Photographing Japan's most ancient folkloric traditions

In rural Japan, the passage of the year is marked by festivals and rituals held amid the changing seasons.  And, at New Year, strange creatures come down from the mountains.
They come to deliver a message to the people below, and frighten their children.
These are the Toshigami, also known as Namahage in Akita province, or Suneka in Iwate.
French photographer Charles Fréger went to meet these folkloric creatures face to face for his series Yokainoshima – a neologism that translates as ‘island of monsters’.
Elaborate outfits, crafted from textiles and elements from the natural environment, are donned in agricultural and fishing communities throughout the country to celebrate seasonal rites of fertility and abundance.
There are also many rituals relating to longevity, prosperity and warding off misfortune. In these too, spirit ‘visitors’, believed to come from the sea, the mountains and the sky are welcomed into communities across the Japanese archipelago.
Over the course of two years, Fréger journeyed the length of Japan, from north to south, photographing yokaioni or Toshigami figures as they enacted rituals intended to ensure a fertile harvest, and to chase away evil spirits.
As a counterpoint to Fréger’s earlier Wilder Mann series, devoted to ‘wild’ figures from European folk culture, Yokainoshima presents the subjects in staged poses and settings evoking the landscapes of Japan, while settings for the yokai, by young architect Jumpei Matsushima, emphasises their colourful costumes still further.
Fréger’s portraits are framed with essays written by Toshiharu Ito and Akihiro Hatanaka, specialists in Japanese folk culture and anthropology, which set the huge variety of eclectic clothing in ethnographic context whilst describing the many local festivals, dances and rituals they represent.
As Ito, a specialist in Japanese folk culture and anthropology, writes in his essay: “Fréger’s distinctive method of distillation contrasts composition and repetition, colour and location, rhythm and pattern, posture and movement, the artificial and the natural.”
Yokainoshima: Island of Monsters is available now from Thames & Hudson. For more information, see here.

Tom Seymour

Tom Seymour is an Associate Editor at The Art Newspaper and an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication. His words have been published in The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Financial Times, Wallpaper* and The Telegraph. He has won Writer of the Year and Specialist Writer of the year on three separate occassions at the PPA Awards for his work with The Royal Photographic Society.