ETSUKO NISHIDA was stunned when her teenage son, Katsunori, took off his hat. She managed, however, to force a smile despite the sticky spikes that had sprouted on top of his head.
Katsunori's eye-catching hairstyle was familiar to his friends; but to his mother, it was something totally new. Worried about her reaction, Katsunori had always sported a hat around the house. With his mother standing beside him during a camera shoot, it took prompting by Bruce Osborn, an American photographer, for Katsunori, a young musician, to unveil his spiked Mohawk.
Photographers have a knack for bringing out uniqueness in people. In Japan today, teenagers often seem peculiar to older people, even to their parents.
But they often try to conceal their oddities from everyone except their friends.
That's why in public, Japanese teenagers might seem alike: shy, a little straight-laced, and studious.
But Bruce, with a camera and a little zany behavior, discovered that many Japanese teenagers are actually fun-loving, adventuresome, and willing to stand out from the crowd.
One of the teens he photographed, Yasunari Mochizuki, is 13 years old, 5 feet, 8 inches tall, and weighs 300 hundred pounds. Yasunari is in training, determined to become a champion in the ancient art of Japanese-style wrestling, known as sumo.
When his thoughts aren't focused on exercising, they wander to fashionable clothes and, of course, girls. Yasunari is often too shy to talk to girls, although he knows that he is handsome.
Junnosuke Yonezawa, 14, on the other hand, is into a modern sport imported from America, skateboarding, which has become as much a part of everyday life for many Japanese boys as baseball.
Yasunari and Junnosuke are not particularly different from their peers. But they don't fit the stereotype of a boring Japanese teenager either.
Indeed, many Japanese teens may look alike because they must follow strict school codes relating to uniforms and hairstyles. They don't let these restrictions squelch their individuality, though. Instead, they sometimes sew odd buttons on their uniforms or proudly point out characteristics that aren't considered desirable, such as moles or thick eyebrows ... all for the sake of being different.
Bruce Osborn moved from Los Angeles to Tokyo in 1981, in search of more artistic freedom in his field of commercial photography. Since then, he has established himself as a popular experimental photographer in Japan.
What surprised Bruce about life in Tokyo is that "there were so many differences as opposed to sameness [among the Japanese].
"In actuality," he says, "there may be more variety coexisting in Japan than in the United States."
Take, for example, 13-year-old Takumi Sato, who was not too pleased to have his picture taken by Bruce. Takumi likes to arrange flowers artistically, a rather unusual interest for a Japanese boy these days; he also wants to become a Buddhist monk. Both of these activities have deep roots in Japanese history.
In addition, he has an exceptional interest in money. In Takumi's thinking, there is no contradiction between becoming rich and learning about Buddhism, which warns against material greed. He enjoys receiving money from people who ask him to chant memorial prayers at his neighborhood Buddhist temple.
Kaoru Takahashi, 17, is a novice in Kendo, a traditional Japanese sport akin to fencing, except the prop used is a bamboo stick instead of a foil. Kendo used to be a male-dominated sport, but interest among girls has grown so that there are now many swordgirls.
Kaoru is typical of today's Japanese girls as she wants to become an office clerk and dreams of having a life like Princess Kiko, a commoner who turned princess when she married the Emperor's son.
Like their American counterparts, many Japanese teens love to dance. Kohei Ando, 17, frequents discos, and he wouldn't mind becoming a prime minister and making the world a better place. But, Kohei says, his career is already decided. He is willing to take over his parents' dry-cleaning business because he appreciates how much hard work his parents have put into it. "Right now, all I do is have fun, but when the time comes, I'll quit fooling around and start working hard," he says.
For Japanese teens, pressure is great to study hard and pass entrance exams for college. But most enjoy school because it provides a vehicle for making friends.
Bruce once wondered how Japanese balance the various types of social pressure in their lives. But he noticed that often they go a bit crazy to release stress. "They have more structure, less space; but as any human, they do find an escape," he says.
Many Japanese teenagers let loose by playing video games, reading comic books, or going with friends to a "karaoke box" where they can rent a small room and sing the words of a pop song into a microphone while the music is played.
"It's a peculiar phenomenon," Bruce says. "As a child growing up [in America], I used to hang out at beaches or parks with friends. It [the popularity of the karaoke box] shows how much Tokyo lacks space for kids to be among themselves."
Bruce has used his camera to show affection among family members. Japanese teens don't hug or easily express love for their parents. Such directness embarrasses them. But Bruce captures the subtle bond between a Japanese parent and a child, as he did, for instance, in his picture of "punker" Katsunori and his mother.
"I hope by looking at these photographs and learning about Japanese teenagers, American children could learn that there are different ways of doing things and different approaches to life," says Bruce. "But, as humans, they have the same capacity of happiness, sadness, and the need of balance.
"I hope American children could identify with some of them and say, 'Hey, this guy's OK, he could be my friend.' "
If you'd like to step into the shoes of a Japanese teenager and try singing a karaoke song, grappling with a sumo wrestler, or riding a crowded city subway, you can visit an exhibit called "Teen Tokyo" at the Children's Museum in Boston. Life-size portraits of many of the teens on this page will be on display at the museum for three years before the exhibit tours the US.
'Kidspace' is a place on the Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will tickle imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.