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When Nagase Tomiro opened his Western sundries shop in Tokyo in 1887, cosmetic soap used for the face and body was not commonly seen in the average Japanese household, and in Japan neither hand washing nor hair washing was the general custom that each is today. (1) Now known as Kao Corporation, the company Nagase founded is one of the leaders in the Japanese health and beauty industry, having played a central role in the transformation of the daily hygiene and cosmetic practices of the Japanese nation over the last century. Kao's contribution to modern Japanese culture goes beyond the sphere of daily life, as the company was also a vital sponsor of some of the most pioneering graphic design of the prewar period. Kao is widely recognized by Japanese design historians for its impact on the development of modern Japanese advertising design, and the company's promotional materials are regularly included in historical surveys and museum exhibitions. (2) However, there has been little systematic attempt to analyze this advertising production within a comprehensive context of world design history that takes into account the wide-ranging cultural implications of Japan's consumer capitalism and the ideological formations of Japanese nation- and empire-building.
I propose to integrate the disparate scholarly spheres of art, design, business, social, and political history, reading aesthetics back into the sociology of consumption. I consider Kao as an innovative and adaptive producer in the sphere of Japanese visual culture and explore how the integration of high art, particularly modernist aesthetics, into commercial advertising allowed the company to distinguish its brand-name products. To this end, following a brief history of the company's early development and promotional activity, I concentrate on its operations during the 1930s. This was when Kao launched an important advertising campaign under the banner "New and Improved Kao," deploying a stunning and unprecedented array of modernist pictorial techniques to redefine Kao soap's brand identity from a luxury item to a mass-market consumer good. Applications of modernism in this instance, while keyed to the democratization of soap, enabled Kao to preserve its product's elite cultural cachet and stylishness.
Kao designs show strong parallels with the major artistic movements in the world of fine arts. These include employing abstracted or nonobjective forms, as well as nonmimetic photographic techniques such as photomontage and the photogram, which drew inspiration from cutting-edge work abroad by a long list of artist-designers headed by Herbert Bayer, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Matter, Aleksandr Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, Fernand Leger, and Man Ray. It is my contention that Kao designers were able to maximize the marketing effectiveness of their advertising compositions through the skillful application of modernist pictorial techniques, which highlighted product special features and critical elements of brand identity. In the following analysis of Kao's advertising designs, I will tease out the individual applications of these formal strategies. Examining how and why various images were used to further specific promotional goals, I will also interrogate the larger social and political framework in which they were deployed.
A study of Kao's commercial design offers an invaluable opportunity to reexamine the important relationship between high art and mass culture in Japan. In the six decades since critic Clement Greenberg, in his now-notorious 1939 manifesto "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," articulated the profound abhorrence felt by modernists concerning the possible "contamination" of pure form with matters of function and commerce, countless scholars have demonstrated modernism's utter failure at aesthetic autonomy, revealing the deep anxieties embodied in the formalist critiques that anathematized mass culture. In these critiques, mass culture was often gendered female because of the popular association between women and consumption, yielding a means of masculinizing and heroicizing elitist forms of artistic practice. (3) Discrediting mass culture through "sexualized metaphors," which stand for intangible social relations, has also had the effect of obscuring the profound role of aesthetics in constituting the "symbolic and social dimensions of consumption." (4)
Little attention has been paid to issues of gender in relation to Japanese commercial design, but work in related areas proves highly pertinent. The social historian Narita Ryuichi has explored the gendered nature of the emerging modern discourse on hygiene (eisei) in Japan, which I believe provides a crucial analytical framework for understanding how, and to whom, soap manufacturers marketed newly constructed rituals of cleanliness. (5) Narita has shown that from 1900 to 1930, when modern hygiene information was widely disseminated in Japan, the home was the primary locus of daily attention to hygiene, and women were designated by official and nonofficial sources, including neighborhood associations and the mass media, the chief managers of this domestic sphere. Women's active contributions to public forums on matters of hygiene, such as question-and-answer sections in popular journals, indicate their continued concern with these issues and their gradual assimilation of institutionalized notions of a healthy ("normal") body. (6)
Kao targeted several consumer groups, with upper- and middle-class urban women initially constituting the major portion of the company's national consumer base. In the process of democratization, the target clientele was expanded to include blue-collar women and their families. Advertising was integral to the creation of a national society, and advertisers stood among a range of competing interests, both public and private, that were attempting to mold the sphere of women. I will argue that the mobilization of women in the construction of new concepts and practices of modern living in Japan intertwined aesthetics, domestic hygiene, and national identity. I should say outright, however, that my intention here is not to revisit or resolve the scholarly debate about whether mass consumerism was controlling or emancipatory for women, as I believe it was simultaneously both. Rather, I seek to examine the interplay between aesthetics in corporate advertising design and changing social formations as gender roles were constructed and debated in the public sphere.
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The Early History of Kao Soap
Nagase Tomiro, the company's founder and first president, began marketing Kao brand soap (kao sekken)--one of the earliest domestically produced brands of cosmetic soap--in 1890, and by 1910 it was a national brand. (7) At the time, relatively few products had brand-name recognition--even fewer had national recognition--and merchant identity was often more a selling point than that of the manufacturer. Commonly called savon in Japan from the mid-sixteenth century, soon after its introduction by European traders, soap was used for mainly medicinal purposes by only a small sector of the Japanese population, with the majority of people using forms of rice bran, pumice, and loofah for washing. With the importation of mass-produced, higher-quality soaps in the late nineteenth century, cosmetic soap for the face and body began to be marketed to a broader array of upper-class consumers for about 5 sen per bar, while no-name domestic soap of lower quality was sold for 10 sen per dozen and a five-kilogram bag of rice sold for 23 sen (there are 100 sen in one yen). Because of its relatively high cost of production, Kao soap was marketed as a luxury and gift item, selling initially for a steep 12 sen per bar, with gift boxes of three priced at 35 sen. (8) Even by 1926, however, the average monthly household income for laborers was still only 102.07 yen, of which nearly a third went for food and another 50 percent went for nonfood expenditures, including housing. A little over 7 percent, or 7.37 yen, was designated for medical and hygiene expenses. (9) At the same time, the average household income for salaried workers, at 137.17 yen, was not much higher, with close to a third spent on food and over 60 percent for nonfood expenditures, with just a slightly higher portion devoted to medical and hygiene expenses. The small margin of disposable income indicates the relative luxury of purchasing name-brand cosmetic soap at the time. (10)
The high profit margin on cosmetic goods was a major incentive for manufacturers, although initially half of this profit was cycled back into advertising. (11) Nagase composed all the early copy and layouts for Kao promotional material. He was a close friend of American F. W. Eastlake, founder of Tokyo Eigo Gakuin (Tokyo English Academy) in 1890, and Eastlake was a crucial source for up-to-date examples of advertising from Europe and the United States. From the beginning, soap's image, name, and packaging were considered of preeminent importance in its effective marketing to the Japanese, who were not accustomed to purchasing this product. Early advertisements concentrated on featuring the product itself, emphasizing its unsurpassed quality, hygienic and cosmetic efficacy, and modern stylishness. (12) Each bar of soap was imprinted with the company name and distinctive logo. Bars were then individually wrapped in decorated paper that once again featured the company name and logo imprinted in black, green, and gold. Popular three-bar sets were further packaged in an upscale paulownia wood box (Fig. 1).
At the time Kao entered the market, regular lower-grade soap was referred to as arai sekken (cleaning soap), while more refined (often scented) cosmetic soap was known as kao arai (kao, meaning "face." and arai, meaning "to clean"). Desiring to associate the company's domestically produced soap with cosmetic applications for the face, Nagase Tomiro experimented with a variety of homophones for the word face (kao) when selecting characters for the product brand-name. Advertising copy announcing the product launch explained that the combination of the characters for flower ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and king ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), creating the sound "ka-o," referred to the pristine beauty and heavenly fragrance of the peony, commonly known as the "king of a hundred flowers." Chinese poets such as Li Bai, the text went on to explain, associated the peony with the legendary Tang dynasty beauty Yang Gui Fei (719-756), who was immortalized in the poetry of Bo Juyi for her fair, snow white complexion--a complexion that use of the Kao product promised to help reproduce. (13) As a result, this poetic, Sinicized brand-name aurally evoked the majestic image of a clean and beautiful face and served as an inspiration for the pictorial and typographic expression of company designers. The calligraphic brand-name typography was later codified and used everywhere, including promotional delivery trucks, billboards along railway lines, and electrically illuminated signboards on top of city buildings. (14)
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Nagase reinforced the Kao brand identity as a facial cosmetic product by choosing for the company trademark the image of a crescent moon with a face uttering the words "kao soap" in a cloud of bubbles (Fig. 2). Pictorial images associated with shining were consistently popular for use in trademarks in Japan because they were thought to imbue commercial products with auspicious associations, specifically, the illumination of heaven and the gods. (15) Most such images included one of the "three shining symbols" of the moon, star, and sun. While Nagase is credited with selecting the crescent moon logo (which was initially combined with a star), in fact, a number of years prior to his registration of the Kao logo, the image was already associated with imported soaps, most notably the popular product Ivory soap, marketed widely by Proctor and Gamble from 1879. The crescent moon was also associated with the cycles of the month and, by extension, the ocean tides and women. It became a common feature in the trademarks of companies in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries, particularly for products related to hygiene. (16) The physiognomy of the face in Kao's crescent moon logo changed over time, becoming slightly more wizened and approachable by the mid-1920s. (17)
The brand-name and the crescent moon logo have been two common sites of typographic and pictorial elaboration in company advertising throughout its history. Already representing an image of the man in the moon, the logo was further anthropomorphized in early company advertising in the Meiji period (1868-1912), which showed the crescent moon face engaged in various activities. The moon face was placed on an array of human bodies: a kneeling samurai in traditional Japanese male attire extolling the product's superior hygienic efficacy (Fig. 3) or a standing figure nattily dressed in a Western-style morning coat offering New Year's greetings in a cloud of bubbles (Fig. 4). On the back cover of publisher Hakubunkan's serial publication Nichiro senso jikki (Actual accounts of the Russo-Japanese War) published in 1904, a Kao advertisement shows a disembodied crescent moon face floating over a globe and reading from a book that extols the urgent need for Kao soap's high quality during wartime, when, as the copy reminds the reader, matters of hygiene and economics are of utmost importance (Fig. 5). This necessity implicitly extended to Japan's imperialist expansion (an expanding dominion signified by the moon over the globe), as the war was being fought over contested holdings in northern China that would eventually become the foothold for the establishment of Manchukuo, a Japanese puppet-state colony in Manchuria in 1931. The connection between hygiene, economics, and national standing in the theater of world imperialism was a theme revisited in subsequent promotional campaigns.
By 1930, there were over 17 million women between the ages of fifteen and sixty-four in Japan, and even the limited marketing data available from the prewar period indicates the importance of women consumers as a market for new Western-style health and beauty products like soap. (18) Keen to attract this large pool of consumers, Kao Soap Corporation and many other corporate advertisers found it beneficial to link their marketing strategies to the public policy objectives of the patriarchal Japanese state, which was already engaged in an effort to mold women of varying ages into educated consumer subjects. State and social reformers of often surprisingly different political persuasions were involved in a broad-based …