When wedding rhymes with Japanese photography
by Charlene Veillon
Reading time ⏰ 13 min 57
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In Japan, as elsewhere in the world, people get married! And as elsewhere in the world, we immortalize this great moment in the life of a couple with a photo shoot. But the deep meaning of traditional Japanese marriage sometimes clashes with our modern life, inspiring photographers – especially women – to create a scene in the form of self-portraits of brides. Kimiko Yoshida or Tomoko Sawada have each produced several photographic series entirely dedicated to the theme of the Japanese bride. Between parody, denunciation of stereotypes and gesture of rebellion, let's see how these images question us about the "Japanese wedding".
With the series omiai Begun in 2001 and made up of 30 color self-portraits, photographer Tomoko Sawada has highlighted a very particular type of photography, that of the prenuptial encounter portrait.
In this series, Tomoko Sawada is therefore transformed into 30 different young girls. This photographer “with 1000 faces” is a fan of self-portraiture. She uses photographic staging and her own person to explore identity and societal issues. In all her series, she embodies various female characters to bring out the stereotypes: the bride, the high school student, the sweet lolita, or even the young girl to be married. She also questions the photographic practices of our society, such as class, CV and wedding photos.
The specific type of photographic portrait presented in this series is related to the practice ofomiai, the "arranged meeting" for a marriage between two people who do not know each other. L'omiai would have been born with the advent of the great Japanese warrior families, who would have extended their political alliances by arranged marriages between their offspring. Nothing new in the tropics! But it is from the Edo period, in the XVIe century, that this type of marriage has truly entered into mores, first in samurai families, then among the entire population. With the modernization of the country from the very end of the XNUMXe century, love marriages took over, even if until 1930, arranged marriages still represented more than 60% of unions.
It is estimated that today, 6% of Japanese marriages are still made by omiai. In this modern version, suitors can refuse a union that does not suit them. It has also become a voluntary process. "Voluntary" is however to be taken with a grain of salt, because Japanese society puts enormous pressure on young people over 30 who are not married. It is still very frowned upon to move into a household, with children, without being married. Women are particularly targeted by these pressures, because they are considered a bit “outdated” after 30 years! As for men, they may be subject to discrimination in hiring, since a person responsible for a family is considered to be more docile in the face of pressure than a free spirit. Nothing romantic in this kind of consideration.
In the series Omiai, using wigs, make-up, costumes, Tomoko Sawada imitates the very serious photos taken by the families with the aim of a omiai : it is after all to sell his offspring on photo! Although these clichés are appropriate for both women and men, posture and clothing codes are stricter for young girls. These portraits are then exchanged between the parties, through the families or a third person named nakodo (sort of professional matchmaker), who want to see young people have a good marriage.
Tomoko Sawada copies the gestures and attitudes of the young girl to be married who must present herself in her best light, both in classic clothes (suit or dress for example) and in magnificent and expensive furisode (the long-sleeved kimono reserved for single women), in a reserved attitude, feet together, most often hands crossed, face serious, eyes fixed on the camera. No superfluous decor, no bucolic landscape, no enticing smile or simpering, we are not kidding with the prenuptial encounter portrait! So much so that by the repetition of these young girls who are both different and identical in his portraits ofomiai, Tomoko Sawada makes us aware of the artificiality of these social self-representations. Despite the wigs and artifices, by photographing her own face each time, Tomoko Sawada demonstrates the interchangeability of these young girls subjected to a social "role play", that of the child to be housed!
Among the first series of photographer Kimiko Yoshida is the iconic one entitled Single Brides. Self-portraits, started in 2001, consisting of more than 170 color shots made until 2009.
From the outset, with this series, the conceptual and formal protocol that defines the work of Kimiko Yoshida is put in place. This protocol is marked with the seal of minimalism: always the same subject - the artist is his own model -; the same framing - on the face or the bust from the front and centered -; the same format - square-shaped prints -; the same size – squares with sides of 120 centimeters for this series –; the same color, almost monochrome, uniting the background and the naked or adorned figure (make-up, wig, clothing); the same indirect lighting - fixed neutral light from two 500 watt tungsten bulbs; the same shot using a Hasselblad, format 6 x 6 cm on slide film; the same Lambda prints on Kodak Endura satin paper, mounted on aluminum and under plexiglass.
In the series Single Brides. Self-portraits, the title is always divided into three parts: for example, with The Widowed Bride. self-portrait (from 2001, the very first self-portrait in the series), the term "Bride" presents fiction as it is not a wedding photo; the second term (here "widow", but it can also be the name of an ethnic group, a famous character or a painting) represents the interval between truth and falsehood: it is a starting truth, a reference, an allusion, but the "bride" is not really a "widow"; finally, the last term, “self-portrait”, the most essential according to the artist, establishes the only reality in the fundamentally fictional work of Kimiko Yoshida, while introducing the functions of transformation, otherness and hybridization. This figure, who can be "married", "single" and "widowed" at the same time, is a constant pictorial paradox, where the artist's personal obsession with marriage and his freedom to endorse multiple identifications intersect.
"Dread of marriage" is not an empty expression in the case of Kimiko Yoshida. This series finds its origin in a trauma suffered by the artist in his childhood. At the age of 7, Kimiko Yoshida learns from her mother's very mouth that she is the fruit of a very special traditional marriage, since her maternal grandfather adopted her father so that he bears the prestigious name of Yoshida before marrying him to his daughter; the two young people meeting for the first time in their lives on the very day of their wedding. It was therefore not a omiai kekkon (arranged marriage) as is still sometimes practiced today, because there was neither prior meeting nor possibility of refusal. It was a forced marriage (kyosei kekkon), and more specifically of a mukoyōshi kekkon, or literally "marriage by adoption of the son-in-law", which was common in the past (and completely legal) in important families.
This news horrified the young Kimiko Yoshida who then chose to refuse any marriage, considering the latter as a disastrous event. She fled Japan in 1995 to escape a marriage arranged by her family. She arrived in France and began her series of self-portraits in the early 2000s as "single brides", also called "intangible brides" or even "Divine comedy". It is therefore no coincidence that her self-portraits as brides are images of solitude, figures that are always specifically "single", rejecting any male representation: in other words, photographs of a virtual wedding where she never marries than its own reflection. Like an exorcism, Kimiko Yoshida tirelessly replays the role of the intangible – untouchable – bride, the one we look at but cannot possess…
The theme of the bride is also the occasion for a hybridization - a marriage in short - of Franco-Japanese references, its two cultures, original and adopted. Hidden under costumes, masks or jewels of all origins, the photographer incarnates different characters in turn. However, Kimiko Yoshida is not a pastiche artist. For example, in The Cherry Blossom Bride from 2006, it does not parody a Japanese woman posing under a cherry tree. Indeed, it is not a traditional bridal headdress that Kimiko Yoshida wears, but a pink wig bought in a prank store. Likewise, the kimono is fake. The artist used a piece of pink cloth which she draped around her chest so that it looked - to a Western eye - like a kimono. Finally, if the opaque make-up covering her face and shoulders is reminiscent of the technique ofoshiroi - the traditional white make-up of geishas -, its only function is to blend her face into the dominant pink color of the photograph. Kimiko Yoshida actually questions the often fantasized, not to say stereotypical, vision that the French have of Japan.
Nowadays, getting married in Japan is not very different from the formalities to be completed in France. We go to the town hall of the place where we are going to celebrate the union, and we fill out a marriage declaration form. As in France, you can only have a civil wedding or complete it with a religious ceremony. Traditionally, marriages were celebrated in shrines shinto for the purification of the spouses, the ritual of the cups of sake, the exchange of vows, the mutual promises between families and the offering to the deities. During this day, the husband wears a traditional costume consisting of wide trousers hakama and a jacket Haori dark in color. The bride is dressed in an all-white long-sleeved kimono called shiromuku, and a white over-kimono named uchikake. She is very recognizable by her white headdress which can either take the form of an imposing shell (wataboshi) or a banner (tsunokakushi). It was after the Second World War that the fashion for “Western-style” weddings began, in white dresses and smocking.
On the photography side, it is trendy these days to immortalize your wedding both in traditional Japanese costume and in “Western” bridal clothes. This double outfit, rented at great expense for the occasion, is not for all budgets, but it symbolizes the true business of marriage in Japan.
In 2007, Tomoko Sawada initiated a series entitled Bride, or “married”. In these self-portraits, the artist poses as Japanese brides, posing both in traditional dress and in white dresses. Framed in the bust, from the front, these color shots show the artist dressed in white in front of an exclusively red monochrome background, an auspicious color in Asia sometimes also present on the traditional bride's coat. This series is made up of 30 portraits, all presented together or as a duo, with always on the left, the bride “ shinto and on the right, the “Western” bride. The bride shinto always wears the same white kimono and the same headdress wataboshi ; the Western bride is always dressed in the same sleeveless white dress, with a lace collar, matched with a transparent veil on her head. Only the hairstyles of Western brides change from photo to photo, the hair of the traditional bride being concealed by the headdress. The variations between each duo of shots are therefore minute, to the point that you can only distinguish the differences by having all the prints in front of you.
Photographer Tomoko Sawada deals here again with the standardization of women within the social practice of marriage. In a mediation bringing together tradition and fashion, East and West, she underlines the fragility of individualities even within these divisions. By not changing the appearance of brides one iota shinto, she also puts her finger on the heavy significance of this traditional outfit which symbolically “kills” the young girl to make her reborn in her in-laws (by the use of the white kimono, also reserved for the dead). Outfit that also conceals any individuality of the bride's face with imposing headdresses, the literal meaning of which is "horn cover" (tsunokakushi). In other words, an accessory to hide the demonic horns of the woman, a necessarily jealous and selfish creature, who will have to make amends through marriage to become a gentle and obedient wife. An entire program !
But Japanese wedding photography can also be fun, like the Bear & Rabbit couple who brighten up Instagram with their very official images of newlyweds masked as white bears (for the gentleman) and rabbit (for the lady). This is a series started in 2018 by the couple's photographer (Tsukao), based on the paradoxical observation that during his missions, his clients asked him not to photograph people's faces for privacy reasons, so that selfies were exploding on social networks. This contradiction in the use of photography led the couple to immortalize their marriage, then their honeymoon, then their life as a couple, in the form of completely serious modern portraits, except for their masked faces.
A much nicer and more egalitarian way of concealing traits than the traditional Japanese bride's "horn cover"!
Art historian. Doctor in Contemporary Japanese Photography
ill.1 – The Cherry Blossom Bride. Self-portrait, 2006 by Kimiko Yoshida ©Kimiko Yoshida
ill.2 – single brides by Kimiko Yoshida: The Widowed Bride. Self-portrait, 2001 ©Kimiko Yoshida
ill.3 – Omiai (30 works), 2006 © Tomoko Sawada
Fig.4 – Thirty Works: Bridle, 2008 © Tomoko Sawada
Fig.5 – Bear & Rabbit wedding, 2018, © TSUKAO (Instagram – bear_n_rabbit)