If I were to imagine a fictive nation, I can … isolate somewhere in the world (faraway) a certain number of features, and out of these features deliberately form a system. It is this system which I shall call: Japan.



Rereading the Empire of Signs

L’empire des signes — published in 1970 and translated into English by Richard Howard over a decade later — was the culmination of thoughts about a trip to Japan by Roland Barthes, one of France’s most engaging contemporary philosophers and literary theorists. This compelling, subtle work is composed of a series of “flashes”, insights into aspects of the culture Barthes interacted with and witnessed during his visit and — “in no way claiming to represent or analyze reality itself” — recreated and crafted with his semiotician’s intellect, and some poetic orientalist tendencies, as the Empire of Signs: ‘Japan’.

The book’s twenty-six brief chapters are punctuated with images, about which Barthes writes in the preface:

“The text does not “gloss” the images, which do not “illustrate” the text. For me, each has been no more than the onset of a kind of visual uncertainty, analogous perhaps to that ‘loss of meaning’ Zen calls a ‘satori’.”

I’ve taken Barthes’ text, and his ideas about the relationship between the writings and the images it contains, as a starting point for my own series of images on ‘Japan’ as an empire of signs. From my own reading of The Empire of Signs — both the book and the country — I’ve paired excerpts from his text with my own images, these taken around Tokyo while I contemplated the chapters that inspired them. As in Barthes’ book, it’s intended that the photos and the selected passages of text exist in a thematic interplay, even if they often do seem to illustrate and gloss each other. It’s been forty-five years since Barthes constructed his ideas — even more years since his visit to Japan in 1966; the “vast regions of darkness (capitalist Japan, American acculturation, technological development)” he left aside during his reflections are now so deeply a part of Japan’s culture; so much has changed — despite the advances of capitalism, acculturation and technology, a once dynamic, optimistic nation of relatively young people growing richer has been replaced by a pessimistic country of ageing workers and declining birth rates with a stagnant economy and increasing poverty; his ‘Japan’ is far removed from my own, yet — even with my years of residence here — my ‘Japan’ is as much of a construction as his.

Plus ça change…


The photos in this essay are named after — and presented in the same sequence as — the chapters of Barthes’ book and the accompanying passages are extracts from those same chapters. The featured photo shares the book’s title while the text that accompanies it comes from the book’s opening paragraph. All quoted texts in this photo essay are from Empire of Signs by Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard, Hill and Wang, NY, 1982.