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reportage: The overstatement of understatement



Looking at these photos, everything appears muffled, silent, stripped of all noise, as if the children were speaking softly, never screaming or shouting, just whispering, confiding in a friendly ear, speaking with faint voices.

In the same way as a photo tries not to prevaricate, disturb or provoke its neighbour, each little guest in this nursery in the bradycardic heart of the Nagoya suburbs in central Japan, learns to be respectful and use the “language of respect”, a sort of non-verbal communication governing interpersonal relationship through ceremonial and sign languages.

We are plunged into Japanese culture, into the fundamentally important social stratum of education, wallowing our way through the words and pages of Fosco Maraini, blessed with a talent for explaining and describing this land so far removed, not only geographically, from the West and Western outlook.

An education which tends to eradicate individualist mentality by focusing on “group law”, an unwritten code which affects behaviour from a very early age. And education also acts according to this very same rule by availing of precise dynamics to, in turn, establish links between the individual and the group in a reciprocal relationship: the single element’s individuality is legitimised through belonging to the group, in a sort of bonding awareness.

The link can be regarded not only as a ring connected to another two but as an authentic web, an integral part of a vast complex network, the social network. Children move within the network, through culture, sport and relationships, to become as one, discipline is not taught through punishment as obedience is not learned through threats of being scolded but by a fear of earning their classmates disapproval, with priority apparently given to not upsetting the balance of the group.

Hopefully the reader will forgive me for comparing this Oriental and, why not, nursery bonding to the rather simple game of pick-up sticks from Shanghai, where players have to remove one stick without knocking over or even moving any of the others placed above below or even nearby. But on the other hand it is the very grouping of the sticks which directs attention to the individual by pinpointing its position.

Each child can thus be likened to a small stick, each with its own colour and original traits, which are only grasped when seen as part of the collection of sticks.

We are confronted by a magical ancient people, a culture at times regarded as far removed from our own and thus, maybe for this, extremely mysterious, and also most intriguing. “Borrowing” the words of Fosco Maraini, an expert at describing this phenomenum: «I took a deep breaths of the air of my second country, the country in which I had lived and suffered for so long, where my daughters were born, the air of this eastern Hellas which has the gift of putting those who have once loved her under a permanent spell».

We visit this marvellous culture under the guidance of photographer Federico Leone who, inspired by the work of Maraini, illustrates emotions, states of mind and childish gestures which, grouped together, reflect the gestures and states of mind of the entire country. Like the great, multitalented ethnologist, Federico has also breathed in Japanese air, has fallen in love with and come under the spell of Japan.