The Real Japan


Omiuri is the biggest shimbun (daily newspaper) in Japan. In fact, with a national morning circulation of 10,300,000, it’s the largest daily in the world. Larger than the New York Times. Larger than Pravda. Larger than Asahi. So when Yomiuri sends out a show called “50 Years of Photography in Japan: 1951-2001,” you can believe it’s got a huge supply of photos to choose from.

According to Ken Light of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism Center for Photography, the massive news organization wanted to help the university contribute to the celebrations surrounding the fiftieth anniversary of the US-Japan peace treaty. “The journalism school has had close ties with Yomiuri for a long time,” says Light. “The last few years, they’ve sent a teaching fellow to Cal. So when this photo exhibit idea first came up, they literally shipped us fifty years’ worth of photo yearbooks in crates. I went through them all and made my selections, then they went back and actually pulled the negatives and made the prints to order.” Light’s choices — some fifty original prints — are on display in the corridors of UCB’s North Gate Hall (near the corner of Hearst and Euclid; 510-642-3383) through November 5.

“From our point of view,” insists Light, “the main reason for this show is that it’s a whole different world, and we’re just not conscious of Japan.” Certainly the beautiful black-and-white images, some grainy and newsreelish, a few museum-quality artistic, don’t conform much to common American stereotypes of Japanese life. Also, there are no photo credits.

In one, boxer Muhammad Ali is shown getting out of the way of a sweeping leg kick by professional wrestler Antonio Inoki, in an obvious publicity match sometime in 1976. An aerial shot shows a massive hole in the ground in western Nagano prefecture, with houses teetering on the edge, the results of a 1984 earthquake. A man, caught up in the imported craze for hula-hoops in 1958, tries unsuccessfully to make one spin around his neck. And Japanese youths seem unable to resist Western fads and fashions — witness the punk hairstyles on display in Tokyo’s Harajuku district or the stage antics of a rockabilly band in the provinces.

The most dramatic shots in the show are the ones weighted with violent history. In 1974, 51-year-old 2nd Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda finally returns to his homeland after hiding in the Philippines for 26 years, waiting for his commanding officer’s order to demobilize. The dutiful Imperial Army officer’s uniform is patched but neat, his sword covered. Then there’s the famous photo of author/playwright/militarist Yukio Mishima gesturing dramatically from the balcony of the Self-Defense Forces Headquarters, which he and members of his private army forcibly occupied one day in 1970. The caption informs us that the service personnel below jeered at Mishima, who responded by committing seppuku in protest of what he saw as Japan’s weakened military might. Says curator Light of assembling the extraordinary photo show, “We tried to create order out of chaos.” Successfully. This concise exhibit speaks volumes.

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