Contributing factors to the popularity of the "Peace" sign in Japanese photography

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Preface: “Why do so many Japanese people make the two-finger ‘peace sign’ in photographs?” is one of the perennial What’s Up With Japan questions. Sadly, the answer given usually derives from a half-assed Google search in which most of the pages found are just quoting Wikipedia anyway.

This article attempts to summarize what is reliably known about the matter at the present time, with links to related information online where possible. Readers are invited to add any evidence of their own, including verifiable sources, in the comment thread.

Part A: V for “Victory”

A1. V-sign for “Victory” (Europe): Promoted by various Allied groups during WWII to symbolize local cognates of “victory.” Gestural V-sign made famous worldwide when adopted by Winston Churchill.

A2. V-sign for “Victory” (Japan, post-war): Churchill-style V-sign hypothesized to have been introduced into Japan by Allied occupation. Evidence scarce.

A3a. V-sign for “Victory” (Japan, pre-Bubble): Enters popular consciousness in late 1960s via baseball manga/anime Kyojin no Hoshi 『巨人の星』 (“Star of the Giants”). Hero Hyūma believes father has not come to say goodbye at train station as he departs for Kōshien, but father appears at last moment and throws up V. Hyūma recognizes it as “the V-sign of victory!” (“Shōri no V-sain!“) and resolves to win.

A3b. V-sign for “Victory” (Japan, pre-Bubble): In 1969, creators of girl’s volleyball manga Sain wa V 『サインはV』 (“V is the sign”) are inspired by A3a to drench product in V-sign — like early hip-hop producers taking only best part of drum break and repeating over and over. Sain wa V adapted into live-action drama and, like Kyojin no Hoshi, became leading hit in ongoing “sports grit” (スポーツ根性, スポ根) boom. Meaning of V-sign is spelled out in opening lines of theme song: “V, I, C, T, O, R, Y/ Sain wa V!”

A3b-supplement. Comment from Jimbo Shirō 神保史郎, writer of original Sain wa V manga:

I respected [Kyojin no Hoshi writer] Kajiwara Ikki. He was the sort of writer I wanted to become. The scene in Kyojin no Hoshi when Hoshi Hyūma is about to set off for Kōshien, and then his father appears and thrusts out that V-sign made a big impression. In a meeting with the editors, I suggested that we call our new story V Mexico, since the Mexico Olympics were coming up and all. After a lot of debate, we decided that Sain wa V was more straightforward and worked better. (Source: Inose Naoki 猪瀬直樹’s Mikado no kuni no kigōron 『ミカドの国の記号論』 (“Semiotics in the land of the Mikado”), 1991.)

Part B: V for “Peace”

B1. V-sign for “Peace” (USA): Exact origins unclear, but seems to date from 1960s’ U.S. counterculture, and in particular, anti-Vietnam War (= pro-peace) sentiment. Gradual dilution to symbolize solidarity in struggle against The Man as well as simple “peace.”

B2a. V-sign for “Peace” (Japan): As elements of counterculture spread to Japan, so does V-sign. Adopted by student radicals of late 1960s as well as relatively apolitical followers of foreign fashions. (Possible inspiration for A3a?)

B2b-supplement. Many sources cite Japanese popularity of Janet Lynn, U.S. figure skater and heartwarming dojikko, during and after the 1972 Sapporo Olympics as likely inspiration, claiming that she was often shown in the Japanese media flashing the peace sign. No evidence located.

Part C: V for “Cheese”

C1. V-sign in photographs: “Victory” (?) (Japan): Current oldest known example in poster for 1960 film Oku-man choja 『億万長者』 (“The Millionaire”) clearly shows Nakahara Hitomi 中原ひとみ making V-sign and smiling at camera. (Discovery credit: Kepel-sensei.)

C2. V-sign in photographs: “Peace” (Japan): In 2007 episode of Downtown DX, Inoue Jun 井上順 claims to have popularized V-sign in photographs via 1972 Konika commercial, in which he ad-libbed use of the V-sign by photographed persons, inspired by anti-war movement.

C3. V-sign in photographs: “Cheese” (Japan): All sources agree that by 1980s, use of V-sign in photographs was unremarkable and spreading slowly up the age scale.

Part D: Conclusions and unresolved questions

D1. Timeline synthesized from information above:

  • V-sign becomes powerful, positive gesture during WWII
  • Use of V-sign as part of photography pose dates back to at least 1960
  • Revitalization of V-sign as counterculture “peace” sign in ’60s/’70s coincides with period in which Japanese youth was both interested in U.S. youth culture and had means to import its artifacts and habits
  • However, early connection to “victory” was not forgotten: use of V-sign to mean “victory” had extremely high visibility in youth-targeted media around 1970
  • Thus, at this time, “victory” and “peace” meanings may have reinforced each other, raising profile of gesture still higher. (E.g. Inose suggests that Kajiwara was inspired to write Kyojin no Hoshi V-scene by strong media presence of V-flashing anti-war demonstrators.)
  • Meanwhile, rising incomes and many Japan-based camera makers meant more photos by non-professionals → space for photography folkways to develop (encouraged by camera companies, e.g. Inoue Jun’s CM story)
  • Post-1980, gesture has lost emotional resonance and becomes part of “camera pose,” eventually to develop into modern variations that flatter face shape, emphasize eyes, highlight nail art, etc.

D2. Further questions:

  • Could long /i/ sound in “peace” have made it particularly attractive to photographers looking for a hipper version of “cheese”?
  • To what extent can the in-photo popularity of the “peace” sign, whatever its origins, be attributed to its nature as a widely recognized performance, protecting the subject from visual capture at an awkward or vulnerable moment? (cf pouty MySpace poses, throwing the horns, etc.)
  • No relation to U.S. bunny-ears photo prank? (Would one not expect such horseplay to be much more common than bombastic Churchillian V’s among occupying GIs?)
  • Did GHQ in fact use mind control or genetic engineering to impose “peace” sign on Japanese nation, as reportedly hypothesized by Igeta Seiichi (aged 17)?

Matt TREYVAUD
October 26, 2009

Matt Treyvaud is a writer and translator living near Kamakura. He is Néojaponisme's Literature/Language editor and the proprietor of No-sword.

24 Responses

  1. Tweets that mention Néojaponisme » Blog Archive » Contributing factors to the popularity of the “Peace” sign in Japanese photography -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Oliver Reichenstein, Jean Snow, Néojaponisme, Dave Perry, Claire Tanaka and others. Claire Tanaka said: RT: [Marxy] Our Matt T. digs into the history of the peace sign in Japan: http://is.gd/4BBtn (via @neojaponisme) […]

  2. Miles Says:

    Why does the illustration at the top of this article show the “whatever” sign rather than the peace sign? A subtle comment on the importance of this topic?

  3. Patomaru Says:

    I am hardly the world traveler, but I always got the sense that the peace sign in pictures was an everywhere but America phenomenon.

    When I went to Europe all the Italians I met flashed it for pictures, and in Korea too.

  4. W. David MARX Says:

    Why does the illustration at the top of this article show the “whatever” sign rather than the peace sign?

    Irony.

  5. Peter Says:

    Should the mentions of “A2a” be “A3a”?

  6. Boris in Saitama Says:

    Don’t be silly. We all know that it means “we owe you two nukes”

  7. Adamu Says:

    The point that Americans make an equivalent of the peace sign whenever they do devil horns or make a funny face for a photo is probably the most relevant part of this piece.

    People in Thailand had some variation of the peace sign, I think it was placing the thumb and forefinger in an L shape and then using it to frame the face.

    What court are these pieces of evidence are being submitted to? Is the peace sign on trial?

    Anyway, now might be the time to show people some good places to make the peace sign in front of Tokyo foliage:
    http://www.metro.tokyo.jp/INET/OSHIRASE/2009/10/20jan800.htm

  8. Andreas Says:

    My understanding is that it is related to the photographer making a “2” with his fingers, triggering a “ni” and thus a nice smile from the photographed subject. At some stage, the subject started responding/imitating the photographer’s 2-finger gesture.

  9. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Should the mentions of “A2a” be “A3a”?

    Yes, and now they are. Thanks!

    The point that Americans make an equivalent of the peace sign whenever they do devil horns or make a funny face for a photo is probably the most relevant part of this piece.

    Ouch, yo. But, yeah, the discussion about why people find the V so fascinating would probably also be interesting.

    What court are these pieces of evidence are being submitted to? Is the peace sign on trial?

    Yes. In the grim Hatoyama future, THERE IS ONLY WAR! Or so US officials have led me to believe.

    Andreas: That’s an almost suspiciously good explanation. Do you have any verifiable sources for it?

  10. language hat Says:

    Gradual dilution to symbolize solidarity in struggle against prevailing counterculture

    I think there’s one too many negatives there, unless your irony level is beyond my poor powers of comprehension.

  11. rotangus Says:

    The two variants of the “rabbit fingers” sign mean slightly different things in the US, depending on how the hand is used.

    If you show your V sign with the back of the hand facing the viewer, that’s the 1940s era “V for Victory” sign popularized by Churchill.

    If you show your hand with the curled fingers facing the viewer, that’s the ’60s vintage peace sign.

    Folk younger than 40 or so have blurred these distinctions (mostly because both eras are so remote to them), but for the rest of us, there’s a real difference between the two hand signals.

  12. Bridget Says:

    great.

    next up: “じゃんけん… a way of life.”

  13. Travis Says:

    @rotangus

    LOL There’s a real difference in the UK, too…two fingers up with your curled fingers facing yourself is the same as the middle finger in the US.

  14. Andreas Says:

    @Matt

    No verifiable sources really, but http://www.google.com/search?client=opera&rls=en&q=%22ni%22+peace+sign+photograph+japan&sourceid=opera&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8 gives a couple of results. Of course, it’s quite hard to pin this one down as there is probably no really solid evidence for either of the theories.

  15. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    languagehat: Thanks! I fixed that.

    rotangus + Travis: Interesting — I’d heard of the distinction in the UK (also heard that Churchill intentionally blurred it a bit to annoy the Nazis), but I didn’t realize there was ever any distinction in the US.

    Andreas: Yeah, it is hard to pin down — but I would settle for even one photographer on record as saying “Oh, yeah, we used to do that to make kids smile back in the 60s” etc… this is a Serious Post! Citation Needed! (But thanks, I’m glad the info is here too.)

  16. M-Bone Says:

    Great post. I have seen all of the anime/manga but never thought to put it all together.

  17. language hat Says:

    The two variants of the “rabbit fingers” sign mean slightly different things in the US, depending on how the hand is used.

    I think “US” must be a typo for “UK” here, because as a lifelong American I have never seen or heard of such a distinction here, and Americans are routinely surprised when they learn of the British usage.

  18. MC Says:

    I found this at the Ask the AV CLub:

    There are a bunch of theories as to the origin of the V sign—either a peace sign or a Winston Churchill-style victory symbol, depending on which story you go with—in Japanese culture, many of which can be found on the Wikipedia page on the subject. The most widely disseminated seems to be that when U.S. figure skater Janet Lynn fell during the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, she kept smiling and flashed the peace sign even while ass-down on the ice, making her an overnight sensation in Japan. Copycats followed her lead.

    http://www.avclub.com/articles/ask-the-av-club-april-10-2008,2250/

  19. xee Says:

    “curled fingers”

    what kind of peace signs are you making? curled fingers = “ironic” “air” “quotes” surely.

    The use of flicking the Vs – a peace sign with the back of your hand facing the viewer – as an insulting gesture in the UK far predates the peace sign. It’s supposed to date from the hundred years’ war (though i think the popular etymology i learnt at school was a little more, er, salty). They say that Churchill had to be repeatedly advised to keep his peace signs palm-forward.

  20. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    MC: The AV Club seems to be just repeating the same online explanations as everyone else. My position on the Janet Lynn connection is, in a phrase, “Pics or it didn’t happen.”

    Xee: I heard (possibly apocryphally) that Churchill delighted in that barely-sublimated rudeness involved, too.

  21. xapiskeed Says:

    My Japanese gf explained to me that the Japanese usually say ni~~~~ (at least say if they don’t say cheese) when taking a picture and ni is Japanese for two, so they point a 2 with their fingers.

  22. phspaelti Says:

    Speaking of “pics or it didn’t happen”, can anybody provide datable pictures that actually show people making the V-sign? That kind of thing might actually provide some ante-dating of this custom, and rule out, or at least narrowdown, some of the speculation presented here.

  23. David H Says:

    All very interesting, but the “V” sign in photos is not limited to only Japan. It ain’t exactly uncommon in a few other parts of Asia.

    Wait, maybe it was spread by the Japanese military in WW2 and is some sort of secret code…

    Curiously, my Japanese friends say “ichi” when I try to take their photos and hold up only one finger making a sign similar to the US gesture. They are very polite here, so I am sure that they don’t mean anything unkind by it.

  24. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    All very interesting, but the “V” sign in photos is not limited to only Japan. It ain’t exactly uncommon in a few other parts of Asia.

    Well, yeah, but you could say the same of Doraemon and Hello Kitty. It’s amazing how far cuteness and cash will take you. The Out Of Japan theory makes the most sense given the circumstantial evidence (everyone seems to assume it came from here) and the lack of a serious pan-Asian hypothesis — although that would be awesome too.

    My Japanese gf explained to me that the Japanese usually say ni~~~~ (at least say if they don’t say cheese) when taking a picture and ni is Japanese for two, so they point a 2 with their fingers.

    The “ni = 2, ni = smile” thing seems to be a folk etymology, sadly — I can’t find evidence that anyone voiced this explanation back when the gesture was becoming ubiquitous. “Peace” seems to have been the earlier vocalization.

    Speaking of “pics or it didn’t happen”, can anybody provide datable pictures that actually show people making the V-sign? That kind of thing might actually provide some ante-dating of this custom, and rule out, or at least narrowdown, some of the speculation presented here.

    I was hoping that this post would inspire some students with time and library access on their hands to dig up some photos for just this reason. Looks like it’s still too soon…