PRINT December 1985


all the news that's fit to snapshoot.

SOCIAL HISTORIANS OF the next century will probably describe Japanese society in the mid ’80s as greatly affected by photography. Almost all the general-interest magazines—which use photographs, but underplay them, emphasizing text, and are printed on rough paper—are losing circulation rapidly. One such magazine, which twenty years ago was the opinion-maker of Japanese society, is now on the verge of extinction. And the Japanese edition of Reader’s Digest, which was also mainly a text magazine, has diminished in influence too.

In the climate of diminishing interest in reading that prevails in this country, what is replacing these serious journals in the appetites of the “readers” is scandal magazines and pornography which features photographs of women in the humiliating poses induced by the peculiarly (though by no means exclusively) Japanese art of bondage, that is, the tying of the body with ropes. So-called conscientious intellectuals raise their eyebrows at this phenomenon. Another inutile response is that these magazines are merely a manifestation of the truth that pornography enjoys a certain degree of fascination throughout history. In other words, it is said that the popularity of images of women’s nudity, with their effect on the male libido, is not specific to our time; these publications are simply returning to the archetypal desires of their readers.

The emergence of the so-called “FF” phenomenon, which has overrun Japan like a tidal wave, smashes this simple argument, which only focuses on blatant pornography and not on the rise of picture culture as a whole. The acronym “FF” comes from two weekly magazines—Focus and Friday—that carry large-sized photographs of social events, accidents, and incidents of personal scandal, both domestic and overseas. Underneath the pictures are printed texts with short explanations and satirical comments. Of course there are other weekly magazines in Japan that sometimes carry special articles pertaining to various social episodes, but they are vastly different from the FF publications, which carry stories only if they have strong impact as photographs. The meanings and implications of the snapshots don’t matter to FF at all; the text space is so limited that any actual reporting into the truth behind the scene is impossible. For example, FF might have a scoop to do with a well-known person in an empty room in the company of a woman. From the one large photograph printed, it might be impossible to determine whether the two were having an affair or a business meeting.

Despite the overall drastic decline in the sale of books and periodicals, these photo magazines have made surprising leaps in circulation. Focus, the first of the two to appear, at one point was printing 2 million copies a week, at a time when a monthly general-interest magazine that had once boasted a sale of a million copies was down to a mere seventy thousand. Focus dropped from its circulation of 2 million after the arrival of new weeklies such as Friday, Soft Focus, and other more specialized imitations—Soft Focus, for example, specializes in scooping personality scandals. All these publications, however, manifest the spread of “image culture"—of making images speak, of “reading” ungrounded images—in Japan today.

Because Focus and Friday both appear on the newsstands on Friday, politicians, film and television actors, musicians, fashion designers, comedians, athletes, in fact all the prospective paparazzi targets have come humbly to await “Good Friday” notwithstanding their non-Christian Japanese habits. This year, the publishers of a leading monthly general-interest magazine decided to start their own version of FF, and they titled it, ironically, Emma, the name of a demon of hell who, in Buddhist mythology, renders final judgment on mortals. The folkloric Emma would certainly punish a man unfaithful to his wife, and to publish a photograph of a prominent figure caught in a love affair is punishment of a kind—even though it would seem odd for the slick magazine Emma to claim moral authority over such sins, which are actually in its interest. Isn’t there a joke somewhere in this?

The question is, what is behind the FF phenomenon? People know that the visual messages they get from these photographs are not “the truth,” but they do believe that the images tell them something. For example, a principal player for a baseball team in the race for the pennant was photographed on a secret date with a woman. The picture was published; later it was discovered that the “woman” was in fact a transvestite. (I don’t know how the fans reacted to the new fact, but it doesn’t seem to have damaged the player—he has been doing especially well since then, and at this writing is the top batter in Japanese baseball.) The photograph didn’t tell us what we thought it had, but it did tell us something, and not all but some of FF’s fast, unposed snaps provide us, if vaguely, with eloquent details. The FF phenomenon reveals to us, every week, the power of the professional snapshot—which we all already knew, but perhaps only logically.

When I, for one, am walking in the street, I always pay attention to cameras around me, for I also have been Soft Focus-ed a couple of times.

Shinichiro Kurimoto is an assistant professor at Merit University, Tokyo, where he specializes in economic anthropology. He writes a column on visual elements in mass culture for Artforum.

Translated from the Japanese by Kazue Kobata