Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

One Family’s Photographs (1941-66)

This module begins at the moment a photograph was taken in January 1941. It is in this image that we are introduced to Yajima Isao and his new bride, Eiko. They are sitting in the grounds of what was, probably, their honeymoon hotel, the Atami Ocean Hotel (Atami taiyō hoteru). The pair pose in view of the grand entrance despite the bubbling activity behind them where another photograph is taking place and a bathing towel dries on the bushes.

Isao almost certainly took the picture himself. After having chosen a suitable spot, with favourable lighting and the backdrop of the hotel’s entrance, he probably mounted the camera on its tripod, set the timer, and then ran back to his seat. While the honeymoon was the start of their family life—Eiko was either pregnant or soon would be—this photograph commenced their visual life together in which Isao would soon assume the new role of father-photographer (otōsan kameraman) and make a shift in physical and emotional geography to a place behind the camera. By happenstance or overwhelming ordinariness, the role of father-photographer is previewed behind the posing couple. Look closely and you'll see that a man—a father perhaps—sits with his camera in hand while another supervises the child-subject of the photograph attempt to climb the steps of a slide ready for her photographic moment.

This image is the foundation stone for the this module. It gives us a date, a place and two faces, and it begins our story that orbits around Yajima Isao. Born in 1913, Isao was a proud dentist, regular smoker, amateur golfer, keen traveller, car enthusiast, and occasional dancer. Starting in the 1940s and coinciding with the start of his own family, he began work on the first of three photograph albums. Over the sixteen years that followed he assembled hundreds of photographs across three photograph albums. The albums blend the many Isaos and the spaces he moved through to create the appearance of a coherent self, complete with family, possessions and freedom of movement. Much like the photo above, Isao appears to have taken most of the photos himself and after sticking them carefully into the pages, he narrated them with occasional and succinct captions.

Despite this module and the albums orbiting around Isao, he is often absent from the final photographs, especially those which feature his family. This is simply because he was taking the photograph. Perhaps Eiko and the children were not avid, interested or able photographers, but within a historical context where men’s absence from the home (and presence at work) is widely accepted to have been expected if not lauded, Isao’s images connect to a wider scholarly and cultural narrative—which still plays out in households around the world today—in which male absence from the home is connected to his success (DasGupta 2012).

With access to an astonishing selection of photographs from nearly three decades of family life, this module tracks the movements Isao made in and around his camera to produce a visual archive of where he was, and where he was not always visible.

How this module works

This module is based on three consecutive family albums. Here we will call them Album 1, 2 and 3. As historical sources they are made for touching and gazing, suspended between what Kathleen Canning describes as “narrativity and materiality” (Canning 2006). The albums themselves are made of cardboard, velvet, and cardstock—they are heavy to hold, and smell of dust and damp. They are well-kept, and in flaking paper and faded faces, bear traces of time, as well as bodily traces of their maker in his handwriting, nicknames, even the whirling sepia fingerprints on pressed-down corners.

This module cuts four pathways through the albums.

  1. Snappy Family is the first and it introduces the wider historical context on how photography was not only cultivated as an “ideal family pastime” (Ross 2015) but how its practice became gendered through the spaces in which taking photos happened. The remaining three pathways take each album in turn.
  2. Album 1 follows Isao's transition from dental student and newlywed, to father and tracks his movement to a place behind the camera.
  3. Album 2 while ostensibly a story of the places the Yajimas went on holiday, tracks the disappearance of his teenage children from his photographs and asks what, exactly, is worth taking pictures of.
  4. Album 3 is all about Isao's extensive car collection and this pathway explores how the photograph enabled him to enjoy and document his “car fever” and his financial success. The car also worked to summon Isao back in front of the camera. The swapping of bouncing baby for a gleaming car bonnet is significant because while Isao is visually absent as a father when photos are taken of the children because he is behind the camera, in his status as a car owner he readily moves in front of the lens.

Source material

The images in this module are part of a personal collection. Please read the Note on Ethics before continuing.

Click here for a list of references for this module, which is also available from the module's Conclusion page.

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