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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


Japan's derided women photographers are earning new recognition

PHOTOGRAPHS ARE WINDOWS TO the soul, some say. So what are we to make of the large numbers of Japanese young women for whom the camera has become an indispensable accessory? Sociologists may expound on, say, the lens and Japanese teenage girls' search for identity. Or you could just put photo-fascination down to an idiosyncratic facet of consumer culture.

Japan's packs of snap-happy teenagers first surfaced in the early 1990s. Since then, they have continued their seemingly insatiable appetite for recording anything to do with their lives - friends, family, pets, even the most mundane minutiae. The wide range of affordable and easy-to-use cameras - Polaroids, compacts, disposables - undoubtedly helped fuel this interest. Swapping these images, converted into stickers (another fad), became a social ritual. Soon there was a nifty camera in every college girl's backpack.

Inevitably, those young women who pursued photography seriously at university or art school began seeking opportunities to exhibit. Indeed, women often dominated contests for young photographers. Some quickly caught media attention as forerunners of what was dubbed pejoratively as "girlish photography." True, some photos broke taboos: a family portrait in the nude, for instance. To critics, much of the material was too narcissistic or lacking in content. Certainly, the earlier photographs were often naïve and self-conscious. But dozens of women developed assured, highly personal styles that have since won recognition.

While men tend to emphasize concept and technique, says photo historian Iizawa Kotaro, female photographers are inspired more by their senses and happenstance. For despite their apparently easy-going ways, women still face great stress in Japan's chauvinistic society. That's why they instinctively reach for the camera as a powerful tool to find their inner selves, he believes. These women are "dramatically changing the landscape of photographic expression in Japan," Iizawa says. "The l990s will be remembered as the period when female photographers generated a new wind, giving new directions and rich ideas for the next generation." Asiaweek Tokyo Correspondent Murakami Mutsuko meets three such pioneers.


When everyone in the family is a schoolteacher (mom, dad, the grandparents, even uncles and cousins), it's tough for a kid to think of doing anything else. But not Nakano Aiko. As a teenager she decided that she wanted to be in a creative field. These days, the 31-year-old considers herself an all-round artist, refusing to limit herself to any style or genre. Though she majored in oil painting at university, and experiments with film and print-making, she finds photography is the most convenient medium. And it is the one in which she is gaining a reputation. "I express in photographs what I cannot say in words or other mediums," she explains.

Since taking up a camera six years ago, Nakano has won critical attention for her photographic works. Among them: Delicious, about a three-day party she staged with a friend; her award-winning Guest Room O Rest Room; and the pop-inspired, Nan Nan Natsuno Nan Nan Life, which shows a fashion model unwinding after work. The latest collection of photos, Nobody's Day, tracks the life of a group of actors during a non-performing week. And to keep a finger in other creative pies, she is working on an animated cartoon too.

Being categorized as one of the "girlish photographers" makes Nakano uncomfortable; people seem to be more interested in the social phenomenon than the quality of the work. Still, she isn't complaining. As long as she gets the opportunity to display her material to broader and, she hopes, more appreciative audiences. Her designer husband isn't among them, Nakano confesses. Though they have held a couple of joint exhibitions (her photos, his computer-generated images), he "does not like my art much."


Hers isn't exactly a household name. But 23-year-old Miyashita Maki is making a good start; her first series of photographs are already well-recognized in Japan. The subject: women at home, in their underwear. Miyashita shot dozens of them this way, strangers all. It's perhaps an odd choice for a young woman, who just six years ago showed little interest beyond having a good time. As a giggly teen from a happy middle-class family in Kagoshima, Miyashita was swept up in the 1990s camera craze - but not seriously enough to divert her from studying cinema. Then a part-time job in a film-processing lab exposed her to the power of photography.

Miyashita's Room and Underwear series is really driven by curiousity. The idea came to her a couple of years ago while flat-hunting in Tokyo. Millions of people are packed into anonymous apartments, which, as tiny as most may be, are sanctuaries from the world. Who are these individuals? How they make use of that space would tell something about the person, she reasoned. As would their choice of dress (or undress). And so began the search for volunteers. Not only would the subjects have to leave their rooms untouched, she insisted they pose in their (favorite) underwear.

That she found more than half a dozen willing models shows considerable power of persuasion. Encouraged by a small prize for her first results, Miyashita kept going, the number of women who have allowed her glimpses into their private lives swelling to 80. "They have great vitality and clear opinions about themselves," she says. To her surprise, men have been much more touchy about her project; some even asked if she was a lesbian. "I just want people to see the reality of contemporary life," she says.

It can be extremely painful. Miyashita learned that all too well when her grandmother died earlier this year. Even then, she kept clicking her camera, from the old lady's bedside to the cremation. "I was very sad, crying all the way," she says. But that was reality.


Ignore the demure looks and mild manner. Shirai Satomi is a take-no-prisoners kind of gal: direct, aggressive, impatient, at least when it comes to art. That explains her preferences. Art school taught her the basics of painting, which she enjoys. "I could go on and on painting, like a never-ending task," Shirai says. "But photography can give quick answers." And results.

Photography was not an obvious career choice. But Shirai's reservations vanished soon after she left university in 1996, when she won an award in a corporate photo contest. The theme: family. "People were so encouraging, I eventually came to feel comfortable with the idea," she says. So at ease, in fact, that she stunned her contemporaries with a daring debut exhibition last year - highly erotic pictures of her dancer boyfriend, in the nude or cavorting with her.

Critics called the material pornographic at least, sensationalist at best. Shirai is unfazed. As a child, she wondered why adults "act funny" on sexual matters. Some pretended to be uninterested or that sex did not exist, while others would nudge and wink. Now 27, Shirai reckons it's only natural to want to take pictures of the man she loves. The process, she says, has helped her shed a mental straitjacket - and become more herself, free of inhibitions.

If that sounds like catharsis, maybe it is. "For me, taking photographs is like writing a diary," says Shirai. Exhibiting the results is her act of communication. "And if viewers can pick up something from the images, or if they stir feelings, it is just great," she adds. Shocked by her previous project, Shirai's mom will probably be happier with her next: streetlife in Roppongi, a popular entertainment district in Tokyo. It should draw less controversy. But considering the artist, maybe it will bring more.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home


U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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