DARE TO ASK: Are the Japanese obsessed with being in
By PHILLIP MILANO, The Times-Union
I have been many places in the world. On several occasions, Japanese people
have asked me to snap a picture of them. Be it at the Grand Canyon, Pompeii or
Tulum, I am handed a camera and take a picture of them standing in front of the
attraction. What is this obsession with self?
John, 48, Cincinnati
It's to show that you were there and enjoyed yourself. I don't think it's
Krista Y., 23, Nagoya, Japan
I am Filipino. My mother says pictures should always be taken of yourself
near a sign of your location. She says it shows you have been at a certain place
and have the picture to prove it. Last picture I took was at Niagara Falls, and
Mom made sure to tell me it wasn't close up enough to read the sign!
Janet, 38, Conover, Ohio
There's a slightly more complex answer involving the isolationist nature of
Japan, the supposed freedom of being able to leave an island where 60-hour work
weeks are the norm, and the desire to keep memories of their "escape" as handy
as possible. But I think the professor who taught me that is full of it.
Juno, 21, Asian male, Richmond, Va.
It is not just the Japanese who do this. Everywhere I've gone, I've seen
people of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds very casually and politely ask
a stranger to photograph them at an attraction. It ain't just the Japanese.
Besides, have you ever seen a people more self-focused than us Americans?
Michael, Falls Church, Va.
Really, can't a shot of El Capitan in Yosemite be improved upon with your
happy mug in front of it?
"The Japanese and many in East Asia have a fascination with electronic
gadgets, and using cell phone cameras is one way they, in general, express their
individuality," said David Matsumoto, psychology professor at San Francisco
State University and author of The New Japan: Debunking Seven Cultural
More specifically, getting themselves into their photos really helps get
across that sense of self, he added.
Why the need?
Picture it: Tiny island. Tons of people. Limited resources and land to grow
food. It all adds up to a society where rules and rigidity became important in
order for the group to survive, Matsumoto said.
"You can't have a free-for-all. So there are a lot of unspoken rules in
Japanese culture . . . and there can be social isolation if you are too
different, so some people will do other things to not conform," he said. "So if
they go to the Grand Canyon, the focal point of the photo is still on
themselves. There is a need to shine meaning on the individual existence."
Folks in Japan are also big on nostalgia, he added.
"The culture looks back at the goodness of the past. Again, because there's
so much conformity in present-day life, people have a need to find uniqueness.
Looking back on experiences through photos is one way to fulfill that need."
Phillip Milano, author of I Can't Believe You Asked That! (Perigee),
moderates cross-cultural dialogue at Y? The National Forum on People's
Differences. Visit www.yforum.com to submit questions and answers, or mail to
Phillip Milano, c/o The Florida Times-Union, P.O. Box 1949, Jacksonville, FL
32231. Include contact information. For Dare to Ask podcasts, go to
Jacksonville.com keyword: milano.