Analysing the Nexus of Anthropology, Photography and Japanese Colonialism in Taiwan

The relationship between anthropology, photography and Japanese governmental policy, in colonial Taiwan, was intricate and complicated. Photography was utilised to emphasise anthropology as a scientific discipline, whilst simultaneously providing a form of visual evidence. Anthropology, in turn, was utilised by the Japanese government to legitimise their claim over Taiwan and demonstrate the colonial power of Japan. 

Taiwan was ceded to Japan at the end of the first Sino-Japanese war (1894-1895) in 1895 and remained a colony of Japan until the end of the second world war (1945). The country was of particular interest to Anthropologists due to its large population of aboriginals that were perceived as an isolated “untamed” (1) culture. One of the earliest Japanese anthropologists to study these aboriginals was Torii Ryūzō, who used the most advanced Western methodologies to document the aborigines including photography. Both objects and people were photographed against plain backgrounds, in a manner reminiscent of scientific specimens that seems to both dehumanise and emphasise the colonialist-colonised power dynamic between photographer and subject (2).

Although the motivations of anthropologists may have purely been intellectual knowledge and recognition, their work was utilised by the Japanese government (3). Anthropological work was used to show the “exotic” people and lands that were under the control of Japan and to demonstrate to the West that Japan should be considered an equal.

The Japanese word for photograph 写真 (shashin) is a combination of the characters for “describe” and “reality” – demonstrating the general perception of photography at the time. Photography was seen as an emblem of modernity, an objective medium that conveyed reality. This attitude to photography allowed it to become a powerful tool that could be utilised to promote Japan’s political interests. 

Photographs are not, however, objective representations of reality. The photographer’s choices greatly impact the outcome of an image and can imbue it with visual rhetoric. As demonstrated in Framing the Ruins: Documentary photographs of Yamahata Yōsuke (4), Mark Silver shows how Yamahata orchestrated his shots (with framing, techniques and direction to those in the images) to fit the brief given to him by Japan’s war propaganda department. Similarly, photographs of the Taiwanese aboriginals were staged to emphasise their distinctive culture in order to weaken China’s claim to Taiwan (5).

Inō Kanori, who was responsible for informing the public about Taiwan’s aboriginal population, went so far as to doctor his photographs – commissioning paintings where feathers and necklaces were added to create the desired image of a culturally unique population. The labelling of photographs was also used to attract useful connotations. The headshot of Paazeh, of Wulai, labelled in a variety of different ways but never with her name or any other information about her, spread across the globe. The portrait was continuously re-captioned to suit different purposes (6). 

Photography, anthropology and Japanese colonialism were tightly interlinked in Taiwan, with photography and anthropology harnessed to promote the Imperial agenda of the Japanese empire and signify that Japan was a modern nation state and deserved to be treated as such.

Footnotes:

  1. F. Wong, Ka. “Entanglements of ethnographic images: Torii Ryūzō’s photographic record of Taiwan aborigines (1896–1900).” pp.286.
  2. F. Wong, Ka. “Entanglements of ethnographic images: Torii Ryūzō’s photographic record of Taiwan aborigines (1896–1900).” pp.289-292.
  3. F. Wong, Ka. “Entanglements of ethnographic images: Torii Ryūzō’s photographic record of Taiwan aborigines (1896–1900).” pp.285-286.
  4. Silver, Mark. “Chapter Eight. Framing The Ruins: The Documentary Photographs Of Yamahata Yōsuke (Nagasaki, August 10, 1945).” In Imag(in)ing the War in Japan, pp. 229-268. Brill, 2010.
  5. Barclay, Paul D. “Playing the race card in Japanese-governed Taiwan or, anthropometric photographs as ‘shape-shifting jokers’.” The Affect of Difference: Representations of Race in East Asian Empire, 2016. pp.66-67.
  6. Barclay, Paul D. “Playing the race card in Japanese-governed Taiwan or, anthropometric photographs as ‘shape-shifting jokers’.” The Affect of Difference: Representations of Race in East Asian Empire, 2016. pp.44-47.

8 Replies to “Analysing the Nexus of Anthropology, Photography and Japanese Colonialism in Taiwan

  1. Hello Zoe, a very good post, thank you! Yes, indeed the case of Taiwan shows how Japan’s imperial agenda was realised in scientific efforts and validated through new technology of photography. I think this nexus between political agenda, science, and new technology is still commonly used today, even though not with the same methods. all the best, Eugenia

  2. Hi Zoe, Thank you for your post. Your blog is well structured and explains well. I also found a numbers of citing, too. Can I ask you if the study of anthropology had already started or it developed together with photography. Regarding colonialism; what was the impact on the Taiwan’s indigenous people as a result of utilising photography for anthropology?

    1. Hello Natsue,

      Thank you for your question. Anthropology predates photography by a few thousand years! Examples of anthropology (as defined as the study of human culture/behaviour) can be in writing which survives from ancient Greece, in for example the work of Herodotus (c.484-c.425BC). Much more recently during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries varying types of anthropological study addressed the huge amount of information gathered by travellers, collectors and, inadvertently, by merchants. During the late 19th century these studies became more “scientific”. The history of photography is much more recent.

  3. Hi Zoe, interesting post – this approach to anthropology, which effectively ‘others’ the aboriginal people of Taiwan, seems to directly contradict ideas of Pan-Asianism that were gaining currency at the time in certain intellectual circles, whereby the argument of ‘one culture one race’ was gaining currency. It shows how many different ideologies were churning around during this period regarding Asia’s modernisation.

  4. Hi Zoe, very informative post and some interesting points. Do you think that anthropologists that took photographs also believed that what they were doing was objective? Or do you think that they knew they were staging photos specifically to adhere to certain subjectivities?

    1. Thank you for the positive remarks. The motivation of the photographer is difficult to accurately define. I can only speculate that it would most likely be a mixture of genuinely recording what they saw and staging to adhere to certain expectations (whether consciously or subconsciously). Perhaps the way forward would to be to research the context in which the images were used.

Leave a Reply to Eugenia Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.