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Post-war Japanese Photography

Lecture at SFMOMA on 15th of September, 2008

Lecture on Post-war Japanese Photography


Mika Kobayashi

I gave this lecture as Patterson Fellow at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on 15th of September,
2008

I have had great opportunity to look through the Japanese Photography collection that is composed of over 400
pictures by nearly 60 photographers ranging from the early photography of 19th century to contemporary photography.
I was thrilled to see some master works and also some works that I have never expected to see here. Through the
research, I decided to limit the times to the post war period, and concentrate on the works that has specific relationship
to the photo books.
I would like to talk about the reason why I want to focus on the theme by starting with this picture (fig.1) by Naoya
Hatakeyama taken in 1998. One of the reasons why I chose this picture is that I am familiar the city and also this
picture have inspired me of some aspects that I would like to talk about history of Japan and Japanese photography.
 

(fig.1 fig.2)
As you see, this is a baseball stadium viewed from above, and there are several houses and parking lots inside. It
might look like a movie set, or some of you might think that it is a digitally manipulated photograph. This picture
somehow reminds me of a movie like “The Truman Show”(1998). But the houses were actually constructed by housing
companies as a ‘ model housing showroom’ where people go to see and experience the houses before they plan to have
their own houses built in the suburb.
So, people are not actually living there. The way people buy houses in Japan is quite different from that of the US.
The picture is a part of diptych and another picture(fig.2) was taken from the same vantage point, in the following year,
1999.

In this picture, all the houses are removed and baseball


stadium itself is being demolished. And the picture taken later
on in 2002(fig.3) shows the site after being turned into a huge
shopping mall.

(fig.3)

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three pictures show the transformation of an area in a city and at first glance the fact that the houses were built in the
stadium might attract your eyes and give you a strange impression. But as you closely compare the three pictures, you
might notice that the stadium was located at the rather crowded and cramped area of the city and the highway and
railway surrounding the stadium.

Looking back the history, the stadium, Osaka stadium was constructed in 1950 by a local railway company like many
of other baseball teams and their home stadiums in Japan. It should be noted that the construction of the stadium was
closely related with the re-development of the city after the war. During the World War 2, like the many other big cities
and the area related with military industries, the area had been severely destroyed by air raids of the Allied Powers.
During the course of recovery from the war, baseball became a major entertainment in the 1950s and people went to see
the games by the trains and subways from different areas but the stadium stopped being used for the baseball games at
the end of 1980s and eventually used for other purposes like rock concerts and events and then turned into a ‘model
housing showroom’ where people come to see the houses by their cars.

What I mean to say here by briefly referring to the historical background is that these pictures show not only the
changes of a specific area in short period of times at the turn of century but also the larger changes of the surrounding
area and Japanese society, such as economical growth, development of transportation systems, urbanization and
motorization that had gradually happened after the World War 2. It seems for me that Hatakeyama took these
photographs with the eyes of geologist to see the layers of changes that had been brought to the area.

The impressions that I got from looking at these photographs are somehow connected to what I got from the
collection. Meaning that, when I began to look thorough the collection, I saw the works separately according to the
individual intent and gradually I came to see and locate them in the layers of changes that Japanese society had
undergone. Also, as I see the different changes in these pictures by Hatakeyama, I am more interested in what the area
was like in 1950s and how the lives there have changed since then. It is quite interesting for me that some photographs
reminds me of the things and events in different times and such association and imagination leads into telling the story
about the past, which is part of what I try to do.

Another reason for using the word ‘layers’ is concerned with the fact that many of the works by Japanese
photographers are very closely related to book publishing and the individual images are meant to constitute a larger
whole and each image is meant to be seen read within the layers of pages. The photographs stored in the collection are
meant to be framed and hang on the wall and seen individually, but in the photo books the photographs are edited,
cropped and combined with text. The books are the collaborative works with photographers and designer and writers.

So, if you compare the edited pages and individual photographs, you will see what the photographer means to
express and narrate through the combination of photographs and text. The experience of looking at photographs in
photo books is quite a physical and sometimes intimate one, you touch and open and close the pages and it brings about
sensations that is quite different from what you get from seeing the pictures on the wall or the screen. With these things

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in mind, I would like to introduce the seminal works and photo books that I found interesting in the collection and
library, and analyze what photographers tried to tell us in those books. I made thematic categories that are loosely
connected to the historical context of post war period: 1) Memories of the War, 2) Theater and/as Chaotic City and 3)
Personal Stories.

Memories of the War

(fig.4)

As introduction of ‘Memories of the War’, I start with a picture taken by Ihei Kimura in 1953 (fig.4) as an
assignment of a popular magazine. Kimura is regarded one of the most prominent photographers in Japan, being active
from 1930s to the middle of 1970s. This picture shows the remains of Urakami Cathedral of Nagasaki, located very
close to the ground zero of atomic bomb dropped on 9th of August 1945. In this picture, he also includes the people and
cityscape around the cathedral that had been recovering from the war in 8 years. It should be noted that until 1952, it
was firmly restricted by GHQ of Allied Powers to distribute the photographs that documented the aftermath of the
atomic bomb and the air raid in Japan. This means that there were few opportunities for photographers to record and
report the immediate aftermath and disaster of the war and it took quite a while from recovering from the war and had a
time to contemplate what the experience of the war meant to Japanese society.

In 1955, an organization, the Japan Council against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs was established to fight for the
abolition of nuclear weapons and photographers and journalists became to have more opportunities for covering the
issue. Hereby I would like to introduce the books published in 1960s by two photographers, Shomei Tomatsu and
Kikuji Kawada. Both of them were born in 1930s and experienced the drastic changes of pre and post war in their
youth. During the course of childhood, they experienced militarism during the war, and the occupation by Allied
Powers (the United States) after the war and became freelance photographers at the end of 1950s when the publishing
industry was booming in Japan. They were establishing members of photo agency called VIVO. They did a lot of
assignment from magazines and in their personal works they tried to deal with the experiences of war and post-war in
quite expressive and symbolic ways.

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Tomatsu began to take photographs in Nagasaki as assignment from Japan Council against Atomic and Hydrogen
Bombs to publish a photo book ‘hiroshima nagasaki document’, which was published in 1961 and the aim was to
inform the tragedy of atomic bomb in Japan mainly to English readership. He mainly photographed the remains and
victim of atomic bomb and later on in 1966, he published another book in Japanese called Nagasaki 11:02 in 1966.
I want to show 3 pictures by Tomatsu from the collection and it would be interesting to see how he edited the pictures
in different ways and making different nuances for each book.

One of the pictures shows a broken wristwatch placed on a white cloth, stopped at the time of bombing 11:02.
(fig.5)This picture is used repeatedly in both books to show that the watch shows the moment of no return. (fig.6)
(fig.5) (fig.6)

(fig.7)

In Hiroshima Nagasaki document, the image is rotated and superimposed over the picture of nightscape of Nagasaki
in 1961 and thereby indicating the time that had passed away since then (fig.8). The picture was used for the cover of
his second book and the book was more focused of the experience of the people and how the city had been changed
since then. So the image has all the more has a symbolic meaning that becomes the concept of the book itself.

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(fig.9,10)

The second one is that of bottle melted and deformed by the heat and fire of the bomb taken against the white
background (fig.9). In the book published in 1961 he combined with the pictures of other bottles showing the different
forms and textures. In the book of 1966, the picture is paired with the one showing the finger of broken Buddha statue
and makes them comparable for its forms. It could be said that the bottle appears different way, somewhat similar to the
human body, such as a part of born or thigh (fig.10).

Among the pictures in both books, the pictures showing the faces of victims have lasting impact. The picture of
Tsuyo Kataoka, standing against the cityscape of Nagasaki and staring directly to the camera is such an example(fig.11)
. In the book of 1961, he put the picture on the double spread and tightly cropped both upper and bottom side and
making the impression of her face and gaze and texture of her burned skin even much stronger. In the book 1966, he
combined the picture with her interview and focusing on her life and experience as a victim (fig.12). As have seen here,
the way Tomatsu edited his pictures differently not only to show the remains and convey the fact of the war, but to
show and narrate the different aspect of experiences of war in symbolic manners.

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(fig.11, 12)

Kawada’s book ‘Chizu (The Map) ’ (1965), which was published on 6th of August, 1965, the 20th anniversary of
bombing of Hiroshima, also deals with things that symbolize the war such as drenched flag of Japan(fig.13), the
portraits of soldiers(fig.14), military uniform. Some of the things are hardly unrecognizable by its appearance, such as
stains of blood on the ceiling of atomic bomb dome (Peace Memorial Dome) in Hiroshima. (fig.15)

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(fig. 13, 14, 15, 16, 17)

The book was edited as to each double spread page foldout and some images are cut into two parts when you see the
images inside the fold (fig.16). The readers open the pages to and feel the layers of times through remains of the war.
Besides the images that are directly related with the memories of war, the book also contains the images that symbolize
the development of consumer society and Americanization of post war, such as Coca Cola, Lucky Strike and Television
sets (fig.17). So, as the title of the book indicates, what he meant to create was the map of times that readers can trace
the drastic changes of post war period.
‘The Map’ was designed by Kohei Sugiura, a prominent graphic designer who had also designed ‘hiroshima nagasaki
document’. His idea of book design was firmly based on the construction of a space that readers are engaged with and
involved within it.

Theater and/as Chaotic City

I want to add some explanation about the situation when these books were published in the mid 1960s. Japan was in
the midst of rapid economical growth and marked by big events such as Tokyo Olympic held in 1964, which was
intended to show to the world that Japan had recovered from the defeat of war and made further progress. The poster of
Tokyo Olympic and cosmetic company SHISEIDO (Make up Tokyo) would be the good examples of the advertising
photography and graphic design of the days that aspired to show off Japan as modern and developed country(fig.18).

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And also, the development of transportation system such as the introduction of super express train (Shinkansen) in
1964 had caused the rush of population from the rural area to the urban area. So, it could be said that both of their
books were attempt of defying to the society that fast to forget about the war.

(fig.18, 19)

Also in 1964, William Klein, who became to be well known for his photo book ‘New York’ published ‘Tokyo’ which
showed the various aspect of the vibrant city in economic growth (fig.19). At the beginning of the book, there are
several pictures taken in downtown of Tokyo. The pictures show Butoh dancers, Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno
performing on the street. Buto, or Ankoku Butoh, (Dance of Darkness) is the avant-garde dance performance, which
was started by Hijikata at the end of 1950s. Hijikata had learned the modern dance, which he found under the strong
influence from the West and tried to find and create the expressions of the body directly rooted in the vernacular and
local cultures and climate of Japan. His performances were often erotic and violent and attracted a lot of attention from
the contemporary artists, writers and photographers of the days. Hijikata and Ankoku Butoh movement was also a
response to the contemporary Japanese society, which was fast aspiring to become a modern and westernized or
Americanized society.

(fig.20)

Hijikata became one of the most prominent figures of underground cultures of 1960s. Photographer Eikho Hosoe was
one of the admirers of Hijikata and he photographed him and other Butoh dancers with different poses in his studio for

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the posters and brochures of the performances. The pictures eventually published as “Otoko to Onna (Man and
Woman)” in 1961. In this series, Hosoe tried to capture the characteristic poses of Butoh dancers, often strain the
muscles and make harsh movements. The bodies of dancers are shown as tightly closed-up fragments in high-contrast
and grainy pictures, thus emphasizing the solid forms and tension between the bodies. One picture from this series
(fig.20) shows a head of woman with strong gaze locked firmly in a man’s arm and symbolizes the tension between two
sexes.

(fig.21,22)

(fig.23)

From 1965 to1968, Eikoh took the pictures of Tatsumi in various places including Hijikata’s home village, located in
the rustic area of northern Japan. Hosoe tried to capture simultaneously what Hijikata did as his performance such as
running in the paddy field, sometimes interacting and playing with the villagers and children(fig.21). In 1969 the
photographs were published as ‘Kamaitachi’. Kamaitachi is a legendary creature that was believed to reside in rural
area and cut into the skin of people (actually this phenomenon is caused supposedly by a vacuum in the air). Hijikata
shows that his Butoh performance is deeply rooted in the harsh climate of impoverished and harsh lives there. So, the
idea of the work is that Hijikata appears as a legendary creature in the village and Hosoe made a photo theater of his
performance. It is quite amazing to see the gesture of Hijikata and the rural landscape merges into the world of folklore.
The pages are designed as gatefold and each picture appears like a stage(fig.22). The reader opens and closes the pages
to encounter the scenes. The picture of Hijikata on the fence was used for the poster of his performance, Hijikata

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Tatsumi to Nihonjin, Nikutai no Hanran (Tatsumi Hijikata and the Japanese: The Rebellion of Flesh) in 1968, which
was designed by Tadanori Yokoo a prominent artist and graphic designer. (fig.23).

The title of his performance strongly reflects the atmosphere of the days. The end of 1960s was full of rebellious and
protest movement, such as student movements against the authority of universities and Vietnam War. This trend also
influenced the photographers and there emerged young generation of photographers who questioned the existing value
and mode of photography. The photographer who represented of the era was Daido Moriyama, who was strongly
influenced from William Klein. Moriyama worked for Hosoe as his assistant for a while. He published his first photo
book ‘Nippon Gekijo Shashincho (Japan: A Photo Theater)’in 1968. This book is composed of his photographs and the
text by Shuji Terayama, a playwright and director of underground theater, Tenjo Sajiki. There were many underground
theaters in Tokyo, especially around Shinjuku, the vibrant amusement center and former Red Light and Blue Light
district. In his book, the pictures show various kinds of theaters such as traditional popular theaters in Asakusa, avant-
guard underground theaters, striptease theaters and the actors. He combined these pictures with the street snapshots and
makes the pictures merge each other and composed the entire book looks like a chaotic theater. Also, the grainy and
blurry and high contrast pictures came to be known as his signature style(fig.24, 25,26,27) .

(fig.24, 25,26,27)

 These grainy and blurry pictures sometimes make his subject unrecognizable, and yet charged with the energy of
his direct and physical responses to the world. It also could be said that, as compared with the precedent photographers

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such as Tomatsu, Kawada and Hosoe, who tries to endow symbolic meanings to the pictures through the process of
editing of their books, Moriyama seemed to be willingly avoid to attach specific meaning to the images and he was
more eager to convey the complex and raw sensation as it is. Moriyama’s attitude toward his pictures and editing
became much more radical in the book ‘Shashin yo Sayounara (Bye Bye Photography)’ which was published in 1972.
The book composed more fragmental and grainy images, also included the enlarged contact sheets and the images that
he reproduced from advertisement or other existing images(fig.28,29) . As compared with the former book Nippon
Gekijo Shashincho, the book appears more chaotic and abstract and he seemed to question what the photographic
images could convey and even try to push his limit of expression to its extreme. These two books of Moriyama embody
the complex energy of the time and place.

(fig.28,29)

Like Moriyama, there were many photographers who were strongly attracted to Shinjuku, because of the vulgar and
vibrant atmosphere and people who gather there. Katsumi Watanabe and Kohei Yoshiyuki were such examples. Since
the middle of 1960s, Watanabe took the portraits of various people working, strolling and gathering there at night such
as gangsters, prostitutes, strippers and transvestites, and sold the portraits to them to earn his living(fig.30,31) .

(fig.30,31)

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He communicated with these people of underground culture and became an intimate insider of the town. One of the
characteristics of his pictures was his use of strobe light, which was not so popular in 1960s. He captured the
spontaneous poses and expressions of the sitters with their environments with its stark light. His business went worse in
the late 1970s with the proliferation of compact cameras but he continued taking pictures there for over 30 years.
Thousands of pictures that he took show a visual history of Shinjuku, with the people gathered there and gradual
changes of the city itself.

During 1970s, Kohei Yoshiyuki ventured into taking snapshots at night in the parks in Tokyo, using a 35 millimeters
camera, infrared-sensitive film and filtered flashbulbs. The parks of Shinjuku and Yoyogi, where he shot these pictures
had been built at the end of 1960s during the course of redevelopment of Tokyo. He captured the people hidden under
the cover of darkness, engaging in both heterosexual and homosexual activities in the bushes and behind the trees and
sneaky spectators who watched them and sometimes participating in the actions (fig.32,33)
. These photographs were published as Koen (The Park) in 1980 from a publisher specializing pornographic photo-
books. These thrills that these pictures might arouse are far more related with the act of becoming spectators than the
action taken in the pictures, which are shown as ambiguous gestures. t
(fig.32,33)

Although they are quite different in approaches to their subject, both of the works by Watanabe and Yoshiyuki show
how people who had moved into Tokyo from various areas make relationship with each other and also reflect their
loneliness of living in the city.

Personal Stories.

Alongside with these trends of focusing on the lives of people, from the 1970s, there appeared photographers who
deal with the private aspect of their own lives. This trend is also deeply connected with the production of photo books,
and sometimes take the form similar to that of ‘I’ novel, a novel based on the author's own life, and often called as ‘I’
photography and in their photo books, sequence of photographs have somewhat cinematic flow. Some of them have
clear story lines and others convey more vague and abstract sense of feelings.

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(fig.34,35,36,37)

‘Karasu(Raven)’ by Masahisa Fukase would be the best example of ‘I’ photography and reflecting the solitary feeling
of a man living in the city. This book was later published as English edition ‘The Solitude of Ravens’ in 1991. Fukase
had lived in Tokyo from 1950s and working as a photographer of advertising agency. After his marriage collapsed in
the mid 1970s, he began to make travels toward the northern part of Japan, including the place of his birth. During his
travels, he became obsessed with taking the pictures of ravens flocking and hovering around the sky. In Japanese, there
is a word Tabigarasu (Tabi means journey and Garasu means raven) meaning a vagabond or stranger. So the title
indicates both the ravens and himself traveling around. In the book ‘Raven’ pictures form a cinematic flow that traces
his solitary journey following ravens and some pictures show that he sees the world around him as if he has become a
raven itself. (fig.34,35,36) He even tried to take the picture of them in the darkness by using flashlight. The act of
staring into the darkness in search of ravens clearly reflected his state of mind in deep solitude. The book ends with the
picture of a street man walking under a blanket in the city taken from the back, which much resembles the raven itself.
By including this picture at the end, he was surely projecting of himself on the man. (fig.37)

So far I have mentioned on about the male photographers. It does not mean that there were no female photographers
in the post war period, but it had been much harder for them to be involved with and surviving in the publishing
industries and photographic society in Japan. Miyako Ishiuchi is one of the few female photographers who have been
active since the late 1970s. She started her career as a photographer taking the picture of the places that had special

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relationship with her life. Her debut work was about Yokosuka, the city in which GI military base was located. Since
the late 1980s, she turned her attention toward the bodies and began to take the pictures of the scars of people who she
came to know for various occasions. Although the scars are often related with the painful experiences such as accidents,
injuries and operations, what tries to show is not directly related with these experiences. She regards scars as traces of
time inscribed on the surface of the bodies and treats each person’s skin as ‘vessel of time’ that holds body and long
endured during the passage of time.

(fig.38,39)

She has published several books on body, and here I introduce two books ‘Mother’s’ and ‘Scars’.
The series of scars is also related with the series of ‘Mother’s’, which are the series of the pictures of the skin and the
remains of her mother who passed away in 2002. In 2000, she took the picture of her mother with the scars of burns,
who was 84 years old at the time. After she passed away, there left a lot of personal belongings such as undergarments,
shoes and lipsticks, all of them hold the shapes and traits of the past owner who had used them repeatedly. Taking
pictures of these things become a mourning process for her, in which she saw and accepted the absence of her late
mother. Among these remains, she took the pictures of undergarments against the subtle backlight, which show the
details and patterns of the cloth, which resemble the texture of skin of her mother. (fig.38,39)
(fig.40,41)

” In the book ‘Scar’ published in 2005, the photographs (fig.40,41)are combined with the caption that tells the date
and cause of scar and the date of the photographs were taken. She says, “The scars are very similar to photographs, for

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me, almost the same in nature. Both of them are the recorded memories of past events, made visible at present. Scars
and photographs awaken the memories of the past that could not be taken back to the present. I take the pictures of
scars to show the lament over the past and to the gratefulness of being alive in the present.
Both of the books about the time the bodies, that are anonymous but each of the readers can touch and imagine about
people who have long survived the long duration of time. Her most recent project is about Hiroshima in which she
photographed the remains of Hiroshima in color photographs. And this work is on the course of development from the
series of Mother’s and Scars, which was more personal in subject and adding more profound dimension to the history
of Japan of the postwar.

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