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Vanished Japan : Images of a Distant--and Longed-for--Past

March 06, 1994|Margaret Scott | Scott is a Tokyo-based writer. Bristol, whose work has appeared in Life and National Geographic, is 85 and lives in Ojai.

The real Japan isn't in Tokyo, one hears, but in the countryside. In truth, village Japan exists these days mostly in the imagination. For while a rural Japan of rice farmers and tradition slowly vanishes, its evocative role lingers: The village has become a symbol of what has been lost in modern, commercialized Japan.

The village, circa 1946, was photojournalist Horace Bristol's subject, one that he approached as a storyteller with a camera. Soon after World War II, Bristol, with his 1930-vintage Rolleiflex, ventured, among other places, onto the island of Hatsu Shima, not far from Tokyo. There he recorded the women, wrapped in cotton, diving to collect seaweed for their livelihood. He traveled to villages in the foothills of Saitama Prefecture and photographed rice farmers and tea growers and communities that cultivated silkworms. He sold small books of his pictures to American GIs as presents from a quaint, exotic and defeated Japan.

The passing decades have transformed Bristol's documentary images into remnants from a departed past. There are no seaweed divers on Hatsu Shima anymore; the tiny island in Sagami bay has been recast as a weekend getaway for Tokyo's affluent. And in Saitama, about 30 miles northwest of Tokyo, the rice paddies and tea terraces have given way to bedroom communities.

In Japan, nostalgia for the village is a potent theme in a debate over identity that recurs like a toothache in need of care. Ever since Japan embarked on a heady, successful drive to modernize and took as its slogan "Out of Asia, Into the West," the pendulum has swung wildly--from utterly identifying with the West to an outright nativist rejection of Western values and culture. The idea of the village as the real Japan has been pitted against the industrialized city as the product of foreign influence.

In today's prosperous but recession-weary nation, a version of the old toothache still pains many Japanese. Is Japan part of Asia or the West? Has catching up with the West stripped Japanese of their traditions? What does village life mean now that only 3% of the population are farmers?

Nostalgia for the village, to be sure, is only one facet of this discussion. But images, such as Bristol's, of the vanished past fuel the question of what it means to be modern and Japanese. His photos will be on display from March 11 to April 30 at the Gallery of Contemporary Photography in Santa Monica.

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