10 September, Nara
At every historical site we visit we're impressed by the determination of the holidaying Japanese to record their day. Everywhere families and groups of friends pose before temples or at the edge of ponds. Single holidayers use self-timed cameras or politely approach strangers and ask for help. The kind of shot that many foreigners prefer—views of famous structures or natural phenomena from which all sign of human presence has been banished by the frame—are almost never taken.
I wonder if the reason for this is that the Japanese feel intimately involved with their culture—or in the case of this family posing behind the No Trespassing sign in the rock garden (most Japanese will violate rules only in pursuit of a good picture), because they don’t consider nature as something alien and exclusive. Here nature is not so much associated with wilderness and natural forces—which in Japan, after all, are mainly dangerous: earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons—as it is a thing collectively altered, harnessed when possible, even miniaturized. Moulded.
She has another idea. In a society so racially uniform, and exhibiting such unanimity of opinion and conformity in dress, people need to verify their identity at times, to establish their individual existence in the crowd. They may derive their sense of security from inclusion in that crowd, that larger circle, extended family—yet even the most egoless citizen sometimes feels driven to picture and trace smaller circles within circles, concentric and secluding, until at the centre there is only . . . what? A face, perhaps, a single eye: focused as if under a lens.
The camera winks. Producing at even the highest shutter-speed a stable record, a proof. Millions of photograph albums tracing the progress of tiny lives through a huge subsuming culture and its holidaying crowds. It may be that the weekend is largely for this: to authenticate an identity being developed by instalments, within a much larger frame. This family standing by an old frogpond as I focus and frame them, invite them to smile. Click.
From Steven Heighton’s Paper Lanterns: 25 Postcards from Asia
with photographs by Mary Huggard
Palimpsest Press 2006
Limited edition chapbook