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.
Busy talk soon.
A good day shooting on Friday. More about that later.
After the shoot I walked around a bit to grab some street shots in the unexpectedly good weather.
Luckily Typhoon Neoguri missed Tokyo and I could enjoy the sunshine and colours of Ginza in the image above.
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.
Or Visa Versa?
A quick zip around, between meetings, to the Softbank store in Omotesando on Friday to photograph the latest robot Japan’s cutting robotics labs have produced.
Called Pepper it is billed as an emotional robot that can recognise faces and have “real” conversations with people.
Quite impressive but not really sure what is does other than provide limited friendships for the lonely.
It’s current usefulness is not the point though. This technology is still developing and all these quite amazing creations so far are just the evolutionary links on the way to a robot that is able to perform in a capacity, and with an identity, that may allow us to interact with it in a human way.
Even in my lifetime the steps towards that goal have been monumental. Who can really predict where the next forty years will take us.
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.
Am busy this weekend so going to be hard to get out to the Sanja matsuri ,which is taking place in Asakusa this Saturday and Sunday.
Still I have seen and shot a fair few mikoshi festivals and though Sanja is a big one, indeed it is considered one of the three great festivals of Tokyo, they do kind of resemble each other. Sanja is mostly different in the number of heavily tattooed supporters you can see and the crowds you have to push through to see them. My friend, Chris Willson got a great image of the tattooed supporters in the Sanja matsuri here.
The festival actually started on Friday, when the mikoshi were pulled out from storage and readied for carrying. Various other cultural events take place that day too. I was free most of yesterday and went along to shoot some of the preparations the most spectacular of which was a parade that included these Shira-sagi no mai (White heron dancers).
Hard to frame them to get the heron’s (or crane’s) head in and not include too much of the crowd. But really like this shot.
Been busy with other jobs since I shot these few images on a day out with the family last weekend. But it was a good day and wanted to post them up.
On Sunday we took a train and a bus out to the Sagami River near Sagamihara and Zama in Kanagawa for the Sagaimi Odako matsuri.
In this festival, local people fly very large kites above the fields and riverbanks in a tradition that is meant to ensure a good harvest. Even away from the festival ground I found some farmers flying their own large kite from the back of the farm truck (bottom photograph).
Though we nominally went there on a family day out, and because some Ultraman thing was there for my boys, I did manage to grab a few quick shots of the kites flying. Though there was also music, dancing, Samurai costumes and kids sumo to keep us entertained.
Apparently the largest kite flown in Japan can be seen at this festival (photo 1,2,& 4) It really is the star of the show and a monster of a thing at 14.5 metres by 14.5 metres and weighing in at nearly 1,000 kilogrammes, Quite amazing actually that a hundred people could manage to hoist it into the air for a short flight, which started at 3pm, Though two of them did end up in ambulances for the effort. (photo 5)
The kites are made of bamboo and handmade Japanese paper. and watching them tie the things together and take them apart at the end of the festival was interesting, though I couldn’t get many images of that as Ultraman and last buses beckoned.
Maybe a dedicated trip next year as I wasn’t expecting it to be so spectacular.
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.
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.
Though the sun is shining as I write this, this weekend has been another one of heavy snows and freezing temperatures.
Do hope that Spring is going to arrive soon however.
My sons love this character and, as I have said before, there is something to be said for studying the genre. Certainly the influence of this benevolent alien and his brethren on the lives of Japanese boys is immense. I am surprised my sons haven’t grown out of it yet. Then again though the event was nominally for the kids I noticed quite a few adults got a buzz from watching and meeting their heroes in the flesh. Indeed even I get a little smile on these days when I get to shake hands with Ultraman Zero or Mebius.
Anyway my ongoing project on Japanese heroes has a few more images added to it and my boys had a really good time, that’s them in the bottom right of the top photo shouting at one of the monsters.
I had a pretty good time also.
Have a happy New Year everyone.
Been a very busy Christmas with the kids so not had much chance to shoot or write here.
Out yesterday with my sons at the Mitsubishi Minatomirai Industrial Museum (Gijutsukan) where they got to fly a helicopter and a jet-liner simulator. Crashing both! They also travelled into space (Sola in the second photo) and under the sea and learnt all about energy saving and generation including some unashamedly pro-nuclear power propaganda. Small museum but quite cheap and fun.
The longest time was spent with Wakamaru a bright yellow communication robot that doesn’t even attempt to cross the “Uncanny Valley” but did again made me forget for a second that it was just a walking-talking tape-recorder and genuinely worry that my sons’ constant questioning must have begun to annoy it. (last photo)
Will be going again, without the kids, as I want a turn flying the helicopter and airliner too.
Anyways as I said busy which will explain the late Christmas wishes: Hope you had a good one!
Will get my New Year‘s message in early at least.
Hope 2014 is a great year for you all. Talk soon.
Been a busy week of protests in Tokyo. The draconian State Secrets Bill has seen some energetic protesting. I will go into this in more detail later when I can use pictures and write more about the massive threat to Japanese democracy this stupid law entails.
In the meantime have a look at some images and an informed and informing write up by Rob Gilhooly here
Today’s protest genuinely seemed like a mix of all those against it. There were the Hokkaido farmers Union leading the march with red jackets and bandanas and artist and activist, Yohei Miyake bringing up the rear with musicians and dancing. many of the people seemed quite ordinary not too many activists or the usual left-wingers and right-wingers. Indeed a facebook group that hopes to educate people about the TPP and create debate had invited many right-wing, LDP voters to express their anger at Shinzo Abe and they marched quite happily alongside people that didn’t share the same politics at all.
Emboldened perhaps by the week long protests against the secrecy laws that could be used to hide the details of this globalising trade pact as well as the troubles at Fukushima Daichi and the re-militarisation of Japan it was demo of resigned passions allowing it to be quite lightly policed. It is still a subject about which I need to understand a lot more however.
Feeling a bit like Christmas there.
Busy as lots happening in the Japanese news lately so talk soon.
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.
Going to be heading out again today. Something I want to shoot
Do love just wandering around sometimes though seeing what catches my eye like the view from the Hikarie Tower in Shibuya. Love High buildings and the views you get.
Anti-nuclear activist, Taro Yamamoto stated his intention to continue as a politician on Tuesday, despite facing censure in the Diet for handing a letter, out-lining the situation in the Fukushima clean-up, to Emperor Akihito at a royal garden party last Thursday. This taboo breaking action has since caused a storm of protest from commentators in the media and politics who found the action arrogant and disrespectful.
By personally giving the 79 year old Emperor such a letter, Yamamoto San ignored several strict protocols against drawing any member of the apolitical monarchy into what is by default a political debate. Calls for harsh punishments from other politicians, especially in the pro-nuclear, ruling LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) and members of the far-right, might now cause problems for the career of this independent lawmaker who was only elected to the House of Councillors in July. Indeed some politicians, that might have been considered natural allies such as Kazuo Shii, leader of the Japanese Communist Party and a noted anti-nuclear campaigner himself, have also questioned the thinking behind Yamamoto’s action with Kazuo San saying that “[Yamamoto] did not understand the constitution.”
The former actor has said, he regrets causing the Emperor any trouble and that he was not sufficiently aware what the consequences of his action would be. For example he says he did not expect the delivery of the letter to be so widely reported and has accused the media of allowing his actions to be used for political purposes that attack him and the anti-nuclear movement. He strongly denied intending to use the Emperor to further his own political purposes however saying he only wished to inform him of the situation affecting Fukushima residents and the health issues of those that are tasked with the clean-up there. Criticising some of the politicians now calling for him to resign he pointed out that many of them saw nothing wrong in using other members of the Japanese Royal Family to help Tokyo secure the 2020 Olympic bid. A fact, he argues, that was much more overtly political and thus unconstitutional.
The letter apparently remains unread as it was passed quickly onto to Grand Chamberlain, who was accompanying the Emperor and Empress as they met some of the 2,140 guests in attendance at the biannual event. If it was a pointless act that crossed boundaries of taste and legality and could effectively end his political career, why, you have to ask, did he do it?
Taro Yamamoto moved into politics when his acting career ended after he made his support for the anti-nuclear movement that grew in Japan after the March 11th nuclear accident in Fukushima public. It was not your usual celebrity band-wagon jumping: in fact, in a industry where famous people do not usually have opinions and certainly not ones that might be considered damaging to companies, like TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company – the operators of the Fukushima plant) that fund the media with their huge advertising budgets, it was a spectacularly reckless move.
Though the first opinions he expressed on Twitter, were perhaps understandable in the aftermath of the events that shocked the whole country; his subsequent treatment by the media seems to have galvanised a more determined and combative approach to the unique issues of nuclear energy and safety faced by an earthquake-prone Japan.
Taro Yamamoto seems always to have followed his own, sometimes reckless, sense of personal morality and appropriateness. An article in the Japan Times earlier this year, profiling his burgeoning political ambitions, showed how his belief in social responsibly was instilled in him at a young age by a strong mother who would force him to donate a percentage of his New Year Money (Otoshidama) to good causes and regularly take him and his sisters away to The Philippines or elsewhere to work with the poor. In the same article he is aware that his celebrity also gives incredible weight to the message and is something he can use to embolden the anti-nuclear agenda, saying: “I really need to do acting work as well, so I can stay in the public eye and continue drawing attention to nuclear issues.”
After failing to win a seat in the Lower House election in late 2012 Yamamoto and an army of 1,200, mostly young volunteers, steeled themselves for a run at a seat in the Upper House elections this summer. The hard work of campaigning in the summer heat and on the internet finally paid off however and he was elected as a Tokyo Councillor on July 21st. Running as an independent he succeeded in securing a seat without having to make any deals or compromises with larger or more established parties and politicians; putting him in a position to take his anti-nuclear message to the heart of government and hopefully have it listened to.
Obviously the realities of politics have proved more exacerbating for Yamamoto than he imagined. The ruling LDP are determined to control the debate on the nuclear energy. The idea is being propagated that the nuclear crisis is under control; the areas affected by contamination are being cleaned and thus Fukushima is ready for re-population and the people to get on with their lives. With a compliant media parroting the party line and the diversions of a successful Olympic bid, where the Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe promised a global audience the crisis was “under control”, the stories of the the 150,000 people that had to evacuate the countryside around the the Daichi plant and the corruption and ineptitude of the operators before the accident and, now, in the clean-up process is slowly disappearing from people’s consciousness.
Taro Yamamoto did not enter politics to get rich or carve out a career in industries that lobby the power people like him gain after election. He would have been more admired and richer if he had remained an actor. He seems to care passionately and genuinely about the situation in Fukushima and appears determined to keep the debate current. But though he declared that he was “no longer alone” when he won the election it is possible that he found his voice much smaller than he had predicted.
There was a moment after the tragedy in March 2011 when the anti-nuclear message resonated widely. But the voices have grown weaker now, the touristing rebellion of many of the older protesters has moved to a grudging acceptance of the inevitable return to routine or even a full embrace of the new, comforting propaganda. Those that still passionately hold the hope they can make a difference can be found outside the diet building almost every Friday; but their numbers are shrinking and their motives and characters are being mercilessly othered in the press.
Questioning the official line is going to become more difficult as the voices against it grow weaker. Soon, new laws, being rushed through by the LDP will limit an already anaemic journalism’s legality in uncovering political secrets and this will further remove the options of arguing against the government’s agenda: that Fukushima will lose its notoriety nationally and ultimately internationally also.
Yet many know the Fukushima clean-up is cosmetic at best and a down-right lie at worst. Many know that the money and motivations to find alternative energies and rebuild the Tohoku coast is instead being diverted to building more nuclear power-stations or into nationalist projects such as Antarctic whaling.
Taro Yamamoto recklessness in breaking a taboo and trying to inform the Emperor of the plight of his people could be judged ill thought-out and punishably impolite; yet it is more likely a brave, calculated risk designed to change the narrative. He has worked too hard to throw away the advantage he has by actually being in power. Of course the demands on his resignation may grow too vociferous to ignore. The notoriety he now has may yet backfire and put an end to a new and promising political movement. But he has at least kept the subject of the problems in Fukushima in the public’s mind a little longer and though the path to this kind of influence over the electorate has been an unconventional one we may be seeing a new kind of politics emerging here, one that needs to challenge and change the normal, acceptable, appropriate and traditional ways of wielding and deferring to power. One can only hope that Emperor Akahito might rattle his own bars a little too someday.
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.
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.
Big typhoon on its way called Wipha apparently whatever that might mean.
Summer now seems an age away though it still quite warm.
Getting busy some very nice possibilities ahead photographically wise.
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.
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.
Busy at the moment.
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?
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: