‘Insta-gran’ Kimiko Nishimoto discovers that it’s never too late to experiment with inventive photography

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

Visitors to an exhibition of photographs in January were treated to a kaleidoscope of images hanging on the walls and from the ceiling.

On one wall hung photographs of onions, mini tomatoes and red peppers that had been sliced into parts and shot against a variety of visually stimulating backdrops.

Photographer Kimiko Nishimoto poses for a self-portrait in front of a family altar at her home in Kumamoto.
Photographer Kimiko Nishimoto poses for a self-portrait in front of a family altar at her home in Kumamoto. | KIMIKO NISHIMOTO

On other walls hung a series of self-portraits that featured an elderly woman captured in an array of jaw-dropping poses: crashing a scooter, flying a broomstick and floating in midair like a ghost.

This is the wonderful world of 89-year-old amateur photographer Kimiko Nishimoto. And those who took time to visit Nishimoto’s “Asobokane?” (“Shall We Play?”) exhibition at the Epson Imaging Gallery Epsite in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward were given an insight into the way she shoots photographs.

Many were impressed by Nishimoto’s artistic ability, acknowledging that she appears a lot more talented than the wacky selfies she has become famous for. But that didn’t stop these same folk chuckling as they moved on to the section of the exhibition that features her self-portraits.

One elderly visitor in particular expressed genuine surprise when she saw Nishimoto floating in front of a family altar.

“I just want to do something funny,” Nishimoto says with a smile during an interview with The Japan Times in Tokyo last month. “As far as I’m concerned, life is all about being playful. I look around my house and am always finding fun things to photograph.”

For more than 45 years, Nishimoto was a homemaker. She married a tax official when she was in her 20s and raised three children in the Kyushu region.

Her son Kazutami says that she wasn’t particularly funny over this period of time either.

However, her whole life changed at the age of 72 when she discovered the world of photography.

One of Nishimoto’s friends invited her to join an amateur class at Yubijuku, a photography school run by Kazutami.

Nishimoto had never touched a camera before and her first impression was that the equipment was heavy.

At first, Nishimoto simply followed her teacher’s instructions but it wasn’t long before she found herself having fun with the cameras.

“I love the sound of a shutter clicking,” Nishimoto says. “Cameras have opened a window to another world for me. It would be boring just sitting around the house all day.”

The self-portraits that garnered domestic and international attention were originally a homework assignment from her teacher.

Kimiko Nishimoto poses for a self-portrait at her home in Kumamoto.
Kimiko Nishimoto poses for a self-portrait at her home in Kumamoto. | KIMIKO NISHIMOTO

A quick glance at her self-portraits and it’s easy to forget that Nishimoto is 89. One self-portrait shows her racing alongside a moving car with her walker; another captures her downing four large cans of beer.

The reality, however, is far simpler. Nishimoto has stooped posture and can’t leave the house without her walker.

However, she is constantly looking for new ideas despite her advanced age and physical constraints. Once she is inspired by something, she sets up a tripod and takes self-portraits using a remote control.

One self-portrait shows a pained Nishimoto sitting inside a trash bag that says “household burnable garbage.”

“Why did I do it? I saw the garbage bag filled with trash and figured I might as well be trash too because I am old,” Nishimoto says with a laugh before emphasizing that she’s only talking about herself and not elderly people in general. “I just love humor.”

Nishimoto finds it hard to capture the perfect expression in a self-portrait.

Kimiko Nishimoto poses for a photo in Tokyo
Kimiko Nishimoto poses for a photo in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward. | ELLE HARRIS

“It’s easy to smile or laugh at the camera but the other expressions are difficult to re-create because you’re not really feeling any pain or distress,” Nishimoto says. “It’s hard to replicate an expression in a self-portrait, harder still when I’m doing this on my own without any direction.”

Nishimoto uses photography as a way to exercise, walking around her home while looking for inspiration. She can’t travel far, though, and Kazutami has set up a mini studio in her home.

Nishimoto draws inspiration from what she sees in front of her. A glass of ice coffee might have an interesting shape, and so Nishimoto would move close to the object and ask it questions such as “Do you have any sugar in you?” and “Are you sweet?”

Photographer Kimiko Nishimoto features more traditional subjects such as persimmon (
Photographer Kimiko Nishimoto features more traditional subjects such as persimmon (‘San Kyodai,’ or ‘Three Brothers’) in her wider portfolio. | KIMIKO NISHIMOTO

“I just say what is on my mind when I look at an object,” Nishimoto says. “Even if two people are looking at the same object, each individual’s emotional reaction is completely different. To me, photography is all about capturing an object in that moment.”

Through her son’s photography sessions, Nishimoto has also learned how to use Photoshop to manipulate the images. As a result, she is able to successfully turn everyday objects into creative pieces of colorful art.

Kazutami founded Yubijuku in Kumamoto 20 years ago in order to offer professional photography courses that teach skills pertaining to fashion portraiture.

He launched an amateur class that his mother would eventually attend and now, more than 20 years later, he offers regular and stand-alone classes in other parts of Japan, including Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka.

Yubijuku has students of all ages.

“I didn’t really even think about my mother’s age when she joined my class,” Kazutami says. “Photography has no age limit.”

Kazutami prefers not to teach advanced photography techniques at Yubijuku but, instead, primarily focus on how to coax originality out of his students by teaching them how to think outside the box.

“Yubi” is written in kanji using the characters for “play” and “beauty.” Both values are fundamental to photography, he says.

Photographer Kimiko Nishimoto features more traditional subjects such as fake flowers (
Photographer Kimiko Nishimoto features more traditional subjects such as fake flowers (‘Tamago,’ or ‘Egg’) in her wider portfolio. | KIMIKO NISHIMOTO

“There are no rules in art,” Kazutami says. “Photography is all about playfulness and it is my job to help my students open the doors to their creativity.”

And that sentiment sums up the fundamental motto his mother lives by. That said, even Kazutami says he was surprised at his mother’s self-portraits.

“I never would’ve thought she’d take it this far,” Kazutami says.

While Nishimoto and her son both downplay her abilities, she has actually lived quite an extraordinary life.

Nishimoto was born in 1928 in Brazil, where her parents taught agriculture to locals. The second daughter of seven siblings, Nishimoto returned to Japan when she was 8 years old and has been living mostly in Kumamoto ever since.

After graduating from a beauty school, her father opened a salon for her on their property. For about four years, she and a friend worked as hairdressers, specializing in bridal and Japanese coiffure.

Being in her early 20s at the time, however, Nishimoto grew bored at being at home all the time. And so she decided to follow the path of her two younger brothers and attend a cycling school to get a license to compete.

“I wanted to see the outside world,” Nishimoto says. “My two brothers were competitive cyclists and I thought it would be fun to travel around Japan and compete in the same way as they were doing.”

For several years, Nishimoto traveled around Japan with her brothers to compete professionally. However, she then met her husband after he visited her father’s house to assess the family’s tax payments.

An untitled photo by Kimiko Nishimoto.
An untitled photo by Kimiko Nishimoto. | KIMIKO NISHIMOTO

Nishimoto was forced to quit professional cycling once they married and to this day avoids watching races on TV because she is afraid it could make her want to ride again.

“I did miss competitive racing a little at first but cycling is a pretty dangerous sport. I actually broke my collar bone a few times,” Nishimoto says. “It wasn’t that I loved the thrill of speed, it was just a matter of being fast enough to keep winning.”

Soon after her marriage, she became pregnant with Kazutami and became a dedicated mother and homemaker.

Together, Nishimoto and her husband, Hitoshi, had three children. Nishimoto now has three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Hitoshi, who passed away in 2012, was the silent type who never interfered with anything she did, Nishimoto recalls.

Nishimoto took Hitoshi’s camera to her first Yubijuku class and, although her husband never said anything, he subsequently bought her new cameras, tripods and other equipment. He was also a regular presence at her exhibitions.

Nishimoto was 81 when her husband was diagnosed with lung cancer. On the occasions when he stayed overnight in the hospital, she would stay with him. Realizing she had too much time on her hands, she started to bring her camera with her and began shooting self-portraits in their room.

‘While You Still Have Time’ features two goldfish Nishimoto photographed in the hospital where her husband was being treated. | KIMIKO NISHIMOTO

Her husband was in and out of the hospital for three or four years before finally passing.

It was something of a dark period for Nishimoto. She didn’t feel like doing anything and didn’t even think about touching her camera for a while.

It was her camera, however, that eventually brought joy back into her life.

“My husband was a kind man and I found it hard to cope after his death,” Nishimoto says. “However, my camera saved me. I’ve met a number of people through photography and so many people, including my family and friends, have always been there for me. I realize that I’m not alone.”

It’s this sentiment that led her to publish a photobook titled “Hitorija-nakayo” (“You Are Not Alone”) in 2016 via Asuka Shinsha Inc.

The book contains a collection of her digital art photography and self-portraits with messages written by Nishimoto describing her thoughts as she photographed the objects or landscape.

To this day, Nishimoto still attends her son’s classes. She also admits to enjoying a tipple of bourbon every now and again.

“I am bad, I go out at night a lot,” she says, breaking out in a fit of laughter and covering her mouth with both hands. “But don’t worry, I never go out alone. (Kazutami) is always with me.”

Nishimoto turns 90 this year, and she plans to continue taking photographs for as long as she can.

“If I ever become bedridden, I will continue to take photos lying down — even if it only means photographing the ceiling,” she says, adding that she has already taken some pretty interesting shots of spiders in her house. “I will never let go of my camera.”

Photographer Kimiko Nishimoto poses for a self-portrait.
Photographer Kimiko Nishimoto poses for a self-portrait. | KIMIKO NISHIMOTO