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5 cultural tips for taking photos in Japan

26 Comments
By Amy Chavez, RocketNews24

Believe it or not, there’s a Japanese way of taking photos. We’ve compiled some cultural guidelines as well as language tips to help you take happy snappies on your next trip to Japan.

Naturally, the first rule of photography in any country is to obey the rules. Always look for signs at tourist areas to make sure it’s okay to take pictures. If you see the “No photos” or “No flash,” do comply, no matter how much you want to capture the moment.

But there are other not-so-obvious things to consider when taking snapshots in Japan, especially when local people are involved. The following hints should help you understand photography protocol in Japan. Keep in mind that these are not hard and fast rules, just guidelines based on our collective experience working and playing in Japan. No one says you have to follow them, but you know, when in Rome…

1. The Peace Sign

For reasons unfathomable to most foreigners, in Japan a common way to show you’re having fun in a photo is to flash the peace, or "bui" (V), sign. If you think this gesture ruins your images, you’re going to be extremely disappointed because this little hand gesture is ubiquitous. Our advice is to just accept it and move on as it is a part of “posing,” which is central to Japanese photo-taking. Posing is so ingrained in the Japanese psyche that you’ll notice children as young as three years old will automatically pose for snapshots: they’ll cock their head to one side, freeze a smile, and whip out a peace sign.

More than likely, you’ll eventually join in on the banality of it all and start proudly displaying the peace sign in your own photos taken with Japanese people, just to show how Japanese you’ve become.

Language: "Chiizu!" (Cheese! Said before clicking the shudder).

2. The guest goes in the middle of the photo

Another element of posing is to make sure people are placed properly in the frame according to specific precepts which may or may not include family and social status. In the U.S., we tend to arrange people according to height, and while that is also taken into consideration in Japan, they’re also careful to make sure the guest is standing (or sitting) in the center, the most prominent spot in the image. Most often in Japan, you will be the “guest” in someone’s photo.

Rather than stride brazenly into your obvious position as the guest, however, it’s better to exercise a degree of humility and wait for a Japanese person to tell you or nudge you in that direction.

One occasion when the “guest in the middle” conduct may be ignored is when you are with elders, especially people like grandparents. Elderly people get the utmost respect and should be placed in the center of any photo. Since this may cause conflict with the guest placement, in some cases the guest and the grandparent(s) can share the middle position.

Language: "Isshoni shassin or torimasho." (Let’s take a picture together).

3. Privacy Considerations

Privacy regarding the inclusion of people in photos is stricter in Japan than you may be used to. If you want to use a photo of someone on your blog but don’t have their permission to use it, protocol dictates that you should blur the person’s face so they are not immediately recognizable. I admit that it looks odd, but you’ll see it often on Japanese blogs — and indeed on our own pages from time to time, since we’re based in Tokyo and have to play by the same rules. I’ve even had Japanese people ask before they “share” photos I’ve posted on my own private Facebook page. This is good policy and avoids confusion or hard feelings down the road. I’ve also seen Japanese people mosaic (or use a black rectangular box over the eyes) their own children’s faces on Facebook posts in order to protect their child’s privacy.

Example: Below is a textbook perfect Japanese snapshot. I’m the guest, so have been placed in the middle. I only had permission from one person to publish this photo, so for those I didn’t have permission, I pixelated their faces. And of course, no Japanese snapshot would be complete without at least one peace sign.

Actually, there is no law against taking photos of people in public places in Japan. It’s the publishing, or uploading them to the Internet where the laws come into play.

The exception to having to ask permission is if people appear in a public event.

Language: "Watashi no burogu de shasshin o kokai shite iidesuka?" (May I publish this photo on my blog?)

4. Selfie sticks are banned in certain locations

Be aware that selfie sticks are not allowed in some locations in Japan including JR West train stations. As we all know, selfie sticks obstruct other people’s vision and can cause accidents when people aren’t paying attention to what’s going on around them. As tourism increases to Japan, expect this ban to be adopted in more and more places in the future.

Language: Serufii sutikku/jibundori sutikku o tsukatte iidesuka? (May I use a selfie stick?)

5. Be prepared to be approached by Japanese people wanting their photo taken with you

Japanese people, especially school kids, may ask you to join them in a photo. This typically happens in public places like the Hiroshima Peace Park where kids go on school trips. Don’t worry — unlike third-world countries where you may be hit up for a tip afterwards, these kids are entirely innocent — many of them will be from more rural areas and they just think it’s cool to be seen with foreigners. You can decline if you want, but if you do decide to join in on the fun, you’ll be getting a true Japanese experience. Besides, you can have them take a photo with your camera too, so you can show your friends back home how well you mixed with the locals.

At first it may seem odd that Japanese people would want their photo taken with a complete stranger. But then again, you may find yourself doing exactly the same thing.

We hope you’ve found some of these tips helpful. We’d love to hear some of your own tips you’ve gleaned from your experiences photographing Japan.

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- Oh the things you’ll see when glancing at a nearby passenger’s phone on the trains of Japan -- Happy Monday! Here’s the cutest cat fight you’ll see all day -- “Denki Anma”: The Japanese traditional torment that you’ll be glad stays in Japan

© Japan Today

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26 Comments
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It's very cute when little kids try to make the peace sign.

2 ( +6 / -4 )

It's very cute when little kids try to make the peace sign.

And to some people in the world the "peace sign" is the same as flipping someone the bird.

7 ( +10 / -3 )

Selfie sticks should be banned everywhere

8 ( +10 / -2 )

Lots of little ones stick that peace sign right in front of their little faces !

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Another peculiarity in Japan involving photos are the set male and female poses for formal and semi-formal commemorative group shots.

Men: clenched fists, legs slightly apart, one fist on each leg, feet flat on the floor.

Women: legs together at a slight angle to the right or left depending on what side of the group you are on, hands neatly folded on lap, head slightly tilted.

This photo will give you an idea of what I mean: http://goo.gl/rVXTck

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Another cultural trai in Japan ragarding photos is that they don't mind puting up those clearly fake smiles which look like facial spasms - ie. form matters more than spontaneity and true feelings (substance). To answer the authors question - yes, we believe that there is a Japanese way of taking photos, because we can see for ourselves that almost all Japanese people take the same pose: in general, in their culture comformism (imitating others and doing as everybody does) and valuing form and ceremony are very important values (that are to me personnally irritating because all photos in this country look the same).

5 ( +7 / -2 )

"Said before clicking the shudder"

Or shudder when reading...

4 ( +5 / -1 )

My best shots at places like festivals, or just street action, are taken with a good zoom lens.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

For reasons unfathomable to most foreigners, in Japan a common way to show you’re having fun in a photo is to flash the peace it ruins the photo,makes you look like an adolescent, its not a victory parade. why is it Japanese only do it, most other countries just SMILE to show there having fun.

0 ( +5 / -5 )

I have two goats and when taking them to their pasture, often get stopped for photo 'sessions'. I try to smile but the V sign and very unnatural indocrtinated-type pose of the VERY young children, I find sad as well as annoying.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Said before clicking the shudder).

I feel the same when thinking of the habit

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Rule 1. Never ask permission before taking a photo of a person. If you do, they will strike some stupid pose, usually with the V-sign, which will ruin the photograph if you even bother.

If a photo is blurred, it is not worth putting on the internet.

Regarding etiquette, consider how Japanese tourists take photographs in other countries. You have probably noticed some are well-mannered, others are not. Try to behave like the well-mannered ones. There are quite a few Japanese who are so badly-behaved when taking photographs they make other Japanese embarassed.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

I have hundreds of photos of Japanese people, young, old, male, female, and hardly any of them flashed the peace sign. All it takes is 'shashin, ii des-ka'.

-6 ( +0 / -6 )

Regarding etiquette, consider how Japanese tourists take photographs in other countries. You have probably noticed some are well-mannered, others are not.

Heck, they're pretty badly behaved in their own country. I can't tell you the number of times that parents or grandparents have barged into my classroom to take photos of - or even film - their children in the process of learning English. They don't even ask my permission to do it.

And Japanese men do some really weird stuff with their cameras in department stores, for some reason. I saw one guy walking up to young girls and snapping their photos, then walking off. Another man was taking photos of travel posters featuring little girls (I only really noticed him because he was kind of sweaty and excited). And yet another man was caught trying to get upskirt photos of young ladies in the book section.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Don't forget that if you are ayoung lady, you are obliged to tilt your head, and to curl your shoulders in a form of scoliosis mimicry which, combined with one leg bent up at the knee, will help to disguise any semblance of a woman's figure. It's far better, so local wisdom goes, to appear juvenile than desirable.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

"It's far better... to appear juvenile than desirable"

Are you not paying attention. This is Japan...

Juvenile IS desirable!!

0 ( +2 / -2 )

"And to some people in the world the "peace sign" is the same as flipping someone the bird." Only if you are showing the back of your hand and doing it.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

for Cafe or street shoots you can go pass a fast 35mm lens. this allows for more perifinnial memory, more of the scene is capture. using a general purpose 75 - 200 zoom is great for landscapes. using the 35 mm allow for cropping away what you don,t want. with a Zoom there a very good chance of missing something which you will never know excited because you used a zoom lens.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Churchill used the "V" sign to signal victory against Germany. It was then used to signify victory against Japan in WW II.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I don't know why people get their panties in a knot over the peace sign.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

It is a reverse peace sign that is considered a rude insult in the UK.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Very interesting and illuminating, Amy. Some nice cultural tips there. I can't say that I have ever seen the peace sign used in Britain, but I expect that it is catching on. In Britain we use the V sign (the peace sign turned around) as a riposte, usually with an upward thrust, meaning: Up yours. In fact, the apparently imported single middle finger upward thrust is now replacing the conventional V sign. Such a thrust is intended to be more anatomically specific for the recipient. We also have the O sign, formed by finger and thumb, which means: Great.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

TrevorPeace, "Shashin, ii des' ka?" can easily mean "Photo time! Are you ready?"

But I am sure it is your smile that wins the day! :8)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The fixation for pictures is a curse. Yesterday I was at a party and spend more time posing than enjoying myself. Usually the fault is of a few girls forcing everyone to take endless shots.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Tripods are banned in some public places.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I was being very discrete and I just wanted a quick daily life snapshot of some buildings and the very clean streets. It couldn't be helped that people walked by - in the distance. So this old, rough looking Japanese uncle caught me and bellowed at me: Sister, do NOT take photos...no photos, ok? Next time, I will use Front Camera, pretend I am doing my hair, or have something stuck in my eye. Works quite well.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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