Selling Shiseido: Cosmetics Advertising & Design in Early 20th Century Japan

An elegantly dressed European woman delicately holding a single camellia blossom lies luxuriously on a chaise longue. Her lissome figure showcases a gorgeous sleeveless blue-patterned dress cascading luxuriantly off the chair onto the floor. This could describe a French image of a stylish Parisienne in her boudoir, but it is, in fact, a late 1920s Japanese advertisement for the whitening peroxide toothpaste sold by the cosmetics company Shiseido. There is no Japanese company whose advertising design better represents the aesthetic of cosmopolitan chic seen throughout the visual sphere in early 20th-century Japan than Shiseido. The Shiseido cosmetics company opened its Western-style pharmaceutical business in Tokyo in 1872 and a few decades later, under the banner of its stylish camellia logo and signature arabesque designs, emerged as one of the leading cosmetics manufacturers in Japan, a position it still holds over a century later.

While cosmetics may not have garnered the level of scholarly attention paid to other economic sectors, it was without question a critical part of Japan’s burgeoning consumer market. It provides an unparalleled window into the changing contemporary ideals of beauty and taste, not to mention being a valuable indicator of cultural trends in health and hygiene.

Shiseido’s innovative product and promotional production tells a distinctive story about Japan’s experience of modernity, including the impact on national culture of mass market consumerism, urbanization, and changing gender roles. As Kathy Peiss has convincingly argued, “beauty culture” should not only be understood as a type of commerce, but also “as a system of meaning that helped women navigate the changing conditions of modern social experience” as they increasingly entered public life.

It is not an overstatement to say that Shiseido and other consumer product manufacturers had a large hand in shaping the cultural landscape of modern Japan. They were not only innovative in terms of their product development and manufacturing, but also in their pioneering work in advertising design and marketing, which shaped the visuality of the public sphere. This period saw the dawn of modern commercial design around the world and Japanese corporate sponsors were in an international and inter-cultural dialogue with their colleagues around the world, particularly those in Europe and the United States.

The rest of the essay is at the source - really interesting stuff! They go on to talk about visual culture and WWII, as well as influences and business.