Kineo Kuwabara

Top 10 Japan in 10 iconic images

© Kineo Kuwabara

Famous for artists who perfected the craft of “Are-Bure-Boke” – raw, blurred and grainy, photography from Japan is often characterized by its underground feel and experimental essence.


─── Isabel O'Toole, July 13, 2020

It’s not only iconic camera brands such as Nikon, Canon, Fuji, Mamiya, Pentax, and Contax that have put Japan on the map with regards to photography, but the island has produced some of the most innovative, cutting edge and boundary-pushing photographers in the whole world. 

© Eikoh Hosoe

1. Eikoh Hosoe – Yukio Mishima, Ordeal by Roses #32, 1961-1962

Yukio Mishima was a Japanese author, poet, playwright, actor, film director and nationalist whose work blended modern and traditional aesthetics, breaking cultural boundaries by focussing on sexuality, death and political change. In 1970 he formed a right-wing militia, called the Tatenokai, which staged an attempted coup d’état by trying to seize control of a Japanese military base to inspire soldiers to restore the Emperor’s pre-war powers, in accordance with Mishima’s conceptualization of sovereignty. When it failed, Mishima publicly committed the ritual Japanese suicide of seppuku (self-disembowelment). The coup attempt became known as the “Mishima Incident”.

A decade beforehand, Eikoh Hosoe had been commissioned to photograph the famous writer, upon Mishima’s own personal request. “Barakei – Killed by Roses” would become one of the most infamous photobooks of the 20th century casting Mishima in surrealist scenes to reinvent his public image.

© Werner Bischof

2. Werner Bischof – Shinto Priests of the Meiji Temple, 1951

Werner Bischof, who was admitted to Magnum Photos in 1949, spent most of his career in Asia. Whilst photographing monastic life at the Meiji temple in Tokyo, he captured this iconic shot. The building in the background is a Shinto Shrine to Emperor Meiji, an important figure in Japanese history, who helped usher the country into the modern era by instituting educational, social and governmental reforms. A result of his governance led to closer ties with the West. The Shinto religion reveres the natural world, and Bischof’s image of this delicate snowstorm evokes the spiritual tenets from their teachings which deify elements such as wind and snow as sacred spirits of the deceased.

© Nobuyoshi Araki

3. Nobuyoshi Araki – Colourscapes, 1991

Easily Japan’s most controversial photographer, Araki has made his name depicting his subjects, mainly women, in suggestive poses, often tied up and nude. Due to obscenity laws in Japan that censor genitals and pubic hair, Araki’s work has often been confiscated or banned by Japanese authorities. Blurring the lines between art and exploitation, Araki is hailed both as an icon of sexual liberation and as a pervert.

The prolific artist has published over 500 photobooks over his career and is mostly known for his black and white images of women in bondage. However, his later journey into the world of colour instantly proved that Araki’s creative strength was not limited to the monochrome. Likewise, his colour scapes explore the themes of sex and social taboos.

© Masahisa Fukase


4. Masahisa Fukase – Solitude of Ravens, 1977

Fukase came to prominence as a photographer in the aftermath of WWII, and his most famous series, Ravens, has thus occasionally been read as a commentary on the shadow cast on the nation after its defeat in the war. Yet this body of work, which alludes to the Raven as a harbinger of dark times, has abstract qualities which allow it to be read in a multitude of ways. Fukase himself has spoken of Ravens as a soliloquy reflecting his personal lament at the loss of his wife. Regarded by photography historians as one of the most important series of Japanese photos, Ravens haunting imagery is timeless and continues to forebode and inspire audiences today.

© Kohei Yoshiyuki

5. Kohei Yoshiyuki – The Park, 1971-1973

As Kohei Yoshiyuki strolled through a park one night in 1971, he stumbled unwillingly across groups of men and women copulating in the bushes. This late-night stroll was to become one of the most seminal bodies of work in Japanese photographic history, resulting in The Park, a tale of lust that comes to life at night, an entire underground society of lovers and writhing bodies cloaked in darkness.

Yoshiyuki’s series is characterized by ghostly figures in white, voyeurs who seem like apparitions. Capturing the loneliness and desperation that can haunt people living in a metropolis like Tokyo, this electrifying series is made all the more so through Yoshiyuki’s use of Infrared film and flash, which results in a grainy and burnt negative effect.

© Daido Moriyama

6. Daido Moriyama – Entertainer on Stage, Shimizu 1967

Moriyama, perhaps Japanese photography’s biggest international export, has used photography to document the dissolution of traditional Japanese values during the accelerated modernization of postwar Japan. Moriyama’s distinct style is characterized by its heavy grain and high-contrast, and his subjects are often those living on the margins of society, people who he feels represent the chaos of urban experience. His work is dynamic, epitomizing the Japanese idea of ‘wabi-sabi’– the aesthetic of finding beauty in imperfection. His focus on the lost and the discarded only strengthens his clear intent to find meaning in every small, seemingly insignificant thing that reveals itself to him.

© Shomei Tomatsu

7. Shomei Tomatsu – Takuma Nakahira, 1964

Shomei Tomatsu was possibly the most influential photographer of the postwar era. He introduced the style of “are, bure and boke” meaning raw, blurred and grainy to the world of Japanese photography, a style which Japanese photographers have remained faithful to, even today. His break from the restrained formalism that was prevalent in Japanese art at the time has made his legacy all the more dramatic.

Tomatsu is known to have strongly influenced others of his generation including Daido Moriyama as well as the founders of the seminal Provoke magazine; Takuma Nakahira, Yutaka Takanashi, Kōji Taki, and Takahiko Okada who were tired of feeling the disillusionment of a decade of fruitless protests and upheavals.

© Bruce Gilden

8. Bruce Gilden –  Two members of the Yakuza, Asakusa, 1998

“I felt comfortable taking those pictures. Some of the people I photographed may or may not have been Yakuza, and I didn’t know if they were or weren’t. I took the pictures because I felt comfortable…They didn’t even enquire, they were cool.”

For half a decade, between 1995-2000, Magnum maverick Bruce Gilden photographed urban Japanese culture, stalking the streets to uncover the real underbelly behind the polite facade of Japanese society. Trying to lift the Japanese “mask of uniformity”, Gilden photographs the homeless, blue-collar workers, Bozozuku (biker gangs) and Yakuza (the Japanese mafia.) His photos, published in the book Go, are bold, intrusive black and white images, classic Gilden in their dark, surrealistic ferocity. His inimitable approach is evident in the thrust and uncomfortable proximity of every image, even when shooting notorious characters like the Yakuza.

© Mao Ishikawa

9. Mao Ishikawa – The Women of Okinawa

The protege of Shômei Tômatsu, Ishikawa was an art school drop out from Okinawa, an island in the East Chinese sea. Okinawa, which was American-occupied from 1975-1977 had a large military base on it where GI soldiers were segregated. Ishikawa photographed the lives of her girlfriends, who often worked in these segregated bars. The images of these carefree 20-year old and their boyfriends, the black army soldiers who frequented the bars, show a side of Okinawa which contrasts sharply with the divisive tensions on the island.

© Kineo Kuwabara

10. Kineo Kuwabara – Ueno Station, Tokyo, 1936

Considered the “portraitist” of Tokyo, Kineo Kuwabara’s quiet and beautiful photos paint the metropolis in an almost serene light. Made famous by long-time friend and super-fan, Araki, Kuwabara first exhibited his work in the exhibition “Love you Tokyo” in 1993. Both a professor and historian of photography, Kuwabara’s photos are a thoughtful study of complex terrain, dating back to the earliest days of modernisation.


All images © their respective owners