Close up: Tohoku

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Photographs in order of appearance: Kesengawa, Naoya Hatakeyama  2003/08; Ohamaza-cho, La Ville de la chance, Hiroshi Oshima 1979; Statue of Osawabutsu, Ourani Sanou Koujin, Dewa Sanzan, Masatoshi Naito 1981-82 and Hideo Haga.

Photos courtesy of the JAPAN FOUNDATION

In the aftermath of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake of 2011, much of the images have been of Tohoku as a suffering region. The exhibit, Tohoku: Through the Eyes of Japanese Photography, explores the themes of culture, history and natural-scape of Tohoku, which is home to 9.2 million people, many of whom once made their living through farming, fishing and forestry.


With a round, open face that alternates between smiles and quick frowns, Toshi Aoyagi, operating director of the Japan Foundation, wears the nervousness of a facilitator. He busies himself between the concierge and the presentation room, showing guests to their seats and alerting his staff to last-minute improviso adjustments. He is to host Kotaro Iizawa, a special guest lecturer and the curator of the photography exhibit, “Tohoku: Through the Eyes of Japanese Photography.”

Right before Iizawa is set to deliver his opening remarks at the podium, Aoyagi converses briefly with the translator, who then motions to Iizawa, seated next to her. Unlike Aoyagi, Iizawa is a man of seemingly exceptional ease. He leans deeply into his chair, arms crossed, and occasionally shuffles his lecture scripts. His pleasant disposition, evidenced by a slight smile, remains steady throughout the presentation.

Aoyagi continues: “We have with us Mr. Iizawa, not only to individually appreciate the frames of pictures but also to get the perspective of a curator [as] to what he was thinking. [This is] what he has to present beyond what he has to present.”

And with that perfect tautological introduction, Iizawa stands at the podium to deliver his lecture on “Tohoku: Through the Eyes of Japanese Photography.”

The impetus behind the exhibit, although complex, is not hard to decipher.

The first series of images of the exhibit that Iizawa lectures on are by Teisuke Chiba, an Akita-born amateur who is gaining posthumous interest. The images are thematically symbolic of the exhibit’s aim and underlying desire. Working in post-war Japan, Iizawa explains, Chiba strove to capture the “daily lives of peasants.” His “delicate way of taking photos” is embedded in the joyful faces of children singing songs to chase away sparrows as they near the harvest, Iizawa remarks. Then there are pictures of Taiyu village children singing songs, chasing away sparrows from a rice field. The next picture is one of frank nudity, as an elderly trio bathe in the Goshogake hot spring. “These photographs,” says Iizawa, make me feel nostalgic.”

Put together at the request of Japan Foundation, the exhibit is a direct response to the global attention garnered in the aftermath of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, which struck on March 11, 2011. The earthquake and the ensuing tsunami dramatically altered the region. Nearly 20,000 are missing or dead, and the immediate nuclear crisis at Fukushima No. 1 Reactor has left the region still reeling in the environmental decimation. In the barrage of news reportage and the waves of sympathy and support for the recovery effort, the attention has overwhelmingly been on this side of the region’s predicament. And when the nuclear meltdown was a certainty, much of the commentary carried with it, as a sort of preamble, mention of other haunting national traumas: Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

And then we move onto Ichiro Kojima, who has harvested the sublime harshness of the northern lands of Tsugaru in such pictures as “Around Inagaki.” The dark of the overexposed sky is divided by the horizon against the white of snow, and through it four women walk down a wintry path. The dramatic overcast sky and the sparse forms aptly capture the harsh environ of Aomori prefecture. The photographs carry both the rarefied air and the human resilience in this silent narrative.

Ichiro Kojima, Around Inagaki, Tsugaru-shi, 1960

Ichiro Kojima, Around Inagaki, Tsugaru-shi, 1960

Iizawa then starts his own presentation with a handful of pictures of the recovery efforts, the surreal depiction of the carnage amidst what were once homes to many. (Note: These pictures were not part of the exhibit and were shown only as part of the curatorial presentation.) The first frame bulges out with the immense, red belly of a fishing ship, marooned between torn buildings. And then a picture of a waterlogged copy of Dragon Ball, a manga beloved the world over. There is a picture of a glossy dopp kit placed on a metal pole, and out of focus, far in the background, the broken timbers and rafters of a home are strewn about on yellowing muck. In the middle of the presentation Iizawa remarks, “The place of my childhood is quite devastated and many that I know, dead.”

Hideo Haga gives us a string of folkloric images of popular festivals and rituals around Tohoku region. Some are taken in the fervour of the rituals, where bared bodies clamour and jostle, and others are of the tableau depicting “Dance of the Seven Gods of Fortune”—a masked player standing in the tatami room surrounded by seated audience.

Some of the few colour prints of the exhibit come from Meiki Lin, whose thematic focus on water-based images take the audience on a tour of waterscapes of Tohoku. The atmospheric experience of the pictures is unobtrusive yet visually stunning in their colour gradient and complementary vibrancy.

The exhibit itself, however, does not attempt to add to the already saturated image of Tohoku as a suffering region. It instead explores the themes of culture, history, and natural-scape of Tohoku, which is made up of six prefectures (Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Miyagi, Yamagata, and Fukushima) that are home to 9.2 million people, many of whom once made their livings through farming, fishing, and forestry. But at the sudden brunt of the tsunami, all this seems to be lost to onlookers.

Masatoshi Naito’s images of folklore are more clinical and dispassionate. In these extreme close-ups, only the facial features of masks and statues are visible The frame is cut out, or the rest of the face comes to a stop at the right-angled peripheries of the photographs. But the energy, the emotions etched onto the faces, keeps on going through its gaze. Almost archival in stance, the masks seem to bulge out, the frames unable to contain the subjects.

Iizawa talks of Tohoku’s history as a peripheral site of power, where those in the location of central political power would consider the area a “poor and backward region.” During the eighth and ninth centuries, on many occasions the region endured militaristic conquest and domination. The Yamato court in western Japan would marshal invasions and despite the ferocious resistance by the native inhabitants (referred to as Emishi), this eventually led to Tohoku being organized into two provinces ─Mutsu and Dewa─under the Yamato rule. The prejudicial perception of the region continued beyond the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and the country’s modernization; Tohoku also has an internal history of having been viewed as “backward” and provincial, from seats of powers such as Kyoto and Edo, now known as Tokyo.

And, in responding to this historical weight, the common thematic thread of these photographs is that they are not taken from a central point of view that attempts to wholly capture the Tohoku region. These are fractured moments and fragments of individuated joys. In the process of inversion of distance from big to small and from powerful to the periphery, the focus lands on the personal.

“They stand on edge,” Iizawa says. “[They are standing on] remote areas, looking at remote areas.”

The photographs tell stories not only of the subjects but also of the photographers who have become outsiders; these are the fixed moments of outsiders looking at outside things. The photographs presented here, to borrow Iizawa’s words, are “neither rare nor massive spectacle.”

In the mere act of presenting personal and locally grounded subject matter deserving of global attention (the exhibit is travelling  around the world), there is an attempt to rearrange the priorities of observers who attend these viewings, these sites, and these traumas. The price we pay for simply remembering Tohoku as a place devastated by the Great Eastern Japanese Earthquake is too dire. Just as we would lose so much if we were to remember New York City as simply the site of 9/11, Tohoku should not be relegated as a site of trauma. A place is not emblematic of trauma; the place is emblematic in spite of it.

Perhaps one of most quaint and intriguing projects of the exhibit, partially due to the paratextual considerations of the Great Eastern Japanese Earthquake, is that of the Sendai Collection. Started in 2001 by Toru Ito, the group of photographers’ aim to preserve the ordinary city-scape of Sendai has led them to take “objective” pictures of profile views of buildings, roads, bridges and other infrastructures. No emotion is allowed in taking these “objective” pictures. Panel after panel of tiny thumbnails capture the faces of buildings, now no longer in existence. Originally, the group had thought they could look back over 80 years, but since the buildings have disappeared, the project’s meaningfulness has shifted greatly. The group’s ambitious goal of 10,000 photographs is still ongoing and the project is expected to be completed within three years.

As the presentation closes, Iizawa urges the audience to “share in the universality and nostalgia.”

The Tohoku exhibit is currently making its way through Europe. It will show next at Zagreb, Croatia. With two sets of photographs simultaneously travelling the world—one in Asia and another in North America and Europe—the tour is expected to last five years. Iizawa expressed that for the last destination, he would like the exhibit to go to Japan—to Tohoku, in particular.

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1 Comment

  • January 3, 2014

    Isabelle Paez

    the photographs are hauntingly beautiful