Japanese Home Media as Popular Culture
Amateur photography in the Japanese
context provides us first with a curious dilemma.
Western observers including social scientists and
international tourists have consistently commented
on the overwhelming popularity of photography for
the Japanese. For many people, the sight of Japanese
people taking snapshots has virtually become an icon
of Japanese society and culture. I've had no trouble
recording personal accounts of this popular stereotype.
In one report from the English language newspaper
The Asahi Evening News I read: "The Japanese
and cameras are inseparable" and "Japanese
people have camera hands" (Takahashi, 1994).
Psychologically-grounded explanations and comments
have been suggested first. For instance I have read
that the Japanese people are "mentally stingy"
and have a "miniature garden mentality."
However there are virtually no accounts that take
this observation substantially further, that is, by
placing this activity into a broad-based cultural
context. This domain of visual studies remains undone
in Japanese scholarship.
The primary objective of my
study has been to understand better the significance
of Japanese personal photography in contexts of home
media, home mode communication, and Japanese culture.
I have been examining the ways in which Japanese people
have constructed and communicated meanings of their
own lives through the making, using and collection
of family pictures. Whenever possible I have been
including studio photographs, home movies and home
videotapes. This project focuses on the cultural significance
of vernacular imagery by exploring relationships between
technology and culture, socialization and personal
media, private communication and family structure
as well as memory and family history. Thus the topic
of pet cemetery snapshots discussed in this short
paper comes from a much larger on-going study.
The following paper ties
together interests in both visual sociology and visual
anthropology. Common themes include attention to family
and home, kinship, social organization, and what I will
call "the canine- and/or feline-extended family."
Other important reference points include Goffman's "keys
of reality", models of social semiotics, identity
formation and maintenance, studies of everyday life,
and common sense as related to local knowledge. Current
literary interests in "native voices" and
indigenous expression have visual counterparts that
have only recently been examined in depth. In past years,
however I have tried to bring some of these themes to
a sense of "us" -- that is, to dominant, mainstream,
middle class Anglo-American culture. In short, I am
suggesting a fresh look at taken-for-granted materials
and activities, at the visual/pictorial renditions of
what anthropologist Clifford Geertz would call "the
stories that people [the Japanese] tell about themselves
to themselves" (1973: 448).
The central interest of this new
work on the construction, use and interpretation of
home media in Japan. I am interested in knowing how
Japanese people have organized themselves and their
thinking to participate in the broader framework of
"Camera Culture" -- a term brought forward
by Halla Beloff (1985) including anthropologist
Margaret Blackman's "the culture of imaging"
(1986), as long as that concept includes audience behaviors
and, especially, attention to schemata of interpretation.
My work has been with just one piece of camera culture,
namely home media and the home mode of pictorial communication.
Living in Tokyo while teaching
Visual Anthropology and American Studies at Temple University
Japan (TUJ) for two years offered me many opportunities
for personal daily observations of picture-taking and
picture use. For example. I was able to buy photograph
albums at flea markets -- though I often did not know
what I had bought, requiring that I get subsequent interpretation;
from previous connections in Rochester, New York, I
was able to arrange several interviews with personnel
at Eastman Kodak Pacific Ltd. I also developed an undergraduate
course entitled "Pictorial Lives" to train
Japanese research assistants. And perhaps most valuable
and important, during the summer of 1996, with the helpful
introductions from some TUJ students, I was able to
return to Tokyo to continue making personal visits and
conducting interviews with Japanese family members in
However, as might be expected,
I encountered several serious problems. I was not able
to develop my Japanese speaking abilities to do interviews
by myself. I, as a gaijin/outsider, was asking
very unusual questions for Japanese people about private
materials. And, I ran into all the problems of context
bound information of a "high-context culture."
I was also handicapped in that I could not locate any
previous studies of Japanese home media to make intra-cultural
of Pet Grave/Funerary Photography.
The example under discussion is
known in Japanese as doubutsu no haka no shashin
translated as animal grave pictures. The use of photographs
in conjunction with Japanese human deaths, funerals
and grave sites has been discussed by several authors,
namely Robert Smith (1974) and David Plath (1964), just
to mention two. Most frequent comment is made of 8"
by 10" black and white portrait photographs kept
in the butsudan, or household alter dedicated
to recently deceased family members.
But virtually nothing has
been said about connections between personal photographs
and household animal pets -- either while they are alive
or dead. Common to many parts of the world, but certainly
not all, I learned that many Japanese commonly treat
their pets as family members, as furry "children",
as brothers and/or sisters, so to speak. We learned
that pets are a common subject of photographs carried
in wallets or schedule books and sometimes framed and
placed at bedside. But what happens after a beloved
dog or cat dies?
The tradition of a pet burial
site in Japan is more formally recognized than in sectors
of American culture. Pet cemeteries are indeed known
in the United States, but generally speaking they are
thought of as an oddity, as some kind of eccentricity.
Not so in Japan where pet burial habits are treated
more seriously and not as unusual. We learned that different
practices prevail in different regions of Japan. Also
there is considerable variation in religious beliefs.
In one interview, I heard the following:
Buddhism there are different sects and some
sects believe that animals are reincarnations
of their great ancestors. For this reason,
the owners of the pet can not let others take
care of their pet after it dies. They think
that an evil spell will be cast upon the family
if they don't bury the animals properly. This
Buddhist sect allows people to put the ashes
of the human being and the pets in the same
family altar. Other Buddhist sects will be
furious if they saw a picture of a dog in
the butsudan (family altar). Because
they believe that animals have their own heaven,
paradise, or kingdom after they die and the
same goes for human beings. (J. O.)
We discovered at least seven pet cemeteries within the
Tokyo metropolitan area. Jindaiji, located just west
of Tokyo in Chofu-shi is a Buddhist temple that was
built in 733. This temple has set aside a section of
its property and buildings for use by an independent
business firm that leases pet grave sites. This pet
cemetery has been open since March, 1962.
Upon approaching the pet cemetery
section of Jindaiji, we see signs wishing "good
rest" for animals along with lanterns decorated
with astrological signs and mention of the Goddess of
Mercy. Along the wall surrounding the charnel house,
we find commemoration sticks (used with grave stones)
called tooma. These sticks include an inscritption of
the pets name and are used to signal the visit
of pet masters to particular grave sites. And here is
where we find first evidence of snapshot use. Some pet
owners secure snapshot images of their deceased pet
to the tooma.
Home Media Methods of Study
In this context, I can now begin
a discussion of an ongoing project that I undertook
in Tokyo between 1993 and 1996. As previously mentioned,
I have been looking at both product and process
-- in addition to seeing pictures per se. I have been
more interested perhaps in the process by which photographs
are made and used. In the context of doing an ethnography
of pictorial communication -- I have tried to ask:
when and where, under what conditions have Japanese
people made photographs and, in turn, looked at them,
displayed them or otherwise showed them to other people?
In turn, how do Japanese people understand and value
their own photograph collections?
The data behind this report come
from several methods and sources: 1
Observations while I lived in Tokyo and taught at
Temple University Japan for two (2) years, from 1993-95.
-- some in English and some in Japanese. During the
summer of 1996 I was able to visit and interview ten
(10) Japanese families in their homes, concentrating
mostly on their family albums. I was also able to speak
with personnel at the Tokyo offices of KODAK PACIFIC
I was also able to buy
several examples of Japanese-made Photograph Albums
at flea markets--though in some cases, I wasnt
sure what I was looking at.
Finally I was able to study
Written Reports generated by approximately 45
Japanese undergraduate students. These students were
enrolled in a course I developed for Temple University
Japan, specifically Anthropology 337: PICTORIAL LIVES:
A PERSONAL VISUAL ANTHROPOLOGY.
Since my conversational Japanese
is far from adequate for such fieldwork, I relied in
on translation help from several Japanese Research Assistants;
I would especially like to thank Yoko Katsuyama, Aya
Hoshi, Mayu Ishihara, Kumiko Miyamoto, and Tomoko Kawai.
This work was financed by several grants from Temple
A note on Sample. Here,
of course, is where we must all be careful. Generalizations
are often too easily made. It is tempting to homogenize
members of Japanese society even in light of current
evidence and growing awareness about the diversity of
the Japanese population. I want to be clear that I will
be talking about an urban population of Japanese
people -- specifically Tokyo and some surrounding
suburbs -- and generally the present and previous
generations of adult Japanese. In some of my examples,
I have been able to discern change in the current younger
generation. When I use the term "Japanese people",
these conditions should always be kept in mind.
Before proceeding to specific
findings, virtually all Japanese people we spoke with
were rather surprised by our questions -- the topics
we explored had never been treated as problems before.
This is wonderful example of vernacular culture, that
is, taken-for-granted aspects of everyday life. Here
the social scientist serves the function of problem-maker,
but hopefully not trouble maker.
Focusing on the home mode as social
process, we can now explore several areas of what
Japanese people do with their personal photographs.
Along the way, of course, we will be referencing where,
when and how people take these photographs. I will review
some findings about five (5) examples of photograph
(1) shared photographs, (2) household
photography, (3) work-related photography, (4) wallet
photography, and (5) tourist photography.
Questions and Findings
Sharing Photographs. The general problem to be
examined here is what people do with the pictures they
take. Examples might come from photographs of people
that attended the same party or special event, people
who took a vacation trip together or went on a business
trip together. One general answer is that people occasionally
like to give and share their photographs with a defined
set of significant others.
The Japanese in this study habitually liked to duplicate
and share their pictures. In fact, marketing figures
show that purchase of "duplicates" is much
higher in Japan than the U.S. Sharing of duplicated
can be observed during any short term visit or stay
in Japan. Sharing pictures is very common and very important.
My sense is that Japanese people feel a social obligation
to duplicate and distribute copies of the same picture
to several people on a regular basis. In a sense, people
stay together in photographic form.
These photographs may be serving the function of "social
currency" -- there is a sense of obligated gift-giving
and reciprocal exchange that seems to conform to patterns
of interpersonal relationships. In turn, this gift-giving
activity is serving the needs of social glue and, in
turn, a form of solidarity -- connections are being
made through shared representations, and are being held
in place with symbolic forms. In the U.S. parallel examples
of this activity are more optional and less an obligation.
Household Photography. Again the general question
involves how photographs are used -- here in the sense
of being displayed within the household, sometimes on
walls on furniture, place in mirror frames, etc. if
Overall, photographs are rarely found displayed in Japanese
household spaces. However, when found, the most common
use of a personal photograph is related to religious
beliefs. It is customary in Japan to include a picture
of a recently deceased family member in a butsudan -
a miniature Buddhist altar. Anthropologists Robert Smith
(19--) and David Plath (19--) call this to our attention
on several occasions. The second common appearance is
of formal ancestor portraits, often hung at an angle
from where the ceiling meets a wall.
In both of these contexts, I heard many comments related
to an implicit belief in a photograph's power to reach
departed relatives. There was a sense that someone was
still there, and this person was keeping an eye on things,
or willing to help out, or both. This sense of surveillance
was expressed by one female college student, who was
living away from her parent's home in her own apartment.
She didn't want to decorate her room with a photograph
of her mother and father reasoning that: I might feel
they are always looking at me. I can not do anything
wrong! I always have to study.
Several comparisons with findings from the U.S. make
other points. My general feeling is that Japanese decorate
their homes with personal photographs much less than
their middle class American and European counterparts.
One students report was quite explicit in this
There are so few pictures displayed in my house compared
to my foreign friends' houses -- I have seen only a
few Japanese houses in which many photographs are displayed,
but there were many photographs of family members and
friends displayed in most of the houses I visited in
foreign countries. (Aya H)
I began to hear echoes of familiar Japanese values.
The private-public dimension appeared again and led
me to speculate: Is putting up pictures revealing too
much of the "inside" view of the family or
revealing too much personal information? Indeed, can
this act really be "harmful"? As an example,
when speaking about his own Japanese home, I was told
One point that is extremely
uncomfortable to talk about is that there is much
discretion in my family for many reasons which I have
just grown to accept. This is a huge reason for the
lack of photos in my interpretation and inside knowledge.
Photos or real images can reveal an uncontrollable
amount of information and more times than not lead
the observer into an imaginative world of curiosity.
(Eiji, emphasis mine)
At least three (3) categories of examples could be included
here, specifically, (1) pictures taken during work-time
at the office or workplace, (2) pictures taken with
work personnel and colleagues elsewhere (perhaps on
business trips), and/or (3) pictures that are found
on display in some location actually in the work place.
In general, I found that taking pictures of people-at-work
or colleagues-at-the-work-place are more common than
in comparable American contexts. This importantly includes
photographs of workers while on business trips or in
restaurants and bars "after work." Sometimes
albums are even devoted to such trips. The significant
point seems to be that members of the company are together,
still "at-work" and in a sense strengthening
bonds, and enhancing esprit de corps. Here is an overlap
with the sharing category mentioned earlier.
But, perhaps, it is within the third category -- photographs
on display in Japanese work spaces -- where we can develop
meaningful results. Here I looked at photographs that
had been placed on office desks, or hung on office walls
or other office locations.
We did find portraits hanging on walls -- but these
depicted people in the power structure of the business,
such as the President, the Board of Trustees, the CEO,
etc. In comparison, however, personal photographs were
seldom, if ever, found displayed in the workplace. One
middle-aged Japanese woman explained to me:
No, talk of wives or children
is not heard at work; women and children are not invited
to company events, even picnics or group dinners.
So, they are best left at home.
Another adult male told me:
Japanese people distinguish
private life and business, that is they don't bring
individual life into a workplace, therefore, they
don't carry photographs. [Furthermore:] There was
no time to look at the pictures on the job.
When anthropologist John Condon discusses the Japanese
affinity for person humility and compares this sense
to American behaviors, he states: "The reluctance
to advertise the good qualities of one's immediate family
is one reason Japanese find it strange when American
businessmen keep pictures of their wives of families
on their desks at the office. "Is it because you
miss your family so much that you keep their picture
on your desk?" one Japanese asked an American.
"No," said the American, "I guess it
just helps to remind me why I'm here working."
"Oh," said the Japanese, "then that's
another difference between us."" (1984: 52-3).
In comparison to examples from the U.S., it is very
common to see snapshots or portrait photography on display
in a variety of work locations. In office spaces, employees
commonly display framed pictures of family members (annual
school/class pictures are common) or significant others
on desks or walls. Sometimes small photos are used to
rim a computer monitor; one can now scan a family photo
into a screen saver. Other contexts include the local
variety store, the deli, or even the corner gas station.
It is common to find a small collection of snapshots
on a wall behind the counter, etc. Finally, I frequently
find family photographs used as interior decor in restaurants.
My general finding is highlighted by an inverse relationship.
When compared to Anglo-American examples, in the Japanese
sample we find more pictures are taken with work-mates
and at-the-work-place, but less personal pictures are
placed on display at-work.
Wallet Photography. Here we are asking questions
about the photographs that people carry with them on
a daily basis. In American culture this is commonly
referred to as "wallet photography" In Japan,
appointment books (most commonly referred to as "schedule
books") or ticket holders (for train passes) can
be used instead of wallets.
Three (3) general findings can be mentioned at the onset.
(1) Many Japanese respondents did not feel comfortable
answering questions about their wallets or schedule
books, or showing their pictures to an interviewer they
did not know personally.
(2) While we worked with a limited sample of Japanese
people, I feel comfortable claiming that more women
carry pictures than men, and more student age people
carry more pictures than older people -- a pattern similar
to findings for U.S. samples.
(3) I found that, in general, carrying wallet photographs
is not a socially common practice in Japan. One adult
male stated in a most pragmatic manner: "There
is no need to carry pictures because the purpose for
carrying wallets is to put money inside, not pictures."
To repeat, we generally found a reluctance to carry
personal photographs, especially pictures of certain
people. One female student stated that she carried three
pictures of her boyfriend's cat but no picture of her
boyfriend. When asked about this choice of pictures,
It's kinda embarrassing to carry
the one of him in case it was lost and found by others...
It isn't necessary to carry any pictures of him 'cause
those pictures of his cat remind me about him every
time I look at--we chose this catty together to buy
it. (T. Ono -- my emphasis)
In this statement we hear a sense
of guarding and possibly honoring information about
personal life. The speaker worries about an uncontrolled
breakthrough into a guarded private life.
Given the documented affinity for taking pictures in
Japan, I was surprised to learn that the Japanese we
interviewed were less inclined to carry pictures than
the samples of Anglo Americans I studied in the U.S.
We heard this was not "a Japanese tradition."
From a 40+ year old man:
I am not interested in carrying
pictures with me. I've never seen my colleagues carrying
pictures. But I thought that I should carry it [one
or two photographs] when I meet Westerners, because
many of them carry pictures with them and talk it
over. It can give me a good topic to talk about, if
I have one [photograph].
And from a 70+ year old man: "I've
never carried a picture with me except during war time.
During the war I had my son's picture." And from
another 70+ year old man: "I have never carried
pictures. I think that people of my generation did not
One student in the class made the following summary
I have seen Westerners carrying
photographs of their family members or boy/girlfriends
in their wallets, where anyone can see the photographs,
but Japanese tend to "hide" them. Japanese
people might have borderlines between private life and
public life, and do not want others to disturb the private
part of their life. (Aya H.-my emphasis)
Tourist Photography. The
term "tourist photography" can be meant in
two (2) if not more ways.
(1) photographs made for tourists when they arrive at
popular tourist sites. Hence the terms "souvenir
photographs" or miyage shashin (1991).
(2) In contemporary understandings, the second meaning
would be the photographs taken by people while they
are in the role of being a tourist. The world seems
to acknowledge the Japanese as avid travel photographers
-- stereotypes and jokes abound that reify the image
of camera-carrying Japanese tourists.
(3) Particular to the Japanese context, I feel I must
add a third category, specifically photographs carried
with tourists while they travel.
In general, the message of images made by Japanese tourists
seems to be: "We were here." Genichiro Takahashi
(writing for the Asahi Evening News) seems to agree:
"Regardless of nationality, most people's reaction
to beautiful nature of international historic assets
like pyramids is more or less the same. They are moved.
Some even become speechless. But the Japanese don't
stop there. They need some evidence that they have actually
seen these things or that they have been there"
(1994, emphasis added). Seemingly there must be an acknowledgment
that the trip was taken and the visit made together.
An interesting exception is found when the authors of
Japan-- The Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit (1991,
4th edition) are describing tours in South-Western Kyoto,
for visiting and seeing the Katsura Rikyoo Imperial
Villa. They add another comparative dimension:
An imperial villa tour can evolve
into an interesting cultural experience with Japanese
sticking close to the guide whilst the foreigners hang
back. Both groups eagerly jostle for camera positions:
the Japanese want everyone in the picture whereas the
foreigners want everyone out. (Stauss, Taylor and Wheeler,
1991: 431 -- suggested to me by Katherine Jackson)
One relevant difference I discovered
in Japan involved the use of disposable cameras. In
a newspaper article about Konica Company's competition
with Fuji and Eastman Kodak, an executive reported that
pre-loaded cameras are very popular with middle aged
Japanese women. These women often travel in tour groups
without their husbands and purchase disposable cameras
in quantity: "many take 10 to 20 of the cameras
when they travel abroad." These disposable models
are very popular because users do not have to worry
about loading or working the camera - very popular features
with these women according to their (Konica) marketing
research (Iida 1994). This marketing report came as
a big surprise to Americans I questioned in 1994.
Photographs carried while being a tourist. In certain
examples, I learned it was not unusual to carry specific
pictures while traveling. Shigeno Takasu may, in fact,
have been taking her late husband back to see Taiwan
again by carrying his photograph with her. One of my
students felt that taking a photograph of her dead husband
to Taiwan was not surprising. She explained the following:
It is very usual for Japanese
to bring someone's picture to a certain place or event
which he/she wanted to have seen during her/his lifetime.
They can feel by doing so as if the dead person is actually
enjoying the scene. This is not only their self-satisfaction
but also their affection for the dead people... I think
the reason is they can feel more like showing a scene
to the dead person by holding the picture... In that
sense, a picture has more than a copy of a real object.
Sometimes people can feel a picture has a spirit inside
itself. (Akiko O)
In a related comment, a
50+ year old man told me: "I have never carried
photographs and [or] even thought of it. I do not think
many Japanese of my generation carry pictures. But I
have traveled with my mother's picture after she died,
because she had been ill for long years before she died
and I wanted her to travel with me."
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In working through these specific findings and the popularity
of photography in Japan in general I am drawing on several
historical facts and frequently acknowledged characteristics
of Japanese society and culture. These include: diary
traditions in Japan (D. Keane), issues of memory, and
quests for nostalgia (Ben-Ari). These topics will be
given additional thought and study as the study progresses.
However, the main theme that unites and gives significance
to the examples I have offered is a primary concern
with information -- moreso the types of information,
knowledge, evidence and, indeed, truth that Japanese
people attach to the notion of personal photograph.
My feeling is that the control of information is very
serious matter in Japanese culture. This thematic concern
resonates with the findings I have presented -- specifically
a reluctance to display personal photographs in the
household and the workplace, and the reasons given for
not carrying wallet pictures. The main concern is with
revealing too much information to unintended viewers
and audiences as well as in inappropriate contexts.
In short, we have another connection to inside-outside
relations as well as values on shyness, modesty and
a reluctance to display affection especially in public.
This attention to uses of information can also be applied
in a pro-social way to the demonstrated tendency to
share information via personal photographs. The acknowledged
tendency to continually strive for togetherness and
assimilation into society (Painter 1994: 296) seem well
suited to these findings.
And finally, as I have hinted in previous comments,
photographs made, used and interpreted in Japan may,
indeed, carry an alternative epistemological load. These
home mode pictures may have a different sense of currency,
authority and power than generally accepted in the West.
Connections with animistic beliefs may begin to "explain"
some of these information issues as well as the tendency
to travel with photographs, to reach recently deceased
relatives via images, to be comforted by specific pictures,
and, indeed, begin to unravel the controversial existence
This is a very tricky and controversial area because,
theoretically, I do not believe photographs per se contain
any information -- they do not say anything, and they
certainly do not speak to people. People making photographs
as well as looking and using photographs create the
meaning, the message and significance of what ever might
be recognized in an image -- people do the speaking
and not photographs. But this may be a theoretical position
or stance that is peculiar to Western constructivist
philosophies. Other cultures and orientations may see
it otherwise. Regardless, the main issue is how people
act on what they see and treat as meaningful in photographs.
In short, a re-arrangement of thinking may be the real
lesson about pictorial representation. I hope that new
studies will further this brief glimpse on to Japanese
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1991 Turning Leaves:
The Photograph Collections of Two Japanese American
Families. Albuquerque, NM.: University of New Mexico
Album: The Fourth Journey" in 36 Views of Mount
Fuji. New York: Plume/Penguin, pp, 229-252.
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University of Chicago Press.
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Kato, Hidetoshi (ed.)
Popular Culture. Rutland, NY: Charles Tuttle.
Little, W. Kenneth
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Japan and Popular Culture. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii
1993 Tokyo Style.
Kyoto: Kyoto Shoin Co. Ltd.
1994 The Electric
Geisha -- Exploring Japans Popular Culture. Tokyo:
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