Photo City Tokyo

Talking About Japan’s Photo Culture with Photography Critic Iizawa Kōtarō


When discussing photography in Japan, one name that is certain to come up is that of Iizawa Kōtarō. Since beginning his career as a photography critic in the 1980s, Iizawa has gone on to organize exhibitions, launch the seminal photography magazine Déjà-vu, and otherwise contribute ceaselessly to the growth and development of Japan’s photographic culture. Iizawa spoke to about the ties between Japanese photography and the city of Tokyo.

Iizawa Kōtarō

Photography critic, born in Miyagi Prefecture in 1954. Graduated from the Department of Photography at the Nihon University College of Art, and completed his doctoral studies at Tsukuba University. Has received numerous awards for his critical writing, including the Photographic Society of Japan Annual Award for Geijutsu shashin to sono jidai (Art Photography and Its Era) and the Suntory Arts Award for Shashin bijutsukan e yōkoso (Welcome to the Museum of Photography).

Tokyo and Photography: A Unique Relationship

Iizawa Kōtarō started writing photography criticism in the mid-1980s, while he was still in graduate school. Around the end of that decade, he found that demand for his work was suddenly soaring. “Dedicated photography galleries first began springing up in Japan in the late 1970s,” he explains. “This trend accelerated into the 1990s, leading to the founding in 1988 of the Kawasaki City Museum, with its strong commitment to showcasing photography, and the 1995 establishment of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography—which was reborn earlier this year as the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum.”

Another milestone came in 1989, notes Iizawa, with the 150th anniversary of the invention of the daguerreotype, the first photographic process readily available to the public. “That brought another flurry of photo exhibitions and magazine special features on photography. Looking back today, I would say that this period of intense activity was the turning point, the moment when interest in all aspects of photographic culture suddenly took off in Japan.”

It is important to note, stresses this top photography critic, that all of this played out mainly in Tokyo—or at very least, as a movement whose prime movers were almost all people with lives centered in the capital. “One reason for that was simply historical. The publishers and newspapers themselves that are so intimately involved with photographic media were, and still are, mostly concentrated in Tokyo. Whatever the reason, though, the upshot is that in Japan photography has come to be discussed primarily in a Tokyo context. The relationship between photography and the city runs very deep.”

Iizawa describes Tokyo-themed photography as an extremely interesting genre in its own right, and it is one he has studied throughout his adult life. His own engagement with photography began in college, where he studied the history of photography. The theme of his graduation thesis was shinkō shashin, the Japanese equivalent of the modernist photographs of the 1930s known in German as Neue Photo and in English as New Photography.

Shinkō shashin emerged in Japan after the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, at a time when the very nature of what a city should be was under question. In reaction, there were countless photographs taken that tried to capture the essential nature of the city. So you could say that my old research back in my college days was my own personal point of departure. Whenever I write about photography, that perspective is still lurking there at the root of my work.”

Photo City Tokyo

There are good reasons for the city to stay at the heart of the Japanese photographic scene, according to Iizawa. “You could search the world over and not find any other city where you can always view so much photography—and, more to the point, such exceptionally high quality photography—as you can in Tokyo. I still spend one or two days every week just making the rounds of new exhibitions, and I used to do it even more.” For a photography critic, turning up new material is of course a part of the job description. But, admits Iizawa, “I think the real reason I make the rounds is because I truly love looking at photographs. To keep up with the ever-changing ‘present progressive tense’ of photography as it exists today, there’s nothing more important than to go where the new work is actually being done. To see the latest exhibitions.”

Tokyo is the perfect place to do this. As he notes, though, in recent years the sprawling megalopolis has become an increasingly challenging beat to cover. “Back in the day you could pretty much cover everything new that was happening in Tokyo just by strolling around Shinjuku and Ginza. Now, though, there are galleries scattered all over the city and far out in the suburbs. I used to just stuff my waist pack with exhibition announcements that people sent me and make the rounds, but that casual approach doesn’t cut it any more. The truth is, there are some shows I simply can’t get to because they’re too far away.”

In 2014 Iizawa and his colleagues launched Photobook Diner Megutama, a combination restaurant and photo collection library near Tokyo’s Ebisu station. This has presented him with another overwhelming aspect to Japan’s photography scene: the sheer number of photo collections that are published. “We receive donations of around 150 collections a year at Megutama, and those are just the ones that have already made some impact,” he notes. “They represent just a fraction of all the work that’s actually being put out today. The total number of collections being published in Tokyo, not to mention elsewhere in Japan, must be enormous.”

Up through the 1990s, it was a real undertaking to get a collection published, due to the common wisdom that said publishing companies were the only available channel to get photo collections into readers’ hands. Today, says Iizawa, alternative avenues like self-publishing have changed all that. “Of course, we’ve always had the vanity presses and private publications, but I think the number of people who are proactively putting their own work into print today has soared.

“It has also become much more common for photo galleries themselves to publish collections of the artists they represent. These are all wonderful developments to my mind. But there are still real-world questions that need answering when you self-publish. What do you actually do with your collection once it’s in print? How do you get it distributed? How do you get your work out into the world where it will be seen?”

Iizawa poses with part of the extensive collection at Photobook Diner Megutama.

Tokyo: Thrown Into Relief by Contact With the World

There is definitely something about Tokyo photography that strikes Western eyes as unique. In part, says Iizawa, this goes all the way back to the exoticism of photographs from that mysterious island country in the Far East, those Orientalist tropes of Geisha and Fujiyama. “Even today, when you read Western writing on Japanese photography, you can find a highly original artist like Araki Nobuyoshi being critiqued in the context of the same Japonism that has persisted since the closing days of the Tokugawa shogunate [1603–1867].”

However, he notes, a very different perspective can be had if you look at the writing on Japanese photography coming out of East Asian countries like China, South Korea, and Taiwan. “Perhaps this is because Japanese and Tokyo photography feel much closer to them in some ways. Close, yet still harboring some elusive disparity. Perhaps they find something a little more pioneering in Japanese photography than they have been able to give expression to themselves so far. I feel that when these Asian critics consider Japanese photography, they view it as a kind of model.”

Once Asian photographers really come into their own, analyzes Iizawa, we are likely to see a transformation in the photography coming out of the region. Indeed, just looking back over the past decade, it is clear that the environment affecting photography in other East Asian countries has been transformed dramatically by economic growth. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if institutions like our own Megutama start popping up in other cities all over Asia,” he laughs.

Tokyo photography may build on an originally Western form of artistic expression, but Iizawa argues that this does not mean it retains strongly Western roots today. He points to the example of Latin American literature, art, and photography. Latin American creators thoroughly researched the artistic techniques of Europe and North America, recast them, and went on to create a unique style infused with magical realism.

“I think we can say the same thing about photography in Japan. When Japanese photographs are shown in Europe and the United States, they are often analyzed in a Western context. But I don’t think the work of an Araki or a Moriyama Daidō tie in to the Western tradition. If they made their photographs in Tokyo, then those photographs were fermented in the unique ambience of Tokyo. That’s what I mean when I describe this as a city that produces highly idiosyncratic photography.”

A commemorative snapshot on a bookshelf at Megutama. (©

Iizawa is currently working on a project to pull together the entire history of photography in Japan. At the same time, he is keenly interested in developing a deeper understanding of Asian photography—particularly East Asian photography—as a whole. “Of course, every country is different,” he admits. “But just as the distinct tradition of Latin American literature emerged from that region, I suspect there are commonalities of custom and culture running throughout Asia, and that from these elements we might identify a distinctly ‘Asian’ photography. I’ve been musing for a long time now about what those concepts infusing Asian photography might be. Now I feel like I’m right at the point where the perfect phrase is ready to emerge.”

This is perhaps too big a project for a single person to undertake, he admits. Iizawa looks to institutions like the newly reopened Tokyo Photographic Art Museum to take a more proactive role in addressing major issues like these. “I hope to see the museum live up to the expectations of Japan’s photography community, of course, but I hope it will strive to meet the needs of Asian photography as well.”

(Originally published in Japanese on March 23, 2017. Text by Matsumoto Tomoki. Photos by Takahashi Munemasa except where otherwise noted.)

culture photography