People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Fumi Nagasaka: When Japan is neither in nor out of the picture

by Rob Gilhooly

Contributing Writer

Basketball, hotel management and working in a California skateboard store may not sound like the ideal route to a career in fashion photography.

For Fumi Nagasaka, however, each step along that offbeat, and oftentimes bumpy, path has proven to be influential and key to opening up doors into the world of images.

Born in Nagoya, Nagasaka’s childhood passion was the hoops, and her junior high school days were spent going back and forth between the basketball court and team dorm.

Having transferred to an Osaka school known for its strength in the sport in her final year, she returned to Nagoya for senior high, but was confronted by an unexpected hurdle: bullying.

Violence, even at the hands of the team coach, was not uncommon, she says, and while in-team fighting — over uniforms and during play — was also widespread, it was rare for one member to be targeted.

“The way we played sports back in the day, it was a little more hardcore and very competitive, so everyone basically hated one another,” says Nagasaka. “I got on well with students in higher grades, so maybe there was some resentment there, but looking back, they were probably just trying to find someone to bully. I was pretty naive, sensitive and I wasn’t strong enough to fight back, so I was an easy target. Kids pick up on those things … especially in a competitive atmosphere like that.”

Reluctantly, she decided to quit the team and focus on academic studies, mixing with students whose interests were more varied and typically teenage than the focused athletes she had previously rubbed shoulders with.

“I was 16 and I thought my life was over because basketball was all I had,” says Nagasaka, whose father’s job as a race car driver meant she moved around Japan during her formative years. “But I started hanging out with ‘normal’ students, and we’d talk about music, fashion, art. I started to learn about life, basically.”

Another life-altering event came about in her final year, when she was given the chance to take part in an exchange program that took her to Britain, where many of her out-of-study hours were spent roaming the fashion districts of London.

At 17, she had no idea what she wanted to do as a career, but, she says, “at least I had found something I was interested in — leaving Japan and living abroad.”

Seeing it as an opportunity to achieve that goal, she enrolled in a course in tourism and hotel management at a Nagoya college that supported students wishing to work overseas.

During her time there, she and a schoolmate spent three months in Los Angeles on a newly inaugurated internship program. While her friend jumped at the opportunity to intern at Universal Studios, the only option of interest to Nagasaka was a curious one that she couldn’t resist: working at a skateboard store in the trendy Melrose District.

“I was studying in morning and then took a bus to Melrose to work at this store, even though I couldn’t speak much English,” she says. “It was about that time that my interest in fashion and art took off and that area was a bit of a fashion enclave. I started visiting all these cool clothes stores to make friends.”

She became particularly enamored by a store run by a group of Britons that stocked clothing with a more avant-garde aesthetic. The outlet also featured a striking decor, with its walls plastered with self-taken pop photos, a style that would soon become known as lomography, named after the quirky Russian cameras that were du jour at the time.

Intrigued by the photos, Nagasaka bought a Lomo and started photographing friends and other people she met in LA. Though she was oblivious to it at the time, it was a good omen of what was to come.

In 2001, her newfound British friends encouraged her to visit New York, where a series of events led her to entering the Parsons School of Design. While always keen to mingle with local people, she soon found that the melting pot that is the Big Apple meant “local” didn’t always mean “American.”

Her ever-widening circle of friends included those from Europe and South America and she ended up rooming with a fellow Japanese (a hair stylist she says is today of some international repute.)

“He had all these back copies of a cult Japanese magazine called Street, which I used to read as a teenager,” Nagasaka recalls. “There was no internet back then and options were limited when trying to find out what was going on (in the fashion world) outside Japan. Street was an exception … but when I looked back through those old copies I suddenly realized: All the pictures were from London.”

On a whim, Nagasaka called the magazine’s editor-in-chief and asked him if he’d be interested in photos from New York.

Days later, she was shooting her first assignment.

“I bought a cheap camera and started to photograph my friends, downtown fashion people who knew everybody who was anybody back then,” she says. “So I was shooting for a magazine I’d loved as a kid — and I wasn’t even really a photographer.”

Over the subsequent years, that all changed, with publications from far and wide knocking on her door. She started to travel around North America and Europe, working on documentary projects that focus on youth culture and gaining a reputation for her honest, yet inventive, portrayals of adolescence — images that are also informed by her own testing teenage years.

Her recently published book — “Teenage Riot” — was the product of an eight-year project following the lives of four teenagers in the U.S., Canada and Japan. The resulting images — while giving a playful nod to her fashion photo roots — are at once intimate but equally stark in the essential differences they reveal. Her aim, she explains, was to capture a purity and honesty lost in adulthood.

“The subjects in New York were from a part of Brooklyn with drug addicts on the street where you would have to be careful where you go, while the girl in Canada could basically walk through town in her pajamas,” she says. “It really struck me that a kid’s life pretty much depends on where they get raised, which is something they cannot choose, especially in these crazy times we’re in now.”

Nagasaka says she has rarely come across any trouble when photographing subjects, but insists she has never used her “Japaneseness” to forge her path, or even to smooth the way.

“I know some Japanese artists based overseas who simply do Japanese things, but my work is not about Japan,” she says.

Her latest project took her to America’s deep south, where her “Asianness” was more apparent and forced her to reassess her own roots.

“I left Japan a long time ago because I hated my culture and I didn’t agree with the system — you must have a degree, be a junior at a company and make your way up the corporate ladder. Nowadays, when I revisit Japan I feel pride at many aspects of that culture,” she says.

“But my background is not an influence on my art. When it comes to a point of view, or creativity, I’m as much a product of my environment as those teenage girls, I guess. And the basketball, all those other things have helped shape me. But the messages I want to relay, they’re (not coming from me) as a Japanese. They’re (coming from me) as an artist who loves meeting people.”

Profile

Name: Fumi Nagasaka

Profession: Photographer

Hometown: Nagoya

Key moments in career:

1997 — Goes to U.K. on overseas exchange program

1999 — Interns at a skateboard store in Los Angeles

2001 — Moves to New York

2003 — Starts first photography work shooting street fashion for Street magazine

2016 — Launches first photobook, “Untitled Youth,” a series of portraits of youth in different cities around the globe

Words to live by: “Better to have tried and failed than never have tried at all.”

Things I miss about Japan: “Family.”