In a career stretching back to 1940, Tsuneko Sasamoto, considered the nation’s first female photojournalist, bore witness to Japan’s dramatic shift from a totalitarian regime to an economic superpower.
Her subjects have ranged from impoverished citizens scratching out a living in the lean postwar years, to student protesters and striking coal miners as the country was taking off economically in the politically tumultuous 1960s.
She has profiled independent-minded women born in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) who struggled against entrenched sexism to find their own voices as novelists, social activists and actresses.
On the verge of her 100th birthday in September, Sasamoto is still enthusiastic about her profession.
Currently, she is busy giving interviews about her ongoing exhibition of selected works, “Hyakusai Ten” (“Centenarian’s Exhibition”), and related book, “Hyakusai no Finder” (“Centenarian’s Finder”).
Already she has plans to get back to work in a few months for her next book.
“I’ll stop taking interview requests in late July because I’ve decided to go to Hokkaido to take pictures,” Sasamoto told The Japan Times in a recent interview.
Asked if she will carry her own equipment, she nodded. “Cameras have become much lighter lately. They are easy to carry around,” she said with a smile as she sat in the cozy living room of her Tokyo home, dotted with touches of purple and white from orchids sent by friends to congratulate her on her book and exhibition.
Sasamoto prefers the older mechanical cameras but no longer uses them, although she concedes that “it is difficult to understand the functions of the digital cameras.”
Born in 1914 in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, Sasamoto’s father was a kimono dealer. Before taking up photojournalism, she said she had wanted to be a painter, or a novelist or journalist. She took up photography at the age of 26 when the colleague of a neighbor launched a photo organization and asked if she wanted to join, Sasamoto said.
Despite claims of youthful shyness, the young photographer often acted boldly, particularly when the chance for a perfect shot was missed.
Assigned to photograph Gen. Douglas MacArthur, she asked the Supreme Commander Allied Powers and his wife to pose again, using English learned at school. Under the U.S. Occupation, photographers were forbidden to speak to them, she said.
In those years, she recalled, photographers were limited because they had to use flashbulbs for every shot. Because the heavy cameras lacked electronic flashes, she had to pack her bag with flashbulbs.
Yet such inconveniences were hardly her biggest problem, she said.
“What troubled me most was the fact that women had to put on skirts and high heels when they worked,” she said, which made it difficult for them to climb stepladders to shoot from higher and better angles.
As a woman, she also had to endure discriminatory comments commonly made by the officials and other bureaucrats she was trying to shoot. Moreover, her father and brother worried about her working late into the night. Her brother even urged her to give up work and get married before it was too late.
Despite such hardships and several interruptions in her career, she carried on. “I didn’t stop working because I was interested in it,” she said.
In her 30s, she divorced her first husband, although he had supported her work and advised her as a photographer.
“I still regret that I had to divorce him,” she said, adding that she could not spend enough time with him as a busy freelancer. Her second husband passed away decades ago.
Living alone, she’s careful to look after herself, swearing by a glass of red wine every night and a piece of chocolate every day. “I also eat a lot of meat. People often say old people shouldn’t eat meat because it is bad for their health, but that is not true,” she said.
She also keeps in touch with family and friends, including the daughters of her first husband, who died in 2003, and his sister.
After the mega-quake and tsunami that heavily damaged the Tohoku region in 2011, she visited a friend in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, to hold a workshop on crafting ponchos, using cloth she bought in Tokyo.
Today, she is deeply concerned about the growing tensions with China.
“I had many friends whose husbands died in war,” she said. “We should never have a war again after all the terrible experience we’ve gone through.”