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Japanese Home Media as Popular Culture

Richard Chalfen
Department of Anthropology
Temple University
Philadelphia, PA 19122 USA

Invited paper presented at the Japanese Popular Culture Conference
Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives (CAPI)
University of Victoria
Victoria, British Colombia, CA



The Case of Pet Grave/Funerary Photography.
Topics, Questions and Findings


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.

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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 their homes.

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 comparisons.

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The Case 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:

In 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 pet’s 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.

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Japanese 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…Personal Observations while I lived in Tokyo and taught at Temple University Japan for two (2) years, from 1993-95.

2…Personal Interviews -- 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 LTD.

3…I was also able to buy several examples of Japanese-made Photograph Albums at flea markets--though in some cases, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at.

4…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 University.

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 use, specifically

(1) shared photographs, (2) household photography, (3) work-related photography, (4) wallet photography, and (5) tourist photography.

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Topics, Questions and Findings

1…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.

2…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 at all.

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 student’s report was quite explicit in this regard:

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 the following:

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)

3…Work-related Photography. 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.

4…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." (Tina J.)
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, she said:

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 do that."
One student in the class made the following summary statement:

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)

5…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 of ghost-snapshots.

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 home media.

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To contact Richard Chalfen, email: rchalfen@temple.edu