Photography and the Western Gaze

Ainu-e painting remained a popular genre from the Edo period well into the Meiji era (1868-1912), even after Japan formally annexed Hokkaido and incorporated the island into Japanese territory in 1869. Ainu-e were also popular among the growing number of international visitors arriving to Japan. After Commodore Matthew Perry arrived and “opened” Japan to international commerce in 1853, a number of treaty ports were established where foreign traders could conduct international exchange. One of these ports was Hakodate in southern Hokkaido. British, American, French, and Russian dignitaries and merchants established bases in the city, and Ainu-e paintings proved quite popular with these new Western visitors. After returning to their home countries with Ainu-e paintings and Ainu artifacts, tales began to circulate throughout Europe and the Americas of this distinct and little-known community. This generated a great deal of interest among many Western anthropologists at the turn of the last century, who incorrectly speculated that the Ainu were an ancient, “lost” Caucasian people. Western academic studies of the Ainu propagated racist, Social Darwinist ideas that imagined the Ainu as “noble savages,” and served as a cautionary tale to those societies that failed to modernize—showing how even “white” societies, like the Ainu, can fall victim to colonization by other “alien cultures,” such as a rapidly industrializing Japan.1

Concurrent developments in photography, and the medium’s growing use as a tool for academic research, made Ainu peoples popular subjects of anthropological photography. Like the Ainu-e paintings of earlier eras, these anthropological photographs typically over-emphasized and exoticized Ainu physical traits and cultural practices to “prove” the racist scientific theories of their ethnic origins. And while some of these images do help to illustrate aspects of life among turn-of-the-last-century Ainu communities, it is important to recognize that many scenes were posed and strategically staged, and that the individuals in these photos often had little-to-no say in how their image was used and distributed. Nevertheless, photography remained a key tool in the academic scholarship of the Ainu throughout much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Even today, these photos continue to play an important role in academia, as activists and scholars work to attach specific names and places to these images in an effort to return agency to those in these once anonymous photos.

1.) Ann-Elise Lewallen, The Fabric of Indigeneity: Ainu Identity, Gender, and Settler Colonialism in Japan, (Santa Fe, N.M.: University of New Mexico School for Advanced Research, 2016): 185-186.

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