Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Changing Impressions

From the moment I first arrived in Japan my impressions have been constantly changing, and will always continue to do so. 

However, I still find it difficult to analyse without comparing. I’ve heard that my home country (UK), like Japan, is known for politeness, and is sometimes referred to as having a ‘gentleman’ culture (dead and gone generations ago); yet our ‘politeness’ and Japanese ‘politeness’ are entirely different. The sign below confused me completely, and also serves as an example of differentiating political correctness, along with a lot of other issues, but from my experience it was a 'one-off'...

If I was to attempt to describe what I believe to be the biggest difference, it would be that the Japanese approach is more decorated and ritual. The immediate examples are the heightened importance of gift giving, the way visitors are treated (when coming to a person’s house) and of course the bowing. I feel that in Japanese culture, this is only a single among many (maybe even all) aspects of Japanese life that are endowed with a strong sense of ritual.

A module at my home university last year required us to read the book Evanescence and Form by Charles Shiro Inouye. This book sought to explain the balancing act that ritual and change play in Japanese culture.  It used examples from the Heian period right up to Miyazaki to explain the equal relationship between evanescence and form. I feel it also applies to the way experiences develop....

Since arriving here I’ve been looking for this theme in every aspect of life. My feelings about it are quite mixed, although at present I think I may have encountered more form than evanescence.
This is in no way a criticism, but in my opinion the Japanese approach to religion places the ceremony above obedience to the original content, and isn’t afraid to ‘cherry pick’ between religions to find a ritual appropriate to the occasion. I’ve also found this can apply to personal relationships….

Whenever I go on a trip to another area, it’s become second nature to buy a souvenir for the home-stay family. Previously I always skipped the gift shops; my natural opinion was that they detract from the travelling itself (especially to natural places) but it seems socially mandatory in Japan to find a balance between the two.
It could even apply to taking off shoes before entering and using separate slippers for the bathroom – physical space divided by ritual.

These are just among many impressions that are continually changing. The recently watched documentaries, particularly “The Cove”, “The great happiness space” and “Against coercion” have also greatly influenced my ongoing considerations.

Unfortunately I don’t have a definitive conclusion or realization to write about. Personally I think it’s a bad idea to have a single impression for too long; so this as the title suggests, this blog post covers only ‘changing impressions’ and not ‘changed impressions’. Maintaining this approach and keeping an open mind applies to learning about any culture; but for now, in terms of Japan, my first rosy impressions have grown up through more intimate experiences, certainly including some negative ones; but the experience so far have been overwhelmingly positive and has further fueled the ever existing curiosity to learn more about this country and its inhabitants.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Local school festival

Last Sunday my host family took me to see a small festival at a local school (elementary and junior middle school). I had the opportunity to watch a variety of entertainment from all ages (the teachers, parents and grandparents got involved too), the behaviour of the children and their parents and also the chance to walk around a Japanese school.

I’d never previously considered that shoes are taken off before entering the school and exchanged for slippers. I like this idea a lot, and was even more impressed to learn that schools don’t employ janitors and cleanliness and hygiene throughout the school is the responsibility of the students. Photos of toilets being cleaned by students were posted on the wall with messages, presumably as a means of encouragement.

It always surprises me how much effort and enthusiasm are put into these kinds of events. The quantity, quality and variety of the performances, along with relative instruments, costumes and props were all of a high standard. The children were very orderly and no one seemed to have their own agenda of stealing the show or causing chaos. Several different groups of grandparents got up to ring hand bells, sing and even dance. A large number of people attended, and my own host family have no connection with this school but attend such events whether or not they are hosting a foreign student.

Some of the staff members seemed to be very intensively focused, and I can imagine them being quite rigorous in getting the most out of their students. However, the organisation lived up to the stereotype of efficiency, but all the while retained a warm and pleasant atmosphere. 

The conclusion of this post is a continuation of the theme of teamwork which I expressed appreciation for through yakyuu in my last post, and was brought out excellently in the documentary ‘Kokoyaku’. I’m sure if a documentary were made about school festivals in Japan, I’m sure the same theme would resound throughout it, and it is a quality which is comparatively a novelty in my own country that I appreciate more and more with every example in Japan.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010


After just watching the documentary Kokoyaku, I reflected on my own experience of viewing a Japanese baseball game. Not being from the United States, baseball is a little unfamiliar; my main purpose of watching the Tigers vs. Giants at Tokyo Dome was to experience the atmosphere and observe the behaviour of the Japanese crowd.

The experience began positively, amidst a vibrant bunch of fans I tried to take some cans of beer in plastic bags. It seemed they were onto this and I expected them to confiscate it, but instead they poured the beer into paper cups for me and threw the cans away! Furthermore, inside the dome, beer is served by incredibly cute girls carrying beer kegs on their backs; watching them hopping and bowing their way through the crowd, I wondered how long they’d survive in the crowd at some of the more heated soccer/football games in the UK….

As also shown in the documentary, the crowd had unique chants for different players. I was in the Tigers stand, and even as things went from bad to worse (eventually they lost this game), the crowd became more positive and supportive. I didn’t understand the chants but from the upbeat tone I can’t imagine they resembled the aggressive, profane slander that supporters in the UK scream at their team to show their dissatisfaction with the performance.

The Japanese crowd impressed me greatly. The held at least as much passion as I’ve seen anywhere else, but to  my awareness it never showed any signs of resulting in violence, to the extent where congratulations were even offered to the victorious opposition.

I don’t pay enough attention to sports, but the documentary in class left quite an impression on me. Viewing this sport from the inside held some surprising elements, but generally it was in line with other aspects of Japan I have experienced. It has granted me the desire to attend a couple more baseball games in Japan, both to watch out for elements that I was unaware of prior to viewing the video and explore these themes further, and on another occasion to get lost in the enthusiasm and join in with supporting the Tigers.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Attempts to put inspiration into practice…

This blog post does not have a particular theme related to Japanese culture. While taking photographs in Nara and of a band and their audience in a live house, I recalled some of the inspirations from the documentaries watched in class; in particular, War Photographer.
In my last post, I acknowledged James Nachtwey for venturing into the action and taking photographs from within the scene. I used this photograph as an example, as it contains the crowded energy and aggression of a protest.

My classmate, Sam, referred to Nachtwey as an ‘invisible man’ in his blog. I think is an appropriate way to describe Nachtwey’s passive presence in an active scene. It is most evident in photos where people are unrestrained in their actions and expressions, often made clear by the fact they are not only looking away from the camera but completely unaware of it.

These two parts of his approach to photography have stuck with me and I have made (some) progress in emulating this inspiration (or at least I would like to think so).

I hope it is not in bad taste to compare my light-hearted pictures with those of absolute despair and depression taken by Nachtwey. However, it is the movement and proximity of the scene that I have focused on. Hopefully this is clear from looking at the above Nachtwey photograph and my next photograph below.

Basically, in Nara, tourists purchase deer biscuits, thinking that all deer are like Bambi, and soon find out otherwise. The moment their wallet comes out of their pocket, the deer surround them and harass them into giving out (or hopefully dropping the whole packet of) biscuits.
While the second picture captures the mad rush and subsequent panic, the first is more successful in involving the viewer in the scene. Other people were photographing these poor women, but I feel they were so involved with the activity that their behaviour was very natural.

I took a lot of photos of this great scene, deer queuing up to receive biscuits from a line of schoolboys; but unfortunately only managed to capture the entirety of the scene from this distance. From this photo I can see lots of available opportunities (e.g. Why didn’t I crouch down slightly to the left and shoot upwards?) Although realising missed opportunities can be frustrating, it is fundamental to progress.

To briefly cover a similar opportunity, I attempted to capture the atmosphere of this live house from within the crowd and (as much as possible) within the band. In such a crowded place it was easy to hold a subdued presence and capture the natural behaviour of pre-occupied people from a relatively close distance.

 James Nachtwey photos from:

Friday, 22 October 2010

Leibovitz & Nachtwey

After watching Life through a lens, the thing that I appreciated the most about Annie Leibovitz’s technique is not a particular photographic technique, but simply her approach and treatment of the subject.
To echo what has been discussed in previous lessons, taking effective portraits requires a relationship and understanding between photographer and subject. Leibovitz interacted with and photographed a huge range of personalities and scenarios, and took a different approach to each, knowing when to be passive or active.

I particularly liked how Leibovitz photographed two people together, and the different approaches she used to capture their relationship. My previous post which showed photographs of two friends was rather unsuccessful, and in future attempts I would like to employ some of what I have learned to similar subjects.
The final photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono was particularly strong. Subjects are not always so open-minded about how they allow themselves to be portrayed, but this is also a testimony to Leibovitz’s approach. 

At present it is more realistic for me to learn from the other photographs above and below, which show a variety of interactions between photographer and subjects. The use of physical contact is very powerful and in the below shots is particularly emphatic. Also I think the range of eye contact is very interesting. In the first picture, John Patrick Stanley is mesmerised by Meryl Streep while she looks at the camera. The working relationship between Danny Boyle and Dev Patel is perfectly captured by them both looking into the camera while the actor leans on his director. By contrast, there is a more ambiguous approach to capturing the combined personalities of Chris Nolan and Heath Ledger, again with one subject watching the other.

In future experiments I would like to encourage my subjects to try a variety of poses with varying body and eye contact, while allowing them to improvise as much as possible. I think this is a nice way to gradually break down the barrier and help them to relax.

I also really appreciated James Nachtwey’s approach to subjects, which in his field is definitely more geared to reacting rather than acting. As seen above, the observations of Leibovitz’s work apply universally.
As discussed in class, Nachtwey’s subjects can be photographed naturally as they are often engaged in something other than being photographed.

While I don’t intend to witness any wars whilst in Japan, photographing a lively festival requires some of the same principles as Nachtwey applied in the field; such as being within close proximity to capture the energy and movement of the scene.

Black and white shots are appropriate for the emotive element of Nachtwey’s work. He often uses strong contrast of dark and light which is both powerful and reminiscent of the chiaroscuro effect used in paintings by Caravaggio.

It is difficult to cover the range of inspirations drawn from these two photographers in one blog post; but I intend to explore what I have learned further and hopefully convey their influence in future posts.

Leibovitz images taken from:
except Rolling Stone Cover taken from:
Nachtwey photographs taken from:

St. Jerome by Carravagio taken from: http://www.jimdiamondmd.com/Malta%20Art%20&%20Culturet.htm

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Japanese People

Despite the encouragement to show a portrait of an individual for this post, I took photographs of two friends, Aya-san and Mai-san; for two main reasons.
Firstly, I always meet these two girls together. They are both studying English, they hang out together all the time on campus and go shopping together at Shinsaibashi at the weekend. From the short time I've known them it seems difficult to imagine one without the other.

The last thing I want to do is indicate a lack of individuality, because Aya-san and Mai-san have very different body language, behaviour and of course alot more.

The other reason why I have photographed two people is out of consideration for the subjects. I felt a little awkward asking relatively new friends if I could take a picture of them; as I would only agree to something similar out of obligation, rather than choice.

I felt that they would feel more comfortable to do this together rather than alone. Following that, I could not choose to display just one person, for fear of embarrassing that person and offending the other.
I've been rather scarce with description about the people I have photographed, this is due to being (perhaps overly) conscientious of privacy and identity. It reminds me of the question asked in class of "what right do we have to translate another culture/person into our own words."

This time, I've probably been too cautious to give any real insight, but the experience of this exercise has been a new one for me, and has provided an insight into the complexities of photographing and writing about other people.