Last year, the number of tourists coming into Japan outnumbered those going out for the first time in 45 years. In absolute terms, it may be the first time that tourism has properly taken off for this country, despite numerous attempts by various ministries and semi-official agencies over the years to promote Japan as a holiday destination.

In respect of this contemporary success, the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo currently has an exhibition of tourism posters and other promotional material from the 1920s and ’30s. It is a fascinating and at times unusually beautiful glimpse into how different art movements, regional craft practices and the spirit of the times contribute to forming commercial visual culture.

Given that the function of a promotional poster is to seduce you, with perhaps only a few seconds in which to do it, you can expect to feel pandered to — complex history and culture, beautiful landscapes and far-east exoticism have been condensed into powerfully sweet eye-candy. A surprising range of media were employed in this, including traditional woodblock prints, painting and photography. For many of the exhibits, the level of creativity and design is very high, commensurate with the desire to show off Japan at its best.

Apart from this, the exhibition is a great opportunity to consider how Japan’s national identity was constructed in the interwar years. It should be no surprise that the “come hither” message relied heavily on sexuality to catch the viewer’s eye. Many of the posters use images of young women in kimono as a stand in for Japan as a whole.

In a 1911 poster for the South Manchurian Railway by artist Renzo Kita, a demure female companion sits across from us in a railway carriage with the sun setting behind an ancient stupa in the window behind her. The poster is sponsored by Thomas Cook, and is in the style of an Edwardian illustration. The copy tells us that the new rail link brings London “within a fortnight’s journey from Tokyo, Peking and Shanghai, thus saving much time and money, as well as the tedium of a long sea-voyage.”

Our female companion is depicted in a style characteristic of the Gothic period to portray aristocratic or sacred figures; languid, expressionless, elongated and pale. Her blue kimono is decorated with white lilies, symbolic of chastity and purity. On her obi is a butterfly, the symbol of the soul, and perhaps a nod to the opera by Puccini, which had premiered seven years earlier. The undergarment below the kimono is a warm ruddy orange, and using a visual pun common to shunga (erotic prints), appears at the edge of the sleeves as wrinkled slit-shaped orifices. The artist seems to be the same Renzo Kita who later created the solemn historical painting “Last Moments of Admiral Yamaguchi,” which commemorates the admiral’s death in the 1942 Battle of Midway.

Nearby is a poster of “The Three New Sister Ships” Nitta, Yawata and Kasuga, and the dates of their maiden voyages. Against the backdrop of a gilt Yamato-e-style painting, three young women in kimono are shown holding fans, each with the name of one of the vessels. Soon after starting out life as passenger-cargo liners, the three ships were converted into escort carriers during World War II.

As the exhibition spans the period of “Taisho Democracy” (1912-1926) and past the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War, it shows how travel agencies and governmental bodies first worked on presenting the country as an attractive destination — full of cherry blossom, temples and geisha — but then had to take on the task of promoting tourism in Manchuria. As the Chinese territory moved from being a business concern to satellite state under Japanese military control, it was increasingly, and incongruously, portrayed with the exoticism of a theme park of ancient culture and dramatic landscape, echoing the late-19th-century Western view of Japan as a fairyland.

After the Mukden Incident of 1931, the establishment of the puppet-state of Manchukuo, and the subsequent exit of Japan from the League of Nations, distinguishing between tourist PR and propaganda becomes very tenuous. Images from the ’20s, of dapper cosmopolitan tourists of all nationalities mixing together, seem benevolent and optimistic. With images from the ’30s and on, the specter of war, and the politics of trying to legitimize Japanese colonialism, taint the visual appeal of otherwise beautifully conceived and produced images of Chinese women in traditional ethnic costume.

A particularly striking image from 1940, for the Dai Nippon Airways Company, shows a passenger plane flying south from Japan. It casts a giant shadow over Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, which are depicted as being populated by primitive characters, one in a loincloth, one in a grass skirt, happily jigging about. Cartoon palm trees, peacocks, crocodiles and somewhat unsubtle oil wells can be seen dotted around the various islands.

“Visit Japan: Tourism Promotion in the 1920s and 1930s” at the The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo runs until Feb. 28; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥430 (includes admission to the “MOMAT Collection”).Closed Mon. www.momat.go.jp/english/am/exhibition/visit_japan

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