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Miyadera Saburō: "Roji" (1979)

The Japanese publishing house Nora-Sha is probably best known today for distributing Kimura Ihei's color photographs of Paris, taken during several visits to the city from the mid-1950s to 1960 and posthumously published in the 1974 slipcased hardcover book simply titled Pari. Only since recently, due to Martin Parr's reissue of five diverse protest-photobooks in his PROTEST BOX (Steidl, 2011), the included Sanrizuka (Nora-Sha, 1971) by Kitai Kazuō (b. 1944, Anshan, Manchuria), which documents the civil resistance of local residents against the construction of Narita Airport, may be added to that list. Considering the extraordinary distinct qualities of these two unique publications, it seemed necessary to me to gather further information about other releases by Nora-Sha in order to acquire a more profound knowledge of the history of this particular publishing house as well as the photographers and editors involved.

Miyadera Saburō's Roji, dating from 1979, is presented in this context as the first book of more to be reviewed in the future. Since, to my knowledge, Miyadera's work has not yet been discussed in detail outside of Japan, the bits of information gathered here are to be regarded as interim conclusions that require further study. It is, nevertheless, my hope to give a first insight into a photographer's oeuvre that exhibits aesthetic and methodological similarities to those of by now much-celebrated "masters" of Japanese photography.


Born in 1945 in Fukushima Prefecture, Miyadera belonged to the first generation of the so-called après-guerre - the immediate post-war years that were characterized first and foremost by the omnipresence of the U.S. occupation forces as well as Japan's consequent struggle for a new identity after a long period of fascist politics and warfare. It is well known that as a first attempt to present itself to the world as a renewed nation that had undergone positive economic, infrastructural and ideological change, Japan became host of the 18th Olympics held in Tokyo in the summer of 1964. Around this time Miyadera entered the Department of Dairy Farming at Rakuno Gakuen University in Hokkaidō. Being geographically detached from the capitol, the epicenter of the vivid student and New-Leftist movement against the repeated renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, it is difficult to say to what extend Miyadera was personally affected by those events and the overall political zeitgeist of the 1960s.

It is, however, safe to say that after graduating from university in 1968, it would take him another five years to develop a serious interest in photography. Interestingly enough, after only one year of active practice, Miyadera was already awarded a prize as best freelance photographer by the renowned Asahi Camera in 1974. The following year he moved to Shizuoka Prefecture and - after working for some time at an in vitro fertilization laboratory for livestock breeding - eventually founded his own photo studio in the small port town of Numazu, approximately 125 kilometers (circa 80 miles) south-west of Tokyo. It was precisely in that town, as well as the neighboring municipality of Mishima, that from 1977 to 1979 Miyadera took a series of photographs that would make up his publication Roji. The book's Japanese two-character title is best translated into English as "Alley" and already provides an apt description of the publications photographic subject.

Miyadera Saburō: Roji (1979).

The 24 x 18 cm softcover book is housed in a simple blank cardboard slipcase and contains roughly 104 black-and-white full bleed photographs, each printed according to the image's format either as horizontal double- or vertical single-page spreads. Even though, like many other well-known publications printed during the 1960s and '70s, Roji also exhibits the notorious rich, matte black ink combined with a noticeably heightened contrast, the book's overall impact is comparatively reserved. The pages are continuously unpaginated and no foreword or captions are enclosed. Only a short biography in note form as well as the book's credits can be found on the last page. Kitai Kazuō is listed here as publisher and seemingly had - as we will see in future posts on publications by Nora-Sha - a crucial impact on the book's final appearance.

Miyadera Saburō: Roji (1979).
Throughout the entire book, Miyadera points his camera consistently at the daily spectacle of his immediate surroundings - the local people going about their everyday business in the alleys of Numazu and Mishima. Unlike the cityscape of the country's ever-changing capitol Tokyo, the small Shizuoka port towns and their citizens seem to be more or less immune to both the positive and negative side effects of the economic miracle. Accordingly, the places depicted are hardly ever free of signs of decay. Nevertheless, considering the entire scope of subjects covered, Miyadera finds an interesting balance between the joy and sorrow of life in Numazu and makes Roji therefore an unlikely candidate to be seen for example in the tradition of earlier social documentary work by photographers such as Domon Ken (1909-1990). The apparent interest in the partly dramatic partly playful effect of light and shadow - a subject that also fascinated Moriyama Daidō (b. 1938, Osaka) and eventually led to his publication entitled Hikari to Kage (Light & Shadow, 1982) - is a clear indication of the photographer's individual interest in the visual potential of photography and thus an unacceptable attitude within the realms of classical photojournalism as proposed by Domon and the influential editor Natori Yōnosuke (1923-1962).

Miyadera Saburō: Roji (1979).
Instead, Roji is to be regarded as the result of a photographer's committed relationship and involvement with the places and people that make up his own living environment. While doing so, Miyadera shows no sign of a condescending attitude towards his subjects, even when shifting his attention to unappealing scenes such as a shirtless man bend over to clean the scruffy entrance of a building that has the warning "No Peeing" written in white paint right next to it (see above right). In this process of carefully observing his surroundings while roaming the narrow streets of Numazu and Mishima, Miyadera's photographs clearly reveal an unbiased receptivity to reality and an eager desire to use the photo camera as a tool to decode the hidden mechanics of everyday life frame by frame.
Miyadera Saburō: Roji (1979).