Mariko Mori’s Anime-Inspired Critique of Gender in Japan

In the 1990s, the photographer spoofed corporate culture through performances staged in locations around Tokyo.

Mariko Mori, Tea Ceremony I, 1994

It is 1994 in Tokyo and Mariko Mori is angry. She has just come out of a business meeting, and is appalled to find that intelligent women, with degrees from leading universities, are being made to serve tea while working at the office. She has recently returned from five years overseas, studying art in London at the Chelsea College of Art and Design, followed by two years in New York at the Whitney Museum’s rigorous Independent Study Program. “I was exposed to seeing the position of women in the West,” she recalled in a recent conversation with me, speaking from her home in New York. “I was shocked. I wanted to demonstrate, as a social criticism, the lack of equality for women in Japan.”

Dressed in a silver bodysuit with pointy ears, Mori sets out to Shinjuku, Tokyo’s busiest business district. She clacks along the sidewalk in her patent heels and pinafore, carrying a tray of green tea in porcelain cups and saucers. She smiles and serves dutifully, as businessmen rush by on their morning commutes. The scene is at once comical and unsettling. Guised as a cyborg in a setting that epitomizes economic prosperity and power, Mori critiques the antiquated gender roles of corporate Japan and illustrates how women are alienated and othered in these spaces.

Mariko Mori, Tea Ceremony II, 1994

The performance culminated in a trilogy of still photographs, Tea Ceremony I, II, and III (1994). They are part of a wider body of work in which Mori adopts futuristic personas inspired by Japanese anime and pop culture. These images propelled Mori into the international spotlight. In 1995, at age twenty-eight, she held her first solo show at American Fine Arts, Co., New York, and two years later exhibited at the 47th Venice Biennale. Today, Mori’s multidisciplinary art, characterized by a fascination with futurism, technology, and spirituality, is exhibited and collected by museums worldwide. Although now recognized as one of Japan’s leading contemporary artists, she describes being ignored around the time the Tea Ceremony images were made. Not only was she disregarded by passersby during the performance, the series remained unexhibited in Japan until 2002, when it was shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. “Japanese society is collective,” Mori explains. “We don’t have such a strong culture of criticism. I don’t think this work ever received a reaction from Japanese society. The reaction was mostly from the West.”

Today, there are more opportunities for women, but the behavioral expectations illustrated by Mori—of modesty, tidiness, courtesy, and compliance—remain firmly embedded in the national psyche.

Feminism has existed in Japan since the Meiji Restoration in the nineteenth century. However, its progression has been comparatively slow. In the United States, women’s suffrage was achieved in 1920; in Japan, women did not gain the right to vote until 1947. A similar pattern can be seen in the art world. Women artists in the postwar era, such as Atsuko Tanaka of the Gutai group, Yuki Katsura, and Yoshiko Shimada, actively responded to feminist thought, but it was not until the 1990s that their work was recognized, when Japanese critics and curators began to consider art from a feminist perspective.

In that context, Mori’s Tea Ceremony was radical in its overt criticism of gender inequality. This critique is, sadly, still relevant: in government, women make up just 8 percent of the ruling party. “It really was worse,” Mori reflects on the moment she made this work. “But the fundamental structure is still there today. We need to deconstruct that concept that has been inherited through history; otherwise, it’s not going to change.”

Mariko Mori, Tea Ceremony, III, 1994
© the artist and courtesy Sean Kelly, New York

Over the last few decades, working women in Japan have experienced, paradoxically, liberation and oppression. The pay gap has shrunk by a third, and while policies to diversify leadership positions have been put in place, women continue to face discriminatory hiring practices. A closer look at Mori’s costume, inspired by her favorite childhood anime character, Astro Boy, reveals an interrogation of persistent gendered dress codes. Her button-up pinafore and high heels signal the cultural icon of the “office lady”: a female employee of corporate Japan, colloquially abbreviated to OL (o-eru). Japanese companies are notorious for standards of dress that have been reported to include guidelines on the height of heels and a requirement to wear makeup. Back in the 1990s, women were treated as low-skilled clerical workers, despite their being equally educated in comparison to their male counterparts. They were paid substantially less, and their jobs consisted mainly of answering phones, entering data, and making tea. Today, there are more opportunities for women, but the behavioral expectations illustrated by Mori—of modesty, tidiness, courtesy, and compliance—remain firmly embedded in the national psyche.

In Japan, feminism has not flooded the collective consciousness in the same way it has in the West. Perhaps artists offer some hope. Feminist photographers such as Yurie Nagashima, Ishiuchi Miyako, and Tomoko Sawada are receiving renewed recognition for their work, and a younger generation of artists, such as the collective Tomorrow Girls Troop, is speaking out. “Artists have the ability to project a future vision,” says Mori. “We have a responsibility to imagine a better future, because if we can’t imagine it, we will never make it.”

This article originally appeared in Aperture, issue 254, “Counter Histories,” under the column Viewfinder.