An extreme close-up shot capturing a delicate sakura cherry blossom clothed in white floating on a tranquil surface of water won the Prince Takamado Memorial Prize in this year’s version of the Japan Through Diplomats’ Eyes annual photo competition.
Without gaudy hue embellishing the bloom, the transparent petals and upstanding pistils still beam with exquisite radiance, embodying tenacity, evanescence, humility and unsulliedness. The forced magnification of the photo, taken by Timothy James R. Mortel, the spouse of a diplomat in the Philippines Embassy, evokes an intensified feeling of serenity.
The theme of the 21st contest presenting photographs taken by the Tokyo diplomatic corps and their families that offer kaleidoscopic perspectives of Japan was “Meiji 150 years Japan Transforming,” as 2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration.
“Despite it had been knocked off by wind or rain, it nevertheless stands elegantly, and resembles the contemporary Japan,” said Mortel, explaining his work “Sakura on the Pond.” “Though (Japan) has experienced various political and natural hardships, it becomes stronger at the broken place.”
The memorial award, the top prize in the competition, was set up in tribute to Prince Takamado, an avid photographer who passed away in 2002.
Princess Hisako, his widow and the contest’s honorary president, presented the prize during the exhibition’s opening on Oct. 10 at the Roppongi Hills complex in Tokyo. She said the quality of the photos submitted have gotten better each year.
“It has become more difficult for the judging side to choose which photos should receive the prizes,” the princess said. “The exhibition enables the diplomats to reach out to the people of Japan. We hope more diplomats and their families will participate in the years to come.”
The Grand Prize went to Jana Ontkova, the spouse of Daniel Ontko, until recently the first secretary at the Slovak Embassy, for her photo titled “Harmony of tradition with the mobile,” featuring a woman in a kimono waiting in front of a cafe casually checking a smartphone.
Ontkova explained that although she has been disturbed by the fact that society has become increasingly smartphone-obsessed and trivializes the significance of face-to-face interactions, “this lady in the traditional Japanese attire holding the smartphone displays a spectacle of a perfect intertwinement between the past and the present.”
Ontko meanwhile was awarded the Special Mention Award by the jury for his photos titled “Discovery of the Beauties of Japan” and “Amazing PHOTO — says Monk” taken in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, and Jokeiji Temple in Kawasaki, respectively.
He completed his second diplomatic mission to Japan in August, so he and his wife came back to Tokyo for the exhibition’s opening ceremony.
Ontko said returning to Japan evoked vivid, nostalgic memories. “A proverb in Slovakia says that first love in men’s life is the old times,” he said. “For me and my wife, the memory of good old days in Japan is our first love.”
The couple admire the symbiosis of Japan’s traditions and modernity. “In Japan, it is amazing that the old and modern never clash,” said Ontko.
“The world keeps transforming, but the beautiful traditions and core values that we hold dearly should always be preserved,” added Ontkova.
Jaime Barberis, the ambassador from Ecuador, was awarded the Ambassador Prize for his shot featuring a mother gazing at a child in her arms against a background of an illuminated cross, taken inside a full-scale replica of Tadao Ando’s iconic Church of Light.
“She was there as if she waited for me to capture it,” explained Barberis.
“It was difficult for me to assign a title to it,” he said. “I eventually named it ‘Mother and Child’ because it cannot only be interpreted as an allusion to Christianity and an integration of the East with West, but also leave to audiences’ own imagination.”
The jury presented the Special Mention Award to four other contestants: Kantaya Nimpijarn, the wife of a diplomat in the Singaporean Embassy; Ziaul Abedin, the counsellor of the Bangladeshi Embassy; Asta Zaveckiene, third secretary in the Lithuanian Embassy; and Svitlana Tukhtaieva, ambassador assistant in the Ukrainian Embassy.
“I interpreted ‘Japan Transforming’ as a continuity of changes,” said Nimpijarn, who won the prize for photographs she took in Yokohama and Otaru, Hokkaido. “I took this picture of the present-day port of Yokohama, the first international port in Japan that propelled modernization, in the hope that Japan can evolve and progress further.”
Abedin, whose photo captures a contorted face of a man carrying a mikoshi (portable shrine), said: “This man might go back to the office next day like a city man, but during the time of the festival he devotes himself fully to the tradition that have been passed down across generations.
“There are two facets of transformation, physical and spiritual — despite the physical modernization since the Meiji Restoration, it has not led to the spiritual decadence of Japan,” Abedin said.
The exhibition, which presents a collection of photos taken by 67 participants from 45 countries, is running at Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, from Wednesday to Nov. 11, followed by Hyogo International Plaza in Kobe from Nov. 27 to Jan. 10, Central Gallery in Nagoya from Jan. 16 to 22 and Higashikawa Bunka Gallery in Hokkaido next September.
The contest was initiated in 1998 by former Luxembourg Ambassador Pierre Gramegna, who believed that diplomats with broad experience in different countries had the ability to show Japan in a new perspective.