Photog finds sense of heart, unity in Bhutan

Inspiring notion: Revered king in touch with public

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

Junko Kimura, 38, was among the many people who were moved by the Bhutanese King and his new wife as they traveled through Tokyo and Fukushima to encourage those affected by the March 2011 disasters.

It was November 2011, a time when Japan was struggling to lure back fearful tourists and the disaster victims were feeling despondent about the future. Amid this sense of stagnation — as well as government vows that rang hollow amid the squabbling legislature — the sincerity and charisma projected by the young couple made such an impression on Kimura that she packed her bags and flew off to see the tiny Himalayan nation.

Kimura, a photographer at Jana Press who focuses on domestic news, flew to Bhutan in late March to get a first-hand look at the Buddhist country known for its Gross National Happiness index, which is said to measure spiritual well-being. That index stands at 97 percent in Bhutan, meaning an overwhelming majority of the people are happy with their lives.

Her foray was more fruitful than expected. In a two-week stay, she got to interview nearly 100 residents, photograph the landlocked country’s breathtaking scenery and snag a one-hour chat with King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema over tea at the royal palace.

“Before I went to Bhutan, I was a bit worried if the widely publicized ‘country of happiness’ was just a fake image generated by the media. But it wasn’t,” Kimura told The Japan Times in a recent interview.

Unlike Japan, where the government distances itself from the public, the relationship between the Bhutanese king and his people is much closer, she said.

“The locals told me that the presence of their king is what makes them happy . . . They each had their own reason for explaining why. They truly respect the king from their hearts,” Kimura said.

To illustrate the country she glimpsed during her stay, Kimura published her first Bhutan photo album in December, “Shiawase no Kuni Bhutan” (“Bhutan, the Country of Happiness”). The book is filled with colorful landscape and portrait shots taken by Kimura and even conveys the words of the people and their king.

“The book’s angle may be simple. But I wanted to convey a sense of value that we don’t have,” Kimura said. “I myself am lamenting the current state of Japan. But now I really feel the urge to get more involved in society and start trying to improve it.”

Kimura, whose photographs have appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post, contacted the king’s media officer before her visit and asked for permission to photograph the king at a public appearance.

But because it took a long time to contact the press officer, she decided to wait for an opportunity while traveling across the Himalayan nation, which would give her a chance to photograph and interview people and discover why she was so moved by the king’s words in Japan.

Just as she was about to give up, the officer called and asked her if she was interested in speaking with the king. Although Kimura wasn’t allowed to photograph him, she was able to spend time alone with the royal couple on the last day of her trip and querie him about his sense of values.

“He told me that he doesn’t have any personal goals. He said a leader should only have the goal of the country or company or other groups the person is head of,” Kimura said. “He was a noble person . . . I was so nervous to meet them, and I had no camera with me. I didn’t know what to do. But they understood all that.”

They were quite friendly and warm, Kimura said. She said Queen Pema brought a blanket and a jacket for her while they were chatting in the garden because they were worried their guest might get cold.

When Kimura told the couple that she had spoken with many of the residents during her visit, the king was keen to learn what they said.

“I really thought he is a great leader who always thinks of the citizens,” Kimura said.

Kimura admitted that there are less happy sides to tiny Bhutan. For example, the country has forced thousands of Nepalese to leave as refugees. And its standard of living is easily eclipsed by Japan’s.

But there still may be something Japan can learn from tiny Bhutan, Kimura said.

Saying that she only saw a fraction of Bhutan, Kimura plans to visit the country again soon to experience and capture the things she hasn’t encountered yet.

“There are good sides to Japan and good sides to Bhutan. If there is something we can learn from (Bhutan), I want to know that,” she said.