When I initially decided to challenge myself by describing Japanese culture through pictures, (and eventually other cultures as well), I thought it would be relatively easy since Japanese culture is so rich in cultural tradition, even in modern times, while still being incredibly mainstream. However, after watching a Youtube video about the Voyager spacecraft and the golden record full of pictures of the different facets of humanity, I began to realize that with fifty pictures, a hundred pictures, or even a thousand, pictures alone cannot capture the massive spectrum of culture and the human experience.
If someone were to have never been exposed to anything of Japanese culture and then was shown pictures of different instances of Japanese life, it is unlikely they would completely understand what they were being shown or if there was any significance to anything they saw. What could a stranger interpret from seeing for the first time someone wearing a kimono, a geisha performing a dance, someone eating sushi, or a Shinto shrine? Through seeing pictures alone, there is no necessity to put any importance on any of those things, or to assume that such things are even of the same culture.
Furthermore, besides this issue, pictures can only capture moments rather than entire experiences, so much of what a culture consists of is lost through photography. Single photos cannot capture the entirety of the highly organized, ritualistic Japanese tea ceremony, or the events of a play at a traditional theater, or the detailed events of any religious or spiritual ceremony.
Through showing a culture in photographs, there will always be a significant amount of the culture that is missing or left out. Even the pictures on the Voyager spacecraft’s golden record do not include pictures of war, poverty, or famine, and of course it could also not include photos of every human culture and their rituals and daily activities, or document every written and spoken language, or capture every detail that makes us human. Such documentation can only go so far. Just as if foreign intelligent life were ever able to view the photos on the golden record, an isolated individual shown pictures of other cultures would only be getting pieces and parts of a whole. Yet, there is, of course, still a possibility that a significant amount of information can be obtained from the photos of a culture.
Some other challenges I faced in trying to define Japanese culture through photographs were what kind of photos should I include, if certain photos were more culturally important than others, and if there were any photos that should not include. For example, is a photo of a geisha more culturally significant than a photo of sushi? Are traditional practices more important than modern practices? Also, what were at the borders of Japanese culture? For instance, popular Japanese animation and comics, called anime and manga, respectably, have become so popular in American culture that manga may fill shelves in American bookstores and anime is frequently advertised in the media. Does this popularity cause anime and manga to lose some aspects of their initial culture, or does it simply spread Japanese culture into another culture? These are some of the most challenging problems I came across while trying to find pictures representative of Japanese culture.
I believe that my background in cultural anthropology absolutely helped me with this task. Cultural anthropology has helped me see how culture is such an essential part of the human condition. It defines one population from another and instills certain values, beliefs, morals, language, social norms, and even the way people eat, dress, and act in public or in seclusion, around friends or around strangers. Nearly everything that humans do in every-day life is the product and influence of culture.
Many might like to think that some populations have more culture than others. For example, British royalty have more culture than lower-class blue-collar Americans who purportedly have little to no culture. This of course, is entirely incorrect since every human on Earth has culture. Many might like to think that Americans in particular have no culture, especially in comparison to highly ritualistic cultures such as those of Aboriginal Australians or Native Americans, but American culture is simply not as salient as these in terms of rituals and spiritual events. This is a primary example to why cultures are so fascinating: no culture is the same and their differences can range from subtle to almost alien in nature.
Cultural anthropology has allowed me to objectively analyze the many facets of Japanese culture to the best of my ability and pick the pictures that I think best represent the whole of the Japanese ambit. Through my understanding of what culture means, I’ve tried to pick photos that capture Japanese values, beliefs, and worldviews. However, I know that if I was more familiar with Japanese culture or if I had lived in Japan, I surely would have picked different representative photos, and I also know that a Japanese person who lived their entire life in Japan would likely pick different photos still to display their understanding of their culture.
While culture is a collective experience, I also believe that it is individually molded to fit one’s own values and beliefs, and that no doubt, two Japanese people might pick very different photo sets to show their individual understanding of what their culture means and what they consider important. Despite this, I have tried to be as objective as possible in the picking of these photographs of Japanese culture in order to display the most of the culture and its significance.