井の中の蛙

12/1/2006

Photos of Japan, 1951

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 3:47 am

One of my former students and her boyfriend have been scanning in old photos, and they happened upon some gems taken by the young man’s grandfather when he was stationed in Japan during the Korean War. I think these are some wonderful pictures, and I offer my thanks to Margaret and James for sharing them, and to James’s grandfather for taking them.

Img065 Beggars Chased By M.P.S!

This image, which was hand labeled with the caption “Beggars chased by M.P.s!” seems to show a bunch of people crossing train tracks at a station of some sort. Notice the guy lounging on the parked flatbed in the middle-left of the picture. The photographer really captured the movement of the people across the tracks, though I certainly don’t see any beggars or M.P.s! The caption seems important, though. Can we assume that Japanese people running across train tracks in 1951 pretty much must have been up to something in the imagined visual world of Occupation-era photography?

Img079 Hiroshima R.R. Station 1951-1

This image was labeled “Hiroshima R.R. Station 1951″ and is filled with all the contrasting forces of the age. Look at the different poses and sartorial styles of the two soldiers, who seem to represent two poles of the American military. Also interesting is the Japanese text visible in the photo, such as the writing on the bus, “Hiroshima Suburban Bus Company,” which in the prewar style reads from right to left; and the sign on the shop to the right of the station, which reads in the traditional style from top to bottom and right to left, “Hiroshima Noted Product (meisan) Raw Oysters.” Yum! The two people who seem to be most interested in the photographer are the little girl on the bus with the red hat and the man who is wearing a suit and walking toward the camera while reaching into his inner pocket. The fact that this is Hiroshima, too, post-atomic bomb and pre-bullet train, lends the photo extra meaning. I see a doubling here: American technology (the camera in the hands of the G.I.) constructing a representation of a city that was destroyed by American technology.

Img081 Altar Girls, Shinto Grand Shrine Of Eise, 1951

This photo, labeled “Altar Girls, Shinto Grand Shrine of Eise, 1951,” which I assume should be “Ise,” is a nicely shot picture that prefigures a lot of later explicitly exotic imagery of traditional Japan. I’m kind of surprised that a picture that looks so much like tourist and government imagery from the 80s and 90s would have been taken so early. I guess I should have known that G.I.s on furlough from Korea would make the grand pilgrimage like everyone else? It is a very masculine framing of the subject. This makes me wonder when the scopic regime of photography of traditional subjects was established in Japan. It also makes me wonder who the intended viewers were for photos like these?

Img071 Jap Pearl Diver (Fresh Out Of The Water) 1951

Lastly, this photo was labeled, in the parlance of the time, “Jap Pearl Diver (Fresh out of the water) 1951,” and positively glows with the unequal sexual politics of the Occupation era. The usual binaries seem to be present here: the male, conquering West; the female, passive East; and the dry, clean professional man and the wet, sexually alluring woman.

These types of visual materials must be fairly common among the old slide collections of veterans, but I would guess that few have been collected together or made public. They seem to me like invaluable records of this fascinating historical moment. Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by that. The gaze of the G.I. photographers is particularly clearly recorded here, making these images not so much records of Japan in 1951 as artifacts of the creation of certain American identities against a newly constituted “Japan.”

13 Responses to “Photos of Japan, 1951”

  1. Charles says:

    I don’t think the kanji on the bus read right to left because of pre-war orthography. I thought it was common (even today) for the writing to read from the front of the vehicle to the back. On the other side, it would have read left to right. I remember noticing this style of writing on a densha when I was a student in Japan about 10 years ago.

  2. Garrett says:

    Charles, you and Morgan are both right. Even today, text often reads from front to back (although not as a matter of course), however, it was definitely the pre-war practice to write right to left.

  3. Roy Berman says:

    I wish larger versions of these photos would show up when I click on them, so I could actually see all of those wonderful details you are describing.

    “I’m kind of surprised that a picture that looks so much like tourist and government imagery from the 80s and 90s would have been taken so early[...] This makes me wonder when the scopic regime of photography of traditional subjects was established in Japan.”

    I have an English language government published Japan guidebook from something like 1971 that I believe has what we would consider conventional tourist imagery. Unfortunately, it’s back at home in the US, so I can’t check right now.

    It is still not unheard of for writing to be read from the front of a vehicle to the back, but I don’t see it very often either.

    But speaking of orthography, doesn’t the station name read 廣島駅? Why would the first kanji (Hiro) be traditional and the third (eki/station) be simplified?

  4. Roy Berman says:

    Thanks for the larger images! Much nicer to look at.

  5. ChrisM. says:

    The larger images are interesting. You can see, for instance, that the girl in the red hat is actually attending to something quite far to the photographer’s left, and not to the photographer. Also, per the absence of speckling/dust on the photo from the Ise shrine, I wonder if this photo isn’t from a different source than the others…

  6. Actually, a friend convinced me to try out Ecto, blogging software that does a nice job of embedding thumbnails that link to larger images, so I’ve reposted this using Ecto and the results are nice.

  7. James says:

    Thanks for putting these up! I’m the grandson of Bob Cape (next to the pearl diver, and on the left in the bus picture). I’m glad to see that these are of such interest to you.

  8. Crash says:

    Nice photos, but are we reading a bit too much into them? “The usual binaries seem to be present here: the male, conquering West; the female, passive East; and the dry, clean professional man and the wet, sexually alluring woman.” Really? How about we try to think about what was in the heads of the actual participants. Westerners sees aspect of Japanese culture for the first time, decides to take a photo. And the beggars picture…well, only two people are “running” and those are the children. If I was a poor youngster constantly seeing well-heeled foriegners walking around my neighborhood–who probably enjoy the attentions of the children…well, I might look for a quick handout. Children at that age do not have the same concept of pride that adults do. If they see a chance to get something free, they probably just asked…hence, the term beggars, and maybe someone got tired of it and “chased them” into the frame of this shot. Look long enough and you’ll see whatever you want.

  9. OK – reading too much is a charge I can live with. But I think it is worth noting that 1) Calling the structural relationship between Japanese women and American soldiers during the American Occupation unequal is not really particularly controversial. Of course power relations between individuals are more complicated; I’m just commenting on what I saw when I looked at the photo. Also, water is an old metaphor for sex in Japan, which is part of what has made the pearl divers sexual objects in many historical contexts.
    2) I didn’t call the children in the photograph “beggars” as you imply. As I clearly explained in the explanatory text, the photographer (an American soldier) labeled the photo “Beggars chased by M.P.s” – so the term was not a result of me seeing what I want, but of the language used by the producer of these images. Cheers.

  10. mike says:

    Hi There

    Regarding the last photo? And your comment: “Jap Pearl Diver (Fresh out of the water) 1951,” and positively glows with the unequal sexual politics of the Occupation era. The usual binaries seem to be present here: the male, conquering West; the female, passive East; and the dry, clean professional man and the wet, sexually alluring woman.

    Sometimes a photo is just what it is. A young american posing with a woman doing an unusual job, in a far off place. Doing something the folks at home would never beleive. I have a few similar photos, they are what they are nothing more. Maybe I should burn them so the next generations won’t use them to make a political statement.

  11. Paula says:

    I hope, Mike didn’t burn those photographs! I agree with his opinion.
    I’m an ex-dissident from Europe, living in the US.
    Anybody who has traveled outside of their home city takes photos of people and situations so vastly different from their own culture, as a memento. It has been in the past, and it is in the present.
    In the case of the photos,- especially the last,- comments are the reflection on the writer, not on the pictures.

  12. DKiernan says:

    The last few comments — from crash, mike, and paula — got it right. People who want to be intellectuals usually think that dragging in all their reading and education is the way to see and explain what a picture is, when actually they’re just missing the whole point. I’m an artist. I know exactly what my pictures are and mean and can show the viewer. They would be described as “traditional school” but every one actually shows something no one has ever seen before. I also know that 99% of the people, including the academicians, who look at them wont see something new but will see something else that they already know and feel comfortable with.
    Young people apparently think that they have accumulated more knowledge and experience to add to what previous generations knew. In fact, they have lost as much as they have gained and will never know what it was like before they came along. (For instance, you will never know what life in Greenwich Village was like in 1960 unless you were there. The place doesnt exist anymore. Like Troy, it has been buried and a new Greenwich Village built on top of it.) The only way they can possibly get a taste of it is thru things like pictures and writing and architecture, but seeing it thru mental filters wont show you anything.

  13. yorinaga says:

    I agree with crash about reading a bit too much into the photo… “The passive east”? Like the country that used Chinese civilians for medical experiments?

    Also note that to the eye of anyone more familiar with Asians and Japanese in particular, this (beautiful) woman is at least in her 40s.

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