Friday, December 9, 2011

Changing Impressions

In one of the first posts I made in this blog, I talked about my "neighborhood" in Japan, my early impressions of Japan in general. When I look back at the photographs I took at that time, they're filled with scenery and relatively mundane vistas: my room, my street, my route to the station, muddy puddles outside pachinko parlors, shopping streets, train tracks, bicycles that don't belong to me, the unexpected lovely view from the bathroom window of a campus building's upper floor. And of course, the exciting new world of a Starbucks in Japan:
There's an excitement visible in the rampant photo-taking. And why? Somehow I felt these things needed to be documented. It's not so much that there's anyone in particular to show the images to, and perhaps some of the quantity can be chalked up to the photo-taking fervor that tends to overtake most people, I would imagine, should they spend any amount of time around groups of Japanese teenagers spending time with one another. Though many of the places and things I photographed were those to which I would often return, and many on a daily basis, there is something to be said for capturing them as they were in that particular moment in time, and being able to go home and look at the image and remember.
T-shirt in a store in Shinsaibashi, Osaka
It has been approximately three months now since I arrived in Japan, and as I have looked over my photos and considered what to write here, I've noticed a dramatic increase in the number of "mundane" photos. Most of them have been replaced by pictures of people: mostly endless shots of friends in increasingly ridiculous poses. It's not difficult to imagine why this might have happened: the novelty--perhaps one might even go so far as to say "otherness"--of the tiny things like bicycle racks and train stations has worn off (when one no longer registers shirts like the one to the left as "off" is an indication that this condition has likely gone on to the advanced stage). That they no longer seemed quite as impulsively fascinating and "documentable" struck me as awfully sad. There's a slight embarrassment in encouraging a photo-taking temptation and suddenly, awkwardly stopping in the road to bend down and photograph a stand selling fried potatoes, then straightening back up and walking away as if no one is staring after the peculiar foreigner with apprehension and perplexity. Despite that, however, I decided to endeavor to take such pictures again. To take more pictures. To be sure, not all of them have been especially good photographs, but it is better, I feel, to have taken them at all, than to only bring out the camera for a perfect shot of a temple view which all day echoes the sound of snapping shutters.
Quite by accident, some pictures framed the same scene that had apparently caught my attention in earlier months.
September,  2011
December, 2011
This is a scene to which I've grown accustomed, but as the images show, it certainly hasn't stayed the same. The riverbed has fallen, and with the onset of winter the clouds have set in, the greenery has faded, and blossoms spread on the branches of one tree. For the cat, I cannot account. It leaped across the stream and fled from my paparazzi approach.
Similarly: outside of Korien Station:
September, 2011
December 2011
Naturally, the December photo is a night-shot, and therefore difficult to make out, and furthermore contains very little plant life to signify seasonal change, though the puddles on the street were not an installation in the warmer month of September. Nor were the winter jackets and seasonal drinks sold along this street. The people, too, have changed, ever so slightly, and maybe become just a bit more familiar.
Getting used to a slightly different way of life and becoming comfortable with things that may have struck one as peculiar or different is a good thing, I think it is safe to say. But even--especially--in one's home, or a place to which one has acclimatized, whether simply artistically or otherwise, I feel it's important not to stop documenting whatever small thing may catch one's interest. When you look back on that picture later, it may carry more weight, and say more about that place, and that time that you imagined when the shutter clicked.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Tell Your Neighbors, Tell Your Friends

In Japan, as in my native America, warning signs are everywhere. "Video Cameras in Operation," "Neighborhood Watch,""Caution: Children at Play," and the like. The major difference is that warning signs of this nature in the United States are typically text-only, or feature some very simple silhouette-style image to clarify the point, as in this sign from Daly City, California:
(From Daly City's website)
In Japan, the signs are a bit different. Rather than a majority of standard block-letter text and a clipart-style icon, they tend to feature a greater amount of color, wider variety of fonts and text sizes, and much more dynamic images, often cartoonized in a manga style that would perhaps not be taken as seriously in the US. In short, warning signs in Japan tend to be much more graphic. Take, for example, these posters from the city of Neyagawa, Osaka:
The poster in this first image is an anti-littering plea. "Stop!" it reads, "[Don't] throw things away." The greater part of the poster is taken up with cartoon images of tossed and broken bottles, cans, and cigarettes, anthropomorphized and all apparently in a state of distress. The sign does not simply command the cessation of littering, or threaten litterers in large text with a fine, as does one roadside message in my California hometown. It goes further, and invokes an emotional command: the very PET bottles you toss aside will be hurt by your doing so; think twice. Whether or not this is an effective method remains to be seen...
This picture contains three examples (as well as the motorcyclist who appeared from nowhere just as the shutter closed) in a series that repeats itself all along this particular street. From top to bottom, "Pick up after your dog," "Do not litter," and, "Do not smoke while walking" (having thus far encountered no dog poop, I can attest to the community's respect of poster 1, but for the latter I unfortunately cannot). All three images feature bright colors and detailed cartoon drawings. The text is highlighted with red circles to pinpoint the most important parts of the message. The people in the drawings are detailed enough that they are no longer simply depictions of "a person," but have expressions and a definite character. It is possible that this kind of "characterized" specifity can have a distancing effect, and cause the viewer to think, "I don't look like that. That isn't me. Therefore, this doesn't apply to me/doesn't have to do with me." It is the same problem faced by anyone who wishes to create any kind of PSA to deliver a message to a wide audience. If one wants to create a 15 second PSA against teen drug use, for example, what kind of teenager should one feature? A boy, a girl? Someone living in the city? Someone scruffy-looking? Someone with blue nail polish? The problem with trying to deliver a visual message of example to "everyone" is that "everyone" is not one image, and in the above example, the viewer of such a PSA can very easily feel that to he or she it is irrelevant, even on so small a basis as, "That kid's wearing a red sweatshirt, and I don't wear red sweatshirts. This doesn't have to do with me."Still, if one remembers that  "kid in the red sweatshirt," and thereby the message conveyed, perhaps the disassociation factor is not, after all, so very important.
The above two signs warn against purse snatchers and bicycle thieves, respectively. Both are also very much in a manga style, what with the speech bubbles and sense of action created by lines--suggesting movement. The blazing headline on the purse-snatching poster is so large and animated that if one did not bother to inspect the image with more than a very cursory glance, one might assume the poster was, in fact, some sort of manga cover.
In a similarly dramatized vein are the anti-chikan (groper/molester) posters one often finds around stations in Japan.
Courtesy of "Nopy's Blog: Japan Trip - Week 4"
While I did not take the image above, I came across the same sign a year ago in Saitama prefecture, and must admit that it rung rather disturbing. It depicts an anime-style schoolgirl--often the victims of molestation on trains because their daily commute to school requires many schoolchildren to ride trains at rush hour, when they are packed full like sardine cans--brandishing a sign with a "X" at a large, disembodied hand in the foreground. "Chikan! I won't forgive you!" it reads, and asks for the cooperation of everyone riding on the train.
Also from "Nopy's Blog"
But there is something about this particular image that made me feel frightened, rather than on guard. The way in which the girl is framed, cornered on the seat by the giant, approaching hand, and something about her expression, when examined closely, that reads less as determination or fortitude so much as vulnerability and fear. As a woman boarding the train, these are probably the last things one wants in mind. The graphicality of the poster certainly catches one's attention, and makes a strong impression.
Other, similar examples feature images of women or schoolchildren under the nearly Hitchcockian threat of monster-like hands in the foreground. Above all, the image of the threat, the chikan, is always anonymous, as the attacker often remains during and after the attacks. Similar to the PSA conundrum mentioned earlier, images of chikan, if their bodies are shown, are usually attired in suits, as many offenders have been shown to be salarymen on their own daily commutes. Still, even when faces are in the picture, they are left in silhouette (see this example). In the very colorful and character-filled world of Japan's warning signs, this kind of graphical omission is very striking. It clearly sends the message to the reader: it could be anyone.
From "Mechakucha"
Whether they inspire fear or sympathy, Japan's unique, often bright and stylized warning signs certainly inspire a response, and one that is usually emotional.

Friday, November 25, 2011

"Find your happiness with the flower"

If you've ever been to Japan (or ever visited, you'll have seen them. Yes, I am referring to random spattering of English--or at least a random spattering of words and broken grammar that passes for English--which can widely be seen in Japan in advertising and on graphic t-shirts reminiscent of those popularized in the US by brands like Abercrombie & Fitch (thereby plastering across the chests of many a brand-obsessed middle schooler obscurely sexual one-liners). But I do not mention "Engrish," as another opportunity to simply laugh at amusing grammar mistakes and move on. I would like to attempt to point out some patterns in the usage of English as a visual device in Japan; in particular, on clothing.
Common to a large number of the English-spattered t-shirts and accessories in Japan is the same heavy usage of adjectives seen in the image above: "pleasant," "interesting." For a store, this is an obvious choice for branding and the creation of an image, but there also appear to be a large number of so-called "Engrish" t-shirts that do much the same sort of branding for the people wearing them.
Girls walking in Shinsaibashi, Osaka.
Courtesy of
Despite the extraordinarily poor picture quality of the former--due largely to movement, but also to the difficulty of photographing clothes that people are actually wearing--what both of these garments have in common in their use of branding keywords. The wording on both t-shirts has largely positive or attractive connotations. In the case of the first shirt, the lettering reads: "The party/go to/American/casual/style/specific." The second shirt is printed with a smattering of words: "dignity/responsibility/no more/idealistic/kindness/behavior." Rather than coherent phrases or even ideas, these read as little more than strings of random words. However, they do give one a sort of image, if only a vague one, through connotation. For example, in the case of the first shirt, we have, "America," "party," "casual," and "style,"which do not form a sentence, but which do give an image of youth: the parties of American teenagers broadcast in TV dramas in Japan as well as the US. From the image in the dramas, there is something stylish and slighting exotic about the idea.
The second t-shirt has even less coherency, but is even more keyword-y, even in its arrangement of the words as part of the design of the shirt. This shirt, too, has an obscure element of branding, in its apparently random use of words with attractive meanings or connotations (dignity, responsibility; etc).
If these shirts are to be branding items, then, are they a statement about the wearer? Someone who is "dignified," or a "partier"? Unlikely, I think. In fact, it's far more likely many of the wearers of these infamous t-shirts don't bother to read them before buying them, much in the same way many a foolish Westerner has bought an unfortunate personal effect (in the more unlucky cases, a tattoo) printed with embarrassingly incorrect Chinese characters. Indeed, in expressing pleasure to Japanese friends over such surprisingly poetic English slogans as, "Turn to face the sun, and the shadows fall behind you," or, "A man's walking is a series of falls," most of them were considering the words on their clothing for the first time. What is actually written is less important than the cursory appearance of the words themselves. Similar to the Western fascination with Chinese characters (one which does not, it seems, extend with such enthusiasm towards the similarly beautiful letters of the Arabic alphabet, say), in Japan, the Roman alphabet, and English words, sprinkled properly into a Japanese sentence, are trendy.

The above clipping is from the October 2011 issue of popular fashion magazine S Cawaii. The text in the red box encourages the reader to match pleated skirts to become, or appear as a LADY. "Pleated skirt," another English word, is left in Japanese characters, but in this case, "lady" is the buzzword, and is written stylishly in roman characters, which adds emphasis and call attention to the point of the statement. The second clipping also implements a smattering of English to create a more dynamic block of text that draws the reader's eye. In this final clipping, the English is somewhat difficult even to spot.
In fact, the curly font is used as a sort of lacey border to the photo spread in the center of the page. Should one actually attempt to read it, one finds: "...Meeting OLD EUROPEAN. With lady's grace It has gentleman's / Refined vintage small use. It is casual and the tip of a finger. Perfect style that doesn't..."Again, the phrases are nonsensical, but nonetheless have a vague sort of unifying idea behind them. Nevertheless, yet again, the meaning of the words themselves is less important than their contribution to the graphic design of the advertisement. They provide some interest to fill the white, parchment-like space at the sides of the image, and frame the photograph with a cursive-like scribble which is likely meant to reinforce the "old European" theme of the clothing advertised.
Though the particular English in question--and the correctness of its grammar--may vary in its ability to amuse the native speaker and prompt its spread across the internet, in general, its usage in Japan appears to be much the same: for style, for emphasis, for design, and above all, perhaps, for flourish.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

On Hopes and Desires in Japan

Disney films like Pinnochio, Snow White, Cinderella, and so on are famous for hammering out rhymed lines like, "A dream is a wish your heart makes," phrases which are repeated incessantly in the songs of nighttime parades in Disney themes parks, touting the importance of dreaming, believing, wishing, and the like. The wish has a "magical" appeal to it, and, given its prevalence in the discourse of Disney (as well, to be sure, of many other films/non-film narratives) and the popularity thereof, it would seem safe to say that "wishing" is a concept of which we can't get enough. We wish by blowing out birthday candles, and tossing our money into wells and fountains.
Snow White at her wishing well in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)
(In Japan, a similar practice is used in prayer before Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples by tossing coins into a large wooden box--it doubles not only as prayer, but also as a contribution to the temple funds. See example thereof below, at Kiyomizudera in Kyoto.)

The interesting thing about wishes in Japanese culture is that they are, in a literal sense, visible. But perhaps, after all, "wish" is the wrong word. While "wish" holds a trivial connotation, "hope," or rather "prayer" is more appropriate. At any rate, one can see and touch these prayers across Japan, most commonly seen in the form of 絵馬 (ema), or small wooden plaques purchased and hung at Shinto shrines. On the surface of these plaques, the prayers/wishes of the visitors are written, who offer them at the shrine, that their wishes might be heard (and granted) by the local kami, or god of the shrine. "The motifs depicted on ema show broad diversity in accordance with the nature of the devotee's wish, and today they increasingly tend to be emblems distributed by shrines to devotees" (source). Ema are often purchased at New Years and hung within a house to protect it until the following New Year, when it will be replaced.
With the opposite aim, one also often finds strings garlanded with knots of paper at Shinto shrines. On these slips of paper are printed bad fortunes, previously drawn at the shrine by visitors. Upon receiving a bad fortune, visitors knot their paper like laundry on a series of strings, in order to leave their bad fortune behind at the shrine, tethered in place.
Shrine in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, December 2010
Other physical wishes/prayers can be seen at traditional Japanese holidays, such as 七夕(tanabata; "The Seventh Evening"), a star festival which occurs annually on the seventh day of the seventh month (by today's calendar, this is usually July 7th). On Tanabata, people's hopes and wishes are written on rectangular strips of paper and then tied with string to a stalk of bamboo. At the end of the festivities, depending on region and local practice, the wishes are then either burned or set afloat on a river, sending the prayers away in the hope that they will be fulfilled.
Offerings & prayers for the recovery of post-3/11/2011 tsunami Japan, during Tanabata 2011 at the Japanese Gardens in Portland, Oregon.
Other wishes and prayers are made into physical form in Japan through origami: in the image above, a vast number of origami cranes are visible strung alongside the paper wishes. Though written words are not used in their making, these cranes serve much the same purpose; in this case, wishes for a swift recovery to the Tohoku region of Japan hit hardest by the earthquake and tsunami in the spring. Their purpose, however, can vary from support to a baseball team aiming for entrance to the famous tournament at Kourien to support for a relative's fight against cancer, in the case of one friend of mine.
Many high school students can also been seen toting their wishes for success in entrance exams--if not on their sleeves--tied the straps of bags. These small cloth talismans are also purchased at shrines.
Whether acquired for a small fee at a shrine or home-made, like Tanabata paper or origami cranes, these items are all part of a Japanese culture of tangible wishes or prayers. Though such practices are not entirely unique to Japan, and some similar to the tree tied with wishes can be seen as far away as Scotland, in Japan, they seem to permeate the landscape of rural areas and cities alike, carried on one's person or affixed to a tree or small structure.
They come in many forms, depending on the wish and the occasion, and can be found even in such a remote place as a windswept clifftop on the shore of Eastern Japan, whose top is only reachable through a near-vertical ascent by ski lift (pictured below, for reference).
Even in such a remote place, every last inch of guardrail was hung with thousands of cell phone straps and metal locks left as prayers by lovers.
Japan is a country full of hopes; but you don't need me to tell you so: you need only look around, and you'll see them everywhere.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Mouth in the Forest

On trips up and down the Keihan train line in and out of Osaka, I've passed a station called Moriguchishi numerous time, without giving it much thought, though the name did stick in my mind for no particular reason. It was because it stuck, however, I thought it might be interesting to actually go to that station, and see what, in fact, is there.
As it turns out, Moriguchishi Station is a rather large station, as that of the city of Moriguchi, situated between Kyoto and Osaka, and considered one of the largest "last stops" on the way into Osaka along the Keihan Line. The station itself is of a similar size and general setup of Hirakatashi Station and Korien Station: all mid-sized to accomodate a fair amount of traffic. Indeed, all lines excepting the 特急 (tokkyu), or Limited Express, stop at Moriguchishi Station. It is also one of several stations to be visited by the following trains:
- Commuter Sub-Express
- Commuter Rapid Express
- Midnight Express
The express line stops at Moriguchishi Station between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m. From the station, one can also ride the limousine bus for Kansai International Airport.
Connected to the station, as at Hirakatashi, there is a Keihan Deparment Store. Within the station itself, there are a number of convenience stores and a cafe/pastry shop located behind the ticket gate. Outside the ticket gate, a small UNIQLO and several other fashion retailers line the inner walls of the station.
On the whole, the station is quite convenient. It should be, considering the number of business commuters it has: Moriguchishi is home to the headquarters of SANYO Electric Co., Ltd., a major electronics company. While not quite so close to the station itself, the headquarters of Panasonic Corporation is also not too far away, and can be seen from the rails as one travels along the line into Moriguchishi. Moriguchishi then, is what one might consider a salaryman's station. It is hardly populated with gleeful teenagers as is Kuzuha, with its shopping mall. Because of its general customer base, the station remains largely quiet during the daytime, but quickly becomes busy during the evening as businesspeople return home from their workplaces.
The station platform also has this peculiar, orange-tiled faucet, of whose purpose I am unaware. Yet one would imagine that salarymen and women, as such, are not rinsing their feet as they return from work, nor filling tins with water for their dogs, as such structures are used at the beach in California.

The unlikely compatibility of the colors in the brick and the lichen, however, perhaps provide a bit of artistic distraction as they wait for their train to arrive and carry them, again, to or from their work. though aside from the odd--odd--college student, I doubt anyone is much concerned with it.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Portrait Time

It's difficult to take someone's portrait.
It's difficult to take someone's portrait well, and to capture an honest action or emotion in someone--someone you know or do not know.
This is doubly the case when you're obligated to ask, first, whether you can take the person's photograph and use it for a project for your visual anthropology class. But this is, after all, Japan, the land of point-and-shoot-shoot-shoot.
This is Hiromi. Though slightly embarrassed about being photographed in her very new haircut ("I look like a mushroom!" she protested), she readily agreed to have her picture taken, largely due to the fact, I believe, that she was my RA while I stayed in the seminar houses for the first week in Japan. In Hiromi's case, she's a person with whom I've lolled about in pajamas at "home": we're comfortable. For that reason, I think I was able to take just, "a picture of Hiromi," as opposed to a self-concious peace sign held close to the face. It's just Hiromi...who doesn't look like a mushroom.
My only other strategy for taking a semi-candid or at least natural shot of someone here is, to be honest, simply to take a photo while they're not paying attention. (This is true, of course, just in regards to my friends, whose approval I've earlier received, and whose pictures I can erase at their request without any conflict) While it's perhaps a bit difficult to achieve eye contact in such a situation, the resulting photographs still feel somehow more honest to me, as in this (albeit poorly framed and quickly taken) photo of my friend Eriko at her saxophone lesson:
(Contrary to the suggestion of her expression of concentration, the tune was "Dancing Queen.") It may be difficult to call this particular picture a "portrait," but I would call it a portrait of Eriko very involved in doing something she loves. In a country awash in cameras, and the prospect of having one's picture taken produces a series of poses and set expressions many times practiced, a candid shot, I feel, is an important thing indeed.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

King Friday, in Japan

This is the very first photo I took of my neighborhood in Neyagawa-shi, Osaka, on the very first morning I set out to walk to the station myself. Despite the route being simple, I quickly lost my way in what deceptively figured itself as a suburban labyrinth. In fact, aside from the name plates and sign posts marking street numbers, the houses are all distinguishable by other particular features that I've come to recognize. For example, should I return home in the evening, the house to the left in the photograph above will surely be emitting classical music from an upstairs window. On certain days in the afternoon, should I return from classes at the right hour, I can recognize the first house on my own street by the two boys who sit on its doorstep, engrossed either in their GameBoys or the Pokémon cards they've spread carefully on the step. 
Some of my neighbors are fond of gardening, and as I turn out from this pocket of homes and onto a more busy street in my walk towards the station every morning, I often meet an older man or woman meticulously tending several pots of roses and other flowers.
When I say "meet," I must admit, unfortunately, that it is a meeting of little more than our eyes. Venturing further out from the community of homes in which I myself am living, and onto more major streets people appear to become slowly more guarded in their daily business and composure. A block from my own house, I exchange a smile, a nod, and a, "Good morning," with neighbors. Away from the housing area, past the traffic and Seven Eleven, the mothers with their cap-wearing preschoolers bicycling busily down the street, and everyone appears to be rather guarded and business-like. (The old man I joined other commuters in determinedly ignoring as he relieved himself into a drainage ditch by the side of the road--on several occasions now--appears to be somewhat of an exception to this observation...)
Literally speaking, this seemed to make sense, as the people I see on the street(s) everyday have left the private sphere of 家 (uchi = home/house/indoors) to 外 (soto = outside), one of ostensibly greater discretion. So it may appear anyway, and to an extent certainly be true. When I leave home in the mornings, I call out, 「いってきます!」(Ittekimasu = set expression; "I'm leaving/heading out"), and when I return home in the afternoon or evening I once again exchange greetings with my host mother or father: a 「ただいま」(Tadaima = set expression, roughly; "I'm home") for an 「おかえり」(Okaeri = set expression, roughly; "Welcome home"). At home, I exchange outdoor shoes for inside slippers, and drop the more troublesome articles, physical or otherwise, I've been carrying throughout the day, as I've been shown by example by my host family. (My host father, for example, often goes shirtless on hot days when I'm not around. My older host sister similarly foregoes the trouble of pants on occasion, and falls asleep in this state of semi-undress on the couch, her stylish and smart heeled shoes toppled haphazardly around the entryway.) The home, or 家, is a place to relax and lay down one's guard or worries. It is, after all, a home. 
Recently, I've begun to wonder, however, to what extent this is not also "home," or 家:
It is only the road just outside the station, but it is also my station. To use one comparison, it is another eggshell of many wrapped around one another. This "layer," or "eggshell," if you will, is another step closer to home. It is not just a feeling of "almost there," as one exits the station ticket gate, either: it is the familiarity of seeing the same high school and middle school students that I passed that morning as we traveled to our respective schools, the same shops and landmarks one passes everyday and has come to associate with being just a little bit closer--if only a little--to the relaxation of home.
This idea struck me most intensely and concretely when not just my host parents, upon my entering the house, but The Takoyaki Vendor or The Man Who Owns the Fruit Shop By the Station began greeting my return to the neighborhood with a familiar, 「おかえり」. At first, I found this somewhat jarring and was unsure of the proper way to reply. Would it be right to nod and say accordingly, 「ただいま!」?  My host parents seemed to think so, when asked them about it. Thus far, my doing so hasn't resulted in any looks of particular confusion or chastisement. 
Though this house that I am living in, at least while I am in Japan, is "home," my literal 家、the neighborhood, as it becomes familiar, may just become a little less 外, a little more 家.