Walking out and about in Tokyo means coming in contact with literally tens of thousands of people, at minimum. Riding the subways every day means a journey of jostling, crushing and squeezing, all the while trying not to go flying into the elderly lady beside you. Every day in Tokyo then, is a bit of adventure. That’s the stereotype of Tokyo, and it is one that is quite apt, even if one is not predisposed to paying much attention to stereotypes. I snapped this photo on my iPhone, while wandering around aimlessly as I am wont to do. So what then does this photo have to do with visual anthropology? No, it’s not actually about the people in the photo, though that may be my reader’s first thought. It’s not about them really, it’s about their numbers. Tokyo is a city of millions of people, over 12 million within Tokyo proper. Japan is a crowded country, with over 126 million packed into a country that has a size many people have enjoyed comparing to that of California. It seems this has always been the image of Japan that is presented to the world. Cramped, but classy. Well to do, but not well to do for space, unless one is really incredibly well to do. However, the whole of Japan is not contained within the confined of the Kanto plain on which Tokyo sits. That may seem a ridiculously apparent thing to say, but it is a point of note. You see, Japan is aging rapidly, and not enough babies are replacing the elder citizens of this country. With a dwindling workforce, less marriages and less pregnancies, Japan’s population is on a downward slide. It is projected that the population of Japan will keep falling rapidly, indeed it has already started, and the country will continue to struggle to make ends meet as more and more elderly are having to be supported by a dwindling population of workers. This means drastic change for the Japanese, in society, economy, perhaps immigration, and many other areas. Wouldn’t it be weird to see this busiest part of one of the most crowded cities in the world in 150 years? Where was once thronging masses, may lie deserted streets and boarded up storefronts. The issue of dealing with this problem is one of the biggest issues facing Japanese society, and is one that is caught up and constrained by political ideology, the changing face of the Japanese family, and economics. Whatever the solution, it would behoove the Japanese people to start dealing with this problem seriously. Those empty streets may be coming sooner than we thought.
This is a blog that will accompany me on my journey to learn about the Visual Anthropology of Japan. What is visual anthropology? Basically it is a methodology of learning more about any given culture through different forms of visual media, such as photos, or movies. I snapped this picture today, not too far from where I currently live in Asakusa, while sitting in a Burger King. Asakusa is one of the most interesting parts of Tokyo in my opinion. It has a taste of old Edo, from the giant five layered pagoda at the huge Sensoji Temple, to its famous treat known as monjayaki. What can we learn from a photo like this? More than one might first think. Crowds of people milling about, a cardboard cut out of Snoopy ( a very famous and popular character in Japan) and loads of people coming and going. In it we can see a large advertisement for “Sennennsoba” a cheap, and tasty chain of eateries in Tokyo. Just across the way we can see the sign for Shidax, a chain of Karaoke businesses in Japan. There are cars driving on the left side of the road, which is odd to an American. Some not familiar with Japan may not know what the cheap eatery or Shidax is, but many Americans and Europeans will know Snoopy. I think it’s interesting that such pop culture icons can transcend different cultures and languages so easy, while so many other things get lost in translation. There is a difference though in the portrayal of Snoopy in Japan and America though. In the US Charlie Brown, Snoopy’s owner is the point of the story, not Snoopy, while you’d be hard pressed to find a cutout of Charlie Brown in Japan. It doesn’t bother me too much. I always liked Snoopy better anyway.