Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Deciphering the ubiquitous peace sign

I’ve been taking lots of pictures here in Japan and emailing them home to my family.

My brother wrote back to say the photos were great but why was everyone in them spreading their fingers and making a peace sign?

His question stumped me. I mean, I knew that Japanese people liked to strike a peace-sign pose in pictures but I didn’t know why exactly.

So I decided to ask one of the teachers at my school (and by “ask” I really mean “play charades” since his English is about as good as my Japanese).

My question came out sounding something like, “Camera. Japanese people. Peace sign. Why?”

He immediately understood what I was getting at.

“Ahhhh . . . piisu!” he said.

“Yes! Why?” I asked, pretending to hold a camera up to my face.

“War. Bad,” he said, firing an imaginary machine gun around the room. “Japanese like peace.”

He went on to explain that younger people like to pose by making a peace sign with their fingers while older people (such as himself) generally prefer to be photographed giving the thumbs up.

The language barrier prevented us from delving too deeply into the cultural significance of the thumbs up or the peace sign. So I googled it when I got home. I found a few interesting theories, including this one that links the start of the Japanese peace-sign craze to the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo. Here’s an excerpt:

“Figure skater Janet Lynn stumbled into Japanese pop culture when she fell during a free-skate period but continued to smile even as she sat on the ice. Though she placed only 3rd in the competition, her cheerful diligence and indefatigability resonated with many Japanese viewers, making her an overnight celebrity in Japan. Afterwards, Lynn (a peace activist) was repeatedly seen flashing the V sign in the Japanese media. Though the V sign was known of in Japan prior to Lynn’s use of it there (from the post-WWII Allied occupation of Japan), she is credited by some Japanese for having popularized its use in amateur photographs.”

It’s a cool little story but is it true? Did Janet Lynn single-handedly start the Japanese peace-sign craze? If anyone can shed some light on Japan’s obsession with the peace sign, let me know. I’d like to give my brother a proper answer to his question.

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