The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

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Darkest Hour


I have shot so many images of Shibuya crossing over the years but none like this one. I took this image on March 15th 2011, exactly seven years ago with a journalist from the Daily Mirror called, Tom Parry who was in Japan to cover the March 11th earthquake and tsunami.

Shibuya is one of the most iconic views in Tokyo: a collection of electronic craziness, famous throughout the world. It is the cultural centre of a city so sprawling and so diverse in character that calling it merely a Mecca for youth culture misses the point. The stoicism of the dog, Hachiko, who waited outside the station for her master to arrive home from work each day, even after he had died, is as important a metaphor for the character of the Japanese as the bizarre fashions and hedonism so usually associated with the place. Shibuya is where Tokyo comes to have fun and forget the stresses of ordinary life but is also, it seems, where it comes to find itself.

It was the perfect place indeed to take to take Tom and interview people about their reactions to the disaster. It was also a place where, as a photographer, I could visually show the effects of the tragedy on people’s lives in Tokyo before heading north into the devastation of the tsunami coast the next day. Due to the damage at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power station, and the ensuing panic, all Japan’s nuclear reactors had been turned off and much of Japan was switching off lights, escalators and all manner of electrical extras that eased the life of its citizens to save energy.  The usual bright lights of Shibuya crossing were dimmed as we arrived, climbing slowly up the stairs of the station to the street. The giant, energy-sapping TV screens, that surrounded us were dark and silent. I had never seen this place like that before and it looked apocalyptic enough even for a British tabloid. The interviews however; four days after the events to the north, and in the epicurean streets of Center Gai showed a capital dealing annoyingly well with disaster.

“They’re all too bloody happy.” Tom said to me as we looked around for people to talk to.

To his credit, and because he is a good journalist, he reported that fact, finding something admirable in the ability most of the salarymen and fashionable couples we interviewed had for getting on with life as it needed to be lived at that moment: bringing a little light to the darkened streets. Other papers, in my homeland, told a more terrible and less realistic story, created at a greater distance of course. The thing is it it was still Shibuya and though there was definitely a difference: I had never seen the crossing so dark and quiet before or the street so humble, it was still the city of stubborn pleasure, of optimism, of looking ahead.

One year later the Daily Mirror sent Tom back to cover the first anniversary of the disaster and I was able to show him Shibuya in all it brash irreverence. He liked it more and yet he found it familiar too.

Later Damon




The very first Ultraman TV show was broadcast on July 17th 1966, making today the fiftieth birthday of this iconic hero.

Originally made by Tsuburaya productions in its studios in Soshigaya Okura, which still celebrates its connection to the franchise with themed streetlights and statues, the company was sold in October 2007 to Japanese advertising agency TYO Inc.

Bandai, the main licensor of merchandise for the Ultra Series later acquired a 49.9% stake in the the company and now produces the shows and movies as well as a plethora of toys and souvenirs old and young alike can buy.

Before I came to Japan I had not heard of Ultraman. His popularity was centred much more in Japan and Asia or  with a certain minority of determined fans in the US. Having two sons though quickly made me an expert on his various incarnations.

I first got to know Ultraman Max who as the main character on TV as my eldest son began his interest in the series and we went through his various annual changes together. Each Christmas it was easy to get a new plastic figure or a new monster. and though most did look vaguely similar to me, even I managed to distinguish a few of the types. I remember best the likes of Ultraman Mebius and Zero though who became the Ultramen we saw most frequently in the last flurry of youthful pleasure my kids took in this fantasy before their developing  maturity forced them away from it.

Not that they have completely given up on Ultramen, they may no longer play with the toys but neither have they been able yet to sell or give away their collections.  Both are still increasingly passive members of the Ultraman fan club and have even had the chance to meet their heroes on various occasions. Highlights have included running out on the field with the famous Yomuiri Giants, who use the characters of Ultraman as a another mascot, going to an Ultra monster-themes restaurant in Kawasaki and appearing as extras in the TV show and movies with Ultraman X. Even I did that;  pretending to run from monsters in the shopping streets and malls of suburban Kanagawa. And it was great fun too.

As I have said before there is something to to said for studying the genre and understanding its greater sociao-political or cultural abstractions so while I still have the excuse of my children’s interest I am going to continue shooting this very important part of Japanese popular culture.

Meanwhile. happy 50th birthday Ultraman



New Kids On The Block

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dcjj -201606031262.jpgThere was a protest this Friday outside the National Diet building by a group of high-school studentts called the T-nsSOWL.

That catchy name stands for “Teens Stand Up to Oppose War Law” and is a small group of teenagers determined to follow the success of last year’s SEALDs movement in calling for Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe to reverse the changes he made to Article of the Japanese constitution. They would also like him to quit.

Last July the hawkish Abe “reinterpreted” Article 9, which forever forbids Japan to undertake aggressive military action except in defence of the nation, to allow the Japanese armed forces to take part in collective self-defence. What this means is that the Japanese military can come to the aid of allies even if Japan, itself is not itself under attack. For many Japanese this is anathema and they fear Japanese soldiers getting dragged into foreign wars in support of the US. There were massive protests against this “reinterpretation” last year. Despite this Abe pushed the change through the Diet.

The Student organisation, SEALDs (Student Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy) energised the protests last year, bringing the protests to the attention of the mass media where their issues could be openly discussed as a social phenomena. Japanese youth are often seen and generally portrayed as feckless and politically apathetic or naive. SEALDs to a greater or lesser degree changed that image and one of their leaders, Aki Okuda even met with opposition leaders and spoke in parliamentary committee meetings.

Okuda san was present last night, leading moral support, when T-nsSOWL gathered outside the Diet to voice their own concerns about the direction Japan is going. The Upper House elections which take place later this year are the first that teenagers will allowed to vote in since the voting age was lowered from 20 to 18 last summer. The group is determined to galvanise the extra 2.4 million voters this change has created into a force of that will keep Japan peaceful.

How successful they will be is hard to gauge. Certainly the protest attracted the media who surrounded the site of the demo. What it didn’t attract however were the teenagers whom it hoped to inspire. I could only see four actual teenagers and the crowd of 200 or so people was mostly made up of the usual older protesters that still gather outside the Diet building most Fridays to call on Abe to resign. Indeed the warmer weather has reinvigorated the usual anti-nuke protests in front of the Prime Minister’s residence and their angry calls often drown-out the teenagers. Though this was one of their first protests and this embryonic group may yet grow into a force as vocal and influential as SEALDs were it was also hear to escape the feeling that these teenagers were very, well, teenagery: They looked bored, they checked their iphones and their hair during the chants; and the protest slogans and logos seemed borrowed from the only slightly deeper convictions of the SEALDs movement.

Early days yet and it will be interesting to see how Japanese high school students will use their newly given voting powers in the up-coming election. Less then a third of people in their twenties voted at the last election and generally the young in japan feel that politics doesn’t apply to them. Perhaps this group will inspire those people to get politically connected again. The dissatisfaction that has galvanised youthful support for progressive candidates in many countries: from Jeremy Corbyn to Bernie Sanders is one that the young also feel here. The need to protest about something being wrong with their lot in life obviously is keenly felt but who will take up the challenge on a level that seriously threatens the establishment here has yet to find a face. Several politicians came to talk at the SEALDs demos: riding the wave of support the organisation generated to mark out their difference from the black-suited norm. A couple of law-makers spoke last night too and each congratulated the teenagers on their desire for change. Yet after these speeches the chants the high schoolers made were the same: the endless dirge of anti-Abe vitriol which no-one really expects him to listen to or be troubled by. Even the faces of the teens showed that resignation and I am left wondering why young people, given the power to mould their world for the first time in their lives, are not thinking of new ways to affect that change.

Here Comes the Sun

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As Japan recovers from another destructive earthquake in the the west at Kumamoto, I am thankful for one small thing: in the latest disaster at least there were no tsunamis.

The tsunami that followed the March 11th 2011, magnitude 9 earthquake in Tohoku caused most of the problems, including the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power station when the back up generators were destroyed by the wave.

Since then support for nuclear power has decreased significantly and though companies like Tokyo Electric (TEPCO) are determined to restart the 48 existing power station, all of which were moth-balled after the disaster, and even build new ones they have also had to accommodate the growing consumer demand to find alternative ways to generate the huge amount of electricity Japan uses.

After the earthquake  Japan attempted to limit its electricity usage and many areas experienced rolling black-outs as the sudden switching off of all Japan’s nuclear power stations meant the country couldn’t generate enough power to keep going. Though people stoically accepted this as necessary at the time, memories are short and the lights are fully on again in Tokyo.

But there have been some moves towards generating electricity from more renewable sources and one logical reimagining of the rural coastland of Tohoku can be seen in the large solar energy farms that are being built there above the salt-damaged fields.

Agriculture is the number one industry in Tohoku and desalination projects started on some areas of the coast just days after the tsunami. Indeed most of the 1,800 hectares of damaged farmland around the city of Sendai in Miyagi had been cleaned, cleared of debris and made ready for planting by the spring of 2014. As part of the desalination process pumping stations powered by solar panels were set up by Sendai City Government. This combined with a switch to new methods of farming and a preference for growing vegetable over the traditional rice crop has seen parts of the Sendai coast actually become a more profitable farming area than it was before 2011. A lot of the north east coast of remains damaged and derelict however.

There are physically differences of course: massive earthworks are raising the level of the land and infrastructure to protect it from the next inundation and to compensate for subsidence caused by the quake. Also the shorelines are now often home to dykes topped with walls, barriers and lines of sapling trees that will comb the power out of any future tsunamis.

Yet is is the changes in the people that are more telling. Not all of the problems Tohoku faces were caused by the events of five years ago. The rural communities in this area, and indeed all over Japan, are ageing and disappearing as younger generations move to the cities for work and find their ambitions thwarted by such bucolic backwaters. A lot of those that survived the tsunami have themselves moved inland or even further afield; many will also retire from the plough sooner rather than later.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) amended the Agricultural Land Law, the Forest Law and other related laws shortly after the March 11th disaster in an effort to relax restrictions on the usage of abandoned forest and farmland. It also gave financial assistance to encourage the development of renewable resources for power generation that would localise energy supply and make these communities more disaster-resistant. As an example of this, in April 2014 the installation of solar PV systems on crop-producing farms was allowed for the first time. This “solar sharing” system allows farmers to instal solar panels above fields that are used for cultivation. It had previously been prohibited even if the land was fallow and unproductive.

The total acreage of abandoned farmland nationwide is estimated at about 400,000 hectares, and through the changes in these rules it is hoped that local economies, especially in Tohoku, will be revitalized as farming communities which cannot farm due to age or the effects of the tsunami sell or lease their land to alternative  energy producers or work directly in the construction and running of the the facilities. This seems to be happening: Eurus Energy Group began operating two mega solar projects in Miyagi and Fukushima in March 2015. The Ishinomaki-Hebita Solar plant also began operating the same time. These are important symbols of the recovery of the affected regions.

Infact solar power could be a major factor in reshaping the future of Tohoku. The next century had promised an emptying landscape and provincialism, even without the destruction wrought by the events of March 11th but as the importance of farming diminishes and with continued investment from Government agencies and academics keen to take advantage of the unique, start from scratch situation of the area it could become a major producer and exporter of renewable energy. Not just solar: plans to invest in wave and wind power along with biofuels and geothermal energy are all being worked on now by clever people and brave locals with nothing to lose.

Time to go back and keep reporting on this I think.




Okawa School Memorial

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On my trip north at the beginning of the month one of the most harrowing places I visited was the Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki. Though quite removed from the shocking destruction of that large city and far inland, in a wide river valley to the rural north, it spoke of the power of the March 11th 2011 tsunami more than any place I have yet visited on the Tohoku coast.

The thing is you cannot see the ocean from the school; the valley is all fields, wooded hillsides and bucolic peacefulness. It feels safe and far removed from any danger. A perfect place to build a school in fact and it was that sense of security perhaps that led to delays in evacuating the children after the earthquake struck at 2:46pm, a delay that cost 84 staff and students their lives when the tsunami later swept up the valley.

Today there is still a lot of anger about the indecision of the teachers, who apparently waited 50 minutes in the playground after the quake before eventually deciding to move the kids towards higher ground that was much further away than the hillsides that rise just next to the school. The blame for these delays has led to law suits and suicides.

For some parents and relatives the school buildings themselves are a sore reminder of their tragedy and they have called for the remains of what, in its day must have been an amazing place to come and study, to be demolished.

Over sixty percent of Ishinomaki residents however want to keep the ruined school as a memorial to those that died. This dilemma appears to have been solved for the moment. In a news conference on Saturday March 26th the Mayor of Ishinomaki, Hiroshi Kameyama set out his plans to make the school into a monument to the victims of that day.

“It is an important place to remember and mourn the victims as well as educate people about disaster preparedness and pass on what transpired.” He said. Adding that there are no plans to reinforce the building or attempt to repair any of the damaged structures.

“To raise awareness about disaster preparedness, we need to keep what we have as it is.”

He plans to shield the ruined classrooms and gymnasiums with trees as a compromise for those that cannot bear to look at the building where their loved ones died and build a memorial park around the site.

While I can understand the pain the parents of the children who died must feel, I am glad they are keeping the school. It is a beautiful place despite the tragedy that overtook it. Yet I think there must also be many happy memories associated with the walls and playgrounds here that have not been entirely wiped out by that destructive black wave and it is important to think of those also. Mostly though we need such memorials to remind us not to under estimate nature, nor take it for granted that beauty is always benign. I can understand why the teachers thought they would be safe here: it feels safe, it feels relaxed; nothing much could or should happen in this wide, quite valley surrounded by fields and trees. But nature is unpredictable and this ruin with its ghosts tells us we must never forget that. As I have said before.

More images of Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki at my archive site here.

Later Damon


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I went back to Tohoku this past week to shoot events around the fifth anniversary of the March 11th 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Busy days visiting the radioactive fields of Fukushima and the amazingly tidied-up Ishinomaki before heading north to Kesennuma and Minami Sanriku. The last two are places I’d not been before. In 2011 I had headed down from Morioka with Daily Mirror journalist, Tom Parry, interviewing survivors in Iwate. We made it as far south as Rikuzentakata which along with Minami Sanriku were places famously wiped from existence by the tsunami and places that will forever be a shorthand for tragedy. Five years later my thoughts on reaching Rikuzentaka still affect me and seeing Minami Sanriku, the other small coastal town synonymous with the worst of that day, was moving.

It is hard to put a score to tragedy but Minami Sanriku has perhaps an unluckier tale than other places: with the names of it victims so well known and their memorials still so stark and raw even as the landscape around it changes forever.

Jin Sato, the mayor of this towns escaped to the three-story building of the town’s Crisis Management Department or Bōsai Taisaku Chōsha (in the picture above) when the earthquake struck at 2:46pm He was one of only 30 people, from a staff of 130, who managed to reach the roof as the tsunami engulfed the town a little later and only ten of those survived as the water washed over the top of the building. Two day later however he was organising the recovery of his town and set-up a headquarters for disaster control at the Bayside Arena in Miyagi. Many people in Japan hailed him as an ispiration.


The most famous hero of Minami Sanriku though was a 25 year old employee of the town’s Crisis Management Department called Miki Endo. Her job was to give disaster advice and warnings over the the town’s loud-speaker system from the Crisis Management Department’s building. These warnings, telling people what to do and where to go to escape the tsunami, are credited with saving many lives and she continued to give them even as the tsunami overwhelmed the building and killed her.

There was talk that the steel frame, that is all that remains of the building, would be demolished. Huge stepped islands of brown earth rise across the valley now, like Mexican jungle pyramids. These earthworks are raising the town up higher, safer from any future tsunami. The Crisis Management Department building stands these days in a valley of dust with the earth reaching skywards behind it and diggers and cranes drone busily above. But looking at that red metal frame I saw only its missing walls; the doors through which 120 people left this world and noticed the fragility of the building’s thin tower of aerials where ten others clung desperately to stop themselves getting swept away. I hope they keep the building the way it is as a both a reminder of the power of nature and the bravery of people like Endo San.