As a freelance photo journalist, Munesuke Yamamoto has witnessed numerous deaths in war zones around the world, but he is now focusing on the living, specifically elderly people in Japan.
“I have realized I cannot depict a death without knowing about how he or she lived and how precious a life is,” Yamamoto, 53, said, referring to his new photo collection, “See You Tomorrow — Scenes of Old Age in the Japanese Archipelago.”
The collection has about 80 photos taken during the last seven years of people aged between around 70 and 100.
They include women gambling at cards with 1 yen coins, a fisherman praying toward the sea on his boat after fishing, and a terminally ill cancer patient who chose to spend her last days at home instead of in a hospital.
A photo shows the patient 10 days before her death plucking an apple from a branch that had been brought into her bedroom by a nurse, and her smelling it on her bed.
“I did all I could to bring the camera into focus so I would not fail to record this memorable scene,” Yamamoto said.
An indigenous Ainu elder in Hokkaido is presented as a preserver of the Ainu language and folklore.
After the elder’s death at 92 in 2002, he was buried according to Ainu tradition, but the sound of explosions and shots coming from nearby Ground Self-Defense Force drills could be heard at his tomb.
“I felt as if I were at a conflict site somewhere in Asia,” Yamamoto said. “The sounds deprive the Ainu of their eternal sleep and their mother Earth.”
Comments by the subjects accompany their photos.
A man who contracted Hansen’s disease in Singapore during World War II remembers when he was placed in quarantine in the jungle, saying, “I heard someone say they should shoot me dead rather than allow me to return to Japan.”
An Okinawan woman who lost 16 family members during the war was quoted as saying, “I cared for seven of them on their deathbeds, but I could not do so for the remaining nine.
“Japan will never wage war under Article 9 of the Constitution. I can understand that, even though I am not academically equipped,” she added.
Yamamoto said, “I was attracted by their comments, and I have continued shooting pictures of them so I can hear their words, having lived through what they did.”
The photographic subject closest to Yamamoto is his 86-year-old mother, who lives alone in a mountainous village in Nagano Prefecture.
“I don’t want to live any more if I cannot move my body as I want,” he quoted his mother as saying in the photo collection.
She felt a bit feeble when she outlived her 49-year-old oldest son five years ago, he noted in the collection.
“But she told me after displaying dolls for Girls’ Festival, ‘I’m now thinking of living up to 88.’
“Although my mother has forgotten that I took her photos, she is planning how to cultivate her fields next year,” he said.
“She wants me to take a good photo for her funeral, but she also wants me to take her photos when she celebrates her 88th birthday.”
She has lived through difficult times, losing her first husband in the war, he said.
Yamamoto tried to express her life in the photos as he did when he shot pictures of other elderly people.
“It is important to be aware of the delight, anger, sorrow and pleasure of elderly people and how they are leading active lives prior to their deaths,” he said.
“People tend to have negative images of getting old,” said Ayako Deguchi, who edited the photo collection at Tokyo publisher Artone Co. “But I expect them to see bright aspects of elderly people in this collection.”
Yamamoto is known for his coverage mainly of Asia, including Myanmar and the Philippines. He conducted four interviews with Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
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