volume 38, number 5
Temple UniversityFaculty Herald

Visual Anthropologists Take on Japanese Visual Culture
Richard Chalfen and Lindsey Powell, Temple University Japan, Tokyo

Richard Chalfen,
Temple University Japan, Tokyo







Summer sessions offer faculty exciting opportunities to lead by example, to demonstrate the value of cultural comparisons and to emphasize learning in international contexts. In the following pages we offer a model of summer training in the Visual Social Sciences, one that could be duplicated and adapted to a variety of countries and alternative settings.

Between May 14 and June 22, 2007 the fourth Summer Workshop on Japanese Visual Culture was held at Temple’s Japan campus, located in the Minami-Azabu section of Tokyo. This six-week program was first introduced in 2004 as a “field version” of two regularly offered courses entitled: “The Visual Anthropology of Modern Japan” (Chalfen) and “Anthropological Problems in Visual Production” (Powell). Both were then part of the Anthropology of Visual Communication Program at Temple-Philadelphia. Between six and ten students have enrolled each summer, coming from such schools as Temple, Penn, Yale, UConn, University of Illinois, Evergreen College, Reed College, Loyola Marymount, Lewis and Clark among several others, and from such majors as East Asian Studies, Anthropology, Art History, Journalism, History, Communications, Advertising as well as the Studio Arts. Students earned six academic credits for their work, available on either undergraduate or graduate levels. The curriculum has been taught jointly by Richard Chalfen (Emeritus Temple and now The Center on Media and Child Health) and Lindsey Powell (Temple and Arcadia University), both of whom have lived, studied, and taught anthropology courses in Japan, and both have been undertaking original research and publishing results on different aspects of Japanese visual culture.

Students stayed in Temple dorms, pre-arranged home stays, or, for the two Japanese students, their families. All students were required to bring a digital camera (still or video) to Tokyo, and all were advised that having a laptop computer would facilitate their work. Students have access to the full range of university activities and facilities including visiting lectures and events (film screenings, sake tasting, earthquake exercises, clubs, social events), a comprehensive library (probably the best English-language library in Japan), selective presentations in on-going courses at TUJ and a growing student body of Japanese and international students. In short they are connected to an active program of academic courses, lectures, and studies at TUJ.


After a General Orientation to TUJ over the weekend, classroom sessions are scheduled for 8:30–2:00, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and are supplemented by untold hours devoted to field trips and fieldwork. The three-hour morning sessions are lecture-discussions devoted to theoretical and methodological issues of visual research with specific reference to Japanese society and culture. Key texts for the morning sessions include Joy Hendry’s Wrapping Culture: Politeness, Presentation and Power in Japan (1995), Donald Richie’s The Image Factory (2003), Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows (1980 [1933]), Takashi Fujitani’s Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan (1996) and Kelts’s Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has invaded the West (2006).

Afternoon sessions focused on questions and practice of visual production, emphasizing stills or video, connections and applications to ethnographic film, posters, PowerPoint presentations, CD-ROMs and DVDs, game software, manga, animation, web display, “zines,” among others. Other topics explored models of production, connections between camera style, editing, subtitling, and voice-over and the major perspectives and methods of the social sciences, as well as the political economy of distribution.

Special emphasis was given to doing participant observation and ethnography with recording equipment, ethical issues in general and those particular to Japan, problematic visualizations of qualitative observations, converting data into imagery, variable interpretations of visual/pictorial phenomena, looking for patterns in visual research for both field data and found data, among others. This second course used Barbash’s and Taylor’s Cross-Cultural Filmmaking: A Handbook for Making Documentary and Ethnographic Films and Videos (1997) and Nagatomo’s Draw Your Own Manga: All the Basics (2003). Screenings of ethnographic and feature films relevant to Japan are part of both sessions.

Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends have been reserved for explorations of visual culture in and around Tokyo using a camera. Over the past summers, trips included visits to syllabus-related locations such as the Imperial Procession route, museums (the Edo-Tokyo Museum, Tokyo National Museum, Yushukan War Museum, the Studio Ghibli Anime Museum featuring Miyazaki Hayao, the Mori Art Museum), gardens (Imperial Palace and Garden, Koishikawa Korakuen Neo-Confucian garden, Ueno Garden), professional media production facilities (NHK Studio Park, Sony Media World, Hakuhodo/Dentsu Advertising firms), significant temples and shrines (Meiji, Hie, Asakusu, Yasukuni Shinto shrines, Engakuji, Meigetsuin, Zenpakuji, Daibutsu, Asakusa Buddhist temples in Tokyo and Kamakura) sometimes including cemeteries and even flea markets (Togo Shrine in Harajuku).

Koto performance documented in “Wooden Dragon” student project by Sean Hamilton

In addition to classroom and lab work, the production course takes place in the field through interaction with the students on group and individual bases at fieldtrip sites on such topics as: choosing subjects, positions, angle, focal length, available lighting, sound, foreground/background and focus, movement (how to walk sideways and backwards with a camera, how to squat and remain steady) and interaction with subjects (how to say, “May I photograph you?”) among many others. At each stage we discuss the relationships between the choices we make and social science discourse focusing on how effective a choice is in furthering our social scientific goals.

The Program also included lectures at both Sophia University and International Christian University, trips to the Grand Sumo Summer Basho, several Matsuri (festivals), SuperDeluxe (a Roppongi multimedia club), a professional baseball game, several art galleries, Print Club shops, Landmark Tower and Chinatown in Yokohama (including a guided tour of the foreign ghetto), traditional Japanese Cultural performances and folk craft demonstrations (Koto, shamisen, Archery, Sword, Taiko drumming, traditional cuisine, Tsukiji Fish Market as well as The Pacific Culture Club).

Perspective and Course Work

Descriptions and illustrations of six examples of student work produced during our summer sessions can be found in Paley Library in the journal, Visual Studies 22(3): 301–313 (2007).

Click here for more information about student projects:

The Index of the Maiko by Anabelle Rodriguez (2004)

Ganguro by Nina Koch (2007)

Wooden Dragon by Sean Hamilton (2007)

Keiko’s Shudo by Courtney Stoll (2005)

Bicycles in Japan by Naoko Wada (2007)

Tokyo Subway Art Project by Michelle Kort (2007)

Given that much of culture study is visual, our approach has been to address the general and intentionally ambiguous phrase: “How People Look.” This introduces a coordinated effort to examine (a) the visually symbolic systems that comprise and support everyday life, and (b) relationships of appearance and perspective, of how people from various societies across the globe wish to be seen and how they prefer to see the world. Once students begin to detect patterns in how the Japanese people “look,” we examine the ways in which individuals and groups go about visual practices in their public and private lives, that is, how they wield the elements of the symbolic system that we think we detect, not in passive ways, but to make their way in the world and achieve certain ends. Attention is focused, with the reinforcing experiences of fieldtrips and observation exercises, on how the objects, images, sounds, tastes, smells, and textures we encounter in Japan are designed and function to mediate individual or group agency within complex nexuses of social relationships. Things circulated to manipulate the senses of others are focused on as types of magical and animated technologies produced to advance the social agency of the creators in relation to the recipients of the charms. The summer program explored this multi-pronged approach to the visual culture of Japan.

“Tokyo Subway Art “
Student Project by  Michelle Kort

We asked students to monitor their own ways and means of entering a culture visually and subtly make comparisons to linguistic avenues of learning what’s going on. One key objective has been to develop a feeling that every waking moment is of value—to follow a familiar communication adage: Nothing Never Happens or One Cannot Not Communicate. Stepping out the front door, walking neighborhoods, being confronted with public directives (signs indicating rights and wrongs), otherwise examining the features of the symbolic and built environment are always worthy of inspection and reflection. In short, we are not convinced one needs to travel to Kyoto to gain a meaningful sense of Japanese culture. In this way of thinking, a fieldtrip can be re-conceptualized and recognized as a trip to the local convenience store (Lawsons, the Daily, 7–11, Sunkus and the like) or a walk down a shopping street (Omotesando, Shibuya, or the Ginza). Weekly in-class reviews of observation sessions provided many examples for continued discussion.

In tandem, we emphasized taking the understanding of visual culture “out of the studio and into the street.” The visual culture we were exploring was not limited to a myopic focus on such mass media and popular culture topics as Japanese film (Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi), on classic art forms (Ukiyo-e prints, scrolls), Manga, tattooing and the like—it could equally focus on street signs, pictorial warning images, subway art, photo-stickers, cell-phone photographs, graffiti, costume-play, noran (door curtain) design just to mention a few. Themes of visual representation, expression, communication, and action were repeatedly stressed throughout the six weeks.

Weekly written exams given in past summers were replaced by the current primary assignment, namely making a daily photo-journal for the entire six-week period. Students were encouraged to carry a camera throughout their time in Tokyo, to actively make photographs every day and to review and study what they had done on a regular daily basis. Such a task is relevant on three fronts: virtually all anthropological fieldwork includes and indeed requires some form of journal-writing; diary-writing is well entrenched in Japanese habits; and amateur photography is a very common activity. Student photo-journals must contain an integration of verbal/written and visual/pictorial components to accomplish several important objectives, namely: 1) enacting different models of observation, 2) practicing how to speak and write about images in social scientific ways, 3) demonstrating/acknowledging that they have discovered connections between class lectures, discussions, and readings, 4) developing skills at making ethnographic films and photographs.

More specifically, each journal-day must contain a minimum of five (5) photographs accompanied by well-considered commentary. Students are required to use their pictures both to answer questions and to provoke new ones—in ways they write the text, but also in ways that their text writes them. Throughout, the students were guided by an interrogatory stance of the visual sociologist grounded in Howard Becker’s “What question is this photograph an answer to?” They are meant to establish an active discourse between themselves, their observations, pictures, insights, and visible components of Japanese environment and society, demonstrating an enhanced and sophisticated curiosity. Journals are reviewed by both instructors once each week, supplying each student with abundant comments for discussion and improvement.

These photo-journals serve as a building block for additional required course-work. During the fourth week, students were asked to review their entire collections and find themes that had been either intentionally or unintentionally highlighted, and then select one or two that they could examine in greater depth for the final two weeks of journal entries. A reconceptualization and refinement of one theme in conjunction with course materials (e.g. readings, lectures, fieldtrips) was then to become the topic of their final class presentation and photo-essay.

Second and in addition, students were asked to consider a journal theme for their production work, requiring the writing of a project proposal and treatment, production schedule, and a verbal description of the imagined finished piece to come. In this way the two courses were connected through more than just fieldtrips. In the spirit of the anthropological process of fieldwork (participant observation, in this case with a camera), journalizing (field notes and recordings), and production, we required the students to simulate in a small way the larger process of anthropology: the feedback loop between fieldwork, journalizing, evaluation and reflection on one’s experiences; the development of both a theoretical framework and a technological platform for the final dissemination of one’s findings; and then starting on a new cycle once the piece is circulated for some time and feedback from others and self-evaluation accumulate.

Third, the journal serves as a platform which the students carry home that can be a jumping off point for future coursework integrating first-hand data-gathering. From previous years’ programs several students have contacted us months, even years later, to acknowledge how valuable their visual records were for them, often leading to new insights into Japanese culture long after the immediate memory has grown cold. Though the long-term benefits are promised, the immediate benefits are proclaimed; primarily, the intention of the journal rests on the important premise that recording experiences and then writing them up on a daily basis is most useful at the moment it is done: why this picture was taken and not that, who these people were, what were they doing, and why it was an important shot to take—are themselves aspects of immediate reflection and focusing that generate an evolving inner dialogue about visual culture and ones place in it. The journal becomes a sketch pad from which to develop a final project, training the eye to see new things, to verbalize how ones images are working or not working, and to develop strategies to ensure a positively received final ethnographic film or other type of presentation in the end.

“The Index of the Maiko,” student project by Anabelle Rodriguez

The final projects for the production courses have taken many forms throughout the four years (30+ students). Many students opt to make short ethnographic-like films. Though it is impossible to complete an ethnographic film in two weeks, and we discuss the reasons why, many of the students do well by making short event films or portions of longer ethnographic films. For example, one student arranged to be dressed up as a Maiko (Geisha in Training) at a professional photo studio and then worked with another student to film the process from start to finish including discussions of the different elements of the garments, make-up, wig, and accessories with staff and other patrons as they chose each element according to season, personality, tradition, state of mind, and were guided into various poses, expressions, and gestures (with traditional kasa umbrella, fans) by a professional photographer.

Other than video, successful projects included a “zine,” a self-published magazine (using color laser printing which the school provides for a small per-page fee) which mixed hand-written and typed text (English and Japanese), original hand-drawn manga (cartoon images), magazine and other found-object clippings (chopstick covers, free tissue packets), scanned images from manga books, magazines, and other printed sources (album covers and flyers, newspapers), photographs, and design artwork. It explored and theorized the complex interplay between graffiti and popular culture in Japan and the West. The zine was distributed to a number of popular hangouts of interested youth in various parts of the city as well as to class members, friends, and others at the school.

The 2006 summer program included three art students studying to be professional illustrators in Los Angeles (Loyola Marymount). Much of their work was submitted in manga art form. For example, one student depicted herself doing actual fieldwork but as a cartoon character entering into the strange world of “hentai” comics (erotic adult cartoons). The manga format resolved many of the issues of ethics surrounding depicting her interactions doing fieldwork of this kind using a camera while additionally allowing for aspects of social setting and interaction to be highlighted through exaggeration and a new set of conventions. Depicting fieldwork in this way was novel and had discernible benefits we all discussed. Another student contributed a short anime (animated movie) as an exercise, hand-drawn, with the added aspect of actual motion, rather than suggested motion using slashes or blurring used in the manga format, an additional tool in the visual anthropologist’s kit. How these manga and anime “visual tricks of the trade” were derived upon and have been maintained in Japan and the West was one of the foci of the course and readings.

The final day of the program consisted of student presentations and critiques. Each student was required to give two 20-minute presentations before the group and instructors. The morning session was devoted to critiques of PowerPoint presentations highlighting the journal projects and photo-essays. The students began each presentation with an overall survey of the journal including highlights from the various areas of exploration. Then the students narrated their reflections on finding themes, for example, social control, “cuteness,” the use of portable electronics in public spaces, handheld gaming devices like the Sony PSP and Nintendo DS, cellular phones, digital cameras, the feminization of the Japanese male, Cool Japan, monumental art among others. The presentations climaxed with an overview of the final photo-essays completed for the course. These focused on one theme or topic and were meant to be small portions of larger ethnographies or anthropological texts. Topics often corresponded to the final projects in the production course, as well, but several students chose to modify their projects, expand or contract them, or choose additional topics to explore.

An exploration of blackface in Japan: “Ganguro” student project by Nina Koch

The second round of presentations highlighted the students’ final projects for the production course. As mentioned, many of these took the shape of ethnographic films. The classrooms at Temple’s Japan Campus are “smart-rooms” equipped with projection equipment for a variety of formats including DVD, CD-ROM, Mini-DV, VHS, MPEG, Quicktime, PowerPoint, among others. The lights were dimmed, and we watched the films after short introductions by the students. Students were required to discuss their work, the pitfalls, and successes along the path to completion, and to respond to student and instructor questions and criticisms. It should be noted that extensive lab work was conducted throughout the course, especially in the final weeks. One of the positive and essential aspects of having a small number of students is that the instructors can work one-on-one with each student as they master technical issues involving PowerPoint, Windows Movie Maker, i-movie, Adobe Premiere and Aftereffects, Final Cut, Macromedia Flash, Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and the like (there are computers on campus that the students can use, though many opt to edit on their own laptops). After the final thoughts on the program, course, and fieldtrip evaluations, we often ended with a karaoke party and some sharing of our work with other students and faculty at Japan Campus.

We also suggested that results of this project may be reconstituted into a web page, or posted to important file sharing websites like video podcast, YouTube, personal blogs, and Flickr. Many of the students have continued to maintain the sites created for the program, another testament to its value. Grades for the first course are based on periodic photo exercises, the journal, the final paper/presentation, and class/field trip participation. Grades for the production course are based on the major assignment (50%), an ethnographic media product in an appropriate format for the subject; the proposals, treatments, and verbal descriptions of their pieces; periodic exercises and quizzes (if necessary); and class participation, consisting of attendance and participation in fieldtrips, exercises, and discussions.

Final Thoughts

Teaching this summer session in Japan has proved to be a rewarding experience for us; we find a new sense of enlightenment every day. Tokyo and Japan in general could not provide us with a better location for the study of visual culture. We believe our students have participated in a unique experience that will endure in their learning histories and cumulative understanding of what it means to be educated.


1 Parts of this article appeared as “A Summer Workshop in Japanese Visual Culture” in Visual Studies 22(3): 301–313 (2007)

2 This six-week session was sponsored by Temple’s International Studies Office located on the Main Campus in Philadelphia. Started 25 years ago as the Japan Campus of Temple University, the school offers undergraduate and graduate degrees. TUJ is the only American university recognized as such by the Japanese government. The school supports four Summer Workshops as well as a full-length, 11-week summer semester; our Japanese Visual Culture program is one such Workshop.