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March 18, 2011

TIME’s “Meltdown” Cover: Insight, or Working Japanese Stereotype?

It’s a bold and impressive move to run one photo containing no accompanying detail of an incredible, and detail-stunning series of cataclysms on TIME’s Japan Earthquake/Tsunami/Nuclear Disaster cover. Going that route, it throws all the weight on the emotional response of the population, otherwise notable in the West for the more opaque Japanese mind.

What I’m wondering, though — given how I’m seeing an accelerating number of similarly high profile photos (1, 2) in the U.S. press of Japanese people weeping in public — is how much this cover frames the intense grief and loss one would see in any culture, given the circumstances, and how much the media’s response is informed by cultural stereotyping, these crying images — paired with the obvious double meaning of “meltdown” to refer to a culture coming emotionally unglued — potentially pivoting off that image of Japanese stoicism.

If what the cover accurately captures is a crisis so devastating it punctured that stoicism, it would be one thing. It would be something altogether different, however, if the underpinning here was to document how the overt expression of emotion demonstrates that “the Japanese really are human” (meaning more like us Americans) after all.

See more takes on Japan earthquake photos here and at Tumblr.<<

(photo: Aly Song/Reuters)

  • Anonymous

    Hmmm…. How do these reflections work if we replace weeping Japanese with our weeping Speaker of the House, third in line to be president of the U.S.

  • Dave McLane

    Having spent some time in both Japan and China, the idea that Japanese are “stoic” (and Chinese are “inscrutable”) comes from the loose hinge-pin mindset of Americans when confronted with a culture which is much more centered and grounded.

    This isn’t something that’s easy to understand as it takes some time. I had a head start as I came the long-way-around, a six-year overland journey via Europe. The first hint that something was definitely different was seeing ordinary people’s photos displayed in small town photo shops in India: no Kodak Moment grins. They were just standing/sitting there, relaxed, looking at the camera.

  • Glichte

    looks like human grief to me

  • tinwoman

    sorry, I don’t see the stereotype in the pictures…it’s the odd American belief that Asians generally, and the Japanese particularly, are emotionless collectivist robots that is the stereotype.

    • Michael Shaw

      My take was that the cover is viewing the show of emotion as remark-able, or noteworthy, which is not inconsistent with the robotic stereotype. As always, though, I’m interested in what the readership is seeing in it.

  • George Mokray

    Anybody who’s watched Japanese movies knows that the stoic stereotype is just that. There is a strain of sentimentality (and male tears) which would be seen as positively maudlin in Western society.

  • Michael

    So: is it just too evocative of our own preconceptions, or does it touch our common humanity? Not easy to decide, and maybe a false dichotomy: if you work on some preconception about Japan, then it could spark that off, or if not, then it’s just humanity. The question might be, whether the photo is strong enough in itself to carry the whole drama (when accompanied with the headline)? That’s a fine judgment call, but I reckon it is strong enough. Anyway, who among us with a scrap of empathy and knowledge of the situation could not place ourselves in her shoes?

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