The capybara (which, according to google, is the world’s largest rodent) at Nagasaki Bio Park in Japan love to take dips in the park’s hot springs. The park allows visitors to get up close with the animals, so we tried our best to make friends with these shy little beasts. We interviewed Mr. Ito, the head of the park, and checked out the rodents in their element.
Watch the new documentary Alone in the Zone, produced by VICE Japan for their YouTube channel
Interview and photos by Ivan Kovac and Jeffrey Jousan Article translated from the Japanese by Luke Baker
Today marks the second anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Japan and caused one of the most serious nuclear disasters in world history, when the Fukushima Daiichi power plant started leaking radiation. The surrounding towns were evacuated in a rush, leaving empty homes, silent streets, and uncared-for animals. In the small town of Tomioka, however, less than six miles away from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, one man refused to leave: Naoto Matsumura, a 53-year-old fifth-generation rice farmer who is surely the most stubborn man in Japan, if not the world.
“I was born and raised in this town,” he told us. “When I die, it’s going to be in Tomioka.” Naoto’s face is browned by the sun and wrinkled from smiling; his dark eyes peer out from under heavy lids—it’s not the face of someone you’d expect to defy the government by living in an area other people aren’t even allowed to visit, but Naoto wears his iconoclasm lightly.
Because he is being bombarded with as much as 17 times the amount of radiation a normal person is, and because for a while he was eating meat, vegetables, and fish that were contaminated by radiation, as well, some researchers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency wanted to run some tests on him. “When I went down and let them look me over, they told me I was the ‘champion,’” he said, meaning he had the highest level of radiation exposure in Japan. “But they also told me that I wouldn’t get sick for 30 or 40 years. I’ll most likely be dead by then anyway, so I couldn’t care less.”
You might remember that way back in March 2011, a major tsunami struck the northeast shores of Japan, devastating the country and causing the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant’s cooling systems to break down, which resulted in the worst nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl. Even if you don’t recall that disaster, photographer Toshiya Watanabe does. His family home, Namie, where his mother and cousins still lived, was directly in the path of both the rising waters and the waves of radiation that came after. Nowadays, the town and all the others like it in the disaster zone sit abandoned, unchanged in the past two years, like a ghost town where the ghosts are nuclear-charged stray dogs and cattle. Toshiya has traveled back to his hometown many times, documenting the changes he saw, or lack thereof. We chatted with him about visiting the “no-go zone” that is now his hometown.
VICE: Hey, Toshiya. I know you weren’t there, but what did your family tell you about what the day of the tsunami was like? Toshiya Watanabe: After the earthquake and the tsunami that followed, my family, together with other people in town, spent the night at the local gym. The trouble hadn’t started at the nuclear power plant then, so at dawn, everyone started helping those whose houses had been hit by the tsunami. Although the damages from the tsunami were great, no one could imagine the worst that was still to come. On March 12, the day after the tsunami hit, the government announced that residents within six and a half miles of the nuclear power plant needed to evacuate immediately. There was no time to pick up their belongings; people just left in cars and buses. The first explosion at the plant happened at three in the afternoon that day.
What motivated you to go back and photograph your hometown? Were you allowed to be there? Two months after the meltdown at the nuclear power plant, no one could go within 12 miles of the power plant without permission. When I first got permission to go back on June 12, I thought it could be the last time I’d ever visit there, so I thought I had to record as much as I could of my hometown. Since then, I was given permission to go back in November 2011, as well as April, June, and September of 2012. I went back with my mother to get things she needed, and while tidying up, I made more pictures. I just wanted to document how my hometown was changing, or not changing, nothing more.
What was it like to see the place where you used to live completely empty of humans? It looks like something out of a zombie movie. When I first went there, time had stopped and everything was just the way it was when the tsunami hit. A town I was so familiar with felt like a science-fiction movie set all of a sudden. I remember feeling dizzy a few times.There were no people there, only the sound of the wind and birds, and when I closed my eyes, it felt like I was standing in the middle of a forest.
Yoko Ogawa writes creepy, ominous gothic novels and stories—sort of like a Japanese Flannery O’Connor or Shirley Jackson. Except sexier and a lot more Asian. She came to prominence in the late 80s in her native Japan and has since written more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, all of them commercially and critically viable.
Hotel Iris (2010), for instance, tells the story of Mari, a teenage girl who works in a desolate hotel by the ocean. When she falls into a twisted romance with an older man, a translator of Russian novels who may or may not have murdered his wife and who also likes to beat and humiliate Mari during sex, the teenager has a realization: “It occurred to me that I had never heard such a beautiful voice giving an order,” she thinks. “It was calm and imposing, with no hint of indecision. Even the word ‘whore’ was somehow appealing.”
“Sewing for the Heart” is from Yoko’s new collection, Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales (Picador February 2013), and it’s as perversely tantalizing as anything she’s written. In the story, a comely cabaret singer with the outlandish birth defect of a heart that developed outside her body hires a reclusive bag maker to sew a satchel to protect the misplaced organ.
We’ve paired this story with Spanish artist Kike Besada’s collages. Kike dug through old medical journals that he found in an NYC thrift store and cut out pictures of bags, hearts, hospitals, and all sorts of other things in order to come up with just the right macabre imagery for a story that is heartfelt in the most literal sense.
“Dr. Y from Respiratory Medicine. Dr. Y from Respiratory Medicine. Please contact the pharmacy immediately.”
The public-address system had been repeating this announcement for some time. I wondered who Dr. Y was and where he could be, as I studied the hospital directory. Central Records, Electroshock Clinic, Conference Center, Endoscopy… It was all like a foreign language to me.
“Why do they keep paging this Dr. Y?” I asked the woman behind the information desk.
“No one’s seen him this morning,” she said. She seemed annoyed by my question, and I was sorry I had bothered her.
“Could you tell me where to find the cardiac ward?” I said, getting to my real question. I pronounced each word slowly and carefully, hoping to quiet the pounding of my heart.
“Take that elevator to the sixth floor.” She pointed past a crowd of people gathered in front of admitting; I noticed her nail polish was chipped.
I am a bag maker. For more than 20 years now I’ve kept a shop near the train station. It’s just a small place, but it has a nice display window facing the street. Inside, there are tables for the bags and a mirror, and a workshop in back, behind a curtain, with shelves for my materials. The window features a few purses, an ostrich handbag, and a suitcase. A jauntily posed mannequin clutches one of the purses, but her face is covered in a fine layer of dust since I haven’t changed the window in years.
I live on the second floor, above the shop. My apartment has just two rooms—an eat-in kitchen and a living room that doubles as my bedroom—but the place is bright and pleasant. On clear afternoons, the sun streams in through the window and I have to move the hamster’s cage under the washstand. Hamsters don’t like direct sunlight.
In the evening, after closing shop, I go upstairs, take off my work clothes, shower, and eat my dinner. This takes next to no time. When you live alone as I have for many years, daily life only becomes simpler and simpler. It’s been a long time since I’ve cleaned up the bathroom for someone, or changed the towels, or so much as made dressing for my salad. I have only myself to please, and that doesn’t take much.
But compared to the world upstairs, my life with my bags below is quite rich. I never weary of them, of caressing and gazing at my wonderful creations. When I make a bag, I begin by picturing how it will look when it’s finished. Then I sketch each imagined detail, from the shiny clasp to the finest stitches in the seams. Next, I transfer the design to pattern paper and cut out the pieces from the raw material, and then finally I sew them together. As the bag begins to take shape on my table, my heart beats uncontrollably and I feel as though my hands wield all the powers of the universe.
Kohei Yoshiyuki is a Japanese photographer best known for The Park, his series of photographs of people watching other people have sex in the public parks of 1970’s Tokyo. It’s that exact mix of hilarious, depressing, and creepy you’d expect to get from pictures of people hiding in bushes and touching themselves, and it’s great.
The photos are currently being exhibited in Liverpool’s Fact gallery and are displayed in a darkened room. Once you arrive, you’re given a torch to guide your way around the space and witness the peepers in their natural habitat – darkness. It’s a creepy but oddly intimate experience, and adds another layer to the project, turning you into the voyeur as soon as you start perving on all the perverts.
That exhibition is running alongside some of Yoshiyuki’s other famed work, The Hotel; a series of grainy stills from hidden-camera footage taken in one of Tokyo’s many “love hotels” – places used exclusively by prostitutes and their clients. I called up Kohei to find out what’s so special about shooting people at their most vulnerable.
VICE: Hi Kohei, how did you first get into photographing voyeurs? Kohei Yoshiyuki: I was walking in a park in Shinjuku late at night, when I came across a scene. A couple was having sex and I saw these people were watching them. That experience inspired me to try to capture these shocking and fascinating night scenes.
Was it common knowledge what was going on in the parks at the time? I only knew by hearsay that this stuff was happening in Toyko’s parks. A park is a place where we usually see children and their mothers relaxing during the day, but the same park can host a completely different world in the darkness. I found there to be something amazing about that.
How long did you work on the project for? I photographed the scenes of the couples and the men who were peeping on them from 1971 until 1973. Before shooting, I spent about a half a year trying to arrange the project.
If you knew where to go to find the voyeurs, how come it took so long to start? What I needed to do first and foremost was to make the voyeurs believe that I was not a photographer, but just one of them. Otherwise I would have been severely beaten or had the film pulled out of my camera. During this period, I also spent time studying the techniques and the best equipment in order to capture these scenes in darkness. I used infrared films and infrared strobe, which was considered a sort of expert-level photography skill at the time.
I recently took a trip to Brussels and met a Japanese woman on vacation in the hostel I was staying in. At 4 AM that morning, when I heard Sayaka—my new Japanese friend—quietly answer her phone and creep from her bed to the downstairs computer room, I was naturally interested in what she was up to. A mole, keeping tabs on guests for the hostel owners? A weirdo, relaying late-night messages about Brussels to her parents because she didn’t feel comfortable using the internet in daylight?
No, turns out it was the only holiday she had taken that year and the early morning computer visit was to finish off some “urgent” work for her boss, which is a pretty sucky way to spend your vacation. Then again, it’s still better than the 16-hour days at the office that awaited her at home.
Sayaka’s situation isn’t uncommon. A large amount of the population in Japan’s biggest cities have a destructive relationship with work, literally, with many grinding themselves away to an early grave. The social phenomenon has its own word, karoshi, and it isn’t death from digit-crippling labor in a sweatshop or accidents on a building site. It’s suits in corporate buildings dying from strokes, heart attacks, or committing suicide after being worked to their limit.
Earlier this year, the suicide of 26-year-old Mina Mori was accepted as karoshi after an investigation found she’d been clocking up 140 hours of overtime every month, working at a popular chain restaurant called Watami. Employees for numerous companies are expected to embrace a work culture that’s destroying their lives—a kind of worse version of the embrace through gritted-teeth I’d imagine David Miliband gave his brother when he got the party leader job—but a firm, necessary embrace nonetheless.
Karoshi was first recognized in the late 60s, when a guy in the shipping department of Japan’s largest newspaper company died after having a stroke, which seemed kind of unusual for a 29-year-old, until people realized that radically overworking a human can have negative effects on the body, which somehow managed to be a surprise. Since then, cases have become relentless battles between family members of the deceased trying to prove their relatives died from being overworked, and the company in question trying their hardest to sweep it under the ever-lumpier rug.
Mutsuo wraps up his Tattoo Age series by taking a little trip to his hometown. After a brief tour of the local temples, and a quick trip to his house, we sit down with Mutsuo for a philosophical take on what tattooing means to him. Enjoy.
In this episode of Tattoo Age we delve into the history of Three Tides Tattoo. We hear from Mutsuo, Chris Garver, and Masa Sakamoto, as they give us insight into how western-style tattooing gained ground in Japan after the 1999 Tokyo Convention. We also hear about all the guest artists who have contributed to making Mutsuo the artist he is today.