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.
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