Travel Photography - Japan

For many travel photographers, Japan represents an exotic, perhaps even once-in-a-lifetime, destination. In my case, Japan was the place I called home for nearly a year. During my stay, I saw so much and understood so little. Although I acquired just enough Japanese to be able to stand on tiptoe and barely peek over the language barrier, I was really never able to "demystify" this enigmatic land and its people. I remember my bewilderment when my reading comprehension became sufficient to allow me to finally interpret the hand-written sign hanging in the small laundromat near our apartment. The sign declared "foreigners are not welcome." Yet I also remember Carolyn describing how a complete stranger, a tiny elderly Japanese lady, that did not speak a word of English, held an umbrella over her head in the pouring rain until she reached the subway station.

In contrast to Europe, with its seemingly endless variety of cultures and lifestyles, Japan is monolithic in its homogeneity. From an anthropological perspective, an exceptional degree of social conformity might be expected in an island society where so many people live in such close proximity to one another. Japan has nearly half the population of the United States, but a land area only about the size of California. The space problem is compounded by the additional fact that nearly 80% of the land is uninhabitable due to either rugged terrain, or exposure to natural hazards such as volcanos and tsunamis. Japanese individuals are extremely sensitive to what others think of them. Whereas in western society, we tend to regard an exceptional degree of social conformity as an indication of spiritlessness or weakness, the Japanese regard such behavior as an expression of self discipline.

Like Europe, and unlike the Americas, Japan is home to an ancient culture and people. Unlike Europe, however, Japan did not experience a gradual transition from archaic traditions and social structures to modern attitudes and democratic principles. Modernity was thrust onto this land in a violent collision between old and new. In the mid-19th century, American naval ships appeared in Yokohama bay and the age of the Samurai was over. Within a few generations Japan was transformed from a feudal isolationist society to a highly industrialized nation of global significance. The cultural dissonance induced by this sudden and coerced transformation continues to be evident. For example, concepts of individual rights are not as extensively defined or accepted in Japan as the western world. It is also somewhat paradoxical that, in a nation so economically integrated into the global community, a primitive distrust of foreigners is always lurking just below the surface.

For the photographer, "old Japan" offers numerous traditional subjects for which a single image is sufficient to convey location- a kimono, a Torii gate, and the Great Buddha of Kamakura are a few examples. "New Japan," however, offers equally symbolic and immediately recognizable scenes such as commuters forced into crowded subway cars by white-gloved attendants, a bullet train with Mount Fuji in the distance, or the brilliantly lit polychromatic signs of Akihabara, the "electronics district" of Tokyo.

As a photographer, the greatest lesson I learned from my tenure in Japan did not involve thematic dilemmas of capturing the ancient versus the modern. My most important discovery was that a photographer must remain vigilant and capture the mundane and ordinary as well as the extraordinary and the exotic. Upon my return, I was greatly disappointed to realize that I simply did not shoot enough film to adequately record the most unusual year of my life. Once my activities in Japan became routine and familiar, I no longer regarded them as worth documenting. A complacent photographer is an inept photographer. That is a mistake I will not repeat.

Photo Gallery - Tokyo

Imperial Palace Asakusa Shrine/Temple Complex Asakusa Pagoda Asakusa Shrine/Temple Complex

Nezu Shrine Confectionary Shop Ueno Park

Cherry Blossom Festival Nezu Azalea Festival Sanja Matsuri Sanja Matsuri

Photo Gallery - Beyond Tokyo

Great Buddha of Kamakura Great Buddha of Kamakura Great Buddha of Kamakura

Kamakura Kamakura Shrine Lake Ashino

Kamakura Kamakura Matsushima Temple Matsushima