Reflecting on modern Japan: Photobooks from the post-war period

Asahi Shimbun displays

Room 3
5 June - 10 August 2008
Admission free

This new display presents three photobooks by leading Japanese photographers of the post-war period, Tōmatsu Shōmei (born 1930), Hosoe Eikoh (born 1933) and Homma Takashi (born 1962). The images in the photobooks are juxtaposed with contextual images from the archives of The Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s leading newspaper. Together they are used to explore some key issues of life in post-war and contemporary Japan: Defeat and Reconstruction, Freeing the Self, and Tokyo Now and in the Future. Similar themes – and many more besides – are also featured in the Museum’s Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries (Rooms 92-94), as part of a major recent renovation of the displays, entitled Japan from prehistory to the present.

Photobooks are, essentially, essays in images. A carefully orchestrated sequence of photographs bound between the covers of a book, they have also been described as existing halfway between the novel and film. The genre is by no means limited to Japan, as recent studies by UK photographer Martin Parr and others have shown (The Photobook: A History, London 2004). Nevertheless, the sheer quantity and interest of the phenomenon in that country is remarkable. Without doubt, modern Japanese photobooks continue important elements of the traditions of popular colour woodblock prints and illustrated books of the so-called ‘floating world’ (Ukiyo-e) school of the Edo period (1600-1868) and Meiji era (1868-1912).

In 2007 the British Museum acquired a major collection of more than two hundred post-war Japanese photobooks, by masters of photography from Kimura Ihei (1901-74) to Araki Nobuyoshi (born 1940). The stylish look and feel of many of the books, full of ‘60s or ‘70s period flavour, is often the work of leading designers such as Tanaka Ikkō (1930-2002), who famously also designed the posters for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In the tough decades following the Asia-Pacific war of 1937-45, when there were very few galleries to present the work of photographers, photobooks were a medium which enabled artists to reach and cultivate a mass audience for their work.

The atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 were a defining element in the creation of a modern Japanese psyche. They brought the nightmare conflict of the Asia-Pacific war to a sudden, horrific end. Hiroshima-Nagasaki Document 1961 by Domon Ken (1909-90) and Tōmatsu Shōmei took the documentary style of photography of the immediate post-war years and applied it to the living torture of some of the survivors. Glass bottles fused and distorted by the Nagasaki blast serve as an eloquent and poignant substitute for the unbearably damaged human bodies recorded in other images in the book.

As in many other countries, the 1960s was an era in Japan of radical politics and radical counterculture experimentation. One manifestation was a new ‘anti-ballet’ dance movement called ‘Butoh’. Kamaitachi  (1969) by photographer Hosoe Eikoh followed the leading Butoh exponent Hijikata Tatsumi (1928-86) back to his native Akita district    in the rural north of Japan. Hosoe’s radical camera recorded Hijikata’s extraordinary antics in the landscape and interactions with villagers. Sometimes there is comedy, but more often the mood is sinister and unsettling, in keeping with the dark ‘Sickle-Weasel’ folk legend that inspired this ‘legendary’ collaboration between performer and photographer.

Tokyo is a city of twelve million, with more than twenty million in the surrounding area, and it is growing. Much of the collective experience of contemporary Japan is played out there. TokyoSuburbia (1998) by Homma Takashi is a thought-provoking collection that won the young photographer the prestigious Kimura Ihei prize. Pictures of newly built – but eerily empty – dormitory suburbs alternate with candid images of the kids and adults who live there. Homma’s photographs leave us reflecting on the strange artifice of our urban environments and questioning what sort of life is possible in them.

For further information or images please contact Katrina Whenham +44 (0)20 7323 8583 or kwhenham@britishmuseum.org