDL call no. VG1-124;
Published in January and June 1906
* The items introduced in this article are included in the magazine collection of the Nunokawa Collection donated by NUNOKAWA Kakuzaemon (1901-1996) who played an active role in the Japanese publishing industry. A major part of the collection is available at the Humanities Room of the Tokyo Main Library.

<<This page, in art nouveau style from the first issue of Bikan gaho,
presents geisha from the Yokkaichi and Ise Yamada areas.>>

Shown above is a picture from the first issue of the magazine Bikan gaho. It contains photographs of two geisha along with their professional names and the okiya where they could be contacted. The magazine was similar to those seen today, featuring popular actors and other celebrities. The photos would likely have given readers across Japan the impression that they had met these geisha in person. Color printing was still in its infancy at this time, and there are some pages for which it is difficult to tell whether they are illustrations or photos. The articles in the magazine cover a wide range of related topics, including proper etiquette at a geisha party, how to play karuta, how to cultivate bonsai plants, popular novels, and advertisements for whitening cosmetics—from all of which we can assume that the magazine targeted both men who enjoyed the company of geisha and the geisha themselves.

<<Geisha in costume for the Kabuki dance Kioijishi (From the sixth issue)>>

<<Geisha in swimming wear (From the sixth issue) >>

The world of geisha, called karyukai (花柳界) in Japanese, was far more familiar to ordinary Japanese during the Meiji period than it is today. When the first beauty contest was held in Japan at the Asakusa Ryounkaku in 1891, all the contestants were geisha. At the time Bikan gaho was first published, popular geisha were much better known than popular actresses, who were still few in number. During the Meiji period, geisha were still synonymous with glamor and feminine beauty.

<<Asakusa Ryounkaku. This twelve-story building, also called junikai,
was considered a skyscraper at that time and was a popular sightseeing spot.
Some photos are available at the online gallery "The Meiji and Taisho Eras in Photographs">>

KUNIKIDA Doppo was known as a poet and novelist but started his career as a journalist. He served as a reporter for the Kokumin Shimbun newspaper during the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05), and his Aitei tsushin (lit. Reports to My Younger Brother) garnered public attention for its new style of reporting, which imitated a personal letter addressed to his younger brother. Doppo was good at reading trends of the time and, as editor-in-chief at Kinjigahosha and elsewhere, launched a number of magazines featuring lots of photos, which were forerunners of what was later called "pictorial magazines." The magazine Fujin gaho, which is still in publication today, was one of these. The magazine Senji gaho, which featured photos of battlefields and military officers as well as reported on the events of the Russo-Japanese War, was a big seller. Bikan gaho was designed to have similar selling points, that is, to provide up-to-date and realistic depictions of geisha, including the latest trends and information. In the days before radio, television, or the Internet, magazines were a cutting-edge media format.

<<Portrait of KUNIKIDA Doppo, available at the online gallery "Portraits of Modern Japanese Historical Figures">>

<<Cover of Aitei tsushin (NDL call no. 17-387), available on the NDL Digital Collections>>

Bikan gaho was forced to suspend publication after just six issues, when Kinjigahosha ran into financial trouble due to drops in sales after the Japanese-Russo War. In 1908, Doppo passed away young at the age of 36, after contracting tuberculosis.

Pictorial magazines, however, which Doppo had put so much effort into editing, continued to develop with the times, eventually increasing their use of color and introducing other innovations, such as cropping.

Geisha continued to be popular subjects for early camera magazines and modeled the latest fashions in department store advertisements. Many were also notable as singers of popular songs and traditional ballads. During the advent of the record industry, a majority of female singers were geisha. (The recording of the song "Ume wa saita ka (Are the Japanese Apricots in Bloom?)" sung by a geisha is available in the Historical Recordings Collection.) With the development of European drama and cinema in Japan during the twentieth century, however, actresses soon displaced geisha as popular celebrities.

Doppo’s magazines, as strange as they might seem to modern readers, have a seminal position in both the development of the magazine as a media format and the changing status of geisha in Japan. They also serve as a reminder of mankind’s never-changing desire to admire beauty and to view ever-more realistic images of the world around us.

<<Frontispiece of the sixth issue titled "Fresh air">>

<<Frontispiece of the sixth issue titled "Silent night">>

(Translated by Yuko Kumakura and Shihoko Yokota)

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Reference (in Japanese):

  • KUROIWA Hisako, Henshusha kunikida doppo no jidai, Kadokawa Gakugei Shuppan, 2007. [NDL call no. KG556-JI]
  • WATANABE Hiroshi, Nihon bunka modan rapusodi, Shunjusha, 2002. [NDL call no. KD151-Hl]

Related contents of the NDL website:

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