The title above is adapted from a section of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, which indeed labeled Japan as one of the 18th century’s more exotic, outrageous, and factually suspect travel destinations. For some people today Japan seems no less magical. A few years ago I was walking through a mall in Seattle, USA, politely declining the sales pitch of two well-dressed young men trying to sell me phone service. When I told them I lived in Japan and couldn’t use their product, they switched from professionals-in-training to excited schoolboys about to be shown a lizard in a box. “Cool!” they both cooed in unison. I asked them why they thought Japan was so neat, and they rattled off a list of Japanese objects of western fixation: Akihabara technology, animation, instant noodles, manga, etc. Perhaps practical training for exchange students should include the following advice: As thank-you gifts for host families, rather than folding fans or pickled plum treats, they should instead just buy some comics from the convenience store. Half the fun would be trying to explain the popular Japanese obsession with oversized eyes.
Which reminds me of an enduring Japanese fad that doesn’t seem to have caught on yet in most western countries: the print club (purikura). Recently I stumbled into a purikura “hive” and was astounded by the advances that have been made there. One booth promised to give you a “milk face.” Another booth allowed you the option of enlarging your eyes, a la manga. If purikura were ever to take off in the USA, though, I think such features would have to be changed. Eye enlargement might not be as attractive for Americans as, say, lip enlargement. And neck tattoos would definitely have to be available as after-the-shoot virtual options.
Japan isn’t the only culture that engages in fantasy photography. (After all, everybody says the most popular cosmetics line in the world is called Photoshop.) And the desire to be someone else in a photograph goes back far earlier than the technology that so easily allows it today. When I was about 14 my aunt and uncle took me and three cousins—all girls around my age—to the “tour-rustic” town of Jackson, Wyoming, USA. As part of the fun we went to a studio where we put on 19th century frontier clothes and sat for an “Old West” photo shoot. My cousins all wore dancing girl dresses and feathers in their hair; I was the only one in chaps and a ten-gallon hat. Just before taking the pictures the photographer put something in my hand I’d never seen before: an elastic garter. Throughout the session I held it in front of me like it was a snake carcass I’d found on the highway. Every time I see that old photo I laugh at the expression on my face that says, “What exactly does this thing do?”
Of course when you’re interested in the exoticism of an item, you don’t really care what it does. I once bought my aunt a plastic wall clock in the shape of the Southeast Asian country of Laos. It was meant to serve as a memento of the charity work she had done for Lao refugee families in our town. Unfortunately, the hanging clip on the back wasn’t centered properly, so when it went up on the wall the “12” tipped a few degrees to the right. I humored her by saying it accurately represented Laos’ orientation toward magnetic north rather than geographic north. She in turn humored me (for a few months, at least) by finding some place in her house to hang it. But ultimately it was put to rest in a corner of her storage room alongside the Russian doll-within-doll chess sets, Peruvian llama-shaped saltshakers, and aetherium paperweights from Laputa, all gifts from traveling acquaintances whose sense of the remarkable outweighed their sense of taste.