This is a photo I took in my neighborhood. These posters are for the Komeito party, a center-right political party in Japan. The party is allied with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. It is common to see political party posters around Japan during election season, which it is not, currently in Japan. However, even outside of election season it is not uncommon to see these posters. Unlike in the US, where candidates flood the airwaves with political ads on TV and on radio, campaigning in Japan is still about face, and name recognition. Another common sight is that of political party vans that go through neighborhoods during election season blaring their names and parties very loudly. Many foreigners complain about the noise during the election season, but thankfully election seasons in Japan are mercifully short compared to those in the US, or in other countries. It seems to me to be a much fairer system than the US however, since driving a van around with loudspeakers is a lot more inexpensive than television ads, which in the US run up advertising costs into the millions of dollars. Perhaps the vans are a better way to ensure that smaller parties get to have their voices heard, even if they can’t afford expensive ads on TV and radio.
Having lived in the Tokyo for quite a few months now, I have noticed something that seems to be common place around subways in Tokyo. I noticed that at a lot of entrances to the subways, there are signs that display the level above sea level that the subway is. I decided to search around and find out why. Turning to Google, in this information age is of course a no-brainer. So typing vigorously into Google to find an answer to my curiosity, I searched and searched. Unfortunately, I came up pretty empty handed. It seems that there isn’t much about this on the internet, at least not anywhere that I can seem to find. The closest thing I found was a blog post about Yokohama posting signs in neighborhoods that declared the level above sea level that any given place was at, for all places under 10 meters above sea level. If I had to guess, I would say that, like the blog said for the signs in Yokohama, the signs are probably part of precautionary measures in case of earthquakes, and more specifically, tsunamis.
This is just one more aspect of how mountainous and volcanic Japan has to live with the constant threat of earthquakes and tsunamis. It might be interesting to investigate some other ways that the natural disasters that are common to Japan might affect the country in political, economic, and even cultural ways.
It was a couple of weeks ago when I took my family to see the famous Ueno Zoo, and while the park is large, spacious and green, I encountered something that bothered me. The problem of animal rights is one that I don’t often talk about, or even think about, however, what I saw at the zoo was a bit appalling. Many of the animals were in very cramped and sometimes dirty spaces, with not nearly enough room to move around. It seemed to me the equivalent of trying to keep a dolphin in a fish tank sometimes. For instance, the elephant enclosure was very small, and in spite of the fact that three elephants inhabited that space, the area was not large enough for them to move very freely. It worries me that the lack of space given to the animals in this zoo may be a factor that could adversely affect the animals’ health. I am also curious as to Japanese views on the idea of standards for animal captivity, and what, if any laws govern the practice. The attached photograph is one I took of a pygmy hippopotamus, in a very small tank. The animal kept swimming around his very small tank, not nearly large enough for such a large animal. Although the zoo is very old, I think much more should be done to make sure these animals have sufficient space, and clean enough facilities to live in comfortably. The quality of the photo may leave something to be desired, but it was taken with my iPhone.
When one thinks of Japan, they are likely to think of grand temples, Zen gardens, and perhaps Sumo wrestling. However, there is a lot of knowledge to be gained by looking at blossoms in Japan. Yes, it seems a bit ridiculous to think that flowers can teach us something about Japanese society and culture, but indeed they can.
After cold, harsh winters, many people around the world revel in the warmth and renewal of Spring. After all, it isn’t just Japan that sees this season as a time of renewal, hope and rebirth. However, there is something special about the place Sakuranbo, or cherry blossoms, hold in Japanese culture. I think it has a lot to do with a Buddhist outlook on nature, and on life. Before I come to that, I would like to talk a moment about my own experiences with the blossoms in Japan.
I’ll never forget the first time I really experienced hanami (flower viewing). I went with a friend to Omura park, in Fukuoka prefecture. Upon the hill above the park was an old castle, and below there were fields of tulips, or rather tulip beds, that had yet to bloom. Little bridges ran over these dormant flower beds, and running parallel to the tulip beds were broad pathways for pedestrians. Hundreds of people milled around, some lovers holding hands, others jostling their friends playfully. Surrounding me was a sea of pink. The pathways were lined with many cherry trees, and they were in full bloom. Petals fell like soft warm snowflakes all around me. Needless to say, it was like walking through a postcard. The natural beauty of the cherry blossoms was breathtaking.
That beauty doesn’t last. In a couple of short weeks, the blossoms will be gone, and the cool sunny days of Spring will give way to the quiet hot hum of summer. That fleeting beauty, will be gone again until the next year. Coworkers will go out to flower viewing parties, and sit eating snacks and drinking copious amounts of alcohol, getting drunk on the beauty of the scenery. There is a sadness, knowing that the blossoms will soon be gone, a wistfulness for the joy of Spring, and a nostalgia for Spring days of youth gone by. The Japanese have been having these parties for centuries, and will continue to have them for centuries into the future, I’m sure.
The Buddhist idea of impermanence, of being aware of the moment, lies deep at the heart of this tradition. The beauty of life is fleeting, the joy of living will end for all of us, but for one warm Spring day, we are aware of the beauty around us, happy to bask in the sun, and drink a lot of beer. A fine tradition, I say.
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.