Monday, June 1, 2020

Crit: Tokyo Likes You by Dan Ryan

Dan Ryan has now made two books out of his apparently very deep archive of photos from Tokyo. I wrote about the first one some time ago. There's a lot of background there that probably applies exactly as well here.

This one, available in the form of a PDF here, is much the same sort of thing.

The concept is pretty simple. It's a whole bunch of pictures of people in Tokyo, making eye contact and, more often than not, smiling. There is a range of reaction from neutral acceptance of the photographer, through friendly smiles, all the way to outright mugging for the camera. The common theme is that all the subjects see the camera and the photographer, and all accept him and his photograph.

That by itself is worth noting. If we pay attention in the right places, we "learn" that Japanese object to being photographed. My personal experiences suggest that in the USA there is not exactly universal acceptance of being photographed. Dan has something of a magical ability here, and I don't know how he does it. Does he simply take millions of pictures and throw the snarls out? Is he brandishing a pistol in his non-camera hand and screaming SMILE! at people? I do not know, but if you follow his activity online you will see that he produces pictures not unlike these from Tokyo, in California, on a daily basis.

He has some manner, some glamour, some way of interacting that makes this work. Even in what we are taught is the famously insular land of Japan.

So what can we learn from these interactions, from what we might as well take as our Special Ambassador to Japan, Dan Ryan?

Well. The title says it, doesn't it? Tokyo Likes You.

We see that Tokyo is filled with a humanity we recognize. These are not mysterious aliens, although to my eye they are not quite familiar.

What I feel, looking at these pictures, is the continued presence of the wall that separates my culture from theirs. There is a degree to which the person in the photograph and I would never understand one another. Of course, this is true between any two humans, two brothers will never fully understand one another, so this truly is a matter of degree. The point is, though, that a Tokyo native and I are farther apart, culturally, than I am from an average westerner, and the gap between us is in some ways deep and broad.

According to legend, to received wisdom, and things I have been told personally by people I trust, the average Japanese is not much interested in closing that gap.

Perhaps I am merely projecting, here, I certainly can point to no specific evidence in the pictures, but these pictures feel consistent with that notion, to me. The people in the pictures strike me as smiling at Dan across that chasm of cultural difference.

But the point here, the big revelation, is that it's OK. The cultural chasm isn't a fortified wall, it isn't fueled by anger or hate.

The pictures seem, to me, to say you and I, we are different, irrevocably, but that is OK. you are I, we're still human, and we share a lot. you and I, we both smile, mostly for the same reasons, mostly at the same times. like right now. hi!

These pictures do not tear down the cultural barriers, at all. They do not unify us as brothers. They reveal the wall as essentially transparent, and without animosity. At least in these moments the wall is transparent and amiable.

It's a very hopeful and positive book. It speaks, to me, to a way of relating across cultures that is neither assimilating, nor antagonistic.

Our differences do not need to be reconciled for us to like one another. We can be different, even mutually incomprehensible, and still we can like one another. It's OK.

This is maybe a lesson for all of humanity, applicable to every human relationship.


  1. Replies
    1. Imposter. The real David hates everything, who the hell are you?

      (thank you!)

    2. I hate anything that's boring. That's why I don't hate your blog, and I don't hate this book.