Photographer Eiji Ohashi gained a deeper appreciation of Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines one harsh night in his Hokkaido hometown of Wakkanai, Japan’s northernmost city.

Roadside Lights, by Eiji Ohashi.
44 pages
ZEN FOTO GALLERY, Photography.

Caught in a fierce snowstorm, he was able to navigate his way home only by the lights of the surrounding jihanki. Seeing the glowing appliances in a new light, as analogous to the Buddhist jizō effigies that also stand along roadsides and are said to be guardians of travelers and children, he turned his lens on vending machines initially as a way of expressing his gratitude.

Ohashi has spent the nine years since then obsessively shooting starkly beautiful Japanese landscapes, usually in the dead of night, that are “populated” only by vending machines yet offer perspicacious comment on the human condition. With his work now gaining attention both at home and abroad (exhibitions in Paris and Rotterdam are currently in the works), Ohashi’s color work is collected in the recently published photo book “Roadside Lights.”

Traveling alone across the archipelago in search of such scenes, Ohashi has come to see the vending machine as emblematic of a Japanese pursuit of convenience that has gone a little too far, while also acknowledging that the widespread proliferation of the machines is testament to how safe the country is. This ambiguity of sentiment is manifest in the work as well as the photographer’s explication of it.

“Life in Japan has become extremely convenient, but still there seems no end to the pursuit of greater comfort,” he tells The Japan Times. “That quest continues relentlessly, but we don’t need this degree of convenience in order to live. Rather, having achieved this level of comfort, we should now be asking what is the true essence of happiness.”

As Ohashi sees it, the mindset that has seeded even the most remote locations with jihanki has, while superficially making everyday life more hassle-free than ever, had other less desirable effects. “The typically earnest and very methodical mentality of the Japanese has been a factor in the rollout of vending machines far and wide, but this same disposition has also contributed to Japanese society becoming oppressive and suffocating,” he says.

And while the photographer’s works in both color and monochrome (the latter collected in 2015’s “Merci”) portray jihanki in a flattering light, he laments that, in his view, an awareness of scenic and environmental conservation has been lacking in the rural deployment of these machines. This aesthetic dissonance is, of course, central to much of Ohashi’s work, where it has a charm not always present in reality.

Ohashi’s images address domestic concerns, but there are broader themes present that speak to phenomena seen in other post-industrial societies where neoliberal ideas have come to inform everything from political policy to interpersonal relationships. The present age, Ohashi’s images seem to say, grants ever-greater convenience while at the same time destroying old certainties, putting the livelihoods of many at the mercy of market forces.

Ohashi’s treatment of such concerns is singular. In many of his images a single vending machine stands alone in a cold, remote setting, echoing an era in which the primacy and self-sufficiency of the individual are stressed at the expense of a mutually-supportive society.

Perhaps this anthropomorphic aspect is a result of Ohashi’s solitary travel by night to some of Japan’s remotest corners, but as he explains: “I’ve come to perceive in the figure of the vending machine those people who are at the mercy of, and tossed about by, the system; those who go unrewarded despite making their best efforts.”

A former salaryman himself, Ohashi notes that vending machines “work” tirelessly day and night, yet will be unceremoniously removed should their sales taper off. When put this way, it becomes easy to see parallels with the company employee who likewise risks “removal” should he fail to meet his quotas, or the part-time worker who is always unsure as to whether their contract will be renewed.

Although the photographer is now into his early 60s, his work is also sympathetic to today’s young generation. In the mass production of vending machines of identical form (the appliances are usually of uniform shape and size, regardless of manufacturer), Ohashi sees a metaphor for what some see as lack of individuality in millennials, engendered by their times.

Ohashi’s work raises questions rather than posits solutions. But it comes as no surprise that he expresses his vision of a better society in a way that echoes his vending machines, brilliantly illuminating the darkness around them: “One message in my work is that I wish for a world in which each and everyone is able to shine.”

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