Bijin-ga – literally meaning “beautiful person picture”, is an art subgenre of ukiyo-e (What is Ukiyo-e? – see our Blog Article Here) that captures imagery of beautiful women, courtesans in particular . So, basically vibrant colored kimonos, tied-up hair, and attractive expressions of the geishas and oirans of the Japanese culture are what this genre is filled with. As a matter of fact, you could also include kabuki actors dressed up as women in this genre.
So where does this Japanese woodblock art category come from and who are the women in these prints? Well, let’s find out!
If you go deeper into the history of Japan in the 17th century and on into the first half of the 19th, that is, during the Edo period, you’ll come across a trend that was quite prevalent back in the day and has carried forward to even modern-day Japan: pleasure and entertainment districts. So during the Edo period and earlier, prostitution was quite widespread all
through Japan, and to restrict that, the Edo period emperor Tokugawa Shogunate decided to designate areas of pleasure in every city known as these so-called “entertainment districts”. And from here, the culture of Geishas and Oirans – courtesans that would serve the needs of those who came to the entertainment districts, was born. These women would be dressed in bright attractive kimonos, with heavy makeup and their hair tied up in a bun of sorts. They would compete with one another on who would attract the most customers, and that lead to an exponential rise in the emphasis on the hair and body accessories of these prostitutes. In fact, fashion was so important in these districts that it often dictated the general fashion trends all through Japan! Even ukiyo-e artists began taking an interest in sketching these women in all of their beauty, and their prints were bought by the elite of Japan, who got customized prints made in hopes to have a visual of sorts of their “ideal woman” so to speak. And that’s how Bijin-ga woodblock art was born.
Now one artist did a particularly remarkable job when it came to Bijin-ga: and that would be Kitagawa Utamaro – an artist known for his shuga (erotic woodblock art), and bijin-ga. Despite being banned from Edo for a while since his family was in the gambling business, Utamaro had a vast network of samurai friends and clients who wanted
customized sketches of beautiful women made for them. And so, Utamaro had a unique opportunity of playing around with the kind of wood and ink he used. He was even able to get his hands on some of the most expensive inks that these rich Edo men were ready to pay for. And that was why his bijin-ga prints stood out way more than those of any other artists of the Edo period . Take the Three Beauties of the Edo Period by Utamaro for example. While the three women might seem the exact same to you at first glance, you can see the subtle differences in their expressions when you look up close. And the patterns of their kimonos are very distinct. To tell you the truth, this is a portrait of three celebrity women of the Edo entertainment districts Giesha Tomimoto Toyohina, and teahouse waitresses Naniwaya Kita and Takashima Hisa . And the uniqueness of these prints happens to be that Utamaro really focused on every small detail of their visual appearance. That’s the beauty of Bijin-ga – details so delicate that you would be awe-struck when you notice them .
And Utamaro wasn’t the only one whose Bijin-ga prints stood out so much. Artists of the Shin-Hanga movement like Yoshitoshi and Keisei Eisen also did a remarkable job of bringing color to the depictions of these women .
Details as small as how much the back was arched or how thick the eyeliner was, were paid attention to when it came to crafting these Bijin-ga prints .
Overall, Bijin-ga pieces are artworks that depict the stereoscopical imagery of what the East had as a standard of beauty for women. And while this might become obsolete a hundred years from now, the parameters that measure how beautiful a Geisha or Oiran is in Japan are still the same as these Japanese woodblock pieces. So if you ever buy a Japanese woodblock art piece with a beautiful woman in it, it would be a tribute to every courtesan even today.
 Fujisawa, Prof. Murasaki. “Bijinga Portraits Reflect Ideal Faces of Each Era.” 國學院大學, https://www.kokugakuin.ac.jp/en/article/10536.
 Tanaka, Yukari. “’Bijin-Ga: The World of Fine Feminine Beauty’.” The Japan Times, 28 May 2019, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2019/05/28/arts/openings-outside-tokyo/bijin-ga-world-fine-feminine-beauty/.
 “Bijin-Ga.” OCLC WorldCat.org, https://www.worldcat.org/bijinga.