Compelling images of a prevailing struggle Japan's protest movement documented by Gueorgui Tcherednitchenko

Immediately after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, a new, pacifist constitution was written for the country under the “guidance” of the occupying American military. The new constitution’s Article 9 renounced Japan’s right to wage war, to use armed force as a way to resolve conflicts, and to maintain a military; security would instead be provided by the USA. Although conservative circles saw this constitution as being imposed from outside, it soon became an integral part of Japan’s identity, and contributed to the country becoming an economic powerhouse. However, with the onset of the Cold War, America’s priorities changed: Japan would be more useful as a re-armed ally in the fight against communism in Asia. The Japanese government pushed back, and Article 9 was preserved. It has been a source of political struggle within Japan ever since.

Gueorgui Tcherednitchenko (b. 1982, Moscow) is a Russian-French photographer based in Tokyo, Japan. His work spans both the public and the private spaces, and ranges from coverage of French presidential elections, West Bank refugee camps, and anti-war protests in Tokyo, to more inward focused diaristic and personal projects. Since 2015, he is part of the international photographic collective PUNCTUM. We had the opportunity to delve deeper into the subject along with Gueorgui and get his views on the subject through his photographs.

You became interested in this youth political protest movement – how was the process of immersing yourself into this and what are your goals with this project?

The process of immersing myself into this project was fairly simple — it was a matter of using social media to figure out who the key players in the movement were, then following these people and organizations and attending events that seemed like they would produce good images. The language barrier was the main obstacle — my Japanese is not fluent, and because of this I missed a couple of events I misjudged the importance of.

I’ve been long fascinated by the resurgence of the political Right after the hopeful, idealistic years following the end of the Cold War. My goals with this project is to produce a body of work that will help me make sense of Japan in this context. The protest series will probably be only a small part of the final body of work, which I hope to someday publish as a book.

Can you talk a little bit more about the background of these protests and the history behind it?

There are three main sides in that struggle:
– The Left wants to maintain Article 9, preserving Japan’s status as a pacifist country, while at the same time rejecting military partnership with the US, which it sees as a master/servant relationship rather than
a partnership of equals;
– Moderates also want to maintain Article 9, but see the security arrangements with America as a necessary arrangement. Moderate governments ever since the war have used Article 9 as a bargaining chip in their relationship with the US, making small military concessions (allowing US military bases, providing logistics for the Vietnam war, etc) in return for trade advantages and other economic benefits;
– The nationalist right wants to abolish both Article 9 and the military partnership with the US, positing that Japan should be an equal player on the international stage, maintaining an army same as any other
country.

Almost-guaranteed lifetime employment had the added effect of depoliticizing Japan’s youth. Confidence in an economically safe future was high, and there was little reason to rebel against the status quo. Not only did protests mostly subside, but participation in political life has also dropped, and the Japanese gained a reputation as an apolitical people.

In 2015, Prime Minister Abe’s government moved towards another reinterpretation of the constitution, introducing legislation that would allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to fight alongside allies, as well as
to take part in “collective self-defense”, essentially meaning that the SDF would be able to use armed force to protect the interests of Japan or its allies. The language of the laws is general enough that the laws could be interpreted very broadly, and, as this was a “reinterpretation” of the constitution rather than a constitutional amendment, a referendum was not required for the laws to pass. Rather, a two-thirds majority in both houses of the parliament (which was much more accessible for the
ruling party) is all that’s required.

This move was seen as unconstitutional by many Japanese scholars, and sparked intense protests. In the summer of 2015, leading up to the laws passing at the lower house of the parliament, weekly protests were being held in front of the Diet, attracting tens of thousands of people. A large driving force behind the protests have been SEALDs (“Students’ Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy”), a student organization led by young, charismatic leaders that made political involvement cool again (for the lack of a better expression) through savvy communication, especially on social media.

When I first heard of these protests, I was surprised by the scope, having heard that Japan’s youth is quite apolitical. I decided to attend the next protest, and started researching the background of the issue. Since then, I have attended a number of these protests, as well as some related events (for example, the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in WW2), producing the work in this project. I expect that, with upcoming elections this summer, the momentum built last year will continue, and I will produce more work documenting this topic.

Creatively speaking, you are documenting specific moments during rallies and such, finding overlaps on how the current elections are going on in the US. What’s your creative approach when documenting these moments?

I wouldn’t really say I was specifically looking for overlaps with the American elections, although these overlaps do exist. My approach is more of an intuitive one — I look for visually appealing scenes and shoot as much as I can, then, after I develop my films some time later, try to edit the images towards some kind of narrative. Since the project is fairly loosely defined for now, I’m currently approaching it more from a visual than from a narrative perspective.

You used the Leica MP and continually use film. Was this a matter of randomness or aesthetic choice?

I’ve learned to photograph with a film Leica M4, so this is an approach I’m comfortable with. Though I sometimes shoot digital as well, I enjoy the analog process — I like having to wait to see the pictures, this allows me to distance myself emotionally from the images and be a better editor of my own work (which is the hardest part of photography, in my opinion). Not being able to see the images while shooting also helps me focus on the action, without being distracted by the camera’s screen. A secondary benefit is an aesthetic uniformity to my film work (ever since I’ve settled on a focal length and a film type), although that’s very easy to replicate digitally.

As a Russian-French photographer based in Tokyo, you surely must have a wide range of global political and cultural influence. What brought you to Japan and how do you think your photography has evolved while being there?

I came to Japan for a 3-week trip in 2010, and loved the place so much I decided I would have to try living there. This ended up happening a year later when a Japanese company offered me a job, and I moved to Tokyo a couple of months after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011. I’d been in a slump photographically for a couple of years when I moved to Japan, but meeting photographers living and working in Japan pulled me right back in. I got interested in Japanese photography, and especially in books about Japan produced by foreign photographers. This made me think, for the first time, about working on long-term projects, which ended up radically changing my approach to photography. While previously I would entrust most things to chance, I became much more methodical in my approach, researching my subject beforehand, and thinking in the long term, rather than about the next image to share on social media.

What other projects are you working on at the moment?

I have an ongoing portraiture project that I publish on Instagram, that is shot with a very different methodology than my protest series (compact digital camera, quick publishing). If any readers in Tokyo or anywhere else I might be traveling are interested in having their portrait taken, please don’t hesitate to get in touch — hello@gueorgui.net. I also welcome collaboration ideas of any kind.

To know more about Gueorgui’s work, please visit his official website and follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter

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