PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 May, 2007, 12:00am

What't going on around the globe

Spare a thought for one of the less revered members of Japan's first family: the Taisho emperor. Squeezed between the Great Moderniser Meiji and the Great Destructor Showa (Hirohito), the man known to his drinking buddies as Yoshihito is now famous mainly for being a few buttons short of a full imperial tunic.

Mostly kept out of public sight during his reign (1912-1926), rumours that lead poisoning from suckling his powdered wet-nurse had left Japan's living god mentally impaired were fuelled when the emperor made a telescope out of his prepared speech to parliament in 1913 and stared through it at his goggle-eyed subjects.

Whereas his father stood watch over wars with Russia and China and his son is associated outside Japan with the epic destruction rained down on much of Asia in the 1930s and 40s, the Great Half-Wit is associated with the Taisho era: a brief flowering of democracy, liberalism, art and culture.

The era is celebrated in an exhibition called Taisho Chic: Japanese Modernity, Nostalgia and Deco at the Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, and is a must-see for anyone who believes history moves in straight lines. As the paintings, prints and other exhibits make clear, Japan was a much more open, comfortable place in the 20s than it would be a decade later.

The leading cultural figure of the era was the moga (modern girl) who, like today's youngsters in Shibuya and Harajuku, avidly mimicked the western fashions of the day. Financially and sexually liberated compared with their mothers, these secretaries, factory workers and waitresses put the fear of god into male conservatives. Within a decade the conservatives would have their revenge, shutting out western popular culture,

reimposing strict moral codes and eventually turning many of these same women into widows.

The exhibit's signature pieces show the cultural impact of Japan's encounter with the west and the juxtapositions that emerged. In Nakamura Daizaburo's painting Woman, a Japanese model sporting a western hairstyle but wearing a kimono is draped across a western chaise lounge. Although still an object of male fantasy, the model is far from the stereotyped image of the demure Asian female that had flooded the west at the end of the 19th century.

In Kobayakawa Kiyoshi's Typsy, a woodblock print featuring a heavily made-up moga posing with cigarette and martini in hand, that passive female is gone, replaced by a sexually confident young woman who returns the gaze of the viewer.

The Taisho women would eventually get married, have children and watch their men go off to war. Only when it was over were some of the freedoms of the era restored, before being taken away again during the conservative backlash of the 1950s. Back and forth the pendulum of history goes, with only art to remind us that things were once very different.

Taisho Chic: Japanese Modernity, Nostalgia and Deco, Metropolitan Teien Art Museum. Ends July 1