The Jomon Period of Japanese history is so shrouded in the mists of time that any bid to fathom its secrets stretches even the usual astonishing bounds of prehistoric archeology.

Yet as amateurs and experts alike have continued unearthing and studying 2,000- to 10,000-year-old examples of Jomon pottery and stone tools for more than a century, the pieces of the puzzle are gradually coming together.

It is only six years ago, for instance, that the discovery of unusually large beans — or the holes where they had been encased in the clay of Jomon Period pots — provided concrete evidence that people living in these islands so very long ago had been able to domesticate certain plant species.

Such new understandings, of course, normally come courtesy of archeology and science. But there has been another endeavor that has helped bring into focus those mysterious times: photography.

Indeed, for the last 30 years Tadahiro Ogawa is one who has dedicated himself to photographing Jomon Period artifacts — and to date he has around 30,000 of them in his picture archive.

In fact the Tokyo resident has photographed at pretty much every one of the more than 500 museums nationwide that stocks objects from the Jomon Period — which is conventionally dated at from around 12,000 B.C. to 300 B.C. And due to his policy of granting free use of his photographs to the institutions with which he collaborates, Ogawa’s work has become ubiquitous in the field, adorning the covers of countless books, posters, bags and academic studies — and, in one case at least, even a local phone book.

Judging from the evidence to hand, it seems that few of those museums are fastidious about crediting their unpaid photographer, but it is nevertheless easy to identify his handiwork. For starters, Ogawa’s photographs of ancient Jomon clay objects depict vivid and dramatic topographies of shade, shadow, highlights and depth.

Where archeological documentation of such finds tends to prioritize even, flat lighting, Ogawa manages to capture in his shots such texture and physicality that it’s as if they are there in the room with you — objects you could reach out and touch and feel. Effortlessly, his images transport you back to a time when such objects were an everyday presence — when they were real rather than being revered antiquities.

And that’s quite a feat because, to put it bluntly, a lot of them are so odd that in fact they seem born of fictional dimensions.

What are we nowadays to make, for example, of giant cooking pots standing 60 or 70 cm tall and covered with richly ornate decorations — some of them representative of animals such as snakes and frogs; others, to our eyes at least, completely abstract?

And then there are even less practical objects: three-dimensional depictions of animals or people. Some of the dogū, as such figurines are called in Japanese, have broad, triangular-shaped heads and large eyes that seem to have more in common with science-fiction aliens than people.

Through generations past, the very oddness of Jomon pottery has tended to define it in the public’s mind. Thus it was appropriated by mid-20th-century artist Taro Okamoto, who saw in it a reference point to postulate a “new” and uniquely Japanese form of visual expression.

But, as far as photographer Ogawa is concerned, such deliberate mystification of Jomon Period culture has an unfortunate legacy, in that it has planted in the minds of contemporary Japanese the notion that the people inhabiting these isles back then were quintessentially different and distant — so much so that they belonged to an utterly separate world.

Ogawa’s primary goal in his tireless work is to bridge the gulf of time and comprehension; to create a window through which to behold a people many thousands of years ago who were not so different from Japanese today.

“The fact is, we Japanese are connected to these people by blood, and they lived normal lives, hunting and making objects such as these in the same natural environment that we inhabit now,” the 70-year-old told The Japan Times.

“They had hopes and fears and complex lives. And if you look closely enough at the objects they left behind, you can get a sense of what those were.”

The exhibition rooms at the Matsumoto City Museum of Archeology, tucked into the mountains of Nagano Prefecture, have dozens of dogū on display. The little clay figurines and faces, most between 10 cm and 20 cm in height, stand in glass cases alongside other types of Jomon artifacts — large pots, stone tools and so on.

Made of clay and having survived for up to 7,000 years buried in shallow soil — many in Nagano’s valley floors — the dogū are about as resilient as any artifact you’ll find in a museum. Hence there is no need for air conditioning, or even precise humidity control. Indeed, more than one glass display case seemed to have recently acquired new occupants in the form of dead insects.

“There are no visitors to speak of during weekdays, so we can take out pretty much anything you want,” explained museum curator Hidetoshi Sawayanagi. He was talking to Ogawa, who had come to shoot a selection of artifacts for a future book project by an archeologist friend.

“Some of these dogū I shot a few years ago, but only in black and white,” Ogawa said. “Today I’ll shoot this one, that one and that row at the back.”

A museum assistant began opening the cabinets and transferring the pieces to paper-lined trays.

Ogawa next moved to another room, where four large plastic crates were soon opened to reveal hundreds more of the little dogū creatures — all lined up in rows on beds of tissue paper like oddly shaped chocolates in a box — but prehistoric confections that still keep their roles in long-gone human lives secret from even the most erudite of scholars.

For all the resemblance of many to beings from outer space, though, others are easy to read as depictions of pregnant women, ones giving birth or nursing small children.

Takashi Tsutsumi, chief curator of the Asama Jomon Museum in Nagano Prefecture, who was accompanying Ogawa during his shoot, explained that “the average lifespan of Jomon people was around 30 years, so childbirth and raising children were the central events around which their lives revolved. Naturally, therefore, they made icons symbolizing both fertility and virility.”

Other small clay figurines depict the kinds of animals that Jomon people hunted — wild boar, bears and salmon among them. In dull white boxes, raked by harsh lighting that erases their textures, such objects tend to seem childlike — much like crude lumps of hand-molded clay. But, as soon became apparent when they were photographed from the right angle in proper lighting, they come alive.

“My photographs are often the first introduction that members of the public will have to Jomon objects,” Ogawa said. “So I need to make them dramatic enough for people to sit up and take notice.”

Ogawa was given use of one of the museum’s classrooms, where he had soon arranged a makeshift studio with a practiced hand. Part of that efficiency was thanks to his particularly experienced assistant — his wife, Tomoko. She knows the procedure so well that she can hand him tools before he asks for them, and the large white backdrops she sets up herself.

“It’s the family trade,” she said, smiling as she rigged up a giant sheet of paper which she then unfurled to create a creaseless dogū-size studio.

The first piece to be photographed was a small head, which Ogawa said was from the late Jomon Period. After carefully placing it on the paper he spent several minutes adjusting multiple lights and mirrors to achieve the lighting effect he sought.

Suddenly what had been a small and apparently inconsequential clay lump leapt to life as shade and shadow brought out a proud forehead and ramrod-straight nose.

The second piece was actually two — both halves of a figurine that Ogawa decided he would reassemble for the photograph.

“This was excavated broken like this in two parts, so for the archeologists it is important that it be displayed in that same, broken arrangement. But for me the important thing is to re-create what it was like in real life — not as some dead relic,” he said.

That meant diving into the Ogawa toolbox for a wire frame, which was attached to a wooden baseboard and then bent so as to provide support for the figurine without protruding beyond it.

“I often get the museums to send me diagrams of the objects in advance so I can custom-build these frames beforehand,” he explained.

Ogawa carefully balanced one part of the figurine on the other, leaning them both against the frame. He then pulled back his hands and tapped the desk a few times. The figurine didn’t budge.

“This is the best way to make sure they are not going to fall over,” he said, as he began setting up the lighting again.

Ogawa’s entree into the Jomon world came about by way of an express train and a particularly unusual piece of equipment known as a slit camera.

That was because, back in the early 1980s when he was working as a photographer for news magazines, a friend once asked him for advice on shooting trains for a book project.

“That was in the midst of the so-called blue-train boom, when railways, and in particular JR’s blue express train, were a fad among young children,” Ogawa explained. “I suggested they could photograph an entire train using a slit camera.”

Unlike a normal film camera, that rare piece of equipment has a narrow vertical slit aperture, behind which the film is passed at a steady pace while the shutter is held open. Consequently, if the camera itself or the subject is kept in steady motion as the film rolls through, the entire subject can be captured in one long continuous photograph.

Ogawa’s idea was to capture an entire train in a single image, and then to print it on a snakelike concertina foldout that, he guessed, would thrill legions of young train fans. He was right.

“It really sold quite well,” he confided, chuckling to himself as he unfolded one of the meter-long, 15-cm-high pullouts.

The problem was that after completing that project, Ogawa was left with a slit camera for which he had little use. But then, thinking laterally (after a fashion), his mind went from long things, like trains, to round things, like vases, which could be revolved as the camera took a photo so that their entire perimeter would be captured in a single image.

“At first I tried things like Grecian urns, but I soon found myself drawn to Jomon pottery. The decoration wasn’t uniform, so it seemed to have so much depth,” he said.

In addition to its dogū figurines, Jomon pottery is well known for giant, ornately decorated pots and pitchers. Ogawa soon began experimenting with how to shoot such objects and, to his surprise, he found that the response in archeological circles was extremely positive.

“No one had ever achieved such clear photographs of the full circumference of Jomon pots,” explained Masafumi Ono, an archeologist with the Kofu City Board of Education in Yamanashi Prefecture. “To be able to see the full pattern so clearly really allowed the study of these bowls to progress.”

While Ogawa had initially experimented with placing the object to be photographed on a revolving turntable, it soon became clear such an arrangement gave curators and collectors alike the jitters. He thus created a contraption which allowed the camera to spin around a central, fixed pedestal on which the object to be photographed could be safely placed.

When Ogawa demonstrated this to The Japan Times during a shoot at the Hiraide Museum in Nagano Prefecture it was immediately apparent that its really ingenious feature was not the way the camera spins around the object — but the way the camera, a mirror and a white background board all spin around it, each positioned at the points of an equilateral triangle with the object in the center.

Hence the camera is not pointed at the object itself, but at the object’s reflection in the mirror — a means by which Ogawa can get more distance between his camera and what he’s photographing — so allowing him to fit even large objects into his frame.

The way the background board is set up, too, means it always appears behind the object as they are reflected in the mirror. Meanwhile, also revolving with the camera is the lighting equipment — hence even as the camera and lights revolve around the object, the narrow point that the camera is actually capturing at any one moment is always lit at the same angle.

“As a result, you get shadows of the same length across the entire breadth of the photo,” Ogawa helpfully explained to this somewhat baffled inquirer — adding that the resulting images are invaluable for close study of the object as the depth of each element of decoration is immediately knowable.

The first step in actually shooting a pot with Ogawa’s contraption is to measure it — its height and diameter at its narrowest and widest points. “Basically, the idea is to work out the diameter of the object at the point where the most important motifs are located,” Ogawa explained. “So, I might say that the key diameter is 40 cm. I will then plug that into my computer and it will tell me that if the object is that wide and it is rotating at a certain speed, then the film needs to be sent through the camera at, say, 4 mm or 5 mm per second.

Once the calculations were made, Ogawa transferred the pot to his contraption and adjusted the lighting. Next, after he pushed the shutter-release button, a single photograph was taken as the camera went around the object three times. Ogawa then carefully picked up the large pot and put it on the floor for a museum staffer to return it to its display case. He then set about positioning, lighting and shooting another priceless relic of Japan’s unwritten history.

“Ogawa has probably looked closely at more of these than any academic on the planet,” observed Tsutsumi.

“Not so — but I’ve definitely touched more than any academic,” Ogawa answered with a laugh.

And yet, despite his years of experience with Jomon pottery, Ogawa is wary of wading into arguments over why the objects were made or how they were used.

“To be honest, when I first started doing this I assumed the big pots were for keeping seeds or something like that in them. But when I mentioned that, the academics all laughed — because there was no agriculture in the Jomon Period. It turns out they used these big ungainly pots for cooking!” he said.

Tsutsumi explained further: “The point about the Jomon people was that they were hunter-gatherers — but they were sedentary. They had stone tools so they could cut trees and build houses, and there was enough natural bounty around them — acorns and other plants, wild boar, deer and salmon — that they could more or less remain in the same place. If they were mobile, moving with migrating animals for example, then they wouldn’t have made such decorative pottery — especially nothing as big and heavy as these large pots,” he said.

While the Jomon people do seem to have also domesticated some species of beans and sesame for its seeds, they did not harvest those at any scale. The end of the Jomon Period is in fact demarcated by the emergence of proper farming techniques — probably following the arrival of a new population from mainland China around 2,000 years ago. That influx of new blood also coincides with a marked simplification of the pottery being made as the emphasis seemingly shifted from decoration to utility. As a result, pottery from the subsequent Yayoi Period that roughly spanned 300 B.C. to A.D. 300 is the Modernism to the Jomon Period’s Art Nouveau.

“The arrival of agriculture also meant the birth of the concept of ownership, as food could then be hoarded,” Tsutsumi pointed out, adding that this led to a phenomenon familiar to us all today: conflict.

“If you look at graves from the Yayoi Period, you find skeletons without heads or with severe injuries. Such things are very rare in Jomon Period graves,” Tsutsumi said. “In the Jomon Period they of course had the stress of having to find food every day, but it may have been the last time in history that society in Japan was really peaceful.”

It thus seems likely that the explanation for the wondrous oddity of Jomon Period pottery lies in the geographical, social and environmental conditions of the time, which enabled people to follow a little-changed sedentary hunter-gatherer lifestyle of relative abundance for an unimaginable span of more than 8,000 years.

“That meant that for many many generations they were coexisting in close proximity and in a natural state with the bears, boars, snakes and turtles that you see depicted in their pottery,” Ogawa said. “I think the depth of their relationship with nature is the one thing that really becomes clear as you look closely at these objects.”

Then, after looking closely indeed at a large pot wreathed in a complex snake motif, this remarkable “prehistoric photographer” carefully measured its dimensions and set up his lights. After that, it was really as if each serpentine coil came elegantly to life.

“In contemporary society, of course, we have completely lost that deep connection with nature — you can see that in the damage caused by the (Great East Japan) earthquake and tsunami of two years ago,” he said. “Hopefully, some people will be reminded of that lost connection through my photographs.”

Tadahiro Ogawa’s latest book, “Jomon Bijutsukan (Jomon Art Museum),” was published this year and features more than 500 photographs of Jomon Period artifacts. It is available from museum bookshops, Amazon.co.jp and other outlets. An online translation of the book is also being produced at jomonarts.com.

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