The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter


Doing Her Justice

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Had a nice little shoot on Friday last with the Japan Times.

Well I say “nice little” job but actually the logistics were quite difficult and not a little intimidating.

I had to shoot a portrait of rape survivor and activist, Catherine “Jane” Fisher as she handed a copy of her book to staff at the American Embassy.

The rub of course is photography at the American Embassy is not allowed.  Also as the book details her 12 year fight for justice and a grudging, official acceptance of the truth in the case of  for her rape by a US sailor in 2002, the embassy staff were not likely to be that accommodating to me recording what to them was not a newsworthy event. At least not news that they wanted to be too widely distributed. Indeed the American military and other government authorities have acted throughout her struggle with a degree of obstruction that is mind-boggling:

For example the US military police quickly handed over the investigation of the crime to the local, Kanagawa police, as the assault had happened off-base. This may sound like a good idea but anyone who knows the Japanese police service will know that this would leave Catherine in the hands, and at the mercy of,  the seriously inept. So it proved when she quickly understood that the idiot officers around her, at best, didn’t know what they were doing in such a situation and wasted time measuring the location of the crime or insensitively asked her to re-enact the harrowing events with a sniggering policeman. All while important physical evidence was allowed to be lost. At worst they didn’t believe her and actively accused her of lying.

Of course, due to agreements the US government makes with many countries where its armed forces are stationed, this pantomime of truth-seeking was also totally toothless because the Japanese police have no jurisdiction over US military personnel.  When US servicemen commit crimes overseas they are routinely tried in US courts and sentenced much more leniently: that is if they are tried at all. The man who raped Catherine was quickly posted back to the US where he was given an honourable discharge which absolved the military authorities of any responsibilities to pursue the case.

That Catherine had gone up against such odds made her someone that I really wanted to meet.  On the phone the night before, as we discussed how to get the photos the paper wanted, I had promised to “do her justice” and she had laughed at the unintended pun.

With the editor`s warning ringing in my ears about not getting arrested, I met Catherine near the embassy and tried to work out our battle plans

Some sort of guerrilla shoot had been suggested to get around the photographic restriction of the place and the sensitive subject matter but as we talked and walked close to where the shots would need to be taken it became apparent that the suggested locations were going to provide none of the imagery I, and more importantly the paper, wanted. It was clear I needed to get closer, which is my usual working style anyway.

How to do this without getting stopped was something I wasn’t quite on yet though. Was I was going to ask permission or shoot and hope I get away with it? I hadn’t yet decided. To a degree it depended on the friendliness of the embassy staff members that had arranged to accept the book at 10:30am. If they looked nice I might be able to negotiate a quick shot. If they didn’t I had two further options: shoot under my arm, silent mode, sneaking a photo that might or might not work; or shoot until stopped and apologise hoping that they didn’t ask me to delete the photos. It is after all always easier to apologise than ask permission. But at the embassy I wasn’t sure that particular photographic truism would hold.

The sidewalk next to the embassy wall is closed and you are only allowed through on embassy business. After explaining we had a meeting Catherine and I walked up to the gate and waited in front of a policeman who was checking each person in and out.

We were a bit early but I had my camera out in my hand. I wanted the policemen to see it, to understand it was part of me and both it and I had a purpose there. In preperation I had a wide angle lens on and had set the iso a little higher than the sunny weather needed, so that I could close down the f-stop and get more depth of focus, and I had put the motor drive on high speed so that I could get a lot of shots in the short time I was expecting to be allowed. I didn’t take any photos while we waited of course: I didn’t want any rules explicitly voiced that I was intending to soon disobey. From where I stood I also couldn’t see any signs saying photography wasn’t allowed though I knew they were around somewhere. Most importantly I made a point of  standing outside the line of the embassy grounds and on Japanese soil where photography, technically, is still allowed.

At ten-thirty two women came through the security building and down to meet Catherine. They looked quite young and open as they approached but they didn’t smile at all as we greeted each other. Catherine handed over the book and as she explaining the message written inside I shot 4 or 5 images. The embassy woman, who was holding the other end of the book, quickly asked why I was taking photos and Catherine, bless her, just carried on explaining the meaning of her message to the ambassador, Caroline Kennedy, as I shot some more. Eventually the embassy woman looked quite angry and asked me to stop, I tried to explain that we wanted a record of this event but she said the embassy didn’t as it was not an official embassy action.

That was the  end of my hand over images. Which the paper probably wouldn’t be allowed to use anyway.

A curt goodbye and the embassy staff were gone. But I still needed a portrait of Catherine holding her book “as close to the embassy as possible”. As the police had said and done nothing during my earlier shooting I decided to risk a few more shot right here on the embassy’s doorstep. I got Catherine to hold-up another copy of her book and started to shoot a few quick portraits. This time to policeman intervened and said it wasn’t allowed but I mangled some Japanese back at him about a portrait being okay and carried on shooting. Japanese police generally get confused easily by people arguing back and my unclearness had the desired effect. I shot 5 or 6 more images with the US embassy and the police in the background and then we quickly got out of there.

I was actually quite nervous and even shaking a bit: you don’t fuck with he US embassy lightly, but thankfully the shaking didn’t affect the photos. I was also carrying Catherine`s quite heavy handbag, so that she looked less encumbered in the shots, which made my arms heavy and sway a bit as I moved around. All in all it was a bit of an effort actually but I got an okay shot (top photo) and the Japan Times used it on Tuesday in two articles about Catherine and her book. (Though look at the photos in the photo viewer, not at the top of the page which is looks rather green and flat for some reason)

But is was also fun. I like a challenge as a photographer. The portraits I took of Catherine later were technically better because they were less rushed and better lit: the sun was high and strong as we stood outside the embassy but using flash, to even out the skin tones, would have been pushing my luck a bit especially when even using a camera was a risk I wasn’t sure I was going to get away with.

A good day in all photographically and personally as I got to meet and spend time with a very strong and interesting woman.

More images of Catherine “Jane” Fisher at my archive here.

Busy talk soon.


Almost Human

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Been shooting a few robots of late.

Such is the nature of the job of a freelance editorial photographer in Tokyo, where robotic technology is often considered to be leading the world.

Most recently I was the Miraikan Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, in Odaiba, Tokyo photographing the new life -like robots that are on display there.

The Otonaroid (top photo) and Kodomoroid (bottom photo) are two new androids designed to look as human as possible.

Designed and built by Osaka University professor and robotics expert, Hiroshi Ishiguro they were quite impressive for pretend humans. Indeed some have called them creepily realistic. As autonomous robot entities though I must admit I found them curiously lacking: more like super expensive telephones that are remotely controlled and change personality depending on who is operating them. Though that maybe the point of augmented-reality it seemed a bit unnecessary to go to su much trouble on something that can do so very little without direct human input, especially when realism in other animatronics is already more or less achievable.

I certainly felt that the Pepper Robot I wrote about before was a deal more impressive in its ability to interact with people from a purely artificial intelligence base and certainly, for me at least, was like communicating with something definitely not human but with which it was possible to find a connection and some recognisable character.

But as with all robotics, the technology is endlessly developing, before our eyes in many way, and these robots are for now understandably a work in progress. When devices like these can look more human and the social recognition technology in something like the Pepper Robot or the mobility of the Asimo robot can be combined with the life-like qualities of the Otonaroid we might find it more possible to cross that “uncanny valley” and, sooner than we can perhaps imagine right now, we will have proper humanoid robots “living” with us and perhaps being treated as part of the ecosystem.

I interviewed Professor Adrian Cheok when he was in Tokyo a while ago about this technology and how he sees the future developing. Professor  Cheok is a leading expert in haptics and robotics and I wrote about his ideas in an article that you can read on my blog here 

One interesting thing Professor Cheok mentioned during that interview (though it didn’t fit in the article) is how this technology is already having effects on our lives. He gave me an example of the way that we will have to deal with new perceptions of reality when these sorts of machines become more common and usual. Professor Ishiguro has been famous for making lifelike robot for a number of years. His most famous creation, previously, was a robot head that was modelled on himself.  Of course unlike people robots do not age and Professor Cheok found it interesting for the future of robot-human relationships, and the way we deal with this unknowable new reality, that Professor Ishiguro, as he ages, is now taking measures to look more like his artificial doppelgänger. Even going as far as having plastic surgery.

We are going to have some interesting times ahead I think.

More images of robotics in Japan available at my archive site here




Last Chance

Article 9 protest in Tokyo Article 9 protest in Tokyo Article 9 protest in Tokyo Article 9 protest in Tokyo Article 9 protest in Tokyo Article 9 protest in Tokyo

Last night over 10,000 people, young and old, protested outside Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s residence is a last ditch effort to halt the government’s reinterpretation of Article 9 of the constitution.  Article Nine is the heart of Japan’s “Peace Constitution” and forever removes the right to wage war from the nation. The law does, of course, allow for military action as self-defence and having failed to get support to remove the article itself Abe is now attempting a legal redefinition that will allow Japanese military forces to take part in Collective Self Defence. What this means basically is that Japan can join its allies in their wars even if the Japanese islands are not themselves in danger,

For many people in Japan, who are very proud of this pacifist law, this reinterpretation will mean that Japanese soldiers can once again be sent to fight wars and Article 9 effectively no longer exists.

Over half the country actively do not support this reinterpretation and around 76% believe the change has been rushed through the democratic processes (it is expected to be passed on July 1st) and more debate is needed.

Passions are running high on this subject. On Sunday, the day before the protests, a man set fire to himself on a bridge in Shinjuku after haranguing passing shoppers and tourists for an hour about his opposition to Abe’s plans.

The protests on Monday started at about 6pm and were meant to run until 8pm. As the finish time approached however the crowd of protesters were angrily pushing at the police barriers and challenging them They never quite got to the point of occupying the road in front the Prime Minister’s house though and dutifully allowed themselves to be pushed out of the way to allow cars and taxis in and out of the government buildings that line the road.

After the self-immolation in Shinjuku I had expected slightly more anger and urgency, a degree more intractableness, something in fact that would suggest they really wanted to cause Abe some discomfort and demand he change his mind and engage in the democratic process. But rather like the anti-nuclear protests there seemed to be a feeling that they had already lost. The younger people were angrier and carried on the protests late into the night but by 11pm most of the older people, that had swollen the ranks of  protesters earlier, had already gone home.

We will see what happens today.

I am writing this on the hop between jobs so will try and edit in more details later.

More images of the Article 9 protest in Tokyo at my archive site here:


Schools Swinging, Sights, Sodas, Sunsets and Satellite Dishes

Japanese School Sports Day Japanese School Sports Day

Tokyo, Japan. Friday May 30th 2014 Tokyo, Japan. Friday May 30th 2014 Tokyo, Japan. Friday May 30th 2014 Roppongi, Tokyo, Japan. Friday May 30th 2014 Tokyo, Japan. Friday May 30th 2014A good day out on Friday, just wandering aimlessly around taking pictures of whatever I came across. Just like I used to do back when I shot photos while travelling. Indeed it did feel a bit like travelling again as, though I ended up in some familiar places like Azubu, Shibuya, Ebisu and Roppongi, I hadn’t been to some of them for quite a long time and it was good to see them fresh again. Istarted the day off with a visit to my sons’ school to watch them practising for their sportsday. You can see my Sola on the far left of the top picture.

It was a hot day and the Friday night ciders with good friends went down very well after a good day out.

Nothing much else to write, busy as always just wanted to share some shots.



In The Firing Line

AKB48 cafe in Akihabara, Tokyo

AKB48 cafe in Akihabara, Tokyo

There was an attack on some members of the girl idol group, AKB 48 on Sunday.

The attacker slashed at people with a saw blade as he entered a mini concert and a meet and shake hands event  in Iwate in north-east Japan. Two teenage members of the group, Rina Kawaei, 19, and Anna Iriyama, 18, were injured with cuts to their heads and hands and some broken bones in their fingers.

There is a lot wrong with the idea of AKB 48: the girls are massively controlled: they cannot have boyfriends or voice opinions on anything and they have to wear and be whatever the management tell them, all to preserve the fantasy that they are part of their fans’ lives. The group was formed on the basis that fans can actually meet the singers and dancers and the often erotic lyrics and videos (despite some members being legally children) appear to sell the idea that real romance is a possibility. This is perhaps not unusual in pop music but the AKB fans themselves are rather strange and many seem to prefer the manipulated flirtation the management leave them with to a real relationship with a real woman.

While there is a lot wrong with AKB this attack was not, it turns out, part of that. The attacker was a 24-year-old, unemployed  man called Satoru Umeta who surprisingly wasn’t even a fan of the group and just went there because he wanted to kill someone, anyone.

I feel sorry for the girls that have been attacked and hope they have a speedy recovery. They are very young and have to deal with a serious amount of oft unhealthy adoration. This event, though not connected to their fan base does show up how vulnerable they would be to a frustrated fan who has been sold on the the sex and the specialness of his relationship to the girls, in that he can wield control over her popularity and thus career, and may wish to consummate that power one day. This mutual conceit will only protect the members of the group if the fans remain weak and chaste. To my mind a few too many buttons have been pressed to further guarantee that will remain the case.

Anyway it might mean a few cancellations of concerts and fan-meeting and an overdue re-imagining of the girls in the group as real humans for a while by both management and fans. It is lucky that lonely men in Japan do not have access to guns, as they do in America, or this weekend could have been just as bad, or even worse, than the events in California.

Let’s hope there is an end to the virtual slavery of the idol system in Japanese talent agencies but I’m not holding my breath on that. There is is a lot of money in selling every part of an idols life and enough young girls and boys who are prepared to put up with it for their 15 minutes of fame, as the queues outside the AKB48 cafe in Akihabara (above) show.



Mount Oyama

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On the last day of the Golden Week, yesterday, I took a short trip up Mount Oyama in Kanagawa with some friends of my sons. Quite a climb, for me, who has managed to avoid any real exercise for several years. My mountain lethargy is not  by choice of course, I love getting out in  the hills and doing a bit of climbing it is just that in Japan, with a young family, you seem never to quite have the time for doing that. Must admit that all the fresh air and sudden plodded altitude left me a bit dizzy at first. Hard to believe that it was something I used to do all the time.

Managed to get back into the swing of things pretty soon however and enjoyed the climb. The climb-down was not so enjoyable of course as my knees have become even less accustomed to jarring descents than my lungs are to stumbling ascents. But there was a whole rugby school on the mountain: 140 of the fittest, young students you could ever hope to meet and I managed to keep up with them and even look slightly less breathless at times, so all was not so bad apparently.

Despite my less than peak fitness it was good to be out in the wilds again. Of course in Japan the “wilds” are invariably over-crowded with people, especially on a national holiday. Another name for Mount Oyama is “Guardian of the Land Mountain” and it is a pretty holy place with a fair few tourists and mountain aesthetics (bottom picture) visiting the beautiful shrines that dot the hillsides.

I particularly loved looking around at the forest as we climbed. It was an overcast day which made the trees all misty and mysterious. Indeed yet another name for Oyama mountain is “Rain Mountain” and in the dripping undergrowth, as we climbed, we met a Japanese Serow (top picture). This animal is best described as a goat-antelope and is apparently quite rare. It is also a protested species in Japan and a national symbol.

The kids had a good day (middle picture) with their friends. I was quite impressed both with their determination and sure-footedness. And as my body did not complain too much and my own hard-won mountain skills began to kick-in I became  quite determined to build on the good fitness base I somehow still seem to have after 12 years of rather sedentary life here and get out to the forests and hills a bit more if possible.



Free to Protest

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Well maybe.

A small update on a post I write a while back about the struggle for student political activities at Hosei University in Tokyo.

Five university student, who had been charged in June 2009 with acts of violence and vandalism and acquitted  in May 2012, were cleared again in February of this year after the Court of Appeal admitted the evidence against them was inconclusive.

The students (four from the University and one student activist formerly from Tohoku University) were detained for 8 months as the police tried to extract confessions from them. Confessions are often the only form of evidence available to the prosecution due to lackadaisical or inept police work. Though it is well known that many are given under duress and unsafe (indeed a lot are withdrawn as soon as the defendant reaches a courtroom) in the Japanese courts they carry a lot of weight and thus lead to a very high conviction rate. The lack of any self-incriminating confession by the  Hosei Five (as they came known) plus inadequate CCTV footage and witness statements left the court no choice to to reject the appeal brought by the university.

Now the former students, Taku Arai, Makoto Masui, Ryo Onda, Yuichi Utsumi and Yosuke Oda, with the support of the radical student union, Zengakuren are free to spearhead the fight against the authorities at Hosei University who they accuse of suppressing human-rights like free speech and student political participation along with broader, neo-liberal crimes such as profiting from education, by increasing student fees and outsourcing.

Since the troubles began at the university in 2006, there have  been 125 people arrested or indicted for offences related to activism and eight Hosei students have been suspended indefinitely. Three of the Hosei Five were also expelled and in a protest on Friday last week (April 25th) several of those that had been affected by the campus’s clampdown noisily demanded the university publicly apologise to them and the other students that were caught up in the troubles and reinstate the students that were excluded.

About 60 people took apart in the protest which was policed by  a roughly equal number of Tokyo’s finest and the private Hosei security guards. Just as last time the rally was noisy but small and mostly ignored by the other students, a handful of whom came to watch. There was one pantomime-like attempt to break the cordon and gain access to the university  (top photo).

But the only real violence I saw was committed against one of the protesters: As activists, Yuhimaru Takeda and Makoto Masui (second photo) took up positions on the sidewalk to give a speech, an old man, pushing a wheelchair, took umbrage at the minute inconvenience he suffered in manoeuvring the even older lady in the chair around the protest by kicking Takeda hard in the chest. The young man went spilling across the road towards the main protest and the police van before regaining his balance and resuming his position on the sidewalk. he was winded and shocked but aside from angrily shouting questions at the attacker as he walked off, he did nothing. The police did nothing to apprehend the attacker also of course.

For a more in depth analysis of the issues regarding the protests at Hosei University and the court cases surrounding them have a look at this article by William Andrews in the Japan Times. With a couple of my images from Friday to accompany it.

More images of the Friday protest at Hosei University in Tokyo are available at my archive here:


Very busy




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A colourful day at Tokyo Rainbow Pride festival yesterday.

In its third year now this is one of the world’s great gay pride events.

A week long celebration of homosexual culture and acceptance. It culminates with a large parade and fair in Yoyogi Park.

A lot of interesting people are “on display” and everyone just seemed to be having so much fun. Will certainly go again.

More images of Tokyo Rainbow Pride festival at my archive here:



Radically Different

helmet with a hopeful message at left wing demo in Tokyo

helmet with a hopeful message at left wing demo in Tokyo

Lots of security police taking notes at a left wing demo in Tokyo

Lots of security police taking notes at a left wing demo in Tokyo

Members of Zengakuren student union at a left wing demo in Shiba Park near Tokyo Towe, Tokyo

Members of Zengakuren student union at a left wing demo in Shiba Park near Tokyo Towe, Tokyo

A left wing demo in Tokyo

A left wing demo in Tokyo

Sorry it has been a while since I posted here.

Have been very busy with other jobs and my kids were on Spring Break which has pretty much kept me away from the computer. But been plotting and planning in my free time and hope that I will be able to post a bit more regularly for the rest of the year.

It has been a quiet spring photographically too as I seem not to have had many opportunities to head out and shoot anything much for myself. A few weeks ago I did manage to get along to another one of my regular left-wing protest however. This one was related to a court case going through the glacial Japanese justice system that questions the legality of land appropriated from farmers for the construction of Narita Airport. Protesting against Tokyo’s international airport, which has been in operation since 1972, may seem like rather old news but the story of the abuses the farmers suffered and the actions they undertook to stop its construction is more complicated and it is easy to see why some of these old guys are not just letting it go, as I have written before. This article on the subject by journalist, William Andrews does a better job of explaining some of the history and personalities involved too.

Apart from William Andrews and the ever interesting David McNeill, who occasionally get articles on the Japanese extreme- left through an editor’s “public interest” filter this is still a relatively unknown and massively under-reported section of Japanese society and that fact has been interesting me for many years.

The story of the Japanese left is interesting because the existence of such political passions in Japan is unexpected. Many people’s impression of Japan is that it all works well and everyone is happy: thus there is no real need to protest for improvements or call for revolution. Also the Japanese are often reported as, and indeed famously appear to be, politically apathetic. Yet even a very touristic dig into recent history will show you that extreme views, on either side of the political spectrum, have a long tradition in this country. The Fascism of the 1930s and 1940s is one example that had global implications everyone understands, but little is known now of the the equally vehement left-wing that attempted to counter it or the prominence they assumed in post-war Japan, until the Cold War intervened.

The message of the left has been, since that time, ignored and easily ridiculed by a compliant media but is starting to sound relevant again as it is very clear that things are not all going well in this land whose society was once famously summed-up as “127 million people, all middle class.”. How Japan and the left-wing are adapting to that fact is a story I am keen to follow.

The extreme-left are still far from popular to be sure and are considered by many as dangerously anachronistic, but the grudging tolerance Japanese democracy has had to give them over the years now means their age-old warnings against power and the indifference of corporate-politics are finally getting heard anew. Or rather ordinary people who once believed they were doing just fine, and the politicians they unthinkingly voted for and the companies they unthinkingly worked for cared for their lives, have realised that is no longer true and found that their anger at this situation already has a voice.

This could be an interesting time in Japanese politics. Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, though the holder of a policy mandate, is by no means the preferred choice of many voters. He has to be careful when and where he pushes the nationalistic ideals that will keep his backers happy, and what compromises he will need to make, with a larger and predominately suffering population, in order to keep that mandate.

This is easy to see at the demos where the Police, that are always a heavy-handed presence (second image), are looking unsure exactly how they are to deal with the sudden relevance of those they come to control and intimidate. There is no longer the forced smiling of demo-policing that I observed a few years ago, under the administration of the Democratic Party of Japan; the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Abe and Taro Aso have a longer experience of power and are far keener to shift the narrative and much bolder in trying to silence detractors. But the left’s long opposition to nuclear energy and militarism has meant a radical presence at most of the very inclusive anti-nuclear demos over the last three years and have led to a subtle shift in its perception. While ever the voice of the proletariat was painted as a destructive, deluded minority it was easy to force its anger and make it even more unattractive. When labour unions and student activists started to need riots and Molotov cocktails to get their points across, the overt subjugation by the security-services was easier to justify to a population that wanted a much easier life than the one revolutionaries promised. With the forceful blessing of the Americans of course. These days, when a lot of Japanese people, that have never before been driven to an active disagreement with politics, feel their leaders’ indifference to issues such as pacifism, nuclear power and global corporatism leaves them little choice but to march and punch the air in anger alongside those that they once feared, the rise of the left or at least some acceptance of its message, is harder to ignore.

I do not know if the Japanese left can or even want to lead this struggle. The call for change is a universal phenomena at the moment after all and protests against global capitalism and its supine political enablers are happening in many countries. Yet we still do not know if this will be enough to force actual change in places that do not have so many of the entrenched traditions and restrictions that are self-imposed on Japanese activism.
I do not have an answer to this. But I am going to keep watching to see what happens.

Anyway here is an updated gallery of  the Japanese left-wing at my photoshelter archive for you to get some flavour of these protests.



Remembering That Afternoon

Japanese earthquake March 11th 2011 Japanese earthquake March 11th 2011 Japanese earthquake March 11th 2011 Japanese earthquake March 11th 2011 Japanese earthquake March 11th 2011 Japanese earthquake March 11th 2011

Three years ago today, at 2:46 on a Friday afternoon, the Great East Japan Earthquake struck the Tohoku region of north east Japan.

I was out in Tokyo that day, walking around Mejiro when the building started to wobble and shake violently. It was obvious something big had happened, what I didn’t know then, and what I wouldn’t be able to find out for several hours after, was just where it had struck and how big it actually was.

The scenes I saw and the people I have spoken to in Tohoku since that day have deeply moved me. Yet if I am honest it is that afternoon in Tokyo that is clearest in my memory. Wandering the streets in a community of forced pedestrians all calmly looking for a way out of the place and all similarly unsure what or where the bad news was. People checked phones for information but many were not working. Those outside watched buildings away in the aftershocks, those inside, in cafes and mobile phone shops or banks, train stations and hotel lobbies, served massive crowds of customers without anger, making room for stranded salarymen to get a seat on the floor, charge their phone; sneak a view of a TV screen perhaps and drink a coffee to keep them warm.

There was fear but no panic and it was a truly humbling experience to see so many millions of people carry-on without complaint, despite the very real stress they were under.

I will never forget it. just as I will never forget the almost 20,000 people who died that afternoon too.

I am unable to head north this day to give my wishes directly to those that survive them but I will stop what I’m doing for a minute at 2:46 today to those that I will never be able to meet.



The Clean Up

A Japanese policeman clearing snow in Tokyo after heavy snows fell on Saturday February 8th

A Japanese policeman clearing snow in Tokyo after heavy snows fell on Saturday February 8th

A policeman clears snow in front of a Koban (police box) in my home town in Tokyo.

We had a lot of snow on Saturday. Apparently it was the most snow to fall on Tokyo in 16 years.

Bit of a winter wonderland out there that day to be honest though I was busy with kids and missed most of it.

Now the sun shines, the temperature is rising and all that snow is melting or being cleared.

The policeman above wasn’t too happy I took his photos. But you’d think they would like to be seen performing a useful public function sometimes.



The Old Guard

Junichiro Koizumi Morihiro Hosokawa

Photographed former Prime-Ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Morihiro Hosokawa campaigning in Shibuya today. Was quite shocked at how much Koizumi had aged. indeed watching these two old men climb the ladder to the top of the truck was a heart in the mouth experience: the ladder was steep and they tottered in the ascent.

When they talked though the energy and passion, of men much younger, came through. Hosokawa was more animated than I had imagined from seeing photos of him. in the photos he always looks tired. Koizumi, though not my favourite politician in the world, was amazing. His voice commanded the crowd. The anti-nuclear message resonated of course but he made it sing.

I do not know if Hosokawa will win the election on Sunday, though he speaks for many Japanese when he hopes for an end to nuclear power, voters are left wondering if he has any other policies. And as I watched them end their speeches and wobble back down the ladder there was clearly the question of age. Hosokawa is 76 years old and many people worry about his strength for the difficult job of being Tokyo governor.

From what I saw he certainly could probably hold his own with politicians younger than him . Sometimes the old guard need a cause to energise them, maybe this is Koizumi’s and Hosokawa’s chance to right some wrongs from their past and make a difference to Japan. Again. I mean really, they can’t be worse than some of the other less experienced, and sometimes just plain crazy, candidates out there.

More images of Morihiro Hosokawa and Junichiro Koizumi campaigning for the Governor’s election in Tokyo at my archive here:



Tatsuo Suzuki

Tatsuo Suzuki electioneering in Tokyo Tatsuo Suzuki electioneering in Tokyo

Tatsuo Suzuki is not the most famous of candidates in the upcoming gubernatorial elections in Tokyo yet he has a long history of battling the establishment and working towards a fairer, society as a left-wing lawyer and union activist. He is standing this time in the hope that the people in Tokyo might actually want a change from the usual collection of self-interested eccentrics and corrupt careerists they usually get. He seems genuine enough: it is not easy being an anti-establishment lawyer and standing against the ideas of the people who expect you to be come one of them when you qualify as a practitioner of law. He has taken on cases that rattle the bars of vested interests like defending political prisoners like Fumiaki Hoshino.

His policies this time include halting  the constitutional reforms promised by Prime-Minister, Shinzo Abe and indeed even aim for the complete over-throw of the Abe government itself. He is anti-nuclear of course  yet unique among the candidates also believes the Olympics are a vast, wasteful vanity project that is taking away much needed funds from the reconstruction in Tohoku and feels that the city does not deserve this event while ever the Fukushima crisis is most obviously not under the control Abe promised it was.

A principled man, but a very long shot for electoral success I fear.

I photographed him campaigning and giving some short speeches to the anti-nuke faithful protesting outside the Diet Building on Friday night. I was quite impressed that these protests are still able to draw enough of a crowd to raise some noise and inconvenience the police the bit. Far from their popularist heyday of course but the call for a change of direction in Japanese energy policy is still one that resonates with many people despite the government’s attempts to neuter the debate or rewrite the narrative.  Suzuki San found a sympathetic crowd for his rather short message but many people there, who you think would be natural issue allies, seemed to have never heard of him.

Anyway I wish him luck.

Very busy, too much to do really. Need more hours in the day.



Still Fighting For Freedom

Akiko Hoshino leads a demo in Tokyo to protest the release of her husband, Fumiaki Hoshino

Akiko Hoshino leads a demo in Tokyo to protest the release of her husband, Fumiaki Hoshino

Interesting read here in the Japan Times by the William Andrews about the case of Fumiaki Hoshino who was convicted of killing a policeman in a riot in Shibuya in 1971.

Nicely updates something I wrote before yet never quite got around to investigating more. In interviews with Hoshino San’s wife Akiko, we learn more of the petty cruelty of his detention like the 20 day punishment he got for washing his feet without permission after stepping on a cockroach or the lack of adequate heating and air-conditioning to deal with the the extremes of Japan‘s seasons.

The cruelest revelation of all is that Akoko San has never even touched her husband since their marriage in 1986. Conjugal visits have been denied and even a request to have his baby via IVF (In Vitro Fertilisation Treatment) was rejected.

Never mind the fact that his twenty year sentence has been extended indefinitely and numerous appeals refuse to reject the confessions that were used to convict him even though they were withdrawn soon after they were given with claims they were forced. Never mind the appearance of new evidence that casts doubt on the identity of the person responsible for the policeman’s death or the unbelievable fact that the prosecution is allowed to hide that evidence.

It all looks like a huge miscarriage of justice that has got both The United Nations and Amnesty International interested. Even after nearly forty years in prison the most amazing thing we learn in the article is that Fumiaki Hoshino is still optimistic that he will be released one day.

Here’s hoping he is.

More images of the Free Hoshino Campaign at my archive here.

Later Damon


Ferrari decorated with manga idols near Akihabara in Tokyo

Ferrari decorated with manga idols near Akihabara in Tokyo

You shouldn’t do this to a Ferrari.

Am I right?

Working a few other stories at the moment,  just something fun to keep you entertained while I shoot and scribble away.



Spooky Nights

Young people dressed in costumes to celebrate Halloween in Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan. Thursday, October 31st 2013

Young people dressed in costumes to celebrate Halloween in Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan. Thursday, October 31st 2013

Halloween in Tokyo Halloween in Tokyo Halloween in Tokyo Halloween in Tokyo

A few meetings yesterday and then a quick photo trawl around Shibuya to shoot the people enjoying the Halloween celebration.

Being a Thursday I hadn’t expected it to be so busy. Indeed the main Halloween celebrations took place last weekend but a lot of young people seemed to be getting very firmly into the spirit of the day as the sun came down on Shibuya.

Busy day again today.

Hope you had a good Halloween if you do that sort of thing.


Blown It All Away

A Japanese salaryman walking on a bridge near Ochanomizu station with Tokyo Skytree and other tall building behind him. Ochanomize, Tokyo, Japan. Wedneday October 16th 2013

A Japanese salaryman walking on a bridge near Ochanomizu station with Tokyo Skytree and other tall building behind him. Tokyo, Japan. Wednesday October 16th 2013

Love the clearing skies after a typhoon. The atmosphere sparkles and the air is clear and fresh. The views are hard edged and bright. All the rush and rime of the city has blown away.

It is good to be out in the light that follows these storms; there is a sense of escape both mentally and physically as you leave the house you had to hide in through the rattling winds and rain. Outside,  the city is scrubbed and good to look at again and you want to explore.

In reality Typhoon Wipha merely grazed Tokyo and it wasn’t as bad here as had been expected.  Other places were not so lucky however.

Very busy.



Memorial to Natsue Murada Memorial to Natsue MuradaMemorial to Natsue Murada Memorial to Natsue Murada Memorial to Natsue Murada Memorial to Natsue Murada Memorial to Natsue Murada Memorial to Natsue Murada Memorial to Natsue Murada

The memorial is small: a makeshift alter on a tiny oblong of unused ground next to the train tracks; surrounded by plastic construction site fences that are much too cheerfully green. Behind it a couple of rough tin and wood shacks are collapsing in on themselves and the passing commuter trains on the other side wobble the ground like an earthquake. It is an extra-ordinarily ugly location to honour the life of a woman who did an extra-ordinarily brave thing. 

On October 1st 2013 Natsue Murata was driving back to her property company office with her 67 year old father, Shigahiro. They had stopped at a level-crossing just outside Nakayama Station, in Yokohama’s Midori Ward, at around 11:30am when she noticed an old man laying on the tracks. They were at the head of the line of waiting cars and she could see clearly that there was something wrong. The crossing barriers had already closed but the man wouldn’t or couldn’t move to the safer side of them. A train was approaching: the crossing signals alarms were incessant with that warning, but forty year old Natsue knew he was in danger and couldn’t just sit there and watch him get run-over by the train. 

“I have to help him.” She said as she got out of the car. 

“Don’t go. There isn’t enough time!” Her father called after her but against his advice, she crossed the barriers and tried to pull the old man to safety.  

The train driver saw her struggling to move the man and applied his emergency brakes but couldn’t stop in time and Natsue was struck by the train and killed. She had managed to move the 74 year old man enough to save his life however. He sustained head and back injuries, including a fractured collar bone, but is expected to make a full recovery. 

The old man doesn’t remember anything of the incident and apparently only became aware of his surroundings in the ambulance. Some people have commented that he may have been trying to commit suicide but it is more likely he had a seizure or “senior moment” on the crossing.  

“My daughter was someone who could not ignore a person in trouble.” Shigehiro told the Japanese newspaper the Asahi Shimbun.  

“I have to console myself with the fact the old man is alive.” He said, adding that he hopes the man lives to a very old age


The trains that were stopped for several hours by the accident last Tuesday rattle by frequently again now. The crossing signal sounds and the cars, trucks and pedestrians stop and wait at the barriers until it is safe to cross. The routine returns to normal and the heroism and unluckiness of that day become part of the background like the pure white table cloth covering the makeshift alter which is stained now where the rain has washed the colours from the flowers that are piled above it.  

The memorial was set up on the October 2nd, the day after the accident by JR (Japan Railways that operate the Yokohama Line), so many people have left flowers and cards that many of them have had to be moved to another location. More people arrive daily to offer prayers for Natsue however. A piece of cardboard lays on the ground in front the alter for people to kneel on when they pray and two security-guards bow and welcome those that come to offer condolences.  

Not only locals have been moved by her selfless act. The Japanese government and national Police Agency (NPA) have presented a medal with a red ribbon, the highest civilian honour, and a silver cup to the Murata family to mark their daughter’s courage. The Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, also sent a letter of gratitude. Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshida Suga, personally handed the letter to the family on Sunday. In it the PM expressed his condolences and honoured her courage in putting another person’s life before her own. 

When politician, especially ones as unscrupulous and stupid as Abe it is easy to be cynical.  Perhaps he is coat-tailing an act of unusual courage for political gain: something he can spin into some sense of unique Japanese fortitude that suits his nationalistic agenda. But if so he would need to ask why no-one else there that day thought to help the old man or Natsue as she struggled to move him.  

It makes him more human perhaps; more caring in a way his other policies are not but I do not think it so shallow a ploy. Perhaps like many people he has asked himself the question we all do at such events: would I have helped? Would I have been brave enough to do what she did?  I’d like to think I would; but with a train baring down and a statically higher risk to my own life as the rescuer, I wonder. I wonder.  

All of which makes Natsue Murata’s sacrifice all the more extra-ordianry and maybe that is enough to make all of us, great and small, honour her and we should just leave it at that.


Ebisu Garden Place, Ebisu, Tokyo, Japan. Friday September 27th 2013

The nights are drawing in. Soon I will spend a good proportion of my day shooting in the dark.

At least it is cooler though and I don’t need to carry so many T-shirts around as I am sweating less.

I might soon need to start carrying a  coat again however and that is equally a hassle.

The skies are mostly clear and blue though and the dusk does lend a certain colour, that I like, to the cityscapes.

Above is an image of the  back way into Ebisu Garden Place that I came across last Friday. So dark, so uninviting, but look at bubble-blue late evening sky!

Lot’s to do today.



A Day to Remember

Yasukuni end of War memorial day Yasukuni end of War memorial day Yasukuni end of War memorial day Yasukuni end of War memorial day Yasukuni end of War memorial day Yasukuni end of War memorial day Yasukuni end of War memorial day

The Yasukuni visit on August 15th is a ritual for many photographers in Japan; we go to see a side to Japan that is often hidden but which bubbles below the surface of most interactions. Because on this day, the day that marks the end of the Pacific War and Japan’s defeat, the unique pride of the Japanese in themselves is on full display.

And it is a display for the best part: a strutting peacock in khaki and medals display of historical myopia and stupidity. Patriotism is one thing, and a worthy one at that, but here, on this day, people look to the past to find the cause of their present discomfort, laying their search wrongly and missing the message in remembrance:  They see a small Asia country respected  through its export of discipline and order not the fear created by the colonial adventurism of its despotic military rulers. They see romantic hopelessness and the divine sacrifice of youth toward a passion of place not the national embarrassment that should be the kamikaze. They see the faces of millions of innocent men branded evil by unwelcome and uncouth enemy lords, without realising that at least 14 of those faces deserve that very description. And they see conspiracies of foreign subjugates to belittle Asia’s natural leader not the collective response of an organic new world order and the beginnings of post-colonialism, Asian or otherwise.

What they do not see enough is the waste of life that was the Pacific War. An easy victimhood can be found in the numbers of dead but they blame he wrong people for those lost souls and put defeat down to diet or bad luck.

Almost every year my photographer friends and I go to see the dichotomy of Japanese nationalism here. There is a superciliousness to it that is laughable when the  history is recalled yet it is a sort of pantomime of self-regard that is of course interesting  as a photojournalist; with posturing men in uniforms they have not earned and a mania of flags, fights and misplaced anger. The constant question foreigners get asked, when talking to people at Yasukuni on this day, is where we are from. The openness of the relationship that ensues depends on answers stuck in past animosities. Obviously British and American citizens are derided  whereas Germans and Italians are treated as brothers and welcomed.

The biggest pantomime is the annual  “will he, won’t he” of politicians’ visits who nominally go to remember the war dead, but actually do so to  make political statements and cement their right-wing credentials. This year Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, (who right wing credentials are quite strong) stayed away in a  realpolitik attempt to avoid increasing tensions with China and South Korea after territorial disputes and several racist gaffes by senior cabinet members. At least three of his cabinet ministers visited the shrine however and 77 other Liberal Democrat Party lawmakers (LDP) also did. In total 89 politicians paid their respects at Yasukuni on Thursday. I watched some arrive; driving up in their cars and getting out, in formal frock coats, to polite applause. Famous faces got loud cheers and the less famous a mere  smattering of sweaty hand claps from the more enthusiastic onlookers, before embarrassment that they didn’t actually know who that person was sent them silent.

Last year only 55 politicians came to Yasukuni on August 15th and indeed the whole place seemed busier this year. A spokesman for the shrine  told the press that 175,000 people had come to pay their respects, up from 161,000 last year, and the queue of people waiting to pray stretched back far further than I have ever seen it before.

Maybe the current troubles with its far too critical neighbours is causing this surge in national pride. But these are  not your rabid right-wing activists in Uyoku jump-suits. Most of the visitors were mostly ordinary people, living ordinary lives who may never express openly, at any other time,, the feelings they have. They may work, live and study with foreigners every day without their dislikes getting in the way. Perhaps they do not even feel that dislike day in, day out. But is must be there , mustn’t it? For the wish to march with a flag on the street and to express your belief in your nation’s exceptionalism is not normal. Pride I get. Patriotism I understand. Respect for victims of war I agree with. But Yasukuni is not about any of those things, it is about expressing a political opinion that places all other nations below your own and refuting the lessons of history,  with an apparent intention of repeating the mistakes of the past. It is about nationalism and xenophobia. The politicians know this; the right-wing ideologues and their foot-soldiers know this. The foreign media know this. Yet a visit to Yasukuni is still reported as an innocent expression of commemoration and hopes of peace. Yet can it ever be that when the shrine so disingenuously ties the unpleasant aspects of Japanese history to the memories of its victims?

The Japanese royal family don’t think so.

Are the Japanese people really so stupid, or do they really feel that dangerous pride again?

Confusing and troubling day as you feel for a moment there that you do not understand this country at all. Men in shirts and ties insult you to your face whereas other men in boiler suits with swastika  badges apologise for standing on your foot while they are fighting with riot police in an attempt to cause real physical harm to peace protesters.

Can’t keep away.

More images of the Yasukuni Shrine end of war celebration on August 15th at my archive site here:


Anjin San

William Adams statue in ItoIto, Shizuoka, Japan Saturday August 10th 2013 Anjin matsuri Ito, Shizuoka, Japan Saturday August 10th 2013 Ito, Shizuoka, Japan Saturday August 10th 2013

Written about the Englishman, William Adams before but this weekend finally got to go to the Anjin Matsuri in Ito on the Izu peninsular to see him honoured in Japan.

Due to family pressures (it was much more of a beach holiday for the kids!) didn’t actually get to see much of the festival itself but did meet and get interviewed by William Adams himself (bottom image). As the real Will Adams died in 1620 it wasn’t actually him of course. Indeed it wasn’t even an Englishman but a Japanese man in a blond wig and Elizabethan clothes who was very hot in that get-up but also very happy to share the history of Ito and tell me about the blue-eyed samurai who came to Japan 400 years ago and became a friend and advisor to the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

I know a thing or two about William Adams as he is from my hometown of Gillingham in Kent. My dad’s interest in history plus his connections to the sea made the name something I grew up with. When James Clavell’s Shogun was shown on the TV in my youth we all watched it religiously. I learnt my first few Japanese words from watching it; indeed it would be true to say that series piqued my initial interest in Japan itself.

There was a touch of home also as the parade, that is the main event of the festival, got ready when I met and briefly spoke to four exchange students from Medway who were leading the parade (third image). The students: two women called Sally Jeffery and Molly Ellwood and two men called Matthew English and Lare Erogbogbo were somewhat hot and flustered and seemed either unimpressed or too tired to react to this chance encounter with a Kentish compatriot.

Japanese people love organising photo calls and poses and all lots of old men and women were fussing around them of them. It seemed everyone had a job and a particular place to be stand and smile to do so our conversation was brief.  Though it appears they are over of a few weeks, heading off to various cultural events and having a good time despite the heat. Indeed Lare seemed to be loving the sunshine.

Then it was back to the beach, past the statue of William Adams that commemorates his connection to this town (It is where he oversaw the  building of Japan’s first western style sailing ship) and then a sunburnt afternoon with the kids at the beach and fireworks over red wine at night kind of a day.

A mostly good day out to be honest.

Hope to go again next year.



Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan. Friday January 25th 2013

Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan. Friday January 25th 2013

It has been a pretty cool and wet summer so far. Not the usual routine. I still feel I am suffering in the humidity though so found this image of Shinjuku and thought I’d share it. Winter in Japan is cold but there are  these beautiful skies.

Feel cooler yet?


A Gentleman

AP photographer Itsuo Inouye

AP photographer Itsuo Inouye

Been a busy few weeks covering the elections here in Japan.

Calmer now and with the kids off school I’m going to be on full time father duties for most of the summer.

I love those busy times with a camera though. Not only for the subjects you get to cover but the chance to run into other photographers.

One of the snappers that I sometimes run into when covering news is Itsuo Inouye  who works for the Associated Press.

He is a great photographer and yet also a gentleman in the manic scrum that snappers sometimes have to get the shot. He is never in your way; he always waits patiently for you to get out of his and will even help you get the shot despite being competition.

Once when I was photographing a demo by Iranians in Tokyo against the previous election results, it was raining heavily and Inouye san even held my umbrella for me while I climbed up on a bench to get a shot.

I met him again shooting actor, Taro Yamamoto’s political campaign the other week and tried my best to keep out of his shots and be patient and polite and smile and choose good positions that inconvenience nobody; because that’s just how you act when you are around Mr Inouye.


Kids’ stuff now



Fighting Talk

Antonio Inoki electioneering in Tokyo

Antonio Inoki electioneering in Tokyo

Antonio Inoki electioneering in Tokyo

Antonio Inoki electioneering in Tokyo

Antonio Inoki electioneering in Tokyo

Antonio Inoki electioneering in Tokyo

Not content to be led by two cartoonishly accident prone leaders, the Japan Restoration Party enters the Upper House elections today fielding a candidate whose appearance is rather like that of a Batman villain.

Antonio Inoki, is a former wrestler and wrestling promoter. He also has the biggest chin in showbiz!

In a country where fame attracts almost no distractors, the pronouncements of celebrities carry weight and people listen whether he is talking about historical revisionism  in front of Shinjuku station, as above, or shopping bargains on daytime TV.

Inoki is one of the most famous and best loved personalities in Japan and a self-made man whose life story has to be respected even if he is not exactly the smartest man around or the hype surrounding him is rather overblown. He is a valued product of the media and as such he always gets an audience.

Opinions in celebrities are not common. In the west his current ideas would also not be popular and rightly ridiculed.  The  politics of the Japan Restoration Party are extremely unpleasant being a nationalistic, racist party that wishes to return Japan to the hollow pride of the Showa Era empire builders. They equate respect with fear and are in a dangerous game of keeping up with the Joneses regarding China and Korea. But he is allowed these opinions and beliefs because they are “on message” with those that control the media. He still has has a platform to express his views on immigration, patriotism, or the best shampoo, and continues to enjoy his celebrity. Indeed it is his star power that has JRP co-founder and one of the aforementioned leaders, Shintaro Ishihara hoping his presence will undo some of the damage caused by the other leader, Toru Hashimoto‘s comments on the comfort women issues.

“[Inoki is] here to give us new life, and help us fight through this trying time.” Ishihara said at a press conference to announce Antonio Inoki’s candidacy in June.

Contrast the indulgence Inoki’s conscientious stand is given with that of actor, Taro Yamamoto‘s who decided after the Fukushima nuclear accident on March 11th 2011 that he could not agree with nuclear power generation policies in Japan and has had to essentially give up his acting career.

Yamamoto is also running in the Tokyo elections against Inoki as I wrote before.

It is not sure if even someone as popular as Inoki can reverse the JRP’s fortunes however. Their support rates have plummeted since the Hashimoto faux pas. Inoki has run and won seats in the Upper House of Japanese politics before and might just be able to give some much needed muscle to the campaign. But the JRP brand, though once quite popular, has become toxic to many.

To me though the machismo of the JRP is also something that really doesn’t need adding to. These dinosaurs of belligerence  need to learn that Japan is a very different place to the one they wish want to return it to and its place in the world is not going to be secured by acting-up. Japan is an important country that is widely respected for exactly the reason these paranoid men see ridicule. Yet it is actually politicians like Ishihara, Hashimoto and if he is successful, Inoki that make people not take Japan seriously. As governor of Tokyo, Ishihara insulted almost foreign visitor. Hashimoto re-energised Osaka as its mayor to be true, but Osaka people have a great sense of humour and can swallow most idiocies; on the national stage he  has looked seriously provincial and out of his depth. And inoki just has that chin! He also has a wrestler’s skills at debate and rhetoric, i.e. none. The second image is him performing his trademark slap on a young supporter. Basically he is indulged in any argument to win by being stronger so we are really not going to get any useful discussion if he enters politics.

Like the others he confuses having political view and enough power and wealth to run an election campaign with being a politician. There is more skill and nuance to the job than any of these people can muster. Indeed in politics in Japan there are precious few that have those skills  that could guide Japan to take its rightful place globally.

Including the current Prime Minister.

More images of former wrestler, Antonio Inoki electioneering in Tokyo at my archive site here:




Inoki San won a seat for the Japan Restoration Party in Sunday’s poll. The JRP did badly however losing their widely declared “third force” position after the lower house elections in November to something much lower and less influential.


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