Playing Japanese

Reversing protectionist policies forbidding foreign products in order to bolster domestic industry, in 1903 the Japanese government opened the first National Industrial Exhibition to allow the presentation of imported goods.
The event attracted some 4,350,000 visitors. For the first time, the Japanese people would be able to see not only things that had been brought from all over the world but also, in what was dubbed the “Pavilion of the Human Races,” organized with the assistance of Tokyo Imperial University’s Anthropological Society, the kind of “human exhibit” then popular at expositions in Europe and the United States. As conceived, the pavilion would start with reproductions of the illustrations (photographs) found in the English publication The Living Races of Mankind, while inside indigenous peoples were to be exhibited in structures modeled on the traditional dwellings of the different “races.” However, encountering fierce resistance from the those who were to be represented, this “human exhibit” that would turn living people into objects or scientific specimens had to be revised at the planning stage.

This work documents a workshop in which participants pretended to be the turn-of-the-century “Japanese” who imported the “imperialist gaze” from Europe and the United States and turned it toward the Ainu, Okinawa, Taiwan, and Korea. The workshop was planned based on the plan of the “Human pavilion” at the National Industrial Exhibition held in Osaka in 1903. While acting as performers under Fujii’s instructions, the participants ended up in discriminating against the other participants, similarly to what had happened at Human Pavilion It is uncertain whether this anachronistic exercise using a prescribed framework to revive behavior, language and attitudes that were rejected by postwar democracy was truly able to excavate the violent undercurrents of colonialism and racism that once ruled the world. Have those undercurrents really dried up and perished in our 21st-century societies that champion diversity?