Hagiwara Hiroko: Pictures of Diversity?

Hagiwara Hiroko has recently written an introduction to Women of Japan.   A dean and professor at Osaka Prefecture University, she is a feminist scholar and activist who who has written extensively on issues of gender, race, art and history in the context of cultural and women’s studies.

As one of the first women I photographed for the Women of Japan project, she was involved from the beginning.  She came on several shoots to translate and to thoughtfully participate in the process.  Our conversations over the years about the concepts involved in the project were invaluable in shaping it.  As part of the project’s Models Words texts she wrote this about being photographed.

She has recently written an introduction to Women of Japan,  Pictures of Diversity? (Both the English and Japanese are on the site).

The quotes below from her essay reflect her thoughts about the project on issues of diversity and multiculturalism.

Women of Japan is a series of forty black and white photographs of women from different backgrounds taken by the American photographer Laurie Toby Edison during her three visits to Japan from 1998 to 2007. The title Women of Japan was chosen as a counter-framework to the phrase ‘Japanese women.’ The photographer intends to resist the idea that women who are of ‘this society’ are ‘real, native and authentic Japanese women endowed with essential characteristics guaranteed by blood and culture, and who have the legal status of the Japanese national.’

…The women in Edison’s photographs are from diverse backgrounds. There are Korean, American, Ainu, Okinawan women and women from ‘Buraku’ area s which are the target of ongoing discrimination. Their cultural backgrounds and their legal status are different. They are of different generations, ranging from their twenties to nineties. They have different occupations such as dancer, teacher, politician, artist, writer, truck driver, scholar, and student. Their concerns and passions are also diverse. They have different standpoints on femininity and being a woman. They are all socially positioned as women but viewers of these works will first of all be impressed with the diversity of women in Women of Japan.

The concept of diversity, however, is not as simple as it looks, and is not easy for any photographer to represent. Edison reached every model through the networks of various women’s communities. Many of the models were introduced or recommended by someone who had posed for Edison. It was a laborious but pleasurable process for the photographer, who speaks little Japanese, to get acquainted with women from various communities in Japan. Nothing was planned for the shoots; one encounter led to another in the process of creating the series.

…Since the 1980s, when people’s mobility across borders accelerated and grew constant on the global level and highly industrialized societies became undeniably multicultural, the word ‘cultural diversity’ has been often used to represent an affirmative attitude towards the situation. Japanese society has not yet acknowledged the constant presence of foreigners in society as components of a joyous diversity. Nevertheless, no one can deny that people from diverse backgrounds work and live in Japan. People know that there are those from Japan’s ex-colonies such as Korea and China, and Japanese-Brazilians, Americans, Filippinos, Iranians, Russians, Nigerians, and Bengalis to name a few. The word ‘multiculturalism’ is normally used in the context in which such multitudes must be favorably welcome and encouraged. I want to question whether Edison’s work Women of Japan can be positioned in that context.If we examine this question carefully, the answer in my view is ‘no.’ Multiculturalism is based on the assumption that each culture comprising the multitude is static and homogeneous and that multicultural society is a mosaic made of such individual components. Women in Edison’s photographs, however, are not representative of their communities. Some models wear their national costume, but they are not here as national representatives. Other models, who share a national origin or community, are in plain dress. Only one woman is in Kimono, which is generally supposed to be the Japanese national costume. Her adornment represents not Japaneseness but herself. Edison’s Women of Japan are not meant to be specimens in an ethnological museum. Cultures are fluid and always mingling to generate something new. While the legal system tries to demarcate the border, to maintain homogeneity within the borderline, and to exclude the extraneous that looks uncontrollable, people meet and cultures mix. People’s cultural identities become hybridized. The words ‘multi’ and ‘multiple’ are based on the idea of countability. Edison’s photographs convey that this is a site of exchange and mingling of people and cultures and that diverse women, whose physical expressions and postures are inscribed with this experience, live in Japan.

Women of Japan photos are here.  The front photo is of Hagiwara Hiroko and her best friend Fukazawa Junko.