TJ Archived Feature Story: Issue #245 Fall 2002

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This Archived Feature Article is taken from the Fall 2002 Issue #245

Araki, the internationally acclaimed photographer, the Lord of the Lens, or however you want to refer to him is known throughout Japan and beyond as a progressive artist that borders the edge of morality and skirts the edge of scandal through his provocative and erotic photographs. A master of his art, he expresses not only himself through photography, but the essence of Japanese culture. Japan’s sexual obsessions date back as far as 660 BC and are heavily documented throughout 8th century Japanese mythology and 20th century folktales. Throughout history Japanese women have often been powerless victims of visual violation, and Japanese mythology shows there has always been an obsession for men to peek whenever the opportunity arises. Araki is not a progressive pioneer, but rather an embodiment of Japanese tradition, and not only does he peek at every opportunity, but he captures the moment with the snap of his shutter to share with the rest of the world. The work of Araki personifies the desire for self-expression restrained by the laws of convention that permeate modern Japanese society. Through his never ending fight to evade control and censorship, Araki loosens the shackles that convention has bound him with and provides a glimmer of hope to the people of a society that oppresses individualism and self-expression.

Born in 1940, Nobuyoshi Araki was raised in the Minowa district of Taito-ku, an old-style merchant area of Tokyo known for down to earth, outspoken people. Araki worked nine years for Dentsu, one of Japan’s most prominent advertising companies, after graduating from the Photography Department of Chiba University in 1963. Frustrated by working within the confines of a corporate structure, Araki went on to become a freelance photographer. Araki’s works are an eclectic array of imagery illustrating Araki’s private fantasies, emotions and experiences ranging from nude photographs that border on pornographic, voyeuristic and masochistic to photo-album snapshots, street scenes, cats, portraits, children, and flowers. His photos consistently focus on the female body with women lying nude on beds, exposing themselves on the street, or bound in intricate arrangements of ropes. His sexual imagery explores the realms of life and death and he goes to excessive limits to expose his inner most feelings no matter how sensitive the emotions or subject matter may be. During 1990, his wife passed away at the age of 42 after a bout with cancer, and Araki’s book “Sentimental Journey”, includes pictures memorializing their relationship with photos of visits to her hospital bed, and of her in a coffin filled with flowers.

To date, he has published over 250 books and although exhibitions and books of his published works have been internationally acclaimed, they have also been met with resistance. Exhibitions have been shut down, and booksellers and exhibitors have been fined and even jailed for displaying obscene photographs. However, Araki himself has escaped it all practically unscathed. Throughout his forty year career, he has continuously pushed the censorship laws to the limit and has been fined a mere 300,000 yen (less than US$3,000) in total, which is not a lot to a man who is selling his most recent book for $2000 a pop. Araki’s role as the rebellious nail that sticks up and refuses to be hammered down is indispensable to Japanese society as he represents freedom of expression and the right to be different while displaying the hidden sexual obsessions which are deeply ingrained in the Japanese culture. This is perhaps why the long arm of the law has never really reached out for him. Yes it’s true that once in a while he is publicly slapped on the wrist, but ever so lightly. This scolding is possibly just a way for Japanese society to save face without removing a much needed cultural icon. Remember, this is the same society whose censorship laws prohibit museums from showing century-old drawings that depict a penis, while terming their sex-trade areas as “entertainment districts”, filling their sports newspapers, anime and manga with nude pictures and graphic images of violence, allowing vending machines to sell pornography on the streets, and turning a blind eye to high school girls selling their bodies for money. Love him or hate him, Araki is to Japan as Babe Ruth is to America.

TJ’s resident Education and Intercultural Expert Dr. Anthony Al-Jamie visited with Araki in a TJ exclusive.

TJ: I saw your most recent book – “Araki by Araki” on display at the bookstore for 200,000 yen and it was huge! You sure can’t read this book on the train.

Araki: It weighs 13 kg and is a 50 cm long, 8 cm thick coffee table book. It is a compilation of many of my most important photos from my collection. We wanted to make a book that would represent the first 60-year period of my life, and the only way to do it was to make it big.

TJ: You must have done a fair bit of travel throughout your life. What’s your most memorable experience abroad and which area of the world do you enjoy traveling to the most?

Araki: Well ironically enough, my first trip abroad was to Okinawa some thirty years ago. Can you believe that Japanese had to carry passports to enter Okinawa at that time? I have since been to many places – New York, Paris, etc. However, one of my favorite places is Napoli- it is the shitamachi of the world with all of the bustling and haggling going on and people’s characters are quite authentic. I’m from a shitamachi area in Tokyo and Italy really suits my character.

TJ: So do you plan on doing a lot of international travel this year?

Araki: No. Actually, these days my work is focusing on Japanese people’s faces. I recently photographed a thousand faces in Osaka and I would like to do the same in every prefecture. This project might take me ten years. There is something that I am looking for by taking these photos. The human face represents all aspects of sexuality and each one expresses it a bit differently.

TJ: So do you have your own studio here in Shinjuku?

Araki: No, not here in Shinjuku. The world is my studio.

TJ: I heard you studied photography at Chiba University. What was it that led you to this field?

Araki: Well, it’s true that I graduated from the School of Photography at Chiba University, but the truth is I didn’t study much. My father ran a ghetta (Japanese clogs) shop but was also a semi-pro photographer, and he spent more time doing odd jobs with his photography than he did in the ghetta shop. Since I was a very young kid, I would go with him on photo shoots and act as an assistant setting up and holding the tripod, etc. Photography naturally became a part of my life and when I entered Chiba University, I had the intention of studying photography itself. Unfortunately they were the only national university with a photography major and the program focused on photography as a science.

TJ: So school must have been a real bore for you, huh?

Araki: Actually, I didn’t go to school much because I wasn’t interested in learning the science of photography. I had someone else attend classes under my name while I hung out at the Kyobashi Film Library watching movies.

TJ: Would you consider taking photos more of a hobby or an occupation for you?

Araki: Well, everyone has to make a living and photography is how I make mine, but if you are asking what photography means to me, it is my way of life and my greatest form of enjoyment.

TJ: Has it made you a rich man?

Araki: No, but it has made me an enriched man. I don’t promote myself or place ads and I never have tried to get rich off of photography. Most of my jobs are private photo sessions and it is not a lucrative business. Photography is of much greater importance to me than just making money.

TJ: If you didn’t become a photographer, what do you think you would be doing right now?

Araki: Photography has been a part of me for so long, I really can’t imagine anything else.

TJ: Really! Nothing else? How about a job as a plumber or at the post office?

Araki: The post office? No not for me. That’s a job for Tadanori Yokoo. (laughs)

TJ: Do you have a hero or someone you really look up to?

Araki: If I had to choose a hero, I guess it would have to be my dad. There was something about him that I really respect.

TJ: Who’s your favorite artist?

Araki: Well these days, I guess it would be Bjork. There is something uniquely motherly and infantile about her at the same time and that contrast intrigues me.

TJ: I know that you have a great following. Do you have proteges that you are training to become the next Araki?

Araki: No. You are either born to be a photographer or not. The art of photography is not something you can learn in the classroom or by watching someone do it.

TJ:So in other words, would you say you have to have a certain type of personality to be a good photographer?

Araki: Yes. Personality has a lot to do with it. The pictures I take show everything about me. The object I am shooting becomes a mirror or word that affects my image and my pictures are directly influenced by my personality – expressing both my wildness and sensitivity.

TJ: Many Japanese believe that blood type has a direct correlation to your personality. What’s your blood type? Let me guess, you must be “AB” - most eccentric people are.

Araki: No. My blood type is “A”. Most people are shocked to hear this, but the people who really know me know that I’m pretty organized and I keep to a schedule fairly well.

TJ: So, in a way you are a typical Japanese – very organized and punctual. I always got the impression that you were unique in every way.

Araki: No. I’m very normal, very normal.

TJ: Many people respect your work because they believe that it reflects your feelings and emotions and that you are not afraid to expose your inner self.

Araki: In Japan, men are taught at a young age to control their feelings and emotions and those who are able to do so are considered to be cool. However, I believe that it is important to express your feelings and passion. If you feel like crying – cry. If you want to laugh – laugh. Intimacy, sensitivity, passion - these are all important parts of humanity.

TJ: Tell me, what is your fascination with women and ropes?

Araki: Women? Well, they are gods. They will always fascinate me. As for rope, I always have it with me. Even when I forget my film, the rope is always in my bag. Since I can’t tie their hearts up, I tie their bodies up instead.

TJ: Do you feel Japanese society is more open to sex than most countries?

Araki: Well that’s difficult to say. There was a time during the Edo period and throughout many periods in history where sex was regarded as a fun and positive thing. However, during the Meiji period, somehow sex was restrained. Nowadays, the sex craze is booming again. People are open to sex in a very positive way and it is not considered a dirty thing. I’m all for it.

TJ: So would you say that you have a stronger sex drive than most?

Araki: No, I’m weak, very weak. I would say my sex drive is weaker than most. However, my lens has a permanent erection.

TJ: What’s your goal in life?

Araki: Simple - to keep shooting photos until I die.


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