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“Documenting the War, Part II”

The History of Japanese Photography 1840–1945

Japan Professional Photographers Society, editor

“Documenting the War, Part II”
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“Documenting the War, Part II”
The History of Japanese Photography 1840–1945 (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1971)

War Times and Photography

The Manchurian Incident occurred in 1931; it was followed by the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and led to the beginning of the Pacific War in 1941. It was under these circumstances of continuous, rapid transformation that the Japanese state restricted freedom of speech and suppressed remaining individual rights and liberties. During these roughly ten years, a brief flowering of modern[ist] photography occurred—but beyond an outward pretense of modernity, its vulnerability and lack of artistic vigor were evident. At the same time, like it or not, one must admit that there is some significance to the fact that this era diverted photographers’ focus from artistic expression to journalism and reportage, as it resulted in a rediscovery of photography’s documentary function and its ability to extract a sense of reality beyond outward appearances. Considering the developments of postwar photography, there is an evident historicity to wartime photography.

To begin with, there was no impetus for proper criticism that would have led to a decline or rejection of modern photography. Evidently, for a critical assessment of wartime modern photography, one would have to wait for the postwar era.

Modernist photography in Japan took off around 1930; hence, it chronologically overlapped with foreign and domestic developments triggered by or related to the Manchurian Incident—namely, Japanese aggression against China on the continent and the gradual implementation of the wartime system at home. Most photography in those days, known under the banner of atarashii hyogen (the new style), was a formal transplant from abroad. It did not reflect artists’ commitment to [their own] society, nor did it reveal any awareness of the critical situation of the country. Individualism had emerged in Europe as a response to social conditions, but, as already mentioned, the individual as a citizen was not recognized to the same extent in Japan. Still, it was this era’s warped society, heading for disaster, that finally sparked in photographers a more lasting interest in society. It is of profound interest to observe how, in this commitment, two trends that seem completely contradictory at first glance—Modernism in photography on the one hand and a nationalist society on the other—appear to be connected. This relationship cannot only be attributed to external political pressure or a system of coercion. Metaphorically speaking, it is as if particles of scrap metal were given uniform, involuntary direction under the sway of a magnetic field. Obviously the reality was not as simple as that, but the character of photography itself and something in the attitude of the photographers provided the breeding ground for this connection. One has to keep in mind that fascism, too, was an ideology that could only have come into being in a modern society; both fascism and modern photography, in terms of their underlying technicality, were responses to the conditions of that society. The fact that photojournalism, which was in a sense a discovery of photography’s essential function, was intimately bound to fascism is actually not such a mystery. According to the bourgeois myth of objectivity, photography eliminated outward ideology; yet ideological forms were concealed within the functionalism of photojournalism. The functionality and utility of photography were products of a technological society; though these dimensions of the form served objectivity and were in that sense far from irrational, they were linked to the birth of fascist war, thus exposing the limits of rationality itself. It was not that all photographers were uninterested in theory but that the more they attempted to view things categorically, the more it became a forced attempt at rationalizing things into a systematic framework. Zooming in even more closely on this process, it is plainly evident that what some saw as the rational denial of ideological standards was an intermediary stage and would be swallowed wholesale into the acceptance of a systematic ideology. On many levels, the discovery of the essence of photojournalism and its deplorable decline were two sides of the same coin. A historical paradox came into being: the collapse of artist-centered photography, regardless of artists’ respective intentions or styles, prompted the emergence of some of the best documentary photography. We must admit that a considerable number of works were made that centered on war and the essence of humanity, even if much of it could not be openly published at that time.

The Collapse of Amateur Photography

One particular trait of the wartime was the collapse of amateur photography, which had hitherto played a central role in the history of photography. Ever since the New Photography Movement, a new class of professionals had emerged, fusing photography and mass media. Over the course of the gradual tightening of the wartime system, amateur photography that had not yet been absorbed by these trends came to a near-complete halt. The new backbone of photography, photojournalism, flourished under this system, while the situation for amateur photography looked dire. The desire to continue believing in the feasibility of making a living as an amateur just made the situation worse.

Yoshitaro Mori, a theory-oriented journalist of the New Photography era, argued, “The art of photography, in the face of the crisis of the nation, has immensely contributed to the support of the people at the front and at home” (“The Current State of Amateur Photography,” Art Photography Yearbook, 1939). But he also stated, “If, by contrast, we look only at the world of amateur photography, it is apparent that people are not ready to dedicate themselves to the totalitarian state, even if during the last year there has been much boisterous debate about this issue” (ibid.). In fact, the amateur magazines of that time were full of articles such as “What Should the Role of Amateur Photographers during the War Be?” Even people such as Takao Itagaki began to criticize amateur photographers as being ambivalent about what to photograph and what larger themes to focus on. Yet he himself did not proactively suggest anything in terms of fitting subjects, contenting himself with the notion that it didn’t make sense to try to capture the historical significance of the times through a preoccupation with the everyday. Katsuo Takakuwa, the chief editor of the journal Camera, suggested in the foreword of the November 1940 issue that amateur photographers picture the empty homes of those deployed in order to give the soldiers comfort and souvenirs from home. In the context of photojournalism, amateur photographers were also expected to tread the path of patriotism. It appeared that their refuge of presumably nonideological artistry had been fully exposed.

Another problem was the scarcity of material goods. Once the Temporary Export and Import Commodity Measures Law went into effect, in September 1937 (i.e., immediately after the beginning of the hostilities in China), the import of goods such as cameras or film that had hitherto reached Japan from abroad in sufficient quantities was either prohibited or made exceedingly difficult. According to the so-called July 7 prohibitions (officially, the Wartime Command Economy and Regulations Limiting Manufacture and Sale of Extravagant Goods; proclaimed on July 6, 1940, and in effect from July 7), cameras were considered luxury items, the production and sale of which were tightly controlled. Moreover, the general mood shifted toward an attitude of frugality: “Until victory, I’ll exercise patience with my needs.” In turn, walking around with a camera in public made people feel ashamed [of their self-indulgence]. The Law for the Protection of the Armed Forces of 1899 was substantially revised on two occasions, in 1937 and 1941. Due to this and other related regulations, taking photographs became a highly restricted activity. Apart from military bases, there were designated areas in Tokyo, Osaka, and elsewhere where photography from buildings or elevations more than hundred meters high was forbidden (later corrected to twenty meters). In these times, even the photo journals came to attract the suspicions of the military.

Beginning with the second Sino-Japanese War, the fascist, nationalist system officially called itself the “New System.” The Imperial Rule Assistance Association and the Greater Japan Industrial Patriotic Association were established, implementing a variant of totalitarianism unique to Japan. In the editorial for Asahi Camera’s inaugural issue of January 1941, “Overview of the World of Photography in 1941,” the ideology represented by such organizations was adopted wholesale. The confused and damaged state of amateur photography can be understood from the following passage: “We have turned 180 degrees from individual freedom to totalitarianism.[1] This abrupt change, however, may cause many of to lose our balance, not knowing anymore our direction for the days to come. . . . Amateur photography as a hobby and pastime has been almost completely uprooted by the tide of the times. We do not yet know the greater consequences.”

As the anonymous author hinted, even if one assumed the confusion would only be temporary, what could the new objectives be? The answer was already in place—namely, that photojournalism had to be in the service of the state.

The escape from this turmoil (which was actually the collapse [of amateur photography]) did not happen in just one step. Until the impact of war came to be felt at home, photography as a means of artistic expression had courted the notion of the avant-garde. In 1938, the Propaganda Committee of the Japanese Cabinet [Information Bureau] began to publish Photo Weekly, and the Avant-Garde Photography Association was founded by Shuzo Takiguchi and others. This has already been touched upon in the chapter “Era of Expansion.” Kiyoshi Koishi’s Half-World, of 1939, reflects moods that can be described as antiwar and anti-nationalist. The overall stance of these avant-garde photographers toward photographic expression and the social issues of their time can be inferred from texts by Yoshio Tarui, a member of the Art and Design Group from Osaka. He differentiated two major currents: “popular expression” that was in line with “societal circumstances as represented by militarism” and—in complete opposition—expression as a pure quest for artistic truth. He saw these two currents as developing in parallel, which in itself he thought a good thing. Of course, his own affiliation was with the latter current. But instead of embracing the idea of humankind’s primordial liberation through the dream states of Surrealism, it appears clear that Tarui simply believed in art for art’s sake. His insistence on the inherent value of art allowed him to maintain an interpretation of these diverging developments as progressive; seeing things in terms of two completely different dimensions, he avoided any inconvenient collision between his artistic vision and actual reality. This attitude was perhaps common among art photographers of that time.

Yet reality ensured that such a “two-dimensional” reckoning would not be maintained for long. It is apparent that even the artists shifted their emphasis from art for art’s sake to self-restraint and self-regulation; this can be inferred from the arguments that were raised, for instance, at the regular photography club meetings. People were in doubt about what they were doing. It was not so much that the two-dimensional interpretation of artistic practice clashed with this one-dimensional mode, but that the effects of the controlling atmosphere could be passed off simply as “self-restraint.”

Moreover, one had to pick between self-restraint and active support of the state’s policies, something that became too much to handle under the banner of any remaining individualism. In the world of amateur photography, people obsessed about justifying their utility; for instance, they began to discuss the value of photography for education. Arguments were raised that photography was a wholesome hobby: an amusement and pastime that helped maintain health for workers, students, and women alike.[2] High school and university students from around 1935 onward engaged with photography, and likewise, many photographers committed to teaching positions. In some cases, respectable high-status families hoped that having their children learn about photography would help prevent their exposure to socialist ideas.

The government, of course, noticed that in addition to establishing a totalitarian system, it would need propaganda directed at domestic and international audiences. This was perhaps the impetus for the government developing a serious interest in photography. In 1937 a photography section was established for the Propaganda Committee of the Japanese Cabinet [Information Bureau], as well as for the Imperial General Headquarters, which had its own Propaganda Department. The former was responsible for government policies, while the latter focused on military propaganda, and both, of course, were aware of the political and military value of photography. There was also the ideological character of photography: Based on context, its meaning could change—something photojournalists had already been making use of for a while worldwide. By then, the utilitarian discourse surrounding photography was fully established.

As the issues of state propaganda have already been touched upon in the chapter “Advertisement and Propaganda,” we will abbreviate them here, but one has to point out that the journal Photo Weekly, inaugurated in 1938 and intended for domestic propaganda, played an important role in photojournalism by amateurs. It marked the beginning of government and (later) military officials—including the editor Ken’ichi Hayashi, of the Propaganda Committee—meddling in the common photography press with the clear intention of controlling the whole industry.

For instance, in the July 1938 issue of Photo Times, Ken’ichi Hayashi wrote in a section called “Discussion Table of the Propaganda Department and National Photography”: “For a national photography, we need to do away with the established ideas of art photography. As for the ideas behind art photography—of course, nobody denies that there is a use for artistic photography, as there is a use for the various insights we gained from the research invested in photographic technology. It might be more meaningful to use photography not artistically, but as when writing a simple text. We reach for the camera with the same feeling as when we reach for the pen or brush to compose a text.”

The section discusses Hayashi’s position as an ideologue who, even beyond his grasp of the utilitarian discourse of photography, persistently aimed to fuse it with the ideology of state politics. Soon after, Hayashi published the photobook Nojiri Lake, partially in an effort to prove that his new direction for photography wasn’t all about the battlefield and wartime vistas. Yet even at its best moments, Nojiri Lake is utterly trivial.

Some journals printed selections of photographs with opinions by propaganda officials, to whom the works were submitted beforehand for debate during their discussion sessions. The idea was to learn about the officials’ opinions on and standards for photographs of a more ambiguous nature. The response from the Propaganda Committee to such art photography, however, was merely along the lines of, “From the perspective of Propaganda, the submitted works did not merit any official comment.” Nonetheless, the reporting of such comments contributed to the sense of restriction of the freedom of expression in journalism that permeated the amateur consciousness.

Objectively speaking, the role of Photo Weekly in collecting the works of amateur photographers was clearly to help state ideology permeate daily life and, by doing so, to align amateur photographers with state policies. The journal was also clearly intended as a tool to regulate amateur photographers’ activity. As the writer Reijiro Izumi has remarked, “Photo Weekly was the only photography journal in Japan at that time, and it opened new doors for the common amateur photographer.” But what exactly was its “photojournalism”? For the propaganda officials, it mattered most that it was something useful to support state politics. It was not the reportage style they preferred, but, in Izumi’s words, “It became necessary to present something intentionally prepared as photography (even using models) that, like advertising, literally screamed out ‘you need to have this,’ ‘you need to do this’” (Reijiro Izumi, “Notes about Photojournalism,” Photo Times, 1938). Superficially, this type of photojournalism claimed to extract some higher truth from reality, but it actually had very little to do with genuine realism. The demarcations between photojournalism and propaganda photography were obfuscated almost consciously, and the photojournalism of Photo Weekly by default had to be in line with official politics. The lack of a distinction between fabrication and reality was a byproduct of the use of photography as a propaganda tool, but later it would be used explicitly to conceal truth.

Not only did the amateur world seemingly warm up to the new photojournalism, but moreover, the model of Nazi Germany played a major role. The Nazis’ photo politics and overall attitude toward the art were not just amateur-centered but also reflected back on professional photojournalism and propaganda officials. For instance, in “Photography in Times of Change” (Asahi Camera), the critic Masao Tanaka wrote, “In Germany, our ally, leaders such as [Adolf] Hitler and [Joseph] Goebbels understand more than anyone else the value of photography as a propaganda weapon. They actively use photography and support it. One only has to look at photobooks such as Germany and Beauty in the Olympic Games to get a sense of [Germany’s] superiority and beauty.” Echoing this unabashed nationalism, Photo Weekly declared, “We [as well] need to engage in photojournalism and produce works that evoke the exaltation of the Japanese spirit, transmitting that spirit eternally to our descendants.” The journal also reported in detail on the Propaganda Kompanie (Propaganda Unit, PK) of the German Wehrmacht. The PK was founded based on the Nazi leadership’s point of view that World War II was first and foremost a battle of ideologies. Hence it was composed of journalists, photographers, painters, news anchors, etc., who received basic military training and were assigned to an army unit. This unit eventually played an important role in boosting the morale of the general populace. The work of the PK certainly also helped the Japanese amateur scene maintain faith in government politics and in the meaning of the war. As the amateur’s role was to transmit the truth of the home front in photography, it is apparent that a discourse on “patriotic photography” had become part of the larger discourse in photojournalism.

For instance, amateur photographers were asked to document air-raid drills, neighborhood associations, and other aspects of the home front. It is not surprising that among these photographs there were, naturally, rarely any glimpses of brilliance. Under the guidance of Nakaji Yasui, the members of the Tampei Photography Club gradually embraced the reportage style and jointly produced the photobook Cadet Corps. That someone like Katsuji Fukuda, known for his nudes, felt impelled to produce the book Cattle-Raising School is, from today’s point of view, telling of the degree of the psychological pressure on these photographers. In this way, “patriotic photography” eventually became part of everyday life, resulting also in more and more photo journals printing such works. Another typical example was Elementary School by Sadazo Sakata, an amateur photographer from Nagoya. Elementary School also followed the pattern of photo series reportage. Such activities by amateur photographers were encouraged on a large scale throughout the country; the objective was not to expose the duress of the people during times of war but, on the contrary, to appeal to their willingness to contribute to and actively support the military effort. Photography journals and magazines were flooded with images such as children carrying the national flag or army-style Shichi-Go-San [Children’s] festivals. We probably don’t have to go into every detail of the pitiful results amateur photography produced when it distanced itself from “artistic” aspiration in its movement toward photojournalism. Japanese amateurism had to confront reality for the first time since the Meiji era [1868–1912], but in exposing its [lack of] inner truth, it went into full collapse. It is well known that the material scarcity and the intellectual conformity both contributed to the standardization of photography journals. By December 1940, more than ten popular journals were discontinued. What remained on the market were, in order of their first publication, four journals: Photography Culture (established after a merger of Camera, Photography Salon, and Camera Club), Photography Japan (merger of Kogata kamera [Miniature Camera], Amateur Camera, and Photography Monthly), Asahi Camera (merger of Asahi Camera, Art Photography Studies, and Portrait Photography Studies), and Photojournalism (merger of Photo Times and Camera Art). This was preceded by Tsutomu Watanabe’s criticism of the [in]efficiency of photography journals in general, arguing that one had to welcome the restrictions implemented by the government in order to guide photography’s proper development. He wrote, “If I may add my careless thoughts here, I am not demanding that people of culture and artists act like politicians, nor am I asking them to discard any individuality and work as if everyone came out of the same mold. Goebbels said, ‘Artists need to be supportive of the state. Anything else would be sheer self-denial. The need to support the state results from the fact that it was the people of that state who gave them their position of great responsibility.’ I think nowadays we cannot help but agree. There can be no doubt that in accordance with the new spirit, we have to commit ourselves to such thinking” (“Urgent Issues: Concerning the Regulation of Journals,” Photo Times, August 1940).

“There can be no doubt that . . . we have to commit ourselves to such thinking” is a demand that is astonishingly lacking in inner cogency. Watanabe isn’t necessarily putting the cart before the horse, but quotations such as the above show how Watanabe (who was not an amateur) pained himself to make his thinking fit into the framework handed down from above by the political leadership. He did not possess the spirit to critique that framework and struggled with his own intellectual response to it.

Trends in News Photography

As has already been pointed out, compared to the confusion of the amateur photography scene, noticeable and substantial developments occurred within photojournalism, a field that had assumed a whole new importance—especially after the onset of the second Sino-Japanese War. It was during these days that photojournalism established itself as self-consciously different from photojournalism as it had been practiced by newspapers. Or, in the words of Ken Domon, “Photography discovered a whole new set of possibilities in using the camera like a pen to raise social and cultural issues” (“Roundtable Discussion: The Young News Photographers,” Photo Times, August 1938). News photographers established countless new studios, Japan Atelier the most prominent among them, and many worked hard to secure solid positions for freelance photographers in an era when editors barely paid them for their efforts. Here is one reason they did not fall into the turmoil that afflicted the amateur scene: there was practicality to and a clear awareness of their work’s utility and necessity, in addition to a more earnest dedication to the methodologies of photography. Ken Domon is a good example for the new type of professional photographer, as from the start he worked with Leica cameras and was commercially oriented, unlike both the amateurs and the professionals of the past. When Domon was at Japan Atelier, most of his works were published anonymously in a solid Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) style (some of his works were also published under [Yonosuke] Natori’s name), and his grasp of the previously mentioned understanding of news photography was, for its time—and though one senses Natori’s influence—surprisingly clear. “Photojournalism needs a subject. That subject can be a specific social or natural phenomenon, and the photographer should approach it with a critical awareness” (ibid.). Domon went beyond Natori’s functionality discourse. Moreover, he stated, “Works like the ones we often see in the newspaper of victory celebrations, such as Nanjing after the Fall, are not photojournalism, as they are no more than simple records of events and news” (ibid.). For Domon, such works were unacceptable under the tenets of photojournalism. Domon achieved a synthesis of subjectivity and photography’s documentary function in his series on working people (most successfully in the images of Japan’s ceramists) and on Buddhist sculpture, but in The Changing Villages of Japan, published in 1942 by Chuo-Koron, he fell short of his own aspirations, as among this work it is mostly the immature, crude rhetoric that stands out.

Despite the seeming self-reliance of photojournalism, the whole industry was firmly in the service of government policies by the time the Japan Photojournalists Association was founded, in 1940. The fact that such a situation could be achieved without any major psychological or intellectual strain indicates that the subjectivity of photographers had contained little in the way of independent thought in the first place. In this respect, at least, it was not too different from the amateur scene.

According to a report of the Japan Photojournalists Association, “There are elements in photojournalism that like to think of themselves as innovators, aimlessly chasing abstract and lofty ideas as though elevating the culture of photography, yet one wonders if they are not simply under the spell of some major illusion. Luckily, for us this is a good opportunity to exercise self-criticism” (Japan Photojournalists Association Office, “Our Pledge as Photojournalists,” Photo Times, December 1940).

The report then outlines a three-pronged objective: with “awareness of the importance of photojournalism as a field of activity for professionals of culture and technique,” to “implement shindo (the way of the [state’s] subject) under the auspices of the Imperial Rule Assistance Association” and to “inspire an attitude of service and readiness within the profession.” The association was subdivided into several study groups, among them the research society Role of Photojournalism under the New System, of which Domon was a member. Their mission statement of September 16, 1940, included a debate on the “change from individuality-centered humanism to an alignment with the needs of the state.”

Because of the utility of their trade, professional photographers eventually actively entered the maelstrom of war.

In 1941 Ihei Kimura, Sozo Okada, and Hiromu Hara founded Tohosha. Soon they were joined by Hiroshi Hamaya, Shunkichi Kikuchi, Tsutomu Watanabe, and others, and published the large-format photo journal Front. Shortly before the outbreak of the Pacific War, they finally succeeded in harnessing the modernist movement in Japanese photojournalism (hitherto represented by the journal Nippon) with the interests of the state politics. In effect, however, this resulted in a perversion of modernist intentions—for instance, when the technique of photomontage was used to manipulate an image of moving army vehicles with such skill that one can barely distinguish it from a real photograph.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, at that time the impact of German publications and movies was immense, not only in terms of ideas but even more so for the expressive means that were used. In particular, one has to mention Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1936), with its fresh visuals including close-ups, moving cameras, and underwater filming that led to the work being called an “epic poem”; and Signal, a weekly supplement of Berlin Illustrated Newspaper. The former made its audience aware of the relationship between photojournalism and art. The latter, available in Japan through the German Embassy, may have been inferior in terms of its photo reportage style compared to the journal Life, which Japanese photographers were already familiar with. But their coverage of the ongoing war had the desired propagandistic value.

The Paradox of Documentation

Though we cannot quite say that they learned from the PK example, rather than employing the usual war correspondents, the Japanese military established its own news unit, which—in the words of Commander Kengo Tominaga—was “organized and guided in accordance with requirements [of the army],” and which it sent to the front lines in China. In actual practice during the war, then, newspaper photographers would fulfill the same roles as the photographers of the news unit. First-rate photographers such as Masao Horino, Yosuke Yamahata, Shigene Kanamaru, Teiichi Makishima, and Kisaburo Ino were often sent to China. The news unit did not only produce propaganda coverage intended for Japan and the world but, as part of their military mission, they also placed considerable importance on targeting enemy forces. Of course, military permission was required to publish their photos in the newspapers. According to Masao Horino, who was among the first of the news unit to be dispatched to China, their members took great care not to shoot the same things as the newspaper photographers. If something lost its character as photojournalism, it was acceptable; what they wanted was photography that could be used [for propaganda]. For instance, when Tsugiichi Koyanagi photographed Chinese war refugees or mud-covered soldiers marching, it was intended to illustrate the realities of war. However, such approaches left room for fabrication, too. The photographs that revealed reality as it really was (many of which were only published after the war ended) were more frequently found in newspapers—perhaps the natural result of their documentary value.

Once the Pacific War began, a number of so-called masterpieces were shot amid the exaltation of initial victories. Surrender of Lieutenant-General Percival (Koyo Kageyama), Attack on Pearl Harbor (photographer unknown), and Prisoners of War at Bataan Peninsula (Shuzo Miyauchi) are among the most well known. But when the war turned toward impending defeat, it became seemingly more and more difficult to take photographs on the battlefield. Such photography from the front lines rapidly disappeared from the media, only to be replaced with photos of kamikaze units and those working at the home front. In fact, because of the air raids, the main islands had already turned into battlefields. Yet there is no proof that at that time photographs ceased to be taken; rather, it seems there was a decrease in the number of photos taken under military orders.

Since the beginning of the war, many souvenir photographs were also taken that, due to censorship, didn’t see the light of day until the war was over. Moreover, with defeat approaching, many feared the consequences of their actions during the war and burned or destroyed images that could have been turned into evidence. Therefore, the quantity of material that remains is relatively small, yet one has to mention it in order to recount a complete history of the era.

Chief among these are the cases of massacre committed by the Japanese military in places such as Nanjing. Kenji Fudo’s snapshots of the Nanjing Massacre and the violence against prisoners of war and the local populations who resisted the Japanese make the viewer witness to a history of collective insanity that unfolds in these photographs regardless of the original intentions of the photographer. The works by Fumio Yanagida, a photographer assigned to the Shizuoka Regiment, are in that respect immensely valuable. They include, for instance, Suicide of an Intelligence Officer. Comprehensively digesting such works creates the impression that from the depths of the maelstrom of war emerged something that went way beyond subjectivity and expression.

In other words, a consistent subjectivity, prevalent in amateur photography so far, had been thoroughly substituted by an ideological alignment with state politics, as in photojournalism, where purpose and methods were dictated by the state. Photography, which used to assume subjectivity, had progressed without being able to extract anything from reality. However, once photographs were being taken regardless of considerations of subjectivity, photography’s most distinct quality—its ability to capture bits of real situations on film—came to the fore again. Notwithstanding the turn toward defeat, it was the shocking reality of the war itself that tore off the ideology of “patriotic photography” that had violently attempted to turn photography into fabrication.

If it had been possible to publish such photography immediately after the war, or to expose the situation, the framework of postwar realism may have had more depth.

A series of photographs that illustrate the brilliance of war photography is Yosuke Yamahata’s Atomic Bombing of Nagasaki. Yamahata went to Nagasaki on the orders of the Western Division the day after the bomb was dropped and kept taking pictures throughout the whole day. He later shared many reminiscences notable for their humanistic point of view, but it is more correct to think of his work as documenting extreme circumstances that one could call nothing else but hell on earth, thus capturing with his camera a reality that transcended the subjectivity of the photographer to recount the universal truths of life, death, civilization, and war.

In the past, there used to be a perception of war and support of warfare as glorious, but by means of photography—even if it had to give up its free consciousness and emphasis on expression—people were able to see the realities that caused these actions, and the fundamental quality of photography as a documenting tool managed to overcome such foolish ideologies.


  1. Translator’s note: “Individual freedom” is jiyushugi in Japanese; the term connotes a philosophy or lifestyle based on freedom of individual decision and lies between libertarianism (though it does not necessarily have the same political overtones), personal freedom, and individualism.
  2. Hakuyo Fukumori, “For the Young Employees” (workers); Shigene Kanamaru, “A Wholesome and Healthy Hobby” (students); Itaru Nii, “The Countless Motifs All around Us” (families); Yoneko Kuroda, “In Search of a Womanly Angle” (women). All in Asahi Camera (November 1940).
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Translated by Jens Bartel

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