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Features / Photography

Koichi and Takeko: A tale of two grandparents and Japan through the 20th Century

Photography:

Kentaro Takahashi

Before his grandfather died, Kentaro Takahashi thought that photographing his family was almost like cheating. “For me, as a photographer,” he tells It’s Nice That, “I didn’t think it could be a project with legs, because it’s such an easy subject to shoot. But now I understand the interest that you guys have in the series,” he says, referring to his ongoing work, Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi. “I guess it has something that speaks out.”

In Kentaro’s native Japan, the largest and most northerly of its prefectures, Hokkaido, is known for its snow-capped volcanoes, natural hot springs and cool climate. Home to over five million people, the island has a rich cultural history dating back to its indigenous people, known as the Ainu. Pointedly different from the mainland Japanese in both genealogy and culture, Hokkaido was first invaded by its Japanese counterparts in the 9th Century, and ever since, the Ainu have gradually assimilated into the mainstream. As the majority Japanese population increased over the centuries, spreading across the country’s four main islands of Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu, and Hokkaido, the Ainu’s stake on their land further waned while their traditions faded and culture was absorbed.

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

Kentaro’s ancestors were one of these Japanese families, who made their way from the mainland (in this case Fukushima) to Hokkaido in search of work and farmland. Six generations ago, in the latter half of the 1880s, his foremothers and forefathers journeyed north from the eastern prefecture that would later be subject to a devastating nuclear disaster, and made their home in one of Hokkaido’s small but central towns, Pippu. Meaning “place with a lot of swamps,” the rural settlement lies 146 kilometres northeast of Sapporo and is known today for its cascading white ski slopes and blooming summer strawberries.

It is in Pippu that our story really begins. In the late 1940s, husband and wife Takeko and Koichi Takahashi bought a plot of land which would later become a tomato farm. Both born and raised in Pippu, they lived out their lives for the best part of 80 years in pretty much the same way on the farm. At 5am they arose to start work, sowing, growing and harvesting all kinds of tomatoes to be sold wholesale. As each season of the 20th Century rolled by, Japan’s turbulent history unfolded. But Takeko and Koichi could still be found farming their tomatoes, day after day, come rain, war, prosperity or disaster.

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

As Japan occupied several of its neighbouring countries in the 40s, suffered a catastrophic defeat in the Second World War, then experienced an unprecedented economic miracle during the latter half of the century, in turn, the Takahashi’s lives also changed. With the birth of three children – all boys – the family quickly outgrew its small compartment and built a larger, Western-style house in its place during the 1960s.

The couple’s new house reflected the economic growth of the time, a prosperity that would endure up to the end of the Cold War and, in its wake, enable an influx of Western influences to flood Japan’s cultural mainstream. In light of this, Takeko and Koichi’s new house – still inhabited by the family to this day – embodies both East and West. Tatami mat flooring and mahogany furniture fill the rooms in which they cook, clean and get ready for bed. And it is in this provincial vein, that we are first introduced to Takeko and Koichi. Their soft expressions cushioned by nearly 90 years of age, are captured by their grandson Kentaro in an extensive body of work that can only be described as an ode to his elders and the people that came before him.

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

“I was trying to understand how they were living, and of course, trying to talk to about the past,” says Kentaro on why he began photographing his grandparents. Born in Yokohama, a city to the south of Tokyo, Kentaro seldom visited his paternal grandparents on their northerly island, making the journey approximately once every five years during his childhood. He spent his younger years flitting between Japan, Detroit and Toronto, tailing his father’s international career in the steel industry, before settling back in Tokyo, where he went to university and later established himself as a freelance photographer.

From a darkroom in the Japanese capital, eight hours ahead of the UK, Kentaro video calls the It’s Nice That studio. The darkening night fills the laptop screen and his voice, still bearing a heavy North American twang from his years spent abroad, crackles through over the line. Through the fuzzy-edged picture, he proceeds to explain why he became a photographer in the first place, starting with the Tōhoku earthquake in 2011.

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, causing over 15,000 deaths and $360 billion of damages, Kentaro was coming to the end of his time at university studying social sciences. When the disaster struck, he says he “realised how uncertain the world is”. As the effects of the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan’s history unravelled before his eyes, “at that moment, I was consumed by its imagery,” he says. “It made me realise that I should be doing something, that I should be trying to keep the things that I have now.”

After the tsunami, he started volunteering on a revival project, recovering found photographs from the disaster’s victims. Though some of the images were water-stained and damaged, for Kentaro, the project was significant in revealing the gravity of the medium. “That’s when I realised the power of photography and how it can really record things,” he says. “Even after a tsunami comes, you can see the impact on the paper.”

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

Kentaro bought his first digital camera shortly after and began to hone his craft over the following years. He went on to establish himself as a freelance photographer, capturing the cultural zeitgeist for various media outlets. But when his maternal grandfather died in 2017 – a side of the family he had been closer to than Takeko and Koichi’s – he was struck by another troubling thought. “I realised that I hadn’t seen my grandparents in Pippu for such a long time,” he says. And from that moment, “I knew I wanted to take photos of them before they die and I couldn’t do that unless I spent a lot of time with them.” Dedicating the next few years of his life (and counting) to making regular visits to Pippu, Kentaro’s tender series Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi is the culmination of that endeavour.

“Whatever their situation, I just wanted to document my grandparents,” he says. Unstaged, and making the most of Hokkaido’s clear and natural light, the series is imbued with a grandchild’s urgency to record as many memories as possible of his relatives. He recalls the ins and outs of farm life, how he was awoken early every morning as Takeko and Koichi started their day and how, without fail, Koichi religiously went to sleep at 9:30pm. Takeko, however, “always wanted to stay with me until after I went to bed,” Kentaro goes on. “I don’t know. I guess she was trying to have a conversation with me.”

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

Koichi, on the other hand, doesn’t “really speak that much”. His grandson describes him as a “typical Japanese man,” mostly silent unless spoken to and difficult to read emotionally in most instances. But for Kentaro, the silence is anything but a sign of indifference. “For me, he has always lived every day to its fullest.” As a young man, living through a Second World War that is well-rehearsed in every classroom in the UK from a Western perspective, but less so from a Japanese one, Koichi lived in fear of conscription.

When he finally received his conscription notice, he was instructed to join the army on 15 August 1945. Incidentally, that very day, General Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender to the allies and, to Koichi’s relief, he no longer had to go to war. “The people who survived or lived in that era are more serious,” says Kentaro. “More serious towards living. They don’t really complain about anything, they’re just trying to survive.”

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

With a pause, Kentaro considers his grandfather’s position at the time, at an age not dissimilar from his own at present. “The younger generations now, we are not like that,” he concludes. “We have everything we need, but our mindsets are completely different.” Survival no longer hangs on a thread like it did for Koichi. And so individuals seek out other meanings for their more privileged lives.

Through Kentaro’s snapshots on the tomato farm, he captures this generational gap. Their cyclical way of living may appear mundane to some, but each photograph embodies the still tranquility that is desperately craved by those who have lived through experiences of war. Every so often, one of Koichi’s lingering facial expressions, or a snapshot of Takeko mid-hobbled-movement appears. Not only do these images represent the ephemerality of the spur-of-the-moment photography techniques used by Kentaro; they also capture the subjects’ mindset to live each moment to its fullest.

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

When the nuclear bombs landed on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki, “most of the Japanese people did not know it had happened,” Kentaro tells me, relaying his grandfather’s memories. The military and government censored the media, playing down the situation in a kind of “fake news”, attempting to convince the population that “Japan was conquering other nations in a good way”. With a downcast tone, he continues: “So my grandfather was relying on these kinds of media and thought all of that was really happening. But it wasn’t.”

Now 89 years old, last year, the couple celebrated a significant milestone in Japanese culture. Known natively as Beiju or “yone no iwai”, the 88th birthday is an auspicious occasion. In Kanji, the number 88 bears a close resemblance to the word for rice – an old symbol of purity and happiness. To mark the festivities, the celebrants adorn a traditional gold hat known as “zukin” along with a “chanchanko” vest while a great feast is held in honour of the 88-year-old(s).

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

It was, by then, the summer of 2018, and Hokkaido was experiencing an unusually warm summer. On a day like any other – aside from the sweltering heat – Takeko went out onto the farm to start her day’s work. It was late July and Kentaro was back in Tokyo and Koichi in the hospital getting a swollen foot seen to. Out in the fields of the tomato farm, the temperatures soared, reaching over 35 degrees celsius, and an unusually high heat swept over the northerly island.

Despite our somewhat intermittent internet connection, the change in Kentaro’s tone and demeanour as we breach this subject is clear. “It makes me cry, trying to talk about this,” he says, once we get on to the matter of that summer. On the last day of the month, while Koichi was still nursing his foot in the hospital, Takeko collapsed on the farm from heatstroke. “She was found by her neighbours on the same day, luckily. I say ‘luckily’ because Koichi didn’t have to be the one to discover her.” After two rich and fulfilling years of photographing his grandparents, it’s at this point in Kentaro’s series that the tone abruptly changes, with Takeko’s unexpected death.

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

A project that started out as a way to memorialise his elders is, all of a sudden, doing it so much sooner than expected. The photographs are now a reliquary, containing memories of her final years and evidence of her life for those loved ones left behind. Continuing to photograph the aftermath of Takeko’s death – her funeral, her family’s grief and her husband’s life as a widower – Kentaro carries the series forward as both a eulogy to Takeko and as a reminder that Koichi is still there. “I was so lucky to be able to do this,” he says. “I’m grateful that I took these photographs, especially now that she’s passed away and I can’t take photos of her anymore. But it really was the reason why I was taking all of them.”

At the funeral, he showed his photos of Takeko to the rest of his family. Many of the relatives, who never got the chance to experience the tomato farm, for the first time, saw Koichi and Takeko’s lives through their grandson’s lens. He remembers her now in our interview, having reeled off story after story of his time on the farm. Takeko would often say to her grandson: “Put down the camera, you’ve already taken enough photographs of me, you don’t need to take any more.” But he couldn’t stop. And while Kentaro often describes the strict and serious traits of Takeko’s personality, all we can see is the affability and warmth of a grandmother. Kentaro’s photographs hold up a mirror to his own feelings towards his grandparents, projecting a fond love into every frame. It’s a touching series which opens the doors to an intimate familial relationship, allowing us to witness Takeko and Koichi connecting with Kentaro, as much as he describes it happening the other way around.

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi

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Kentaro Takahashi: Tomatoes, a bird, Takeko and Koichi