In Fact It Isn’t

I was very excited but had barely managed to pull it off. It was early summer of 2004 and I was sitting down to an interview with the editor of “Shiki no Shashin – Four Seasons Photos” (no longer in print) in a café near my home station. The theme was “Magic Hour”, a term I thought worthy of introducing to Japanese photographers. The editor had almost called off the whole plan because his image of magic hour didn’t match the impression he got from the photos I submitted. Thankfully, a quick explanation about Galen Rowel’s work changed his mind and the interview and subsequent two-page feature were back on schedule.

There were a few basic questions the editor asked me and my answers would comprise the bulk of the text. When the piece was published several weeks later, though, I was a bit surprised. Aside from the glaring caption error which mislabelled Tsubakurodake as Akadake, a couple of my replies to the questions did not sound quite right.

The first question asked if there was any particular experience I had had that lead me to choosing the theme of “magic hour”. My reply describes a particular morning by a lake in Nagano and after a colourful description of the predawn sky colour drama, I am reported as saying that it was that very morning that inspired me to begin pursuing the theme. Actually, this was not the case as I had been photographing “magic hour” light for over a decade prior to that morning in Nagano.

Another question mentioned that many of my magic hour photos include mountains. At the time, I answered something about enjoying photographing mountains and the light being very good at higher elevations. The quote ascribed to me in the magazine started with, “Japanese mountains are very photogenic”.

These two examples had me wondering: do Japanese people want to feel that foreigners find Japan such a wonderful place of beauty and inspiration? Perhaps there is the notion that foreigners who discover some new joy in Japan can sell a story.

This thought became reinforced during my next interview a few years later with “Gakujin” magazine, a mountaineering publication. Once again, I sat down for an interview and spent two hours or so responding to questions for a four-page feature. When a PDF was sent to me to look over and check the captions and text I was quite surprised to learn that upon coming to Japan I had opened an English school! Indeed, I had gotten a job working for one very quickly but I have never had any intention to open a school. Was this supposed to make the story more interesting or just a misunderstanding?

There were other factual amendments too. A paragraph about a pen pal I had in Gunma said that we had become very close chums. We maintained a respectably good friendship for some years but were never as close as the writer had suggested.

The fabricated text that was the most remarkable, however, was “my” account of a friend’s story after he had been working in Japan for a few months and had returned to Canada for a visit.

“In Japan there are many mountains and wide green forests, and crystal clear rivers flow. It’s a beautiful country.”

The praise heaped upon Japanese nature seems conspicuous when you consider that one Canadian is talking to another. Had he actually said such a thing to me, I might have thought along these lines: “Dude, we are, like, 27 times bigger than them and we have only a quarter the population, ergo we have way more land and tonnes more nature. Our Rocky Mountains alone cover more surface area than the whole country of Japan. What are you on about?” The truth is that he said almost nothing about Japanese nature except that he had seen a sign by a cliff-top viewpoint telling potential committers of suicide to be mindful of the people walking below the cliff before jumping.

For the most part, these little artistic liberties taken by the writers don’t bother me too much, though I tend to be a stickler for factual accuracy and it bothers me terribly to find an error in a published text that I wrote and checked myself before submitting it, never mind words put in my mouth by someone else.

On a related note, one magazine rejected my photo submissions of Canadian and Andean mountains scenes, their reason being that they already had many Japanese photographers with such photos. I was asked instead if I didn’t have any photos of Japanese scenery to submit.

I have come to presume that Japanese writers and editors want to make it seem that foreigners love Japan so much and that there is no better place to be. Hey, I don’t deny that the nature here is beautiful and the mountains photogenic. But given that I spent ten years traveling and photographing in Canada (and grew up there!), one can assume correctly that it is not Japanese nature in particular that inspired and motivated me in any way, artistically speaking.

If anything, it is the ease of accessibility to the mountains that has provided me with opportunities to climb up rugged and steep peaks whose Canadian counterparts I would never have attempted due to the technical difficulties involved. Yet since it seems to me that editors are looking for gushing praise of Japan from foreigners, I have to keep in mind that when I provide my own text with my photographs I should include a favourable nod to my host nation. After all, we want the readers to feel that foreigners are so inspired to stay here that they will gladly forsake the nature of their own countries in order to revel in the natural beauty of Japan along with the natives.

Magic Hour in Shiki-no-Shashin

Magic Hour in Shiki-no-Shashin

Gakujin tells my story, not all of it entirely accurate

Gakujin tells my story, not all of it entirely accurate

2 responses to “In Fact It Isn’t

  1. But, Peter, surely Japan IS “a wonderful place of beauty and inspiration”. Your own Alps collection proves that amply …. 🙂

  2. PH, thank you so much for the compliment, and yes, the mountains here are very beautiful and there is much scenery to enjoy photographing. But in spite of all the natural glory here, I cannot say it rivals that of what I have experienced in North American, and even slightly smaller New Zealand has more diversity to offer the landscape photographer. I could say that if Japan were half as beautiful I doubt I would feel satisfied enough to have continued living here. The point of gratitude I feel the most toward Japanese nature is the ease of access to the high peaks. With my new confidence in climbing mountains I dream of the mountains back home that I can now feel confident in climbing or scrambling to the peak and the photographs I might capture there.

    However, I am far from done here. There are still many places of interest I hope to visit in Japan as well and still many mountains I hope to climb and photograph. Yes, there is inspiration and beauty here. I just don’t feel the hyperbole and fabricated history in those interviews is necessary.

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