Picks and Pans Review: A Day in the Life of Japan

updated 01/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Rick Smolan and David Cohen

Before dawn last June 7, a team of 100 photo-journalists from around the world fanned out across Japan for a 24-hour orgy of picture taking. Pursuing carefully plotted targets, yet free to follow their instincts within those assignments, the photographers brought back about 135,000 images of life in the island nation. Though the concept and the staggering logistics had worked three times before-producing Day in the Life books on Australia (1981), Hawaii (1983) and Canada (1984)—they had never been tried in any non-English speaking country, let alone one notable for its concealing formality toward outsiders. But all obstacles seem to have melted before the photographers' fascination with their complex subject. The Canada book had a problem: for Americans, the panoply was generally indistinguishable from that of the United States. In the Japan book, the familiar and the exotic (to Westerners) constantly bounce off each other, often in the same photograph. Here are uniformed Japanese schoolgirls descending stairs on a hill dotted with small manicured pines. At the top of the hill stands a long glass building with a tricolored fabric roof. At the bottom, looming like totemic objects, are five gleaming, garish vending machines, labeled in English and Japanese, dispensing Coca-Cola, Mountain Dew and various fruit juices. In one shot are traditional communal bathhouses, with their carved stone founts. In another, a sumo wrestler is having his topknot tied and, a few pages later, pachinko players sit at their pinball gambling machines in cowboy boots and 10-gallon hats. The book, with its informative and often wry captions, is an arresting portrait of a land of gushing sentimentality ("love hotels" with beds in the shape of rocket ships), extreme respect for authority (even for life-size cutouts of policemen positioned along roadsides) and outrageous sex stereotyping (a reclining nude woman serves as a human platter for a group of male executives having a sushi feast). This is first-rate photojournalism. (Collins, $39.95)

From Our Partners