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

April 9-13, 1997



The longer version of this paper attempts two tasks. First, to link theoretically and practically popular culture with what I mean by the term "home media." Second, I give an overview of how an urban contemporary sample of Japanese people participate in their own home media, stressing the use of snapshots and family albums. Realistically, I can not get through all this material in this brief presentation, so I will dramatically abbreviate the former and give more time to the latter.

Given that the terms ‘home media,’ ‘popular culture’ and ‘Japanese’ appear in my title, I need to take a few moments to clarify some terms. For instance, what do I mean by Home Media?

First, I mean the personalized use of media -- sometimes in written forms, other times in visual, and still others in audio-visual forms. Examples range from diaries and journals to personal letters and cards to audio-taped letters and such pictorial forms as snapshots, family albums, home movies, home videos and their variants. Importantly, this is not an issue of any one particular medium -- though today I will be referring mostly to examples of still photography.

Second, I want to stress the use of media in contexts of everyday life. The word "home" is meant in both literal and metaphoric terms, but usually signifies the personal and/or private vs. impersonal and/or public. Everything does not need to be done at home, that is, in private life in any literal sense -- but the central point of reference is to individuals and family groups often centering around home life.

Third, I want to stay focused on issues of communication. I intend to draw attention to BOTH product and process, that is, to visual artifacts as well as home media-makers and home media-users.

Fourth, I am calling attention to what I have elsewhere termed "home mode communication" -- as something to contrast mass modes, understood as mass media or mass communication.

In summary, I am interested in how personal photography functions as a medium of expressive communication within the context of home media.

What do I mean by home media's place in popular culture?

This is a much longer discussion which I must abbreviate in the following summary. I want to retain certain characteristics that are common to many definitions of Popular Culture.

(1) I want to retain the notion of popular in both literal and figurative senses. In fact, marketing figures reveal that snapshot photography has become, by far, the most popular photographic medium, nationally and internationally. Clearly George Eastman created his first camera in 1888 to become part of popular culture. Equally clear is that the purpose of marketing the first Brownie camera in 1900 for $1.00 was to reach the mass market, to make still photography accessible to everyone. It appears to have worked: 19 Billion amateur photographs were made in the U.S. alone in 1995.

(2) A sense of expressive culture is equally significant. The photographs in question are not just a matter of documenting life, but rather one of making statements and creating stories about life. Clifford Geertz would say the objective is to understand expressive culture as stories people "tell themselves about themselves." Conveniently, this opens the door to the study of home media as suggested in this paper, that is, treating vernacular photography as expressive culture.

(3) Attention is also given to the active participation in everyday life -- as implied in these ealier points. By insisting on a model that incorporates the active production of mediated forms, I want to attend to ways and means that ordinary people can be producers and interpreters of camera-mediated life and not just consumers.

(4) Finally, I will be favoring notions of the construction of knowledge and experience. This is in line with John Treat who has stated: "Popular culture... is now held to be both material and immaterial, real and iconic; it is actively constitutive of experience as well as passively reflective of it" (1996:7). Significantly results of this activity bridge generations of family members.

And third, I must clarify what I mean by Japan and Japanese people. This paper is concerned with a culture that is internationally recognized, literally and figuratively, for its expertise with camera technology and affinity for frequent picture-taking. When eliciting common images of Japanese people in the U.S., one frequently hears descriptions of tourist behaviors in general, and camera-using activities in particular. Clearly this image has been raised to the level of both stereotype and cultural icon.

With increasing interest and attention, scholars are defining connections between Japan and popular culture (Kato 1959, Powers and Kato 1989, Ueda 1994, Treat 1996). However, with rare exceptions (e.g. Green, 1978), an understanding of personal photography (whether called "family photography" or "snapshot photography") as popular culture seems to be overlooked. Perhaps it is too obvious a phenomenon, too much a part of vernacular culture, to be taken seriously -- seriously, that is, in academic terms. Certainly in Japan we would have to concede keen interests on the business front as in the Fuji-Kodak battleground of market share and market access. Beyond financial interests, however, we find little commentary on Japanese personal photography and Japanese everyday social life.

On the other hand, we do find accounts that document the history of photography in Japan with implicit and explicit fascination on ‘first times’ -- the first studio. the first daguerreotype. the first commercial studio, etc. We also find passing comments reflecting on the cultural stereotype that describes the popularity of amateur photography among Japanese people. But the key phrase here is ‘passing interest.’ For instance, I have been able to find a few sentences or a paragraph or two written by David and Evelyn Riesman (1967), Cathy Davidson (1993) and David Plath (1992). But for today, let me just mention one such example form a comment by Hidetoshi Kato in Powers and Kato’s 1989 Handbook of Japanese Popular Culture:

... one may argue that photography, a world-famous pastime of the Japanese people, is a contemporary version of haiku in the sense that each snapshot is a visual presentation of the photographer’s sentiment and feeling at a particular time and place. Though the forms of presentation are different, both haiku and a photographic snapshot are aesthetic expression of a person, and, most important, such expressive behavior is shared by the whole population of the country (Kato, 1989: 312).

In short, I have been able to find a few intriguing speculations, But some sort of structured or systematic research about this "image of imagemaking" is absent.



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.


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."


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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