Reimagining Japan’s history through the lens

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In Japan, years are counted the Western way as a linear progression starting from year 1, but they are also counted as a series of periods relating to whichever Emperor is in power. 2014 was also the 26th year of the Heisei period, for example; the last period, Showa, lasted 64 years until 1989. Kazuyoshi Usui’s series, Showa88, depicts an alternative universe in which the Emperor kept going – extending a difficult but vibrant era.

“Japan now is said to be suffering from a long stagnation but there is very little hardship here,” he says. “But although there is no physical deprivation, there may be psychological deprivation. Maybe people are living like characters from Orwell’s 1984, by destroying or suppressing their emotions — like company workers who never express their true emotions or desires.

“In the Showa era there was hardship and poverty, but I sense the power of the urge for survival. Violence, vice and poverty are hard, but they do reveal humanity. Japan today tries to eliminate these negative things, but in the process it may be eliminating some of the humanity of society.”

Usui sought out remnants of the Showa era in rundown districts of Osaka and Kyoto, areas populated by prostitutes and the yakuza in which “we find people living lives on the edge”. “In modern Japan, people don’t usually go to these places, but when you go there you find the colours are more vivid. This is how people lift their spirits, by brightening their surroundings.”

The result is an acid-bright series of images dominated by shades of pink – the book, published by Zen Foto Gallery, even has a pink satin cover. It’s worlds away from Japan’s celebrated, gritty areburebokeh movement but Usui modestly fends off the suggestion that, alongside Lieko Shiga and Rinko Kawauchi, he’s part of a new wave of Japanese colourists. “My generation grew up in an environment of colour technology so it is only natural or inevitable that this generation expresses itself through colour,” he says.

Usui studied under under Eikoh Hosoe at Tokyo Polytechnic University; he earns a living by shooting advertising and has won numerous awards for his work. But he’s also modest about these accomplishments and about the international interest in Showa88 (which was first published back in 2011 but has since established a groundswell of support). “I don’t really know what’s happening over there [in Europe] but I am surprised and grateful if it is really true,” he says. “I want to be a real photographer — that’s my hope and aim.”

See more of Kazuyoshi’s work here.

First published in the January 2014 issue. You can buy the issue here.

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy