Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Local Matsuri II: Evening Activities

Michael Ashkenazi (1993) contextualizes the Japanese matsuri as having three qualities: First, it is unusual (different from daily life), recreational and entertaining. The image of matusuri is something to be experienced rather than merely seen. Large numbers of participants strengthen this image. Second, the unusual atmosphere of festivity is a place of economics and other transactions different from everyday commerce. Participants are able to enjoy a wide range of products and activities for a price. Third, the matsuri involves an ever-changing mass of participants from different social categories rather than a static homogenous group.

Ashzenkazi's qualities seem to match the Evening Activities part of the local matsuri. In the last VAOJ post I discussed and illustrated the procession of the mikoshi. This post illustrates the night time market and performances that take place in the summer festival.

One side of the river near the shrine was packed with booths selling various snacks and food. Some of the stalls were devoted to games and tempted participants to win prizes such as anime inspired stuffed animals, toy guns, balloons and whistles, gold fish and posters of pop idols. As the evening wore on, more and more people came to eat and play. It was difficult to move through the masses of people eating, drinking, pushing baby carriages, socializing... The trick was to purchase your snack and then find a small place for yourself or group to eat it.

Meanwhile preparations were being made by at the shrine. The show would start when it got dark, at 7:30 PM.

This particular shrine is famous because there is a train station right above it. The kami-deity associated with the shrine resides in a large 700 year old Camphor tree. When the train station was being built, the tree could not simply be cut down. Thus the station was built around it.

The first entertainment of the night is a taiko drum group.

Followed by a hip-hop dance performance.

Next was a group of young girls doing a yosakoi dance, very energetic with gymnastic moves and a traditional feel to it.

Followed by a ballet performance.

The second evening of the festival featured Kawachi ondo and Goshu ondo, styles of folk songs originating from Osaka and Shiga prefectures, respectively.

People danced the bon odori to these musical styles. The Obon Festival, also know as the festival of the dead, is usually observed in the middle of August. It is a Buddhist custom where people welcome the spirits of their deceased ancestors back home. Another part of the celebration is to perform folk dances, the bon odori. These dances usually have people dancing in a circle with relatively simple and repetitive movements. The movements of the dance vary from region to region. It is not unusual for bon odori to take place at other times of the summer or even at a Shinto shrine; it seems to be a part of the celebration of summer.

Bon odori seems to be a perfect example of Victor Turner's communitas (1969), where people of different social status come together as equals to perform and promote a strong sense of community. Although there is a program/schedule for the dance, the performance itself can be seen as anti-structure. The ritual attracts all kinds of people to participate whether they intended to do so or not. Semi-professional dancers in costume are joined by community members, housewives, old drunk men, young children and even yanki/bosozuko/bikers to dance and have fun. Communitas feels good...

Yes, and a good time was had by all. The Local Matsuri juxtaposes time and space while bringing and blending together Shinto and Buddhist customs, Japanese and foreign dances, regional traditions and multitudes of people. But the visual anthropologist feels the need to show more of the Local Matsuri. The next VAOJ post features Local Matsuri III: Tamago Senbei.


Ashkenazi, Michael. Matsuri: Festivals of a Japanese town. University of Hawaii Press, 1993.

Turner, Victor. “Liminality and Communitas,” in The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: Aldine Publishing, 1969. pp. 94-113, 125-130.

Visual Anthropology of Japan, Local Matsuri I: The Mikoshi, posted July 30, 2013.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Local Matsuri I: The Mikoshi

A festival is like a circus that has spilled out over a whole neighborhood; it brings with it the bitter-sweet feeling that no matter where you contrive to be, you are unavoidably missing most of the fun. A festival is a garden of delights, and part of the joy of it is knowing there is just too much joy abroad for any one person top absorb.

But the most conspicuous activity of the festival centers about the excitement of the street procession
(Sadler 1972:89).

Summer in Japan brings with it many matsuri, or festivals, especially those centered on parading a Shinto deity on a portable shrine, or mikoshi, around the neighborhood that worships at the local shrine. The idea is that the deity can tour the neighborhood and bestow blessings upon the people of the parish (especially those who give contributions along the way). Another important part of the matsuri is the evening activities: food and game stalls are set up near the shrine and within the shrine grounds itself many performances (especially dances) take place.

This last weekend a shrine near my house (but in a different neighborhood) held its annual summer festival. This was another great opportunity for the visual anthropologist to take photos and interact with  the neighbors to learn more about local festival traditions. These traditions vary greatly, even in neighborhoods of close proximity. My own neighborhood holds an autumn festival centered on a danjiri rather than a mikoshi.

Early Sunday afternoon I heard whistles and shouts of wasshoi wasshoi ("to stay with harmony") behind my house. I grabbed my camera and went to meet the street procession. There were two small mikoshi as this neighborhood catered to children's participation. Mothers and older gentlemen from the neighborhood helped the children manage the parade route. As I met them they were about to take a break. I took a few photos before they stopped. Then I intended to leave as I have seen these processions many times. But before I could leave I was approached by an older man who gave me a can of juice. Another man encourage me to take photos of the mikoshi. He then asked me to take a group shot of the participants at the conclusion of the parade an hour later.  So I ended up following the mikoshi through the winding streets while curious participants asked where I was from, what I was doing in Japan and quizzed me on my Japanese language skills. Some children literally poked me in the ribs, wanting to get a feel for the first foreigner they met (!). My foreignness was a mixed blessing. It gave me a reason for being there and taking photos (the assumption being that I had never encountered such cultural practices before in my own country). But at the same time I was treated as an oddity (mostly with politeness but sometimes with jest that some might consider offensive). Very few could understand that I lived close to them for over 8 years and many children couldn't believe I had moved to Japan before they we even born.

There was one encounter with children that was a pleasant surprise. Two elementary school aged girls were asking me about my origins and such. The older girl began making fun of me (as children often tend to do...) and was making broad gestures with her arms. I started to tease her back and asked if she was doing sign language. The the younger girl then signed to me: "Can you do sign language?" It turned out she was hard of hearing and usually wore a hearing aid. She took it out this day because of all the water that was being sprayed on the participants to keep them cool (I had to pay special attention to this activity to protect my camera). She told me she was one of 12 students in a special class for hard of hearing children at her school. We continued chatting in (very basic) sign language until the end of the break, much to the surprise of the adults nearby.

Coordinating the procession on the narrow streets is challenging, especially when other pedestrians and bike riders want to get through.

I usually don't post photos of young kids, but since their parents didn't object, I couldn't resist. Besides, the kids told me that they were disguised as dorobo, or thieves.

And so finally at the end of the procession the group took another break to drink juice and cool down. One of the organizers then announced in his megaphone that all were to assemble so that the American could take their picture. He had to make this same announcement a few times before everyone followed his orders. As the children posed mothers stood in front of them taking their own photos on their smart phones before the organizer told them to get out of the way so I could take the shot. And here it is:

A nice memorial photo for the day... I plan to give this photo along with others I took to the event organizers in digital form so they can distribute it to all the participants.

Below, a different group returns to the shrine after touring their own neighborhood. Sometimes it is difficult to understand where the boarders between neighborhoods are in Japan. Following the mikoshi (or danjiri) gives one a good idea of the boundaries.

I like the portable taiko drum...

It was a busy weekend in the neighborhood, too much to cover in one post. Coming up next on VAOJ... Local Matsuri II: Evening Activities


Center for Regional Sustainable Initiatives Newsletter, No. 3, January 31, 2012.

Matsuri: Festival and Rite in Japanese Life, Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics, Kokugakuin University, 1988.

Sadler, A. W. "Carrying the mikoshi: Further field notes on the shrine festival in modern Tokyo." Asian folklore studies 31.1 (1972): 89-114.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Communist Party Campaigns at Kyobashi Station in Osaka

Sunday is election day in Japan with seats in the upper house up for grabs. Party heads have been traveling throughout Japan to support local candidates. I happened to be at the Kyobashi station in Osaka when Japanese Communist Party President Kazuo Shii was lending his support for local candidate Kotaro Tatsumi. A large crowd had gathered to hear the speeches and show their discontent for the majority coalition (Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito) and the Japan Restoration Party. It was encouraging to hear sane voices and see so many people concerned with politics. If you are eligible to vote in Japan please don't forget to do so on Sunday.

See how the event was covered on Kotaro Tatsumi's web site (in Japanese):

Monday, July 15, 2013

"Unclaimed predisaster photos seek home"

Photo and text from The Japan News, 7/15/13

Hundreds of thousands of photographs were recovered from areas hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, yet most of them still have not been claimed by their owners.

Because many disaster victims are far from having resumed their former lives, the photographs have largely gone unclaimed despite being put on public display. But while the victims have been struggling to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, the visual records of their predisaster memories have been slowly deteriorating.

A team of volunteers has been tasked with holding such treasured belongings until their owners reclaim them. The team has been actively preserving the photos, such as by cleaning and digitizing them.

Yutaro Hashimoto, a 65-year-old tuna fisherman who visited a photo storage center in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, was overjoyed when he found a photo of his grandchild. Clutching the photo in his hand, he said, “I never dreamed that I would ever see this again. I’ll take good care of it.”

All his family members survived the disaster, but his house, which was located in a coastal area, was washed away by the tsunami, leaving behind only its foundation.

His 63-year-old wife, Kazuko, smiled and said, “It’s a blessing that even a single item from our house still remains.”

Self-Defense Forces personnel and volunteers delivered about 100,000 photos recovered from the debris to the storage center, which opened in January last year.

The center also stores other personal items, including trophies, medals, certificates of awards, school bags and professional certificates.

Four full-time staffers have been cleaning the items with ink brushes and other tools. So far, they have taken close-up shots of about 95,000 recovered photos as part of the digitization project. Of them, about 28,000 photos have been returned to their owners.

However, the center sees only one or two visitors a day. Though the volunteers visit meeting places at temporary housing complexes to return photos, only a small number of disaster victims actually visit the storage center.

One of the staffers said: “More than two years after the disaster, there are still many people who can’t think about things like photos yet. There are also people who can’t make it to our center because they are elderly or they live elsewhere.”

On Wednesday, the staffers launched a website where people can search the unclaimed photos.

In Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, about 850,000 photos were recovered. But only about 120,000 of them have been returned to owners.

In many cases, the photos were buried under debris. The city government began a photo restoration project in July last year.

The cleaning and restoration work has been taking place at Omoide no Shashin Dejitaru Kokai Center, located inside a disposal site for disaster waste.

But only 10 to 20 people a month have visited the center.

In Sendai, about 90,000 of more than 250,000 recovered photos were returned.

Omoide-kaeru, a volunteer organization entrusted with the task by the city government, held an exhibition in March at a local facility, putting its collection of photos on display.

The volunteers inserted leaflets about the exhibition in brochures for disaster victims. At the center, volunteers used face recognition software to search for photos containing faces that resemble those of the visitors making inquiries.

During the 11-day exhibition, the volunteers succeeded in finding the owners of about 37,000 photos.

As the organization cannot operate an ongoing exhibition with the subsidies and donations which it receives, the next exhibition has been scheduled for August.

About 500 cardboard boxes containing about 160,000 photos have been stored inside a greenhouse lent free of charge by a farmer.

But the volunteers said the photos have been deteriorating, since the temperature inside the greenhouse tends to be high.

Kaori Nose, 38, the head of the organization, said, “Many disaster victims are still struggling to rebuild their daily lives. Sometime in the future, when it's the right time for them to recall old memories, people will want the photos back. Because of that, we plan to continue our activities.”

Preservation tips

Photos soaked in seawater can easily deteriorate with time.

According to Tokyo-based Fujifilm Corp., which has been helping with photo cleaning and preservation in disaster-hit areas, the surface of lab-printed photos is coated with a layer of industrial-strength gelatin.

The main component of the gelatin is collagen, which is extracted from the bones of cattle and pigs. As bacteria in seawater can break down the gelatin, printed photos may begin to degrade in as little as three to four days.

A company official said, “If a photo has been accidentally soaked in seawater, the best treatment is to wash it in warm water at 20 C to 30 C as soon as possible, and then let it dry in a cool place.”

The company provides detailed instructions on the process on its website.


Sunday, July 14, 2013

"Kids on film"

From The Japan News, 7/12/13:

As the stylishly dressed model flashed a pose, the photographer snapped some shots.

“How about wearing a pair of sunglasses?” the photographer asked.

But this was not a fashion shoot or a photo session for a magazine. The model was a first-grade primary school boy, and he was the star of some commemorative photos to mark the entrance ceremony season, which had already passed.

“Shall we blow some soap bubbles?” the camerawoman said at Life Studio Koshigaya, a photo studio in a warehouse off a national highway in Koshigaya, Saitama Prefecture. Natural light streamed in from large windows, and an old British car sits in the center of the room. There are several corners with different themes, such as an all-white kitchen and a brick wall reminiscent of one perhaps seen in a foreign country.

While moving around the studio, it took about one hour for the photographer to shoot 75 pictures of the boy. During short breaks, he changed his clothes twice.

His 41-year-old mother was delighted with the photos. “It’s a fashionable studio and his photos have a great atmosphere,” she said.

Life Studio has 18 outlets mainly in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Reservations to shoot such personalized photos on weekends are booked up six months in advance.

These photo studios have revolutionized commemorative photography. Many parents are turning to these studies that offer exotic backgrounds and stylish outfits to create expressive images of their children.

Happily Photo Studio located in the Omotesando district of Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, has four studios with different themes, such as romantic or classical settings.

Before it became Happily Photo Studio, it was a rental dress shop. It has about 480 free outfits for children to pose in. Fashionable brand dresses for their mothers are also available. The studio is popular as both children and their mothers can be photographed together in their favorite dresses.

Nagishio Photography Kagurazaka is located in a condominium in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo. Typically, professional cameramen who work for fashion magazines and in other related industries are in charge of children’s commemorative photos. They do not take stock frontal photos but focus on expressive ones from various angles.

New way to keep photos

At conventional photo studios, customers must buy their printed photos. However, some new studios sell the photo data to customers.

For example, Life Studio sells a compact disc containing 70 to 75 shots for 29,400 yen, while Happily Photo Studio sells CDs with 75 shots, starting from 29,800 yen.

Customers at Nagishio Photography Kagurazaka pay 29,400 yen for a one-hour session. The price includes a CD with more than 120 shots.

Each studio offers printed versions for an extra charge.

Kaori Onodera, an editor of the guidebook “Tokyo Photo Studio Guide” from Gap Japan K.K., said: “These new studios are popular because they take a lot of expressive photos in various poses in fashionable settings. Additionally, they sell the data, so customers can easily process them for New Year’s cards or upload them to Facebook. The data format is especially popular with the younger generation.”


See Related: 10 questions to ask your newborn photographer - A mom and professional photographer shares her insights

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

CINEMA TYPHOON @ TKU2013 “Filming ‘Fukushima’: Diverse Memories, Multiple Representations”

This year’s “Cinema Typhoon” will present three films on the theme of people’s memories and filmic representations. Funahashi Atushi’s “Nuclear Nation”, Fujiwara Toshi’s “No Man’s Zone” and Ian Thomas Ash’s “A2″ deal with the ordinary people’s lives and feelings devastated by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station’s accident in March 2011, each of which provokes us to ponder on individual processes in which private memories are transformed into public representations, and representations recreate memories.

Only a short while after the 3.11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear ‘triple disaster’, the first filmmakers ventured to Fukushima and the Tohoku disaster areas to document the devastating effects on people’s lives. Since then, an astonishing array of documentary as well as feature films about the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster has been produced, constituting what has poignantly been called an ‘all-but-instant subgenre’ (D. Lim). Why are so many films made about the Fukushima nuclear disaster? What are the motivations of the filmmakers? In which ways might these films participate in the production of a public ‘Fukushima’ memory? How can they stem forgetting, when ‘disaster fatigue’ has already set in? Do these films affect, or seek to influence, anti-nuclear thinking and movements nationally and internationally? The panel discussion, including the directors Funahashi and Fujiwara, aims to address these and other questions pertinent to the production, screening, and reception of films concerned with the social consequences of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The discussion will be complemented with screening a small but fine selection of relevant films.Suggested Film Screenings (all of these available with English subtitles):Nuclear Nation/Futaba kara tōku hanarete (dir. Funahashi Atsushi)No Man’s Zone/Mujin chitai (dir. Fujiwara Toshi)Fukushima: Memories of the Lost Landscape/Sōma Kanka (dir. Matsubayashi Jojyu)Odayaka na nichijō (dir. Uchida Nobuteru)[Language: English and Japanese]

Dates: July 13-14, 2013
Place: Room B201 in Bldg. 2 at Tokyo Keizai Daigaku Access Map:
Campus Map:

For more details:

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Depicting the World of Kamuy - Portraits of the Ainu - Talk by Makiko Ui

Makiko Ui is a Tokyo-based photographer who has been pursuing the lives of the Ainu of Japan, an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion and culture. Striving to capture the forgotten lives of the Ainu for 20 years, Ui’s ethnographic photographs act as captivating yet sensitive accounts of the history and people, and have led her to receive the ‘Special Photographer Award’ for her exhibition and book ‘Ainu: Portrait of the Wind’ at the 28th Higashikawa Awards.

In this special illustrative talk, Ui will talk about her exclusive passion towards the Ainu as a subject matter and what she aims to achieve through documenting its people and culture. Joined in conversation with Dr Ricardo Leizaola, Department of Anthropology, Goldsmiths, University of London, they will also explore the various issues in dealing with, as a photographer, non-posing subjects which could be socially and ethnically marginalized, and to what degree these acts of documenting can be shared with an anthropological approach.

Date: 30 July 2013, 6:00 PM Venue: The Japan Foundation, London Russell Square House, 10-12 Russell Square, London WC1B 5EH

This event is free to attend but booking is essential. To reserve a place, please email your name and the title of the event you would like to attend to

An exhibition of Makiko Ui’s work ‘Ainu, Portrait of the Wind’ will be held at the National Geographic London Store from 27 July 2013 to 27 August 2013. For further details, please visit