Journal of Intercultural Communication, issue 3, 2000

Rumiko Oyama

Visual Communication across Cultures


In this paper, I question the notion that "The Visual" is a culturally transparent means of communication (Neurath, 1937, 1948). I will be demonstrating how different cultures (Japanese and British) use the resources of visual communication, in ways that are related to their specific underlying value systems. In order to show this I draw on advertisements from both countries and use the visual grammar developed by Kress and van Leeuwen (1990, 1996).

By analysing the forms (visual syntax) that the advertisements take: the semiotic structure of the images, with less emphasis on their content (visual lexis), it is possible to find systematic differences that relate to the specific locations of the advertisements in a given social cultural context.

I have discussed visual representations in Japanese and British advertisements with reference to the three notion of metafunctions. My analysis has demonstrated that both Japanese and British visual semiotics are conditioned by a different underlying spatial semiotic systems. This goes against the notion of culturally transparency of visuals. Visual representations and the way in which they convey meaning is culturally conditioned.

I have focused exclusively on the formal structures of visual representation in this paper. What my discussion suggests is; if visual lexis can serve as cultural representation, so can visual syntax. For the full understanding of visual representations from a cross-cultural perspective, a further systematic study on visual syntax as well as visual lexis should become essential. In conclusion, cultures condition visual forms and visual forms represent cultures.

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