Laurie’s about to go into the darkroom and start creating final prints from her trip to Japan last winter. She’ll be putting up “notes from the darkroom” here on a regular basis.
We thought it might be useful to expand the project information elsewhere on the website with a more detailed history and context.
The two of us went to Japan first in 1996, when ten Women En Large photographs were included in a ground-breaking gender show at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. On that trip, we met amazing women: smart, passionate feminists. While the official wisdom is that Japan is a very homogeneous culture, neither of us experienced it that way. Laurie’s photographer’s eye, accustomed to the extraordinarily visually diverse culture of the United States, was struck by the visual diversity in Japan. And as is true in the U.S., the visual diversity there is (of course) a reflection of the complex intertwining of history and culture in people’s lives.
This initial observation morphed into what was to be a small project exploring issues of beauty and identity in Japan. Throughout, we have worked with a remarkable group of feminists–it’s very important that we are working as part of a larger group, in the context of work being done in Japan. Our projects all rely on community feedback and involvement from the beginning. It has now grown to be as large a project as either Women En Large or Familiar Men.
As far as beauty is concerned, the image of “acceptable beauty” in Japan is far narrower than it is in the U.S. Women we would consider thin are the “before” pictures in the diet ads. The concept of “Christmas cake” (if you’re not married by 25, you’re stale) is universally known. At the same time, again as is true here, many people are working to change the stereotypes and open up the definitions of beauty. The issues they confront are similar to ours in many ways, and dissimilar in others.
Talking about Japanese identity is extremely complex and anything we can possibly say, especially in a brief blog entry, is far too simplistic. Coming from the U.S., we found that concepts of Japanese identity were very different from what we were used to. As part of the myth that the Japanese culture is homogeneous, large groups of people are defined as “not Japanese.” Some of these groups, like the buraku (“untouchables”), the Okinawans, and the “first nations” Ainu can vote and have citizenship privileges despite their outsider status. Others, like ethnic Koreans, Chinese, and Brazilians, although their families may have been in Japan for generations, have foreigners’ papers and no citizens’ rights. (Many European countries have similar definitions and issues with national identity.) As with body image and beauty, a great deal of work is being done by passionate Japanese people to make change.
The Women of Japan project hopes to use our signature combination of portrait photographs and texts to expand the context of what is beautiful and to create a space for the discussion of what it means to be Japanese. Laurie will be working intensely to finish the final printing on the project in 2006.