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Japan Stories

Japan Stories: an exhibition of photographs by John Barr, Peter M Cook and Jérémie Souteyrat

from Oct 11 - Nov 18 at

RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1B 1AD

Urban Stories No.6 © John Barr

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 marked a turning point for Japan when, after a long period of self-imposed isolation, it was forced to re-open to the West. Since that time, there has been a succession of Western commentators who have sought to interpret Japan, and most of them have viewed it through the twin lenses of exoticism and orientalism. As recently as 2000, the Japanese philosopher and critic, Kojin Karatani observed that there remained a perception of Japan as a place that could and should only offer something aesthetic, a view taken by many commentators who have presumed to decode Japan for the West.

Meanwhile, the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, whilst not agreeing with their conclusions, argued that the power of that external gaze was instrumental in validating Japanese culture to a nation that was itself unable to assess it objectively after a long period of isolation. The situation was compounded as Japan struggled to assimilate the influx of Western technology and ideas that followed the Meiji Restoration.

The hangover from that situation lasted for most of the 20th century and only in the last thirty years or so have the Japanese become more confident in declaring the value of their culture. Thirty years ago it was rare to find Westerners in Japan who were not in privileged positions but who had gone there to live ordinary lives and work at everyday jobs. The increase in Japanese confidence has been paralleled by an increase in Westerners of that kind.

The three photographers featured in the exhibition are part of that new breed, who did not go to Japan on a mission to define Japanese culture but have experienced everyday life there. Their work reflects different aspects of a nuanced and multi-faceted society through images of its architecture.

Urban Stories No.2 © John Barr

Seibu Shibuya Building B, Shibuyu, Tokyo, 1968 © Peter M. Cook

On the Cherry Blossom by A.L.X., 3 September 2010 from the 'tokyo no ie' series © Jérémie Souteyrat, assisted by Bruno Bellec

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