Must have guide to Japanese photobooks

Looking to collect photobooks and in particular Japanese photobooks? We asked contributor and photographer Tom Hoops to chose a few of his favourite Japanese photobooks. 

The photobook is such an essential part of Japanese photography, especially those from postwar Japan. Some of these you’ll no doubt have heard of, maybe a few you have not. This list touches the edges of the photobook scene in Japan and hopefully can act as a jumping point to explore new books and photographers.

A Criminal Investigation by Watabe Yukichi

This book probably doesn’t get into many collections or top ten lists for Japanese photobooks, but the idea of it fascinated me. It’s atmospheric and a little voyeuristic.

In 1958 a body was found near Lake Sembako in Japan. The body disfigured, and its limbs amputated. Two police officers from Tokyo set out to solve the murder. For the very first time in Tokyo, a photographer is permitted to document the investigation. Watabe Yukiichi follows the two inspectors as they interview potential witnesses through some of Tokyo’s more threatening neighbourhoods. 

What Yukiichi manages to capture is not merely the story of a police investigation but a book that reveals Tokyo in the 1950s.

Watabe Yukichi
A Criminal Investigation by Watabe Yukichi
Watabe Yukichi

The Solitude of Ravens by Masahisa Fukase

This book should probably be on any photobook collectors wishlist.

The Solitude of Ravens was originally published in 1986 with two following editions which sold out very quickly. The Solitude of Ravens is a problematic and expensive book to find. However, in 2017 Ravens was re published, which has made the book more accessible.

Concentrating on ravens around the coastal region of Hokkaido this dark book is a mirror of Fukase’s mental health, obsessions and feeling of emptiness.

Masahisa Fukase captured these stark images over a ten year period before a fall in 1992 in his favourite bar, which resulted in him being in a coma for ten years. He sadly passed away shortly after. 

In an essay by Tomo Kosuga, founder of the Masahisa Fukase Archives. He writes:  

“He suffered throughout his life but manifested in artistic self-identification with the raven and ultimately spiralled into a solitary existence and artistic practice on the edge of madness. “

It’s a beautiful book and high up on my wishlist.

Masahisa Fukase

Midori by Nobuyoshi Araki

This book is a little bit different for Araki, telling the story of Midori, a young girl who is the younger sister of a hostess in a Tokyo bathhouse who will ultimately follow the same path as her older sister. Set against a gritty Tokyo, there is no nudity but a thoughtful, beautiful and somewhat sad, story. 

Ultimately it is a more delicate book than many of his others, but although difficult to find, it’s a worthy addition to any collection.

Nobuyoshi Araki
Nobuyoshi Araki

The Butterfly Dream by Eikoh Hoso

A collaboration between Eiko Hoso and Kazuo Ohno shot over a 40 year period. It’s intense, personal and experimental.  

Eikoh Hoso
Eikoh Hoso

 Farewell Photography by Daido Morayama

Probably one of the most important photobooks ever. Thankfully it’s been reprinted over the years under the photographer’s supervision as an original edition will be challenging to find and very expensive. Morayma is one of the most critical voices in photography, and no list would be complete without this book.

Farewell Photography by Daido Morayama
Japanese photobooks
Farewell Photography 1972,

Yokosuka Story by Miyako Ishiuchi

Shot in 1977, the photographer was part of the Provoke movement, which included Shomei Tomatsu and Daido Moriyama. The experimentation and style shine through in her book, which documents the small town of Yokosuka. What makes this interesting is that American forces occupied the town and the photographer attempts to see how American culture affects the town and that of the culture within it.

Interestingly some of the images were exposed for more than thirty minutes in the darkroom, true to form of Japanese experimentation in photographic technique at the time.

Tokyo Lucky Hole by Nobuyoshi Araki

My second choice by Araki, this one though, is probably more what people expect from Araki. This is Tokyo’s sex industry in full frontal, unabashed, sexually driven, full force, photography. Not a book for those who struggle with sexually explicit imagery. This book is documentary, art, porn all rolled into one, and his most famous.

Nobuyoshi Araki
Nobuyoshi Araki

Hiroshima by Ken Domon

I first came across Ken Domon’s work in a shopping mall in Bangkok. An open exhibition with huge prints of Japanese temples, shrines and Buddha hands. It was impressive and beautiful. Hiroshima, though, is something entirely different, shocking, stark and real. He travelled to Hiroshima 6 times and shot almost 8000 negatives to produce this body of work. It came as a shock to the public, who were largely unaware of the horrors the bomb had inflicted.

Hiroshima by Ken Domon
Ken Domon

Nagasaki 11:02 by Shomei Tomatsu 

This book contains probably one of my favourite images from anyone, a beer bottle melted from the heat of the atomic blast. It’s sad, beautiful and symbolic. 

He also photographed a watch with its hands frozen at the exact moment the bomb exploded. 1.02am on 9 August 1945. Like Domon’s work, this book focuses on the after-effects of the atomic bombs that shook Japan.

Nagasaki 11:02 by Shomei Tomatsu
Japanese photobooks
Shomei Tomatsu/Beer Bottle

The Map by Kikuji Kawada

Kikuji Kawada’s The Map also the recovery and war memories of postwar Japan. It’s regarded as one of the very best photobook designs, combining photographic narrative and book design to produce an object of beauty.

Kikuji Kawada

Provoke Magazine

Not a book, but I think it had to be included here when talking about post-war Japanese photography. 

 It was an experimental small-press Japanese photography magazine founded in 1968 that influenced Japanese photography and has influenced a “new idea of photography in Japan.”

There were just three issues and each with just 1000 editions. Luckily it has been reprinted and with all three editions available together.

Provoke Reprinted

Tom is a British photographer specialising in portrait and fashion. Instagram

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