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  • The Predicament and the Reflexive Turn: Japanese Street Photography since 1990
  • Yoshiaki Kai (bio)

The 43rd Kimura Ihei Photography Award (hereafter, Kimura Award), announced in March 2018, was awarded to two female photographers, Komatsu Hiroko and Fujioka Aya. Founded in 1975 under the auspice of the Asahi Shimbun Company, the annual Kimura Award is given to prominent emerging photographers.1 The Japanese photography community has been notorious for its gender inequity, but the rise of female photographers was marked by this 2018 event, in which two women received the prestigious award.2 Furthermore, their winning the prize also indicated the persistence of the genre of street photography in Japan. Despite differences in style and subject matter, both Komatsu and Fujioka take sunappu (a derivative of “snapshot”) on the streets that can be compared to earlier work by male photographers such as Domon Ken or Moriyama Daidō.3 In the last ten years, other female photographers such as Ume Kayo, Sasaoka Keiko, and Hara Mikiko, who primarily photograph on the city streets and in other public places, have also received recognition in the photography community.

In this essay, I will discuss the development of street photography in Japan during the thirty years of the Heisei era (1989–2019), paying special attention to the institutional framework that defined this genre and its critical discourse, including exhibitions at art museums and writings by photography critics.4 A younger generation of photographers started examining the significance of genre in the early nineties. Their questioning has eventually led to the emergence, in the past decade, of reflexive street photography that critically reflects on its own conditions and history.

Tradition in Crisis

In the early 1990s, the Japanese photography community went through a significant change. The Japan Professional Photographers Society, the largest association of professional photographers in Japan, which was established in 1950, had been lobbying [End Page 99] since the late 1970s for opening a public photography museum.5 However, their request was not granted until the latter half of the 1980s when local governments, in an effort to obtain cultural prestige and attract tourists, competed with each other to build art museums. The Kawasaki City Museum opened in 1988 as the first public museum with a department of photography, followed by the 1989 opening of the Yokohama Museum of Art, which also had a department of photography. Most importantly, the temporary building of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (renamed the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum in 2016) opened in 1990 as the first public museum to specialize in photography, apart from the few others devoted to individual photographers such as the Ken Domon Museum of Photography, which opened in 1983. Thanks to the economic boom at that time, all three museums amassed extensive collections of photographs, including many Western masterpieces.

The entrance of photography into public museums had considerable consequences on Japanese art photography. Two factors are especially relevant in terms of the subsequent direction of street photography. First, the photography community could no longer ignore the artists who used photography in their works but did not identify themselves as photographers. When organizing photography exhibitions, public art museums often sought assistance from independent photo experts.6 After 1990, however, museum curators who were not photography specialists began to influence the success and recognition of emerging photographers. Reflecting the international trend at the time, the photographic medium had come to constitute an indispensable part of contemporary art exhibitions in Japan. For example, the first-year exhibitions at Contemporary Art Center of Art Tower Mito, which opened in 1990 in Mito, Ibaraki, included Beyond the Photographic Frame: 11 Recent Works. This contemporary art exhibition showed works by artists who used photography, such as Morimura Yasumasa and Sophie Calle.7 In 1994, Hara Art Museum, a private museum specializing in contemporary art in Shinagawa, Tokyo, held an exhibition titled Photography and Beyond in Japan that featured works by Araki Nobuyoshi, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Satō Tokihiro among others.8 These museum exhibitions helped to blur the boundary between the photographic community and the art community. Photography journalism responded to this new tendency; the long-established Asahi Camera published more articles on contemporary art, and Déjà-vu...