As a photographer, I have the privilege to encounter rare glimpses of the strange and unusual. Most of the time I am thankful to get such an assignment but this particular one turned out to be a mixture of delight and displeasure.
The subject was a Titan arum, or Amorphophallus titanium, one of the world’s largest and rarest plants, which was blooming for the first time in nearly 20 years at a botanical garden in Tokyo. The first visitors lined up from 6:30 am and by the time the gate opened at 10 am, 1600 people had formed a long queue despite the sweltering Tokyo summer heat. The excited crowd was attracted by extensive TV coverage and in the newspaper about this unusual flower that only blooms for two days after taking 16 years to grow from a seedling.
When I first heard there was a 78-year old cheerleader in Japan who wears metallic silver wigs and waves gold pom-poms as she jumps and dances in her shiny red sequined costume, it instantly made me curious to find out what kind of person she is.
Everyone knows by now that people in Japan live a long time. According to the World Health Organization’s latest life expectancy figures Japanese women remain at number one (life expectancy: 86 years), but I had never heard of an 80-year-old cheerleader.
Last Saturday, I was standing in front of Toyota’s Tsutsumi factory, where they make the Prius hybrid, in hope of finding someone who would tell me about the life of a Toyota worker.
As usual when the story is bad news, it was difficult to get anyone to share their thoughts. But eventually I got lucky and 55-year-old Kazuo Akatsuka, a 37-year veteran at the company, stopped to talk.
TOYOTA CITY, Japan (Reuters) – Kazuo Akatsuka, 55, lives a life that is dominated, for better or worse, by his employer, Toyota Motor Corp, and right now it’s got him a little worried.
The company is facing its biggest crisis in at least half a century, recalling more than 8.5 million vehicles for faulty brakes and accelerators and facing criticism for its handling of the problems.
For the national holiday, Sports Day, I had a fitting assignment – a women’s bodybuilding competition in Tokyo.It was my first time to cover bodybuilding, and as soon as I entered the venue I heard cheers from the 1,500 spectators eyeing 68 athletes from across Japan.I hurried backstage to catch the competitors’ last preparations before the judging, and followed a trail of plastic, blanketing the floor, walls and furniture to protect the surroundings from the oil and skin toner creams covering the contestants.Opening a door with a plastic-covered knob, I found the waiting room with over 30 bronzed and muscular women in bathing suits, aged from 27 to 56 and preparing for the stage.In Japan traditionally a woman’s beauty has been in her skin’s whiteness, as well as her subtlety and frailty, as illustrated in the common saying, ”Beautiful women die young.”But these women here were far from frail. Strong and powerful — they were beautiful in the sense that they were completely devoted to the sport, which I imagine must be a challenge in today’s Japan, where women are still sometimes encouraged to embody the concept of “kawaii”, or cuteness.The bodybuilders stood proudly while working out with ropes and weights until their moment on stage. They helped each other dab on skin toner, giving advice to newcomers on posing.Once the competition started, the women stepped on stage, smiling and flexing muscles that showed their long hours of training. They pushed themselves until their muscles quivered, blood vessels puffed up and sweat rolled down their hard bodies.Looking at it through my camera lenses caused me to unconsciously hold my breath through each pose. My first impression was that their bodies were too extreme to appreciate, but as I continued snapping I imagined the tedious yet painstaking training required to attain their buff physiques.Still, training doesn’t resolve everything. Takako Soma, a 42-year-old competitor in the sport for 13 years, told me: “I have to dab this skin tone cream a lot to hide my light coloured skin, as I can’t get a sun tan because my skin is sensitive.” Photo credits: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao
On the last day of Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso’s campaign for last week’s lower house election, I went to cover Aso’s speech in Kamakura to get pictures out as early as possible.A large crowd of people waited for him to speak, but only a handful of cameraman were at the scene, perhaps reflecting the view that the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was on its way to defeat.During the election, it was common for politicians to go into crowds of voters to shake hands and as soon as Aso began finishing up his speech, I rushed towards the front row of the crowd with my wide 16mm lens.Within moments, voters were reaching out their hands and I was practically nose to nose with Aso while angry bodyguards tried to shove me away. I don’t give up easily if there is a chance of a good picture, though.The next thing I knew, Aso himself suddenly grasped my hands and camera and told me: “You shouldn’t be shooting here. You’ve got to obey the rules. Do you understand?”It was quite a shock to have Japan’s Prime Minister talking to me like this in front of a large number of people.But while I was surprised the Prime Minister would speak directly to me, I tried to shoot more to get a nice picture. The bodyguards saw this, though, and in the next moment covered my lens to prevent me from taking more pictures.The next evening, when Aso took his seat at a news conference at LDP headquarters to see the ballot results come in, he looked gloomy, totally different from the day before.What was even more noticeable was the fact that the seats usually occupied by photographers covering the Prime Minister were vacant. I was sure that I wasn’t alone in thinking that those photographers were already taking pictures of soon-to-be Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.Photo credits: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao