Transgression in Japan and the US
Laurie Toby Edison

This August, 70 of my photographs from Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes, 20 from Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes, and 10 clothed photographic portraits from Women of Japan were exhibited in the National Museum of Art in Osaka, Japan. This was my fourth trip to Japan, and I am beginning to see some very interesting differences between Japanese and American perceptions of transgression.

For instance, full frontal nudity, especially of men, is far more transgressive in Japan than in the US. A leading museum curator told me that, in fact, penis views are illegal, and the curator of the Osaka exhibit was taking a big risk. The Japanese are even more fat-phobic as we are, and have standards of female beauty as narrow as ours, so the fat nudes are more or less equally transgressive in both countries. On the other hand, the Japanese place more value on the role of fine art, so the artistic quality of the photographs affects the Japanese response more than it does the American response.

I make a point of diversity among my photographs - gender, class, race, size, ability. In the US, the range startles people - even discomfits some - but we define ourselves as a diverse people. Most Japanese, on the other hand, either see the American diverse nudes as exotic or perceive the commonalities that transcend boundaries, but they do not perceive transgression, perhaps because it's not about themselves.

On the other hand, because most Japanese see themselves as a homogenous people, many of them find Women of Japan transgressive on a level which is foreign to most Americans. The photo essay so far includes a woman of Korean ancestry (third generation in Japan), a bicultural American who lives in Japan, and at least one woman of ethnic Japanese ancestry who does not "look" Japanese. To many, this is transgressive and profoundly unsettling.

In general, the Japanese have far more personal exposure to same-gender nakedness (public baths, etc.) than we do. In particular, many Americans are unsettled by pictures of men nude together. In this country, many people have trouble configuring my picture of a nude 92-year-old grandfather with his nude 33-year-old grandson; they ask "Are they lovers?" In Japan, this is completely acceptable. On the other hand, in Japan they draw much sharper distinctions between what "respectable" (i.e. "real" people) can be expected to do and what models are expected to do, so public photographic nude portraits are far more shocking. In this country, it is not astonishing to hear that an author, an artist, or a sports figure has posed nude; in Japan it is unheard of.

On the other hand, displaying photographs of nudes to children is far more transgressive in the United States. The government-sponsored museum arranged for me to lead a gallery tour of the exhibit, and accompanying workshop for children (6-12). The childrenâs parents accompanied the children for the gallery tour and observed the workshop. They were delighted with both. A similar tour would have been completely impossible in the US.

The two cultures differ in so many ways that it's not surprising that transgressions vary. But I find it interesting to look at the specific differences, and I always enjoy hearing the reactions of people from differing cultures to my photographs.

Laurie Toby Edison
P.O. Box 77370
San Francisco, CA 94107
Email: Laurie Toby Edison

Last Update
July 26, 2002

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