AAS Annual Meeting

Japan Session 495

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Session 495: The Photographed Body in Meiji Visual Culture

Organizer: Karen Fraser, Santa Clara University, USA

Chair: Angus Lockyer, SOAS, University of London, United Kingdom

Discussant: Angus Lockyer, SOAS, University of London, United Kingdom

Meiji-era rhetoric frequently positioned the body as a site of transformation and cultural negotiation during the late 19th century. As part of the ideological process of transforming Japanese people into modern subjects, many of the changes decreed by the Meiji government directly affected the body. Government dictates shaped dress and hairstyle of commoner and emperor alike; Western hygiene and medicine transformed traditional conceptions of the body; and military conscription implemented state control over enlisted bodies. At the same time, new photographic technology provided an unprecedented means of documenting and recording bodily representation, allowing for the widespread reproduction and circulation of images believed to accurately capture truthful depictions of visual form. Photographs captured the bodily representations of a wide range of subjects--the famous (the Meiji Emperor, courtesans and actors), the exotic (naked women and the native people of Ogasawara) and the photographers themselves—marking the faces and bodies of the photographed as a site of identity construction and viewer's desire. By examining various manifestations of photographed bodies in Meiji Japan, this panel seeks to address not only the historical and cultural processes of constructing and imparting the meanings of the photographed body, but also the problems and tensions that these materials of represented bodies encompass as a set of legible codes of identity construction and deduction. Papers will consider the ritual culture surrounding imperial photographs, the construction of a modern female sexualized body in pornographic photos, the ways in which images of internal others were created, and the constructions of self revealed by photographers' self-portraiture.

Portrait of Emperor Meiji: Japan’s First Imperial Icon
Yuki Morishima, Asian Art Museum, Japan

This paper analyzes how the Meiji government successfully formed a ritual culture around the photographic portrait of Emperor Meiji to use it as a device of propaganda. Restricted circulation and ritualistic usage of the portrait elucidates how the government transformed the imperial portrait into an object of worship. The portrait’s ritualistic meanings and effects were created in the closely controlled distribution process of the imperial image by the government to the general public. Because mass production and easy access could destroy uniqueness and authenticity of a photograph, having control over the gaze of a mass audience was crucial to establishing and maintaining the sacredness of the image. It was never compulsory to have a photograph of Emperor Meiji, but rather it was voluntary via a request to the government. This rather slow distribution and limited access made the possession of Emperor Meiji’s portrait prestigious. This paper will then examine how the government successfully created state rituals using the imperial portraits. To make the portrait a sacred object, the process of receiving it became ceremonial. By referring to a case of Matsumoto Jinjō Elementary School, this paper elucidates how those rituals elevated the imperial portrait. The careful and ritualistic handlings of the portrait successfully kept the photograph from becoming proletariat and demystified. The complexity of this ceremony illustrates that the people equated the portrait with the physical body of the Emperor, not just as a mere photo representation of the Emperor.

The Modern Japanese Venus: Gender and Visuality in Meiji Pornography
Maria Ibari Ortega Dominguez, Independent Scholar, Mexico

This paper considers visual representations of female nudity in pornographic photographs within the historical context of Meiji-era Japan (1868-1912). Taking the visual economy of commercial photography in Japan as a point of departure, I examine the production and consumption of erotic photographic representations of Japanese women as the object of sexual imaginaries and fantasies during the emergence of the modern era. By challenging the dichotomy between the “real” and the “imagined” female body, I argue that both conceptions were conceived as part of the same social construct of gender and visuality within Meiji-era photography. The paper examines the continuities and disruption of pornographic photography compared to the pre-existing libidinal tradition of shunga to establish an iconographic analysis of modern Japanese pornography, and also considers Western pictorial and literary representations of Aphrodites and Salomes to provide another possible visual genealogy for these new decadent Japanese Venuses. Ultimately this paper argues that the relationship between photographic images and ideas of fantasy and obscenity gave shape to a particular conception of “Japanese woman” seen through an Orientalist gaze that was conceived not only from the Western experience but also within the Japanese interpretation of Orientalism. This dialectical relationship produced a particular idea of female corporality and sexuality during this period, ultimately producing a modern female sexualized body in pornography. This paper examines this specific theoretical framework through the visual analysis of a corpus of sexual explicit images of Japanese women produced between the years 1860 and 1912.

“Foreigners” or “Pioneer Settlers”? Non-Japanese Subjects in Early Japanese Postcards of the Ogasawara Islands
David Odo, Harvard Art Museum, USA

Early twentieth-century photographic postcards have an important but underexplored place in modern Japanese visual culture and even within the history of Japanese photography. This paper examines postcards of the Ogasawara Islands as objects that exceeded their original purpose as tourist commodities and simultaneously became markers of both remoteness from and inclusion within the complicated continuum of identities in imperial Japan. In addition to the expected tourist subjects of beautiful land- and seascapes, portraits of “foreigners” were also comprised popular images for these postcards. The Islands were home to a settler population that pre-dated Japanese colonization (in the 1870s) of the Pacific archipelago. These settlers were of Euro-Americans, Polynesians and other non-Japanese original, and many were naturalized Japanese subjects. In one guise, these so-called foreigners—who were actually the original inhabitants of the islands but certainly not “Japanese”—were exotic subjects who provided a cosmopolitan flavor to a modern possession of the Japanese empire. In another figuration, they were “pioneer settlers,” a term that acknowledged their status as first settlers of the islands. In yet another formulation, they were “naturalized” Japanese subjects, taking their place within an evolving imperial order. This paper examines the various ways in which postcards used photographic images of these problematic foreign/pioneer/naturalized bodies in an attempt to contain and control their otherness, package it for touristic consumption, or create a visual space in which they could simultaneously exist as foreign yet Japanese.

Constructing the Artist: Self-Portraiture in Early Japanese Photography
Karen Fraser, Santa Clara University, USA

This paper examines the photographed body as a locus for constructions of self revealed through the genre of self-portraiture. Artistic motivations for making self-portraits have varied widely, ranging from investigating new techniques and creating an introspective reflection of inner psychological truth to producing images designed for self-promotion. Although many early Japanese photographers used themselves as subjects of photographs, two artists in particular stand out for their innovation in capturing their own physical forms. Yokoyama Matsusaburo (1838-1884) and Ueno Hikoma (1838-1904) each produced a variety of inventive self-portraits that spanned the lengths of their respective careers. But the ways in which they focused on their own bodily representation were quite different. Their attitudes towards self-portraiture reflect two opposing conceptions of photography in its initial years: while Ueno's self-portraiture embodied photography as a commercial enterprise, Yokoyama constructed a more creative and artistic persona in his self-portraiture. This paper explores the links between their particular styles of self-representation and their roles within early photography, considering why they created self-portraits, who their intended audiences were, and the visual strategies deployed by each to cultivate a deliberate identity through imaging his own face and body.