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Children of Change

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Images Document Growing Up in Japan's Postwar Growth

A laugh, a cry, a look of concern or confusion. Images of children can become a window into the soul of any nation, but in post-war Japan, they represent the face of a country embracing a new beginning and major change.

Some 100 powerful, vivid photographs make up a revealing new exhibit at the Japan Information & Culture Center, a wing of the Japanese Embassy. “Scenes of Childhood: Sixty Years of Postwar Japan” documents the experiences of Japanese youth from the end of World War II to the present, capturing devastation, happiness and every feeling in between in this country of some 125 million people.

“You get to experience every emotion there is in these photographs,” said Melissa Chasse, press information officer for the culture center. “And they are all done by photojournalists in a documentary style so they seem natural, not posed or forced.”

The subject matter spans 60 years of contemporary Japanese history, from the bleak destitution of post-war ruin, to today’s material abundance and modern comfort — all punctuated by the simple emotion that only children can convey.

One of Chasse’s favorites portrays a small Nagano school in 1961 as a handful of students sit on a bench watching two adults bow to each other in the very specific, proper manner that’s unique to Japan. The image, she said, takes her back to her three years living in Japan and also offers a crucial glimpse into the nation’s storied traditions.

Other scenes highlight the importance of schooling and education, showing students literally praying for success in their academic endeavors and taking part in one of many activities festivals that schools hold to instill the virtue of teamwork above all else.

Another theme that emerges is the country’s explosive technological and economic development, which drove Japan’s recovery and helped make it the world’s second-largest economy. A number of photos also depict the American influence during this economic and cultural revolution, whether through the introduction of Barbie dolls or the presence of U.S. soldiers in major Japanese cities.

Some images of course strike a decidedly darker tone, focusing on the massive rebuilding that took place after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings — whose debilitating effects we also see on both children and adults.

Altogether, the 100 mostly black-and-white shots were chosen from a pool of more than 30,000 photos by the Japanese Professional Photographers Society. “I think one thing that’s wonderful is they were selected by the Japanese to tell others about their own history,” Chasse said. “So it’s not an outside culture trying to decide what’s important.”

Many of the images were taken by Japan’s most celebrated photographers, including Ken Domon — who tended to focus on the immediate aftermath of World War II — and Ihei Kimura — known for his depictions of Tokyo. The shots often appeared in Japanese newsprints and were assembled for the exhibition because of their quality or popularity.

Culture Center Director Misako Ito said she expects the work to appeal to a large and diverse audience. For people specifically interested in Japanese culture, “Scenes of Childhood” is ideal to learn about the intricacies of daily life. “Those who are interested in photography also should see it, because of the prestigious photographers included,” she said, noting, “We’ve been getting a lot of interest.”

When the photographs were shown in Japan from December 2005 to March 2006, they were praised by the domestic audience. The expectation is that the reception abroad will be just as welcoming.

“Scenes of Childhood: Sixty Years of Postwar Japan” runs through July 15 at the Japan Information & Culture Center in Lafayette Centre III, 1155 21st St., NW. For more information, please call (202) 238-6949 or visit www.us.emb-japan.go.jp/jicc.

About the Author

Dena Levitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 7, 2014