Dear Alice,

I travel a lot within Japan, and often come across a dated sort of tourist attraction that I don't know quite how to describe. They are wooden façades, often hand-painted and rather amateurish, depicting a person or persons with a hole where the head should be. A passing tourist can stand behind the board and insert his or her head into the scene while someone in front snaps a photograph. I've asked again and again what the heck these things are called but no one seems to know. Can you find out?

Dean L., Aomori

Dear Dean,

It doesn't surprise me that you haven't been able to get a straight answer. Even the folks who study these devices — yes, they exist — haven't settled on a definitive name. I myself have gotten good results with "aita ana kara kao o dashite shashin o toru are" ("those thingies with the holes that you stick your face into and take a picture"), but I admit that's cumbersome and lacks pizzazz.

What few Japanese realize is that these fixtures of Japanese tourism were actually invented in the United States nearly 150 years ago. In 1874, an American illustrator named Cassius M. Coolidge applied for a patent on what he called "comic foregrounds," a canvas painted with a cartoonish scene that he marketed to professional photographers. Each canvas was fitted with one or more holes through which clients could stick their heads as they posed for novelty photographs. Coolidge was quite the creative force: he was also the genius behind the famous illustration of dogs playing poker, and a (lesser known) operetta about mosquitoes invading New Jersey.

When Coolidge introduced his invention, photography was still relatively new and few people owned cameras, but technological advances had brought the price down to a level at which average people could afford to have their pictures taken on a day's outing. Photographers set up comic foregrounds at beach boardwalks and traveling carnivals, which is why many people know these panels as "carnival cut-outs." Popular themes in America included muscle-bound weightlifters, fishermen landing impossibly big fish, and dancing couples in fancy dress.

I wanted to know whether someone brought comic foregrounds from the U.S. to Japan, and if so, when, or whether they developed here independently. Unfortunately, no one seems to have done that research. I did meet with Hiroyuki Ijichi, who became something of an expert on the subject when he traveled all over Japan in the 1990s to record extant examples. But he said he's only been able to document recent history.

"These panels were very common in Japan during the 1960s and 1970s, which I like to say was their 'Golden Age.' That was the height of the postwar domestic travel boom as well as the period when cameras became affordable and easy to operate," Ijichi explained. "When I was growing up, taking commemorative photos was the best part of family vacations."

But as Japanese became more affluent and started traveling overseas, domestic tourism suffered. "By the time I started my survey, the panels were disappearing at a rapid rate," he said.

Ijichi found a publisher willing to publish his findings as a book. Then he hit a snag: the things didn't seem to have a name. So he made one up, taking the words "kao" ("face") and "hame," from the verb "hameru" ("to insert") and coining the new term: "kaohame." His book, "Zen Nippon Kaohame Kiko" ("All-Japan Kaohame Travelogue," OH! Bunko, 2001) sold only 6,000 copies and is now out of print, but it did have at least one lasting impact: the name stuck. I entered it into a Japanese search engine and got millions of hits. I didn't check them all, but the top ones were right on subject. I tried it out on Japanese friends: about half knew what I was talking about right away; the rest needed my clumsy phrase before they understood.

If "kaohame" doesn't work for you, try "kaodashi kanban," which I'll translate a little loosely as "stick your face out" signs). I learned that one after Ijichi pointed out that quite a number of the façades featured in his book had photographic-film company logos painted into the design.

"The companies had arrangements with the gift shops that sold film near tourist attractions," he told me. "If the shop arranged for a panel, the company would pay part of the cost. Everyone came out ahead: The shops sold more film to customers who wanted to take a picture in the façade, and the companies got their brand name in every photo taken." When I phoned Fujifilm Corporation, a spokesperson confirmed that was a common arrangement and added that the sales staff in those days called the devices kaodashi kanban or kaodashi paneru (panels).

Ryujiro Kondo, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Shiga Prefecture who has studied kaodashi kanban as a means to promote tourism and build local identity, pulled 1,042 images off the Internet and analyzed them for type, theme, and even the number of holes. He found a lot of station masters, astronauts and firemen, as well as characters from popular culture. Other common themes include local dress and famous figures from history.

"Through the simple act of inserting your face into a hole in a panel, you can transform yourself into something or someone else, and be seen by others that way," Kondo told me. "You can become something beyond imagination and lose yourself in another world. People have a strong desire to try that, and it fits with tourism, where people are already stepping outside their everyday life."

Faceless facades are enjoying something of a comeback thanks to mobile phones equipped with cameras and social-media sites that fuel demand for funny photographs. Public-relations firms have stepped in with panels tied to special events and to promote new movies. I asked Ijichi if he was interested in tracking this trend, but he turned up his nose. "The new sort of panel is professionally printed and way too slick for my taste. It's the quirky, individual quality of the old panels that makes them so interesting."