Charles Fréger: Yokainoshima

YOKAINOSHIMA (The Island of Yokai) is a visual encyclopedia of traditional Japanese ritual costumes photographed by Charles Fréger throughout the country. The uniquely Japanese term, yokai, refers to a wide spectrum of spirits, monsters and deities—here, sparked to life in form of costumes—has no analog in English. An homage to Hokusai, a visionary artist who created some of the most memorable “yokai” imagery, YOKAINOSHIMA is also just as much about rural Japan and anonymous regular folk discreetly present behind the masks.



My interest in costumes and ceremonies evolved naturally. In 2004 I started working on EMPIRE project, which was about royal guards in Europe, followed by Chinese Opera in 2005 and a carnival series FANTASIAS, that opened a lot of opportunities, like trying to connect a character with a landscape, which was really important to me. All groups I photographed had something to do with protocol and tradition. I just took it from there. Once you start a project about royal guards in England, wearing bearskin hats, it's pretty easy to imagine people dressed as bears.


Some say my work is ethnographic, but I don't consider myself an ethnographer, and spirituality is not my cup of tea either. “Spiritual” and “mystical” are not my words. What I'm interested is an outside skin of a community. I believe in collective, in things that happen when people join in a group. The feeling of being together can be very intense.

Most of these rituals are not about spirituality but about [belonging and] being connected [to nature and one another]. These traditions celebrate fertility, movement, agriculture—they link to [our] physicality.


I'm very interested in how people transform themselves by putting on ritual costumes. In a way, they change their skin, they become someone else. Wearing a costume has a [strong] impact, it changes one's state of mind, but it's not mystical. It's like when you're a kid and you transform yourself into someone else, a game, and sometimes you really believe you are someone else.



To me, Japanese rituals are very theatrical compared to Europe. I don't think people transform into characters they portray. They don't try to hide their identity, their humanity. There is a distance, they act. In Europe, most of the costumes I photographed really have to do with becoming someone else. One of the reasons is costumes sometimes can be very oppressing, physically hard to wear. Also, most European traditions often involve alcohol and lack of sleep, some celebrations go on for three days in a row. So they don't sleep enough and they drink, and they eat, and they can't breath very well, so, for sure, after a certain time you have some guys really believing they're bears.


In Japan celebration and drinking starts after. Participants meet at a temple, prepare, have a snack. Everything is well organized: route, moves, speeches. Once everything is finished they come back, they change, and then they drink into the morning. Usually it's really fast, since most of the time ceremonies start at a temple and you have to follow its rules. Masks often belong to a temple and have to stay there. None of European rituals start in a church. These traditions are pagan and completely set apart from Christianity, but in Japan they're deeply connected to Buddhism and Shinto and well respected.



My father was a farmer, my sister is a farmer, and I was studying to become a farmer as well—I spent five years in an agriculture school before I switched to a fine art school. I keep a strong connection with that world. My connection with all these groups is agriculture. Many people in my photographs are farmers and fishermen. Just look at their hands—these guys spend their lives working in rice and potato fields. For this project, I really looked for [characteristic] gestures connecting to agriculture, the way they twist their bodies connects to the physicality of it. You can find it a lot in the pictures.


City residents are pretty ignorant about what they eat, they just go to a shop and buy products, unconcerned that there are people who really break their backs out there [to produce them]. It's something that disturbs me a lot, more and more in fact. We feel we can eat as much as we want and the food is just, but not long ago people were dying of hunger in France. We think it'll never happen again.


Japan may face an agricultural decline soon, already in fact. Most of the farmers I photographed are over 65 years old. I haven't seen any young people working in rice fields. I find it strange that Japanese are not concerned about that, how people ignore what happens three hours away by shinkansen from Tokyo. This disconnection [with reality] to me is very tragic.

YOKAINOSHIMA reminded me of this, that people behind all these masks are often farmers and fishermen. We shouldn't ignore that.


Charles Fréger


All photos © Charles Fréger. Courtesy of MEM Gallery, Tokyo