Colonialism, racism and visual anthropology in Japan: Photography, Anthropology and History part II
Here is the second part of the review of the book Photography, Anthropology and History, edited by Christopher Morton and Elizabeth Edwards.
This time, Tereza Kuldova reviews Ka F. Wong’s article about one of the first Japanese anthropologists, who became popular in Japan because of his use of photography: Torii Ryūzō.
Wong shows in his article how Ryuzo’s photographs illustrate the colonial relationships at that time. Ryuzo went on fieldwork two decades before Malinowski in order to document the indigenous Taiwan population.
Tereza Kuldova questions some of Wong’s conclusions:
Review (Part II): Photography, Anthropology and History: Expanding the Frame (eds. Morton, Ch. & Edwards, E.), Ashgate. 2009. ISBN 978-0-7546-7909-7.
Tereza Kuldova, PhD fellow, Museum of Cultural History, Oslo
The article Visual Methods in Early Japanese Anthropology: Torii Ryuzo in Taiwan by Ka F. Wong discusses the beginnings of the Japanese anthropology and the personality of one of the first Japanese anthropologists, who became popular in Japan because of his use of photography, as a ‘scientific’ method of investigation and documentation of the Other, during his fieldwork.
We are talking here about Torii Ryuzo, a truly self-made anthropologist, born in 1870 in Tokushima in Shikoku, he received only second-grade education, but that did not prevent him from reading and educating himself on his own.
Torii was hired as a specimen classifier in the Anthropology Research Institute at the Tokyo Imperial University by the professor in physical anthropology Tsuboi Shogoro. “Under his mentor’s patronage and encouragement, Torii began his anthropological career, first as a fieldworker, and eventually as one of the most prominent Japanese anthropologists of the twentieth century” (Wong 2009:173). Eventually, “in 1922, he became associate professor at the Tokyo Imperial University and succeeded Tsuboi as the second chair of the Anthropological Institute” (Wong 2009:185).
As Wong notes, he was a rather special occurrence in the Japanese anthropology, because he was “a Japanese anthropologist working in the manner of a European ethnographer within a colonial context” (Wong 2009:180).
His popularity and rise as an anthropologist can be related firstly to his use of photography, in the manner of the Western anthropologists, as a tool of scientific understanding and documenting of the Other and secondly it can be related to the emergence of Japan as a colonial power.
Wong focuses on the analysis of the photographic legacy of Torii Ryuzo in the context of the modernization of Japan and the era of Japanese colonization.
Wong tries to view the photographs in the light of their own ‘agency’ and thereby to understand the nature of the contact between Ryuzo and the indigenous Taiwanese. When Japan became colonial power it could “count itself a member of the once exclusive Western club of colonial empires, and the native population of Taiwan provided fresh material for Japanese anthropologists to exhibit their intellectual virtuosity” (Wong 2009:175). Ryuzo thus set out for a fieldwork in Taiwan, two decades before Bronislaw Malinowski, and began documenting the indigenous Taiwan population, mostly within the Western style framework, using the methods of natural sciences, such as anthropometric and statistical techniques. “The camera was Torii’s tool for disseminating a vision of indigenous life of this newly colonized island to wider Japanese public” (Wong 2009:177).
Drawing on the western scholarship Torii divided the indigenous people of Taiwan “along perceived racial lines – such as by physical type, language, costume, body, decoration, architecture and material culture – into nine major groups: the Ami, Bunun, Yami, Paiwan, Tayal, Tsou, Siuo, and Salisan” (Wong 2009:177). Most of the photographs that he took were of anthropometric imagery, but he took pictures of people in various social contexts, pictures of landscape and houses, of material culture and the Japanese presence, as well.
Wong shows in his article how the photographs illustrate the colonial relationships. He points out the anthropologist in Western clothes standing and posing with the natives mostly sitting or squatting dressed in indigenous clothing. He argues, in rather classical manner, that “Torii’s anthropometric images mirrored a legitimized racial superiority in the name of scientific representation, and the subjects thereby became ‘dehumanized’ as ‘passive objects of the study’” (Wong 2009:179-80). He observes that the natives “seem to be purposely lined up in formation or staged for display, implying a power relation at play for the camera. Even those pictures that were meant to capture the natives in their natural milieu seem to project rigidity and theatricality” (Wong 2009:180).
Wong shows how photographs can be perceived as ‘social artefacts’ that convey political and personal agendas of their creator. In case of Torii the visualization of himself on the photographs with the natives certainly helped to establish him as a professional anthropologist.
This being said, I believe that there is one dimension of the analysis of photography that Wong presented, which is missing. That is the consideration of the technical and practical dimension of taking photography at that point of time. Imagine a heavy machine which for a photography to be taken needs immovable objects. If we think about the ‘theatricality and rigidity’, which Wong describes and attributes it to the demonstration of colonial power over the subjects, is it not also a natural consequence of the nature of the technology used in capturing of the natives?
Further, Wong focuses for example on the clothes worn by the anthropologist as compared to the clothes worn by the natives and interprets this in terms of power relations. At this point, the images from my own fieldwork in the 21st century India came to my mind. When looking at them, you can see me definitely dressed differently that the most of the women in India did. On photographs with them, I definitely look as a foreigner. In the end my photographs are not that different from those of Torii, though maybe his are more ‘rigid’ because of the technology he used, while mine may seem more spontaneous, taken in between conversations.
When turning the attention to the ‘postures’, which Wong notes, when I look at my photographs in that way, I must say that I tend to sit with my leg over the other, while some of the women I was working with tended to sit on the bed or floor with their legs crossed under themselves. However, I cannot claim that any of that, can from my viewpoint be interpreted in terms of power relations (at least in the sense of oppressive type of colonial power relations), though someone may frame it within west vs. rest dichotomy and draw some conclusions from that. At the same time, I believe that these would have little to do with my own relations to the people on the photographs.
Now, using the medium of photography, which at that time needed immovable persons, and objects in front of the objective, and thus necessarily appeared more rigid that nowadays, how could Torii possibly otherwise represent what he encountered? Whatever picture he would have taken would be by Wong and possibly by others necessarily interpreted in the context of the era of Japanese colonial power.
Now I do not want to say that this critique or line of thought is unproductive. What I want to point out is that, instead of looking at the photographs of the anthropologist and the natives and judging from his and their clothes or postures, when trying to understand the messages of the photographs which Torii took, we have to look firstly at what he did not take photographs of as compared to what he wanted us to see, as it is there, where the agenda and context lies. This line of thought is somehow present in Wong’s text, but in my view it should have come out stronger, as it is this what gives us the insight into the practices of representation.