The Texture of Crepe: The Role of Women in the Creation and Consumption of Japanese Crepe-Paper Books (chirimen-bon)

In his book A Shoemaker’s Story, art historian Anthony W. Lee reflects on the importance of investigating local subjects with an eye open to the large—and often global—issues they invoke. He explains that projects such as these are never truly limiting nor local, but instead have the ability to open a meaningful world of inquiry. The Smiling Book, a 24-leaf woodblock printed crepe-paper book (chirimen-bon) released by Japanese publisher Takejiro Hasegawa allows us to apply Lee’s method of working “local” while thinking “global.” Collected by Minnesota artist Evelyn Goodrow Mitsch and housed in St. Catherine University Library’s Special Collections (St. Paul, MN), The Smiling Book might appear both small and unassuming. However, a material history and visual analysis of the work reveals the relationship between the historical use of crepe paper in girls’ culture, the production of densely illustrated crepe paper books for a predominantly Western female audience, and the obscured labor of British, French, and American missionary and military wives who served as writers and translators of these rich image-texts. Histories of Japanese modernization in the Meiji period (1868-1912) often focus on the stories of male dignitaries and officials. The Smiling Book presents us with an alternative, but concurrent, narrative rooted in visual culture. It upsets the image of the male connoisseur of art and culture to highlight the active role of women—both Japanese and foreign—in bridging and introducing Japan to new American (and Midwestern) audiences in the twentieth century.

Date: In Preparation

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