Starting his ambitious project “The Imagining” in the Summer of 2014, Japanese photographer Kentaro Takahashi was motivated to do so by a sense of disillusionment he felt, regarding a political shift in Japanese society. The project makes use of portraits, street photography and reportage, as well as images of scanned newspaper articles and historical artifacts. Putting his analog Leica MP and a digital M9 to good use, Kentaro hopes to shed light on Japan’s relationship to its military past, as well as its uncertain future, by accessing the country’s living history.
How did you first get into photography and what was your biggest influence along the way?
I first got into photography after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disasters in Tōhoku (Northern regions of Japan). The incident made me realize that this world was full of uncertainties and that nothing can be taken for granted. At the same time, I remember seeing on the news that a lot of the victims’ personal photographs had been recovered. Even though the photos were soaked with salty seawater and covered in sand, they were recovered from beneath the debris with relatively little damage and the images were still quite visible. What struck me in this moment was the permanency of photography and its ability to record information. From that point onwards everything else seemed to happen by coincidence. I bought my first digital camera and one month later, I met a Swiss documentary photographer named Andreas Seibert, who was living in Tokyo at that time. He is renowned for documenting China’s rapidly changing society, for example with his “From Somewhere to Nowhere” project. I soon became an assistant to him. If it wasn’t for Andreas, I would never have become a professional photographer. Not only did he teach me the technical aspects but, more than that, he introduced me to the philosophy of photography, which has led me to consider how I view the world.
What was it that first made you pick up a Leica camera?
It was Andreas, who told me how different Leica cameras are in comparison to other cameras. He was shooting with them all the time and the way in which he used them was so beautiful. He took photographs as if he was playing a musical instrument. From there, I naturally sold my digital equipment and a few other things to make some money and got my own instrument, the Leica M6, one year after I first picked up photography.
This very interesting series comprises a mix of portraits, scanned paintings, artifacts and street shots. What was your thinking behind including the rather unconventional elements in this documentary series?
It came about as a consequence of brain storming on how I can represent and tell the stories from the past in a more intimate way, so that the viewers can relate to the images themselves. I don’t think I’ve managed to get anywhere close to my intentions yet but I’m trying to shorten the involuntary gap that is unconsciously made in our minds. What I mean is that when we look at certain images, say in newspapers, and when we see people in images, we tend to think that they are not in any way related to us, for example, images of war or those portraying refugee crises. Many Japanese people would feel “Oh, I’m sorry but that’s happening somewhere far away from Japan and it’s doesn’t concern us”. I was a little shocked by that. So in a way, I’m experimenting by including images of personal belongings from the subjects that I interviewed and combining them with their portraits and other shots to create some type of dialogue with the viewer. But at the same time, I am trying to tell a big story that is very complex, so the mix of many different elements was necessary but may make the work as a whole even more difficult to understand. I realize that I’m walking a fine line in trying to make this project a truly important body of work. My aim is that the viewer is confronted with questions about contemporary society and eventually that they see and understand how the subjects are just ordinary people, who experienced these very telling moments in their lives, and that person could have been you, me or anybody.
Who are the people in the portraits?
They all had a strong connection with the Imperial Japanese Government between 1931-1945. Some of them were fighting as soldiers or serving as nurses and some of them were Japanese citizens, who were arrested by the Special Higher Police (Tokubetsu Kōtō Keisatsu, often shortened to Tokkō; a Japanese police unit, which was active from 1911 to 1945, specifically to investigate and suppress political groups and ideologies deemed to be a threat to public order). The passing of the new “Conspiracy Law” in June this year, saw the government insisting that it will help thwart terrorism, even as concerns linger among the public that enhanced police power could lead to the suppression of civil liberties. It is said that the components of this legislation are very similar to the “Maintenance of the Public Order Act Law”, which was enforced from 1925 until the end of the war in 1945. Two of my subjects that I interviewed were arrested under that law in 1940, just because they painted their classmates reading newspapers and discussing music and the arts, which was thought of as communist activity.
What are the people in the demonstrations protesting against?
Many protests by many different groups have been taking place since the Fukushima crisis in 2011. Every Friday, anti-nuclear protests have been held in front of the National Diet Building and they are still taking place. The biggest demonstration I covered was on 18 September 2015, when the government passed new legislation that took a historic step away from its course of post-war pacifism by ending a ban that has kept the Japanese Self Defense Force from fighting abroad since 1945. It was said that more than a hundred thousand people gathered and demonstrated against the legislation.
Current Prime Minister Shinzō Abe is known for his right wing, nationalistic tendencies, as well as controversies surrounding his reforms to history education and the “Comfort Women” to the Imperial Army during World War II. You have included images of Abe and his supporters. What significance do these images in particular play?
I wanted to include those images to show the many different sides to contemporary Japanese society, so that the viewer can understand what’s happening in our country. I know that not many Japanese people take politics very seriously. I don’t want to either, you know. But you can’t help it since politicians are the ones that make the laws and decide how the people are to pay taxes and we have to obey them, which I consider rather inappropriate when you think about how many people in Japan really go out to vote. It’s only just over 50%. I often ask myself what would happen if the other 50% started to question society and the actions of politicians? In addition to this, I felt a personal need to actually see what kind of people were really supporting this administration.
Having grown up and experienced the education system in Japan how would you describe your own feelings towards Japan’s history?
I can talk about that all day but, to put it simply, the Imperial Japanese Government made so many mistakes. We, the people who are living in Japan right now, trying to support a pluralistic society, must endure the mistakes of the past, even though the events themselves took place more than half a century ago. I believe the current politicians should be attempting to rectify and atone for those errors of the past but, in my eyes, they seem to be making more and more errors and mistakes. By interviewing many people, who have lived through these historical incidents, I’ve realized how limited the version of history that we learn through the education system is. Many Japanese history texts don’t really address the decisions made by Japanese Imperial Government during that period. I believe we must access the living history around us and not simply rely on the history textbooks we are provided with by the state.
How much do you think that a photographer can remain objective in their work and to what extent do you believe they should?
I used to think that we should try and stay objective all the time but now I have stopped thinking about it actually. It’s impossible in a world like this. I believe that the discourse pertaining to objectivity and subjectivity in Japan is concerned with a false interpretation of the matter. When you make a liberal statement, there’s always someone yelling at you that “your statement is too subjective” and there’s no room for discussion because everyone’s point of view is based on their own interpretation of the facts. Nevertheless, everyone should say what they have to say. It doesn’t matter if it’s with words or any other form of expression. You just have to stay true to yourself and that’s it. While we all have an obligation to try and understand each other’s point of view by imagining the other’s circumstances. On a slightly different note, in my opinion, photography has never been objective anyway.
Your series deals, not only with the collective act of imagining Japan’s past but also its future. In light of the current tensions with North Korea, the presidency of Donald Trump in the USA and the controversies surrounding Shinzō Abe, how do you imagine the future of the country?
I feel a sense of doom… politically that is. The reason why I started this project in the first place was because I felt an urgency to act against the current situation. As I started interviewing people, who had lived through the war eras, they all told me that the current situation looks remarkably similar to that of the past, from the 1920-30s. I may sound pessimistic but that’s the only answer I can come up with right now. In spite of this, I am trying to stop the past repeating itself by creating this project and my natural optimism hasn’t been extinguished yet.
Which camera did you use for this series and what do you see as the advantages it provides?
I’ve been using an analog Leica MP and a digital Leica M9-P. Each of these cameras have a long list of merits but focusing makes the biggest difference for me. With a Leica camera, when you look in the viewfinder, there are only a few thin layers of glass between you and your subject, which means that you can see the world as it is, without any mirrors. Due to this, you feel not only physically but psychologically and emotionally closer to your subjects. This is a really important point for me when I’m shooting because I want to understand them and tell their stories as best I can. The focusing system is also so smooth that you never get the same sense of irritation, which you can get with auto-focus cameras or DSLRs. You get the focus where you want. It’s as simple as that.
You are an avid street photographer, in combination with your longer-term projects. What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I don’t have a clear view of my future at the moment but at some point, if I can, I would really like to go into teaching the next generation. Ideally, I would like to teach photography but I am yet to complete a full photographic body of work, so until then, I will simply be pressing the shutter release every time I see a photo-worthy frame.