Interview: Yasumasa Yonehara
Interview and photography: Andrey Bold
Hard partying, pose striking, model hugging, cap clad photographer-slash-editor Yasumasa Yonehara (better known as Yone) makes underestimating him easy, but behind the flashy persona is an intelligent and outspoken man who doesn't pause to reflect on whether what he says is politically correct.
We meet at his Moshi Moshi Kawaii Harajuku store and after a round of fresh potato chips from a store next door, with a flavor all of us have a hard time placing, begin our conversation about sex, trends, Yone's beliefs, Terry Richardson and the state Japan is in today.
- ABTell us a little about your background. You graduated from Gakushuin University with a law degree, right?
- YYYes, but in Japan, what matters most is entering the university, not studying. I was a typical student in that regard. While still at the university, I began a part-time job at a well-known publishing company called Shueisha, money was good and I decided to stay there after the graduation. I worked as a writer, but quickly realized there was a gap between what I've been asked to write and what I wanted to. So after working there for about five years I switched to the editor's job instead. I began with celebrity photo books, based on my original interest in visuals. Although I was making good money, I quickly got tired of having to mull over which swimwear to choose or how much skin could be exposed.
At this stage I just decided to quit everything. That was right around the time I got married. I decided to concentrate on my own projects which incorporated porn, the industry which still had some zest at the time. This period was the lowest point of my career, I was making just enough to get by. Somewhere along the way I noticed that Japanese high school girls were developing an interesting culture of their own with the new looks, make-up, fashions and overall attitude. So when a publishing company asked me what would be an interesting story to cover I mentioned that. Eventually it turned into Egg, the magazine over which I had a total control, with a focus on Japanese high school girls. It was first published in 1995.
Unlike other magazines where a photographer would shoot in the controlled studio environment, I wanted to capture raw energy. I noticed there was a trend among girls to photograph one another using cheap disposable cameras and make photo albums out of that for sharing. I liked the idea and decided to incorporate that into my magazine—I handed out disposable cameras to the models and let them shoot each other. Despite the quality of the photographs, I managed to capture the intimate look I was after. I guess Egg was the first fashion/lifestyle magazine to do that. Then, I thought to take it a step farther which led to Ouphoto (Out of Photographers), a magazine which invited to reveal and share one's private life with others. I thought sharing private photographs might help us to better understand each other. It wasn’t about the quality of the photographs, it was about how real they were.
- ABIt was still a pre-internet era.
- YYThere was no internet back then, but if there was, I'd think how to blend the two together.
- ABWhat's your relationship with Terry Richardson like?
- YYWe met in 1997 or 1998, during his first visit to Japan to promote a photo book published by Hysteric Glamour. I was his attendant during this visit. At the time I was taking pictures of sex industry workers which would often include myself receiving their services. I showed these photographs to Terry and he got really excited about the idea of self-engagement. So we decided to go on a photo-taking spree and I took him to several venues, from one of which he even managed to lift a girl's loose socks! You can see them in some of his later works. Terry’s trademark style picked up after this adventure. To me it's a mix of his inborn exhibitionism, this experience and Nobuyoshi Araki's influence.
- ABDid you actually discuss this approach to shooting?
- YYWe did. We also talked what documenting means to both of us and agreed that sex is the raw core of human interplay. Even so, our approach is different. I was more interested in the hidden, emotional aspect whereas Terry was more into documenting the action. I'm a husband and a father now and no longer take racy photos. I take pictures even my kids can see.
- ABYes, to me you’re walking the edge of the blade, suggesting, but not revealing.
- YYI walk a very fine line between erotic and pornographic, which gradually led to the kawaii representation of sex.
- ABDo you ever feel like crossing this line?
- YYNo, I have an inner switch to never get emotionally involved during a photo shoot. Even the girls I pick for the shots are not based on my personal taste, they just reflect the current trend. Now, it's something the Chinese would like. I am trying to translate Japanese kawaii into Chinese. In China, and the rest of the world, kawaii usually applies to little girls, not grown women. In Japan, a girl can be cute while still being sexually attractive. I think this sort of sex appeal is uniquely Japanese and is quite different from the Western, grownup, stereotype of sexuality.
- ABThat's very interesting, it seems like even half-naked girls can be regarded cute instead of erotic in Japan. Even more interesting, they equally, if not more, appeal to women as well.
- YYRight, when I first started to put sexy and cute together, many people were surprised because the two are almost antithetical. But a Japanese girl can be both kawaii and sexually potent at the same time. As one female editor coined it—ero-kawa, ero (erotic) was used mainly by old men referring to porn, but suddenly, it became an accepted complement among women. That doesn’t imply that all ero-kawa is accepted by both sexes. There is a strict distinction and I try to make my work appealing to women as much as to men. I am able to do this because I’ve always been good at playing roles. If someone told me to become a seventeen-year old girl right now, I could! [Laughs]
- ABWhy do you think Japanese shy away from uncovered sex, masking it with naivety?
- YYI don’t think the Japanese are shying away, they simply swing back and forth between pro and anti-sex. We have no middle ground. In the 70s there was free sex, in the 80s there was a “new family.” There was a big boom in the porn industry just before the current asexual period. Japan has an approximate five-year cycle between sex and no-sex.
The big kogyaru craze (1990s Japanese high school girl trend for loose socks, shortened skirts, dyed hair and heavy make-up) was followed by ura-hara trend (a mix of used and imported manlike clothing), later taken over by Shibuya's 109 charisma trend with its amped makeup and sexy looks is now being replaced by a somewhat cartoonish aomoji-kei. Japanese alternate between the two extremes because they don’t have a conviction of their own. If it's a yes, everyone says yes, without giving it much thought. Good example—if you ask Japanese what they'd like to have for dinner they most likely will ask you back, what would YOU like. It’s not about right or wrong, but what others say matters most.
I run a column in Nicola magazine. Teenage girls write to me saying they want to rebel against their parents and become a gyaru. The funny thing is when a girl dresses up as a gyaru, her personality changes too! To me this is the real Japanese kosupure (costume play) culture where your appearance controls your personality. A Japanese hip-hop star swearing and acting rough on stage switches back to polite mode once the show is over—not very common in the West, right? It definitely makes the Japanese unique, but it also shows a lack of self-reflection.
- ABYou are very much in demand in other Asian countries, do you think Japan has lost it's edge? Why is that, besides and obvious cash flow over there?
- YYI believe the current state of Japan reflects the outcome of our post-war educational system with its “Look up to the US.” The post-war generation doesn't question or rival the West, regarding foreigners as superior. With such a mind-set, it is no wonder Japan can't compete against China which is determined to become number one!
- ABWhat would you do to change this situation?
- YYI'd start with using Japanese models in fashion shoots. Most Japanese advertisements and fashion magazines use foreign models although they are produced for a Japanese audience. Personally, I don’t use foreign models in my shoots. I feel it's wrong. I'm not being a racist but as a Japanese I want to pull the best out of Japan. I'd use American models if I worked in the States. I mean, isn’t it weird to have a Japanese car driving through the streets of an Italian city in a commercial? I'm afraid that the Japanese are experiencing a sort of identity crisis, trapped in a distorted image of themselves as Westerners. I think this explains the reason we find Japan in the state it is today. Sharing my views with others, however, only shortened a list of my sponsors. [Laughs]
Store closes and we move to Yone's office.
- ABDid you ever consider becoming a fashion photographer?
- YYNo, I am more interested in people.
- ABWhat is your favorite body part?
- YYLegs. I even made collages out of legs, shaping them into letters. [Reaches the book from the shelf] This art book was made about fifteen years ago, I wanted to make an erotic font to compliment erotic sentences. Another book I wanted to show you is this one—all models are the real girls working in the sex industry. They hide their faces so their relatives won’t recognize them. They think if you cover your face it's ok. [Laughs]
- ABHave you ever considered becoming an artist?
- YYI have, but I was always after a broader appeal and if I'd do something purely artistic, my work wouldn't have much reach. I've been influenced by Andy Warhol and Mao Tse-tung’s ideology. One should speak common language in order to be understood, I live by that. I see some similarity between capitalism and communism in it.
- ABWhat is quintessentially Japanese?
- YYMy image of the Japanese is “Anata ni makasemasu” (Up to you). Taking responsibility is not very Japanese, people would rather follow orders. It may appear as a lack of character from outsider's point of you, but the system works within Japan. I think Japan would be a great country if the government was good but easily the opposite like now. Everyone is quick to unify under a questionable cause and even communication doesn’t necessarily require a defined subject.
- ABWhat excites you?
- YYDiscovery. Learning new things, getting to know people from different environments. I want to share my experience. I want to help others to realize that there are many ways to live your life.
- ABWith so many different projects running simultaneously, how do you introduce yourself?
- YYAn editor. I think that pretty much everything has been already invented, all we can do is either reveal a different understanding or renew our interest in preconception through editing, remixing, or reshuffling. I enjoy that the most.
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Translation: Chisako Izuhara