Ceci n’est pas une image

If you look very closely at food packaging in Japan, you will often find the following disclaimer in tiny print: 写真はイメージです shashin wa imeeji desu—literally “the photograph is an image”. Another variant is 画像はイメージです ”the image is an image”.

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I was mystified for a long time; what, exactly, was this supposed to mean? Of course it is an image. What else could a photograph be? And yet, redundant as it may seem, it is ubiquitous. For some reason, manufacturers feel the need to include it on their packaging. Do they fear that without this guidance, their customers will attempt to eat the photographic representation, mistaking it for the food inside?

After much discussion with Japanese people, I gradually came to understand the meaning. The word imeeji, which is the English word “image” borrowed into Japanese, has various connotations like “impression”, “artist’s impression” or “idealised image”. So the intention of the mysterious sentence is to warn us that the contents may not necessarily be identical to the picture.

Here’s a more usefully specific version of the disclaimer from the makers of Choco Pie: it tells us that the items in the photo are a little larger than life-size.

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