“In 2008, I was sitting by the Shinobazu-no-ike, doing nothing. Then a man of about 70 years old, in a plain suit and carrying a Boston bag, sat down next to me. We chit-chatted for a while, but halfway through, he suddenly disappeared into the woods behind us. Shortly later, he emerged from the woods dressed in a Furisode Kimono (women’s long-sleeved Kimono), wearing a wig, and in a chalk-white makeup face. Then, with a boom box playing pop songs from the 1950s and ’60s at high volume, he began to dance a traditional Japanese dance fluently on a goza (rug) laid out on the ground.
I was stunned and watched him dance for a while. After the dance, he said, I dance here every week. I come here every week because I don’t have much longer to live and I want as many people as possible to see me dance. He introduced himself as ‘Tama’ and told me that he used to teach traditional Japanese dance and his body was suffering from cancer. I became friends with ‘Tama’ and started going to Shinobazu-no-ik every week.”
Please tell us the reason why you decided to photograph people at Shinobazu-no-ike in Ueno?
I have often visited Ueno Park since I was young, as a place where I could be extraordinary in my daily life. At first, I did not go there to take photographs, nor did I intentionally communicate with the people in the park. Ever since I became friends with ‘Tama-chan’ by chance, I’ve been spending a lot of time around Shinobazu-no-ike. Sitting by the pond and staring carefully at the scene in front of me for a few hours, I can see many things that I normally consciously avoid, such as events and people, their relationships and territorial consciousness, and unknown cultures. There was the mob who got money from prostitutes touting in the park as the charge for the place and the recruiter of day laborers.
I talked to these people and made friends with them. Eventually, they allowed me to take their photographs. I have been interested in ‘other people’ since I was a child; for example, I still have a habit of thinking about the person’s story sitting in front of me on the train. When I went to Shinobazu-no-ike, people walking by made me fantasize about extraordinary stories. I was drawn in more and more by my curiosity about people whose lives I could not imagine. I thought I wanted to photograph the inner energy exuded all over themselves. When I was communicating with them, I kept my camera in my bag to not realize my purpose in taking photographs because I wanted to be a part of the people there, not a photographer.
Sometimes I actively talk to a fascinating person, and other times I sit at a distance and wait to see what happens. People who come here alone are generally in solitude and want to communicate with others.
It doesn’t matter what triggered the conversation; I just listen. Then I ask them to tell me about their lives and stories. When I realized the gap between my initial thoughts beforehand and the actual person, I felt the urge to take their photographs. This is how I often do. Sometimes it takes a few minutes to take a photograph, sometimes it takes a few hours, and sometimes we meet many times. I spend quite a long time photographing one person. I think the way we perceive these photographs will change depending on time, society, and the viewer’s awareness.
Can you tell us about some of the most memorable episodes in your photography experience?
One of the regulars at Shinobazu-no-ike was a person who had undergone a sex change into a woman. I had greeted her many times, but she always ignored me. She was wary of me, and I could not get close to her. One day, as I was talking with one older man by the pond, she sat nearby, listening to our conversation all the while. At the end of our conversation, when I was allowed to take a photograph of the old man, she stood up and said, “I didn’t realize you were that kind; take mine, too,” I couldn’t help but snap the shutter. In her case, I took her photograph without knowing her inside out, but now she is one of my closest people. There is also an elderly man with a cheerful disposition who always rides his bicycle with a handmade sign with the motto ‘Traffic Safety’ on it. One day I talked to him and found out that he had lost his daughter in a car accident right in front of him, and he always cautioned himself against it. When I realized what he meant by riding a bicycle with a ‘Traffic Safety’ sign, I felt so much love for him.
Every time this man says goodbye to me, he always says sincerely, “Take care of your family”. On the train ride home, these words penetrated deeply into me. The conversation with the old lady, a former military nurse, was also impressive. On the front lines of World War II. She lives alone, but she said, “All the people who died in the war place are still alive in me. So I don’t feel lonely at all”. Because of her wartime experience, she decided to live every day with a sense of responsibility, see the view of this Shinobazu-no-ike, and enjoy everyday life as a representative of everyone. As I walked around Shinobazu-no-ike, communicating with people and taking photographs, I felt that this place was a microcosm of society. What a rich place. For every person, there is a place where they can feel comfortable. I think that is the richness of culture.