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Japan's Photographers Reflect the Realities of a Changing World

Asian Accents: This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California.

The Japanese word for photograph shashin is written with two Chinese characters: sha meaning "reflecting" and shin meaning "truth" or "reality." Since the 1860s, when the word was first coined in Japanese, the nation of Japan has experienced many decades of dramatic social, cultural and political change, most dramatically in the middle of the 20th century. The works of three Japanese photographers, two in Japan and one here in Los Angeles, reflect the many changing realities of the Japanese experience on both sides of the Pacific during that period.

Two photographers are the subject of an enthralling new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum until August 25th, 2013. "Japan's Modern Divide: The Photographs of Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto," chronicles the work of two mid-20th century Japanese photographers who chose markedly different paths in their exploration of the photographic medium - one preserving Japan's past and the other embracing the avant-garde. Curated by Judith Keller, senior curator of photographs, and Amanda Maddox, assistant curator of photographs, the exhibition is a rare opportunity to see photographs by two of Japan's most highly regarded 20th-century photographers, Hiroshi Hamaya (1915-1999) and Kansuke Yamamoto (1914-1987).

Hamaya and Yamamoto were both born in the Taisho era (1912-1926), a short but dynamic period in Japan's history marked by intense modernization and ultra-nationalistic domestic politics that led to Japan's imperialist expansion in Asia. As teenagers in the following Showa era (1926-88), the two photographers began to experiment with various formal approaches and techniques in photography and ultimately chose radically different approaches to their art. The juxtaposition of their work in this exhibition poignantly illustrates the struggle of the Japanese people to embrace the new (Westernization and modernization) without discarding the old (traditional Japanese culture). Hamaya chose to document native cultural traditions, while Yamamoto followed in the footsteps of European Surrealists, creating imaginary realms and provocative imagery.

Hamaya grew up in Tokyo and as a young man began taking pictures of daily life and local news for magazines. From 1939, he adopted a humanistic and ethnographic approach to photography, capturing everyday life in rural Japan. His images of the "Back Coast" of Japan along the Sea of Japan, are among his most evocative, representing his own look "back" to Japan's past, while so many Japanese were trying to move forward. His work, "Man in a Traditional Minobashi Raincoat" (1956), in which a man runs across the snow in a rice straw raincoat and sandals, can be read as a metaphor for tradition being chased away by modernization. During the 1940s, he documented the rural customs of the northern prefecture of Niigata, Japan's foremost rice-growing region. His "New Year's Ritual, Niigata Prefecture," in which young boys pray fervently, not only portrays the boys' respect for their ancient custom but also reveal the photographer's deep sensitivity towards their rituals and lives, as do the texts that he wrote to accompany many of the images.

Despite being a pacifist who tried to stay out of politics, Hamaya also covered political demonstrations in late 1950s to early 1960s, chronicling the protesters with the same empathy and atmospheric sensibility as in his rural portraits. However, the experience left him so disillusioned with politics and, as the exhibition suggests, with human beings, that for the rest of his career he primarily photographed nature, creating evocative views of the marvelously textured landscapes of Japan and beyond.

The work of his contemporary, Kansuke Yamamoto, could not be more different from Hamaya's. Raised in Nagoya, Yamamoto was drawn to experimentation and new modes of expression in photography, in particular the Surrealism of artists such as Rene Magritte and Man Ray. As a major figure in Japan's avant-garde photography movement, Yamamoto created a journal of Surrealist art, literature and ideas, about which he was interrogated by the government's Thought Police, or Tokko, in 1939. His photograph, "Buddhist Temple's Birdcage" (1940), in which a telephone is shown inside a birdcage, perhaps symbolizes the excessive control the government held over the communication of ideas during this period.

In his later work, Yamamoto experimented with color photography, combination printing and sculpture. Whether an image of hundreds of glistening dried fish, or a female nude with a stapled spine, reminiscent of Man Ray's "Ingres's Violin," his non-conformist images continued to provoke and question. Also a poet, Yamamoto infused poetry into many of his works. A "Chronicle of Drifting" (1949), in which an elegant woman in a long gown with a small sailing boat for a head is shown on a watery ground, is a lyrical portrait of the desire for liberty created at a time when Japan was recovering from one of the nation's most traumatic experiences.

A third photographer whose work reflects another current of Japanese 20th-century reality is Toyo Miyatake (1896-1979), a Japanese American photographer who documented the experiences of the Japanese émigrés here in California and whose work has been collected and archived by the Japanese American National Museum. Born on the island of Shikoku two decades earlier than Hayashi and Yamamoto, Miyatake moved to the United States in 1909. Like Hayashi and Yamamoto, he also became interested in photography in his teens and bought a photographic studio in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles in 1923. Some of his most noteworthy early work depicted the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, important visual documents of a rare time of celebration during the Depression. His images portray not only the athletes and the crowds at the Shrine Auditorium, but also residents of Little Tokyo who came out to show their support for both the Japanese and U.S. teams. In his photographs of Japanese Americans lining at the intersection of 1st Street and Central Avenue, both Japanese and American flags are displayed prominently, in a statement of bi-nationalism.

"Street Parade of Little Tokyo, 1932 Olympics" by Toyo Miyatake, 1932, Courtesy of Alan Miyatake of Toyo Miyatake Studio.
"Street Parade of Little Tokyo, 1932 Olympics" by Toyo Miyatake, 1932, Courtesy of Alan Miyatake of Toyo Miyatake Studio.

However, only a decade later in 1942, with the U.S. and Japan at war, Japanese Americans were dealt a severe blow under Executive Order #9066, which forced 120,000 of them from their homes and into internment camps. Relocated to Manzanar War Relocation Center in Owens Valley at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, Miyatake considered it his duty to document the treatment of his fellow Japanese Americans and smuggled a camera lens into the camp. He built a camera body out of wood and secretly photographed life in the internment camp, in what are considered many of his most important photographs. His image of three boys staring through a barbed wire fence powerfully evokes the sense of loss and hopelessness experienced by so many of his fellow émigrés. "He took these photographs to make sure that something like this would never happen again," says his grandson Alan Miyatake, who now runs the Toyo Miyatake Studio from its current location in San Gabriel.

The works of these three Japanese photographers can resonate with us all during times of great uncertainty and change. Hayashi's images of vanishing traditions remind us that we should cherish our cultural legacies, while Yamamoto's avant-garde work encourages us to be daring in our explorations of the new. Miyatake's photographs of acts of injustice provide a lesson in living together without judgment and fear. As we view the diverse realities reflected in their work, our English word "photograph" -- meaning "writing with light" -- seems woefully inadequate.

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