Japan's Explorative Culture of the Photobook

Few nations have experienced as rapid a transformation as Japan during the 20th century. Once a closed country with limited interaction with the outside world, it opened its borders to become a pioneer in many fields – including photography and photobooks. Through a combination of excellence in design, printing and materials, Japanese photobooks overtook prints as a favoured mode of artistic dissemination.

Photobook is a key form of artistic expression for Japanese photographers. It is not only the photographs that act as the medium of communication; the design of the book from image placement, cover design, printing and the reading experience all play vital roles in delivering a message or concept across. It provides the opportunity to live with the work, enjoy, touch and experience the photographs with an intimacy no exhibition or digital space could ever give.


The Japanese first started using photobooks as a poetic propaganda tool to document changes in the country; subsequently, it became a means of social expression. Now, it is an invitation to experience the photographer’s life, a peek into their inner thoughts, embarking on the photographer’s explorative journey in finding their footing in the social fabric.

[ Relating life experiences to nature ]

One of the many ways Japanese have pioneered in using photography and photobooks as an artistic expression is by relating their life experiences to the nature around them. Through their poetic works, they find and disseminate to viewers a sense of belonging and a feeling of being understood.

One who mastered this aspect of expression is Masahisa Fukase, whose masterpiece ‘Ravens’ has been considered by insiders to be one of the best examples of photobooks ever made. The images were shot over 10 years as Fukase was drawn to the ominous beauty and loneliness of ravens in the wake of his wife's leaving.


Rinko Kawauchi is another photographer who has garnered praises for her unconventionality in organising the photographs in her books. Her series in the collection ‘Des Oiseaux’ (On Birds) was propelled by the fascination she had towards a nest of swallows near her home that she has been observing while being isolated during the pandemic, relating to her own experience being a mother in this trying time. With her characteristic poetry and sense of detail, Kawauchi brings out the marvelous in our daily lives and the ephemeral beauty of suspended moments in this title.


[ Poetry in the nuances of everyday life ]

Street photography can be an explorative way of finding a personal footing in a social fabric, and Japanese photographers are known to photograph ordinary daily life that results in poetic free association rather than a particular narrative.

Daido Moriyama has a reputation for photographing nuances of everyday life such as a subconscious stare, a woman scratching her armpit, how shadows of a straw hat hit on a face. Each of these lightning moments act like a diary entry in self-discovery, recording every progress he made in finding his position within his community. Some notable works include ‘Record’ and ‘On The Road’.


Eikoh Hosoe’s photobook ‘Kamaitatchi’ centers on the Japnese myth of Kamaitatchi, a mythical folkloric monster believed to have existed in rural Japan. This masterpiece revolves around the life in a farming village. Through his lens, ordinary moments like running in the field, resting after farming, sitting on the fence daydreaming, look just as poetic and mythical as the folklore ritual.


[ Exploring inner self, feelings and thoughts through portraits ]

Portrait is one of, if not the most, direct ways of exploring and expressing one’s inner self. Through poses and carefully planned-out settings, photographers explore their inner thoughts and feelings, and express them through the most primal way, physical acting. And through different poses, the subject explores his/her own abilities and limitations physically, mentally and spiritually.

Inri is one photographer that perfectly embodied this notion. It is as if she took her pent-up restlessness, impatience, indignation, conflict and desire – along with all kinds of thoughts and personally pours them out in front of the camera, resulting in an incredible body of work: ‘Symposion – About Love’.


Another book that portrays this poetically is ‘Tokyo Boy Alone’, a compilation of photographic works by Japanese artist Eiki Mori, whose works are mostly images of Japanese young males posing in an everyday setting. Through this book, he invites us for a peek into his inner thoughts and intimate feelings about living alone in the big city of Tokyo.

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