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Saturday, March 17, 2007

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

A pixel paints a thousand words


What I am thinking is this: "Looks can be deceiving."

The man I am speaking with looks very much like the farmers of my prairie-land youth. He is slow-talking, sun-tanned and affable to a flaw.

But he is not a farmer and this is not the prairie. He is Kenneth Branham, chief of the Monacan Native North Americans and the place is Virginia's Natural Bridge, one of the wonders of the world and the cite of a Monacan living history village.

And what Chief Branham must be thinking is the very same thing. For when I tell him I'm from Tokyo, he does a double-take.

"That don't make sense," he says. Then, before I can explain how life led me to the Orient, the chief nudges me and grins, " 'Cause I can usually tell folks from Japan right off. -- By their cameras!"

So there you have it. The ubiquity of the Japanese camera is renowned from the sands of Waikiki to the spires of Neuschwanstein to the Opera House in Sydney to the lochs of Scotland. Even in a nook of the genteel American south, people tease you with the stereotype.

Which says -- Japanese are to cameras like fish to water, pollys to crackers, bugs to windshields, and writers to hyperbole.

Yet, is the label true? Or is it just another of those wacky Western images of Japan, the kind that have treacherous ninjas crouching in every corner?

Well -- upon brief thought, briefer study, and a lengthy peek in my local camera shop, I would have to say the image is -- dead on. The Japanese just love cameras.

A picture paints a thousand words, so here's a snap of that local shop -- which occupies the bottom two floors of a multi-storied building dedicated wholly to the lunacy of electronics.

For starters, the atmosphere is disco-esque, complete with ear-straining music, eye-stabbing lights and quick-stepping customers, sometimes as thick as dancers. In the States, you can stroll your way through a camera shop. Here, you must often wiggle and squirm.

Cameras line every shelf in every direction. The combined offerings of Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Minolta, etc. easily outnumber the customers, who easily outnumber the sales staff, who stand like sentries every ten feet or so. On busy days -- and most days are busy -- sales staff alone can crowd the floor.

The cameras themselves are of every variety -- black, silver, red, and blue -- a color code that reveals my exact knowledge of photography. Prices, however, tend to be just black and blue. Yes, some cameras can be had for a song. But many more require a full symphony.

Of course, the same overall description would fit any level of this tower of gadgetry. Just substitute the appliance of your choice -- TVs, computers or whatever -- and you'll find consumption craziness wherever the escalator may lead you.

The difference is that with cameras the craziness covers two busy floors. For it's not just cameras people are after. It's lenses, cases, memory cards, albums. It's the entire photographic universe, condensed here into two tight galaxies of aisles.

One stumbles from the shop wondering just how many cameras the average person owns. Two? Three? More?

And that's without counting cell phones. Oh what an evil inspiration that was! Sticking a camera inside such phones was like soaking cigarette filters in whiskey. Double the fix for double the addict, an irresistible combination for many.

Even at my own techno-bumpkin, sans cell phone house, we have two cameras, one black and one silver. The silver one has a zoom that makes cool whirly noises when it zips out, a prime reason I bought it.

So I showed it off to a friend, who -- although deeply impressed with the whirly noise -- poked fun of my purchase.

"You only got 3.2 mega pixels? What kind of a man are you? The average guy's got at least six, and me I got more than eight."

Gulp. I hurried home in humiliation, where I sat numb before my computer (a nice white one, thank you), until I opened my mail to find a slice of spam slyly offering to add on hundreds of pixels with just a simple patch.

But so what. I never take pictures anyway. I only got the silver camera to keep up with the neighbors and the black one we got as a wedding gift -- 28 years ago.

Basically, I am anticamera, anti-cell phone, and -- for that matter -- anti-raw fish. I don't buy into any of the Japanese stereotypes.

Back in Virginia, Chief Branham, a modern day Native American, seems to understand.

"Oh I was just jokin,' " he says. "But, you know, most Japanese tourists do carry a camera. A big one. In a nice case. With a looooong lens."

And that's where I have to stop him. For right now I don't want to hear about pixels.



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