HESO Magazine

Photography, Music, Film, Hitchhiking, Craft Beer – Cultural Pugilist

Category: Environment (Page 3 of 6)

Okochi Sanso Villa

Okochi Sanso Villa

The former villa of the silent actor Denjirō Ōkōchi (大河内 傳次郎 — 1896-1962)–most famous for starring in Akira Kurosawa`s Sanshiro Sugata, among many others and at his peak, was one of the top jidaigeki stars–lies lost in the back of Arashiyama’s bamboo groves. Called Ōkōchi Sansō (meaning Ōkōchi mountain villa) Ōkōchi’s estate consists of several ornate gardens, living quarters and tea houses, all lost along a narrow path that winds circuitously through natural settings that appear wild, yet are meticulously kept by a regular team of professional landscapers. This is near the apex of the Japanese gardener trope–the private sector of gardening versus the Emperor’s gardeners… If you`re looking for an escape from the masses of tourists wandering around the backstreets of Tenryuji Zen Buddhist Shrine, the villa`s immaculately manicured gardens could be the middle way for you.

Okochi Sanso Villa

Okochi Sanso Villa

Okochi Sanso Villa Observation Platform Overlooking Kyoto

On humid summer days when the crowds are at a maximum and every corner of the shaded bamboo path are fraught with screams, follow the call of the cicada up the wide path into the deeper shade. It looks private on purpose, to drive away the tourist hordes. There always seems to be a work truck parked out front and the confusing entrance (located around a bend) is not altogether inviting. The 1000 cost of admission is high enough to keep the kids out and allows for the expanse of Mt. Ogura to open up and swallow you whole. Just behind Tenryūji Temple and Sagano Chikurin Komichi bamboo groves in Ukyō-ku, Kyoto, wandering through the ornate gardens will provide snatches of Mt. Hiei and the Hozu River gorge. Taking a moment out at the Okochi Sanso Villa Observation Platform overlooking the hustle of downtown Kyoto gives one perspective on the tranquility of the scene. Taking your time and strolling without desire increases the profound sense of benevolence that shrouds you in. Relaxing in the lower garden with the matcha and a sweet snack, done properly, will perhaps provide a memory of meditating monks from the collective unconscious to arise and permeate the day.

The Japanese government declared Daijōkaku (the main house), the Jibutsudō (a Buddhist shrine), the Chashitsu (tea house), and the Chūmon (the middle gate) as tangible cultural properties (tōroku yūkei bunkazai) in 2003. A particular highlight is getting there via the special Sagano Scenic Railway at Torokko Arashima Station. Although the closest station is Arashiyama on the Keifuku Electric Railroad Arashiyama Main Line, this sojourn is not about convenience or getting in and out. It is about the journey itself.

The 1000 yen admission includes matcha green tea and an odd little snack. Open from 9:00 to 17:00.

The Bamboo Groves of Arashiyama

The Bamboo Groves of Arashiyama

The Bamboo Groves of Arashiyama

Chikurin no Komichi – Sunlight Sneaks Through the Canopy along the path of Bamboo Groves in Arashiyama

In the western part of Kyoto along the Katsura river lies a heavily templed area known as Arashiyama. Most famous of all the beautiful century old wooden structures in Arashiyama is the Tenryu-ji Temple complex. Tenryu-ji Temple (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), head temple of the Tenryu-ji Rinzai Zen sect, was built in 1339 by Takauji Ashikaga (1305-1358), the first Ashikaga shogun. At its peak, Tenryu-ji Temple ranked as the largest Zen monastery in western Japan, with 120 sub-temples. The temple’s exquisite pond garden dates back to the Heian period and the garden itself is the work of Muso Soseki (1275-1351), one of the most respected Zen monks of the 14th century. Just outside the northern gate of the temple is Arashiyama’s famous bamboo forest path–Chikurin no Komichi.

The Bamboo Groves of Arashiyama

The Bamboo Groves of Arashiyama

Protected by Soft Brown Layerings, Fresh Shoots Strike Through the Grove Floor

Depending on the weather and time of day the light and shadow along this serene 200-meter path in concert with the wind flowing through the canopy will transport you to a meditative world of centuries past–a world without phones, cars and trains where walking through the grove was a regular zen meditative practice.

Easy enough to find after contemplating Soseki’s garden mirroring the surrounding mountainous landscape, the bamboo grove offers another treasure: the former estate of Denjiro Okochi (1898-1962), Japan’s most famous silent film star. Known as Ōkōchi Sansō, the spiral garden and teahouse complex houses a wondrous history worth exploring (entry includes a fine ceramic bowl of whipped green tea). The views from the seat of Ōkōchi Sansō, Mt. Ogura, has been talked about in classical poetry since Heian times.

Assuming you find, enter and tea party it up at Ōkōchi Sansō (participating in the tea ceremony is integral to the zen experience), following the bamboo forest path back to the diminutive Nonomiya Shrine (you passed it on the way up) should prove another small feat. Listen to the wind rustling through the bamboo leaves and picture Lady Murasaki’s 11th century classic Tale of Genji. The petite size of Nonomiya Shrine–where much like in the novel, generations of imperial princesses once spent a year undergoing purification rites before moving on to the sacred heart of Japanese Shintoism, Ise Grand Shrine–makes one wonder where they all were purified.

Having completed the western leg of your journey into the zen heart of Kyoto, it’s perfectly acceptable to stop by one of the many riverside restaurants and get meditative with a few draught beer.

Hunting Shiitake Mushrooms

The Kiruna underground iron mines should be appreciated and (un)known as a place of many tours and detours. They hide many treasures. Though in fact, to be honest, they do not. They hide iron ore, a bit of copper and probably a lot of unworthy stones of assorted kinds. That is exactly what they hide. Period. Actually, to be fully exhaustive, they do hide a little bit of something noteworthy. Shiitake mushrooms. Of all things…

I guess that will require a bit of explanation.

Hunting Shiitake Mushrooms

Inside the Iron Mine of Kiruna to hunt Shiitake mushrooms

First of all, what the hell was I doing in Kiruna? It is very far north. Well, basically that is why (the hell, yes) I was up there, because it is way up there. With an almost-full moon, close to the shortest day of the year, that being late December, and minus twenty-five degrees—that is in the grade of Celsius, the proper one, do not get me started on Fahrenheit’s stupid one—you can make for an enjoyable little adventure. Mine included some good food, some trips to the bar, some hikes resulting in frozen beard and some other excursions. One excursion took me to the Norwegian harbor town of Narvik by train, wonderful landscape and nice company. Another one took me down the famous iron mines. The normal way to do so is by following an organized tour. Touristy stuff. However, through some mingling, I got a private tour down there, given by a retired miner, retired mining consultant, former first-generation-computer-hacker, almost retired underground shiitake mushroom farmer. Yes. Underground shiitake mushroom farmer. He was a man in his late sixties probably, one that can easily be imagined finishing his sentences by “jolly good, old chap!” He went by the name of Sven.

Second of all, let me enlighten the (few, no doubt) people who are not familiar with the shiitake mushrooms. They are considered, and rightly so, a delicacy and can be found in various dietetic shops, and are an ingredient of traditional medicine, especially in Asia. In Japan one could get them on the trunks of some specific sort of oak trees, apparently the favourite host for the mushrooms, allegedly under guard from legions of armed-to-the-teeth samurai, given that it constituted food very much appreciated by the high classes of society. But one cannot rely on samurai and special oak trees nowadays and recently some science has been put into trying to make its culture more proficient.

One has to play music to the mushrooms, they like that. Click To Tweet

The current process does not involve samurai, but some nifty techniques, engineering almost. The mycelium of the shiitake is inserted into a log of compressed wood chips of some specific variety of alder tree (mycelium is the shiitake to be exact, what we eat is the fruit of the mushroom—I’ve always wondered by the way why someone at some point started to eat mushrooms, I can imagine sentences such as: “you should try these things, when they do not kill you they are pretty tasty…” which is truly mysterious if not totally insane, if you ask me). The miming done by Sven seemed to imply that said-injection is to be done by means of a syringe. These logs are sterilized before the injection in order to reduce the growth of other competing mushrooms and also reduce the fighting for supremacy over the pieces of compressed chips, and of course remove undesirable diseases. The logs are then packaged in plastic and stored.

I was introduced to these logs somewhere around 540m under ground, somewhere hidden inside the Kiruna iron mines, one of the biggest underground mines in the world. I could give you a full report on how and why and what of the production of iron (later to be transported as beads by train to the very same harbor of Narvik where I was just a day before) as the man explained it all, together with the history of the place, but this is not the time.

Hunting Shiitake Mushrooms

Hunting Shiitake Mushrooms

Sven showing off his Shiitake mushrooms

Our mushroom man, being a former hacker and responsible for computer security (i.e. try to get the computers not to be destroyed by moisture and that sort of things, no Internet security here) chose a particular room, nay, bunker almost, to start his farm. He got that idea after visiting some town in northern Japan, on a mission dealing with sharing information and skills on how to run a iron mine, the Japanese apparently were eager to know about the Swedish way of doing things. Interestingly, in that same trip to Japan, there was one guy in the Swedish delegation who later would become known for making ice hotels and ice bars, popular touristy things. Shiitake farm, ice hotel, this was one innovative inspiring trip indeed!

The mushrooms’…er…room is of reasonable size, controlled in temperature and in moisture and with radio playing constantly. One has to play music to the mushrooms, they like that. When Sven receives an order, he transfers the logs from the storage room to the, er, growing room. Then he plays them, like a flute, or a tambourine. Maybe he is a fan of Bob Dylan. Or of Eddy Van Halen’s famous tapping guitar technique. By inducing vibration inside the log one starts the process of growing. It is then rather important not to go around kicking the shelves if one does not want to have mushrooms sprouting all over the place. It is an art. Within one week after the playing, or tapping, the mushroom’s fruits are ready to be harvested, cut one by one and then packed in paper bags. Sven did have two logs ready at the time of the visit. That gave maybe 300 grams of shiitake. Courtesy of the house!

Crumble the mushrooms if they are dried or crush them without care if they are fresh. Do whatever you want (preferably with your bare hands, I love that smell lingering on them afterward), Click To Tweet

The little piece of paper he gave as a souvenir comes with a Shiitake soup recipe (for six people), translated here from French (probably originally translated from Swedish. I do not speak Swedish, I can guess what’s going on when I have engorged enough akvavit and if the person speaking to me is from the fair sex (but is there one sex affair which is fair, honestly?) and true to the Scandinavian standards. I allow myself this little digression because our man insisted that one should make sure to have a lady “handy” when eating his mushrooms. That and also that said-lady should clear her scheduling around nine months from the date of the diner. If you catch my/his drift. Wink wink. He was full of anecdotal stories and examples of babies appearing here and there after the ingestion of said mushroom):

10g of dried or 100g of fresh shiitake mushrooms
1 or 2 stock cubes of meat stuff (or other flavour if you are a vegetarian)
1L of boiling water
2.5dL of crême fraîche
1 small onion, minced

Crumble the mushrooms if they are dried or crush them without care if they are fresh. Do whatever you want (preferably with your bare hands, I love that smell lingering on them afterward), but be sure they will be able to mix in the liquid dammit! Throw them with the cubes in boiling water. Add the minced onion and let the mixture boil nicely for twenty minutes (half an hour if the mushrooms were dried ones). Add the cream, and stir until the consistency is satisfying. Spice it up with a bit of salt and white pepper. Top it with a bit of parsley before serving.

I did not feel like having soup even if it was suitably cold and snowy outside so I decided to just fry the mushrooms in a pan, with butter and some noix de muscade (but just a little, this being powerful stuff). Then I added a bit of water and some liquid cream to make a sauce for some pasta. Plain and simple. The mushrooms had a hard time in the returning trip planes: Kiruna-Stockholm then Stockholm-Copenhagen, quite a long trip with wind, snow and such. They were not very pretty when I pulled them out of the paper bag. But as soon as they started to make funny noises in the pan, then the smell became quite wonderful. And tasty. They went well with a bottle of 2000 Haut-Medoc (it was time to drink that one, Medoc is not a vin de garde, at all) and a bit of grated Parmigiano. The invited lady has been requested to keep her schedule empty until to August next year. One never knows…

Absurd Figure Yukio Mishima - HESO Magazine

Send In The Clowns – Absurdity and the Japanese Radical – Part 2

Absurd Figure Yukio Mishima - HESO Magazine

Yukio Mishima: Absurd Figure or Revolutionary Writer?


Japanese radicalism and the absurd was certainly not only the preserve of the Left. Yukio Mishima was the most famous living Japanese writer in the Fifties and Sixties, even better known than the older Yasunari Kawabata, who ultimately nipped him to the coveted Nobel Prize. But Mishima wore many masks. He was a novelist, a playwright, an actor, a dandy, a narcissist, a homosexual. And also an ultranationalist hated both by the student radicals of the time, as well as the more straightforward rightists, whose own simplistic branch of patriotism did not match with Mishima’s esoteric ideals. Mishima, believing that a left-wing revolution was imminent in the chaos of the anti-war riots and campus struggles, started a private army with the help of his elite network. While radicals were turning Shinjuku and Haneda into battlefields of Molotov cocktails, Mishima and his Tatenokai group were training in the countryside for an event that Mishima planned meticulously but kept secret from everyone.

In November 1970 Mishima went to the Ichigaya headquarters of the Japanese Self-Defense Force with four trusted members of the Tatenokai, including the much younger Masakatsu Morita. Morita and Mishima were enamored with each other, though it remains to be proved that they were actual lovers. The plan was to initiate a coup, to incite the SDF to rise up and restore the Emperor to full power. Needless to say, this was an utterly preposterous idea and Mishima must certainly have known it. It was not an attempt at revolution so much as an empty sign, a ritualistic gesture expressing Mishima’s warped ideals of beauty, heroism and sincerity. At first everything went like clockwork. They took a senior commander hostage in his office, blocked the door and demanded the soldiers gather in the courtyard below. Then Mishima stepped out onto the balcony to give what was expected to be a remarkable, valedictory exhortation.

No one was listening. The soldiers jeered. A police helicopter hovered overhead. His passionate and long-prepared speech was drowned out. Cutting it short, he then stepped back inside to cut himself open. Naturally, seppuku was the perfect means for Mishima to complete his gesture and naturally, the kaishaku – the beheading that is meant to end the suffering of the seppuku as quickly as possible — was to be performed by Morita. Again, they had prepared rigorously, even blocking their colons with cotton in case their bowels evacuated during the process. But the best laid plans of Mishima and Morita went very much awry. The former conducted himself splendidly, plunging the blade deep into his side. However, the pain was too immense and he could not write the customary calligraphy as he’d hoped. Mishima writhed in torment as Morita raised his sword to terminate the would-be revolutionary’s life. But he was no swordsman. Depending on the account he took at least two or three strokes yet Mishima’s head was obstinately still very much attached to his neck. It was left to another of the gang to fully decapitate Mishima and then also just as swiftly dispatch Morita, who was said to have barely penetrated his body when he performed his own “seppuku”.

Many of the activities of right-wing and ultranationalist activities are performative – done to be seen and heard as much as with expectation of real political influence – and the charging, blaring caravans of their black trucks that regularly race through Tokyo are still chilling, even if the locals are not paying attention. Occasionally they commit shocking acts of violence. In 1960, Inejirō Asanuma, chairman of the Japan Socialist Party, was stabbed and killed live on television by a teenage zealot while he was giving a speech. And in 1990, Hitoshi Motoshima, then Mayor of Nagasaki, was shot in the back for daring to suggest that Emperor Hirohito bore some responsibility for the atomic bombings. Violent confrontations and attacks still happen today.

Tokyo Emmanuelle - HESO Magazine

Did Maeno get his Kamikaze idea from Tokyo Emmanuelle, in which he makes love to the lead actress while flying a plane?

But it is the absurd that seems to capture the imagination, to loiter in the memory. Yoshio Kodama, the shadowy figure from the wartime generation of old-school rightists who moved easily between the ranks of the Yakuza and the ultra-nationalist sphere, was implicated in the Lockheed scandal in the Seventies. The American aircraft manufacturer had paid out large “consultancy” fees to secure contracts and Kodama was hired to help put pressure on All Nippon Airways to accept the deal with them. It was later commonly believed that the Prime Minister at the time, Kakuei Tanaka, also benefited from bribes. But Kodama was not just corrupt; he was also a tax-dodger and this was what infuriated one particular nationalist, a minor porn actor called Mitsuyasu Maeno.

Maeno hired a plane from an airport just outside Tokyo. Perhaps the rental staff should have been worried when he arrived in the uniform of a kamikaze pilot. Taking off he soon enough turned the plane towards his destination – Kodama’s house in Setagaya. In what is surely the most eccentric assassination attempt of a public personality in Japanese history, Maeno flew the plane suicidally straight into Kodama’s home with commendable accuracy. Unfortunately for the porn star, though, the elderly Kodama emerged miraculously unscathed.


In the same way that, in contrast to European courts, the Japanese Shogunate and Imperial palace was devoid of jesters, contemporary Japanese television or mainstream comedy lacks any real alternative performers or “edgy” talent. But is that role being filled by high-profile pranksters like the art unit Chim Pom?

From the schoolboy “humour” of their name – a penile reference, just in case you missed it – to the provocative stunts like drawing comic book explosions in the skies of Hiroshima, they have offended and amused in at least equal measure. Their “dangerous” videos made in the Fukushima exclusion zone immediately after the nuclear disaster and their addition to Taro Okamoto’s The Myth of Tomorrow mural generated a vast amount of hype. There are problems here. Chim Pom are a commercial enterprise, a mini factory of “controversy” issuing art events, fashion collaborations, books and merchandise. Their work has been claimed to be anti-art world, anti-consumerist, to be gleefully subversive – but all I see are formats that work within or even prop up the status quo. Their stunts are clearly publicity campaigns, regardless of whether you feel their work has artistic merit (the jury is decidedly out on that). The press coverage of their Fukushima exhibition translated into a major show at Parco and their bandwagon is not slowing down any time soon. Being tongue-in-cheek but actually fully located in the mainstream is perfectly acceptable as well, but no one can claim you are then the Fool to the zeitgeist’s Lear.


It would be fatuous, not to mention tasteless, to try to use a neat trope to tie up all the gaudy panoply of postwar Japanese extremism. There is nothing absurd or ironic in the death of Michiko Kamba, crushed by police during the 1960 Anpo protests, or that of Hiroaki Yamazaki, like Kamba a student and still a teenager, who was killed by a vehicle – which may or may not have been driven by fellow protestors or police – at tumultuous protests at Haneda Airport in 1967. In 1972, the Asama-Sansō incident shocked the nation when New Left revolutionary terrorists massacred each other in the mountains before taking a hostage in a lodge and killing two police officers in the resulting siege. The event remains chilling today, even in these hardened post-9/11 times.

Jean Baudrillard was similarly criticized for his lack of humanity, for just being too pat with his theorizing, when he applied a post-modernist reading to the first Gulf War. People were in fact dying while he claimed the war was not real; it was hyper-real, a war for television, for image, like a simulacrum of war (or a war-game). It “did not take place” in the words of his book title. But only the bourgeois armchair intellectual has the daring and arrogance to throw out such pithy truisms.

While much of the Japanese right-wing extremists are more ridiculous than absurd, you mock them at your peril, as many have found out. Perhaps then it is that the extremism is more shocking precisely for its weirdness. Fanaticism is impenetrable and frequently risible, but its total obliviousness to how it appears to outsiders can make the violent actions then even more horrific. Shōkō Asahara, levitator, visionary and leader of the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyō, between plotting the murder of 13 people with sarin gas on the Tokyo subway in 1995, also found time to record songs and appear in a very jolly promotional anime. One of the former is a kind of peculiar “counting song” including the line “I did not do it”, which is really the most untruthful of lyrics when you consider what happened.

A Levitating Asahara Shoko? - HESO Magazine

A Levitating Asahara Shoko?

During much of 2012 the Prime Minister had thousands of demonstrators outside his doorstep every week. The July 29th rally outside quondam PM Noda’s home attracted perhaps as many as 150,000 protestors (the police estimate was much more conservative 17,000). Meanwhile somewhere between 170,000 (organizer numbers) and 75,000 (police figures) attended a July rally in Yoyogi Park: labour unions, veteran campaigns and plenty of ordinary shimin (citizens) too.

We have yet to see any absurdity in the newly ignited civic activism Japan is experiencing post-Fukushima – but then, we also have yet to witness any radicalism. So far the protest movement seems very motley, a ragbag army of tweeting hipsters, office workers, ex-student activists, and the elderly. The dignified aspects of the movement – candlelit vigils outside the Diet and the PM’s residence – contrast with loud concerts and rallies angrily channelling past the TEPCO headquarters. In their apparent inclusive ambit of the social spectrum it is hard not to join the dots to the Anpo protests of 1960, though, thanks perhaps in part to social media, unlike Anpo, the new anti-nuclear power activists are not reliant on small group organizations to mobilize and organize them. People are shocked and angry at how they were treated as a nation, yet they are perhaps guilty of only earnestness, rather than violence, whereas the 1968 movement had both.

The tragedy now would be if the protests did not metamorphose from just an anti-nuclear power movement into being also a pro-renewable energy campaign. The real absurdity, though, lies in the Japanese government’s continuing efforts to ignore them and to squander this unique opportunity to create a green and better Japan. The announcement recently of the construction of the world’s largest offshore wind farm in Fukushima is a step very much in the right direction.

Farce, though, is a refrain that this writer at least welcomes. To single it out amongst a pantheon of incidents is not a form of mocking. The absurd is vital to a society, whether in peacetime or the most stringent of crises. The absurd brings us perspective on an uncanny platter. It reminds us how close we can get to revolution but yet how far away we always seem to remain.

In the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim:

And where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
Well, maybe next year.


Part 1 of Absurdity and the Japanese Radical can be read here. William Andrews, a writer and translator based in Tokyo, is currently working on a book about postwar Japanese radicalism and counterculture.

Send In The Clowns - Absurdity and Japanese Radicals

Send In The Clowns – Absurdity and Japanese Radicals

New Revolt

Since the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11th, 2011 and the resulting Fukushima maelstrom, the western media has frequently reported a spectacle that appears to surprise them: Japanese people, the “quiet people”, are taking part in demos. Seemingly for the first time, petitions are being signed online and off, angry protests are being voiced on the streets of Tokyo, and even respected celebrities are occasionally wading waist-deep into the debate.

All cultures attract canards. Every nation has its glut of stereotypes. Japan is no exception and even in these multi-media, multi-perspective times the rather unpleasant notions linger that all local woman are submissive, all men stoic. The Japanese are perennially characterized as a modest, subservient race, a fallacy spread by both western novices and veteran observers – and even the Japanese themselves. And yet history is written by those in power; stereotypes are born out of imagined truths more than complex cultural memory. The peasants who revolt but fail are never the shapers and stylists of national identity.

As far as the Baby Boomer generation should be concerned, the anti-nuclear power protests that Tokyo has been witnessing of late are old hat. They should remember and perhaps some even participated in the protests of 1960 against the renewal of Anpo, the security treaty with America first signed as the Occupation ended. As much opposition to the pact and what it stood for as fury against then-Prime Minister Kishi’s flippant disregard for parliamentary processes – notoriously calling in police into the Diet to have rival politicians removed like burdocks ripped out of the muddy field – the movement peaked in the summer in an orgy of nationwide demos, hundreds of thousands strong. Millions participated overall in the movement. It saw an invasion of the Diet grounds and the death of a young female university student that remains controversial to this day.

Those too young to join in the melee of Anpo could then make up for lost time in the later Sixties. While Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and American bombs rained down in the Tet Offensive, thousands of Japanese students joined French and American counterparts in campus strikes, protests and anti-Vietnam War clashes. The streets of Tokyo were turned into a battlefield. In 1968 over 6,000 students were arrested for protest activities. The number of political participants doubled in the following year, with 152 of Japan’s nearly 400 four-year universities locked down by disputes. Things got worse after the united campus movement (Zenkyōtō) itself dissipated, with radical groups turning on each other. Or they attacked Japanese society as a whole; there were 192 incidents involving explosives between 1969 and 1972.

Send In The Clowns - Absurdity and Japanese Radicals

Japan-US Treaty of Mutual Security and Cooperation Signed January 19, 1960

The construction of Narita Airport, one of the crowning achievements of the economic growth of post-war Japan, was also marred by the long and drawn-out protests against it by local farmers and student radicals, who battled police for years in a futile effort to stop the relentless destruction of Japanese rural communities in the name of “progress”. Now long-haul international flights are coming into Haneda again and it is tempting to conclude that the new airport was never even needed in the first place.

Radicalism and revolt are not novel to Japan by any means. Even during the feudal era, like any civilization, the oppressed rose up in local and larger scale rebellions. There were some 3,000 peasant uprisings in the Tokugawa period and around 500 urban disturbances. Major outbreaks include the Shimabara Rebellion in Kyushu in 1637-1638, which centered around a messianic young boy leader. Likewise Anpo was an unusually large mass movement but it was not isolated even in the post-war years; in many ways it was the culmination of nearly 1,000 other much smaller but nonetheless incendiary incidents between 1952 and 1960.

Send In The Clowns – Absurdity and Japanese Radicals

“The real face of our time shows in Samuel Beckett’s novels,” said Herbert Marcuse, the favourite thinker of the 1968 generation. Beckett of course was the master of the absurd. His Japanese comrade is Minoru Betsuyaku, whose dozens of plays include The Move. It depicts an anonymous family ever in motion, always pushing their tottering tower of junk piled onto a cart: Japan’s Economic Miracle in the Sisyphean mode.

The great Japan scholar Ivan Morris argued that failure was integral to the existence and nature of Japanese rebellion, that a love of the underdog (so-called hōganbiiki) maintains the popularity of “heroes” who were actually rebels. The English instead celebrate the spectacular failure of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators every year on November 5th with firework displays and macabre effigies that are thrown into a bonfire, like a weird national pagan rite. On the other side of the world in Tokyo’s Ueno Park, an innocuous statute of Saigō Takamori pays tribute to the samurai without mentioning that he died rebelling against the modern Japan he helped to establish. His quixotic demise is central to his enduring appeal. Underdogs are popular in the western imagination as well – but by and large, mostly if they win against the odds. If the Bible had had a Japanese author, perhaps Goliath would have squashed David, but the boy’s glamour would have been none the lesser for it.

In July that same year a Japanese university student tried to attack the American Secretary of State William Rogers on a visit to Tokyo. The choice of arms? A sharpened pencil. Writers have long boasted the pen is mightier than the… Click To Tweet

To Morris’s concept of the underdog we could add that absurdity and farce also always plays a reoccurring part, like a running gag that just won’t go away. The absurd creeps up on us unawares. It is most unsettling but unforgettable precisely because it is incongruous. It is uncanny in the Freudian sense. This is not to say that it was all fun and games in the Japanese student movement. Far from being frivolous, many of the radicals were deadly serious and hundreds ended up losing their lives – or taking others’.

The most famous incident in the Japanese student movement was what happened at the University of Tokyo. A seemingly minor episode, where medical students protesting with tutors about the internship system turned into a scuffle, ultimately engulfed the whole university and multiple campuses in strikes and barricades. The unified campus organizations (Zenkyōtō) mustered students across departments in rallies and demos, and kick-started large-scale, stubborn strikes. Along the way there was fierce internecine fighting between factions of the Zengakuren student council organizations and the pro-Communist Party wings. The students wore iconic coloured helmets according to their respective sect, like signs of the arcane guild to which they swore allegiance. They carried large wooden staves to battle riot police, right-wing students trying to break up the blockade, or rival factions. It all ended in an inevitable last stand at Yasuda Hall, which held out for two days in the face of over eight thousand riot police. Eventually the cops smashed through and reached the top. The dispute had lasted a year and became the exemplum for Zenkyōtō groups at other universities and colleges all over Japan.

So far, so very passionate. But the loose organizational structure of Zenkyōto all-campus movements and the umbrella-like nature of the individual Zengakuren sects and the student councils meant that students were often unaware of the causes for which they were fighting. They might be told just to muster at a certain place in their gear – and to do battle. It is frequently remarked upon that the original controversy from which the University of Tokyo strike originated became harder to extricate and resolve as the dispute escalated. Many of the people fighting inside Yasuda Hall at the bitter end were not even students from the university.

Send In The Clowns - Absurdity and Japanese Radicals

東大全共闘 1968-1969, Todai Zenkyoto 68-69 © 渡辺 眸 Watanabe Hitomi

The Yasuda Alamo reached its finale in January 1969. In July that same year a Japanese university student tried to attack the American Secretary of State William Rogers on a visit to Tokyo. Before we debate the merits of such an attack, let us look at the choice of arms here. Writers have long boasted the pen is mightier than the sword, but it would take a very precise assassin to do damage with a pencil. The would-be assailant’s disadvantages were not merely matériel. When he launched his attack he managed to go for the wrong man and Rogers was left not only unscathed, but completely untouched.

Yet more than foreign dignitaries, the student radicals were attacking each other in brutal dogfights that peaked in the Seventies but continued for years after. Particularly violent was the fighting between the Kakumaru and Chūkaku groups. Some forty people were killed in the years immediately after the main student movement dissipated, including the infamous 1970 case of Toshio Ebihara, who was tortured and murdered by Chūkaku radicals on the campus of Hosei University.

This in-fighting was curiously christened uchi-geba, an intriguing portmanteau partly Japanese (uchi – or “inner”) and married with an abbreviated German loanword (Gewalt, or “force”). Nearly 2,000 violent internal disputes arose between the dozens of factions that split off from the original Zengakuren Bund. Uchi-geba was a perpetual, ingrained problem but actually predated the Zenkyōtō campus movement. The original split in Zengakuren over a decade before 1968 was another example of uchi-geba, where the student councils were permanently rendered between those supporting the JCP and those against it. Though the later factions would prove more adept and brutal at killing each other, the pro- and anti-JCP sides also still managed several memorable scraps during the Sixties. Once at a 1966 assembly of the federation of student dormitories the arch enemies fought with staves, pipes and stones, but the most eye-catching element of the skirmish must surely have been the massive tree trunk that was used to invade the hall, so big that it required five people to carry it.

However, the 1968-1969 campus strikes added fuel to the fire, especially at Yasuda, where Kakumaru was accused of abandoning the citadel to the police. Before things degenerated into totally unpleasant depths, there was still time for absurdity. The graduation ceremony at Waseda University in 1969 was interrupted by non-sect radicals, who burst into the auditorium throwing firecrackers, smoke bombs, eggs and even live, flapping chickens into the air. Not so much revolution, it was bedlam.

3 – Ashita No …?

Send In The Clowns - Absurdity and Japanese Radicals

As we now know, though, the antics became something much graver and strange over the coming years, with dozens of notorious lynching incidents as the New Left self-destructed. Were the Sekigun-Ha reading “Ashita no Joe” while hijacking Flight 351?

The hard-core were sincerely attempting to ignite a revolution as had happened from the grass roots in China and Cuba. The Sekigun-ha, or Red Army Faction, in particular launched an infamous series of small-scale bombings around Japan in 1969, before a police dragnet arrested many of their foot soldiers while training in the countryside. Later their leader was also caught but that did not stop other members from pulling off their most dramatic stunt: Japan’s first hijacking, that of JAL flight 351 in March 1970.

No one was hurt. No planes blew up. The hijackers were even complimented for their courtesy by the passengers after they were released. The band of Sekigun-ha members, armed with Japanese katana swords and the occasional pipe bomb, directed the Fukuoka-bound plane to be flown to North Korea, where they hoped to fly onto Cuba. It was intended as a highly symbolic act that would kick-start a revolution in Japan in the Cuban mode and it was genuinely shocking at the time. The hijackers expected then to be able to return to their homeland one day and assist in the uprising. Their plans were optimistic to say the least.

Getting to Cuba by hijacking is a novel way to travel and had actually been suggested in jest by a young Cuba Embassy staffer when the Sekigun-ha approached him. The Japanese took him at face value. Of course, the North Koreans did not let them fly onto Cuba, despite being “comrades” in the struggle – in fact, they wanted them to stay and help train spies in their missions to abduct Japanese citizens. The Sekigun-ha had unwittingly bought their own one-way ticket to the most closed state in the world.

They left a “departure announcement” that they published in their paper. In between a few banzai-s for the world proletariat it ended famously with their rally cry: “We are Ashita no jō!” Ashita no jō (Tomorrow’s Joe) was a comic about young boxers popular at the time; the Sekigun-ha hijackers were trying to tell people how “normal” they were. And yet the only impression it springs to mind is that, in between their large doses of Marx, Takaaki Yoshimoto et al, the radicals were reading manga. The critic Hiroki Azuma also once in Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals made a teasing comparison between New Left extremists and the ardour we see in fans of Japanese subcultures. Were the Sekigun-ha merely the otaku of their day?


This is Part 1 of Send in the Clowns: Absurdity and the Japanese Radical. Read Part 2, by William Andrews, a writer and translator based in Tokyo. He is currently working on a book about postwar Japanese radicalism and counterculture.

Is the World Ending - Photographs of the Universe Say Otherwise

World Ending – Photographs of the Universe Say Otherwise

The Maya, Hindu, Hopi, Summarians and the ancient Greeks all have similar beliefs–that there are 4 or 5 stages of the world and that we are either in the 4th or the 5th. The Sikhs think that we will go from the 4th to the 5th world on (or around) December 21st, 2012–though some place the phase change in 2013. There is no “apocalypse” in the rigid Judeo-Christian sense of the word, just minor changes in physics, maybe some exhaling of the sun (though Nasa contradicts this claim) and maybe some sort of subtle shifts in hard to quantify “consciousness.” The mythology goes that if we are in the 4th then what comes is the final stage, aka the Khalsa Raj; the age of enlightenment. Changing from one phase of the world to the next will come with some growing pains but it seems to ultimately be for the better.

World Ending – Photographs of the Universe Say Otherwise

A subtle aspect of all this doomsday hearsay is that the Hopi native Americans said that when the world was about to change, it would be connected by a great “web”, perhaps inferencing the world wide web. Though they both claim to be privy to ancient knowledge the Sikhs don’t seem to be aware of the Maya culture at all. Sikhism is about transcending the imaginary veil of illusion or as they called it “maya”, through meditation. NASA Universe Photos show that a beautiful and destructive universe is the norm, rather the contrary to what doomsday mythology of apocalypse-freaks say. Don’t be a literalist and read between the lines. Turn off your television and go outside.

M. finding his way to a spot for creating a suitable new home for a seedling

Extreme Loggers – Planters in British Columbia

“Live an interesting life and you’ll take interesting pictures.”

— Jim O’Connell

M. finding his way to a spot for creating a suitable new home for a seedling

M. finding his way to a spot for creating a suitable new home for a seedling

You know the photographer Arnaud De Grave from such HESO projects as the interview with Christiania documentary photographer Charlotte Østervang as well as his in-depth gastronomic reportage on French Truffles and the simple art of Gnocchi. Of course. The French-born, raised and educated in engineering education De Grave, had, until very recently, lived and worked for many years in Copenhagen, Denmark as Associate Professor at the Technical University of Denmark. As part of his work, he traveled to various countries for seminars and guest lecture spots–Singapore, India, Japan, even the USA. He had co-founded BOP in 2004, all film…as he says, “the whole idea behind my photography is film”, and only began “digicrapping” because his mum wanted to see Japan before he came back. Oh the impatience of the modern generations…!

But De Grave has always been a closet skater-punkrock-DIY kid, even if he didn’t know it himself, so it is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when something in him clicked, so to speak, and, as he had long been entranced with using old analogue cameras (Olympus Pen F, Hasselblad, etc…), it wasn’t until Japan that he began processing his own black and white film in his bathroom at home. Doing so inevitably leads to the feeling that one should show someone else (and preferably whole groups of people in a gallery-esque setting). More and more heavily his life turned from sedentary academic to one of restless documentary exposure. When, in a sudden fit of typical photographic wanderlust, he abandoned his very sensible and well-paying job at the university in order to pursue a dream of his to be “like the tall trees, you know what I mean” and ramble across continents to propose an esoteric course of study at the University of British Columbia, some of his colleagues may have thought he was daft, going through a mid-life crisis, or just French, who knows. But we at HESO, who met Arnaud at a beer-soaked table in a small pub in Shibuya some five years ago (alongside the interviewer Jon Ellis), never once doubted his decision. In fact we gave him a ride. Here’s what he has been doing:

Extreme Loggers – Planters in British Columbia

Jon Ellis: Tell us a little about the project, what it entailed, and how you are in a position to be doing it.

Arnaud De Grave: I live in Vancouver, British Columbia and am pursuing a M.Sc. in Forestry, so the starting point is a clear interest in trees and forests. Last Christmas a friend of my landlady was house-sitting our home and for one reason or another she was still there when I got back from my trip to Europe, and she lives in a small community on an island up north by Vancouver Island called Alert Bay (on Cormorant Island where she happens to be a former radio journalist for CBC, Radio Canada). One of my intentions was to go live and work/volunteer in a small remote community somewhere lost in B.C. over the summer to learn about the way these people live and to record it photographically. We chatted about it and she invited me to Alert Bay as a starting point and I went (so do not invite me if you do not want me to come, for I will come!) She had me meet a lot of fantastically interesting people there (sailors, furniture makers, retired hand-loggers, First Nations chiefs, you name it they are there) and one of them (Roland) is the owner of a company called Bivouac West doing, amongst other things, reforestation. There was no easy possibility of an “internship” in one of these remote communities, but Roland told me about his job and invited me to join them in one of their reforestation projects in May or June. My job would be to give him visibility in exchange for accommodation and food. Or so he said… Little did I know I’d have to carry boxes of small trees, bags of fertilizer and drive big trucks! It took about 5 months to get in the position and be able to do it, roughly. And it happened by luck, or maybe perseverance, or surely both.

JE: I understand that the show is being sponsored by the Alliance Française cultural centre, how did that happen?

ADG: In trying to hold my end of the deal, i.e. to give visibility to the company, I investigated different possibilities: magazine articles, my own website(s), photo exhibitions… As I have collaborated with French cultural centres in the past (in Denmark) I tried that door and found some ears to listen to my story. I think the fact that I contacted them while creating the project and not when coming back with a “finished product” was appreciated. I explained the project, my motivation and we worked together on a reasonable outcome. They asked for a possible partnership with UBC Forestry and after a discussion with the Dean he agreed to sponsor me a bit and come give a short talk during the opening, so everybody is happy at the end.

JE: Why a photography exhibition, rather than something more academic?

ADG: My M.Sc. thesis is about sustainable forest resource management of ski resorts in the context of climate change and I have been toying with this idea of mine for about 2 or 3 years now. Indeed I quit my job in February 2011 and got accepted as a M.Sc. student at UBC Vancouver in September 2011, so I am currently in my second year of M.Sc. (more or less as I take time off of my studies from time to time for photographic projects such as this one.) As my life is split between many different activities, I like to define myself as a pluri-monomaniac, if that makes any sense. So yes, it was tempting to try and combine the two and push my research into tree planting. However, after some more thinking, I’m sticking to my original plan. Although it would be nice to be able to combine my M.Sc. and photography somehow… If anyone has any idea about how to do that I am all ears.

JE: The photographs suggest very isolated locations, were the logistics as ‘Apocalypse Now’ as they appear to be?

Apocalypse Now logistics

Apocalypse Now logistics

ADG: They were. We took choppers and I have to admit I was tempting to whistle (or rather sing at the top of my lungs) Wagner’s Ritt der Walküren several times. I only shut up out of respect for the other people in the helicopter, and the fact it was super loud in there and also that it was so beautiful that sometimes/often it would make one speechless…Originally the crew (about 14 people) would be going for 3 or 4 weeks on a boat and sleep by the cut blocks. However because of unforeseen circumstances –and as far as I know now it happens all the time– the boat was unavailable so we had to fly with floatplanes every morning, sometimes to be flown to a position where we would be taken to the planting site by helicopter. Sometimes some trucks would be waiting for us with the boxes of seedlings (small trees to be planted) and the logistic would be worked that way. So a big part of the planning consists in barging trees and trucks and quads where they should be, to be used by the team. Weather is not very stable in coastal BC in the spring so one can imagine hair-pulling decisions and problems the boss of the company has to deal with. One day we could not fly. “If you can’t see you can’t fly” would eloquently say one of our pilots… And as the deadlines and margins for error are very slim, it is quite the logistical nightmare. Did I mention grizzly bears?

JE: You’ve picked a very distinctive style for the photography, an almost organically grainy b&w, What is behind the choice?

ADG: It may sound pompous but I guess that’s my style. Really there is no particular reason beyond it is the way I like my pictures and I like the way I can do the whole process myself. It is very important to me to physically perform the complete workflow of photography. All were developed in my bathroom (stainless-steel and Rodinal) and printed in a real darkroom on fibre paper. There is magic in seeing the picture bloom in the developer tray, a sensual aspect in rinsing your print, feeling the gelatinous surface before going out to the light and check contrast, tones, etc.

Do not think that I am a complete luddite, as I have nothing against digital photography for example (when I am not in a state of inebriation that is) but I do prefer the slowness of film.

I could argue that the final atmosphere fits very well with the mood I want to convey and the references in my mind (Eugene Smith’s work on Pittsburg’s steel industry for instance had a huge impact on me when I saw the exhibition in New York City in 2001, both from an aesthetic and love for printed photography point of view) but that would be a posteriori thinking. I do think that it works very well with the photo-journalism type of work I am doing with this project though. About anything can be justified in hindsight with enough rhetoric.

JE: One of the things that comes through very strongly from the pictures is the almost absolute destruction of the forest by the loggers. How did working in that environment leave you feeling?

ADG: That’s a tough one… I knew about logging and clear-cuts, but I have to admit the extent of the “destruction” took me aback. Especially “heli-blocks,” where logging is performed by helicopter, very remote, with no easy access, very steep… so only the most valuable trees are taken but loggers still need to cut a lot to be able to get said big trees and also to be able to have the helicopter operate (build a pad, get fellers down, get trees and fellers out, etc.) The amount of left-over was pretty insane to see. Even if I weren’t a hippie tree hugger–although I do like trees very much–it made me quite angry. I swore a lot that day. I also swore a lot because the terrain was pretty insane to work/walk in.

Unfortunately one gets used to seeing fallen trees. And also the planters, after a while, appreciate the terrain for the ease with which they can move through it and perform, so they are happy to see a cleared area because they know they can plant a lot, as they are paid by the tree.

K. in the heliblock, the aftermath of some logging operation

K. in the heliblock, the aftermath of some logging operation

JE: Does the replanting make a difference or is this the ‘plaster on a gaping wound’ that it would appear to be in the pictures?

ADG: It does make a difference. I would rather stay away from political considerations as this exhibition is primarily about the people working in the field and not a statement for or against governmental attitude towards forest management. However, there would be a lot to say about that, but it has the tendency to push me in “angry young man territory” as you yourself said to me once, albeit on a different, but not too unrelated, matter.

An interesting fact is that the tree species which are replanted are the ones living there originally, and if left to natural regeneration there is no guarantee that the same species would grow back the same as before because of climate change for instance or because some tree species are more prone to take over (called pioneer species) or because some are shade intolerant but grow slower so when the faster one are there it is tough for them to grow even if they were living in that zone before… So replanting definitely helps. The companies are also responsible for these trees until they reach the “free to grow” stage (about 3 or 4 metres high). It is not: we plant and then we get our legal obligations checked and move the hell out of there and destroy some more somewhere else.

JE: The work of the planters looks back-breaking. What kind of people end up doing the work?

ADG: It is indeed a very tough and physical job, I was not by any means doing the same kind of job the planters do (although I tried it for a little while, I did plant about 80 trees), but I was helping the foreman (who was a woman by the way, a tough one) by carrying around boxes of seedlings, bags of fertilizer, etc. Imagine moving a friend of yours to a new house, but instead of boxes of books in the elevator you carry trees, sometimes on logging roads, sometimes directly in clear-cuts. Sometimes we had to patch roads which were supposed to be “quad-able” but were not, or declared so by someone who never used a quad in his life, so we had to rebuild them with logs and stones… Fun times… The planters do long days: from around 8am to 5pm they plant, and there is commuting time as well. Weather can be sunny, hot, rainy, freaking cold. So it is a very physically demanding job. And the bugs! Ho man, did I hate the bugs!

About the people doing it, well, most of them are people who like the lifestyle: seasonal work, hard but in the open space of Nature. Some of them do it because they are happy to work in the forest but doing more environmentally pro-active than cutting trees down. They are also doing this job for the money, for it is well paid.

A lot of people think that tree planting is a student job over the summer. It is, but not in coastal BC. In the interior where it is all flat and where one plants trees in a trench (not to diminish this kind of work which is also very physical, but less technical, but it brings experience.) The company I was working with only hires planters with a lot of experience. Most of them had been planting for about 6 to 8 years, and more.

JE: It sounds as brutal as it looks… take it you won’t be going out to work as a backcountry planter! What’s next for you photographically, and with your forestry work?

ADG: Well, I am actually considering asking Bivouac West to hire me as a full time helper for a month next spring/summer. Definitely not a planter as you can hardly call 80 trees experience haha… But I’d like to see more and live on a boat for some weeks. Besides, I have a proposition to go and work a bit as an assistant for a forester some weeks in December this year. So I guess my adventures in the woods are not finished yet. And I’ll hopefully do some field work for my M.Sc. thesis in the coming year, which should lead to travel and photography opportunities. Chicken and egg sort of thing…

From a photography point of view I always have a good half-dozen projects in progress, some will never see the light, metaphorically speaking. A very long on-going one is (of course) based on old-growth forest and trying to find a way to capture with pictures the complexity and beauty of it all. The main issue is that it is very multi-scale, from gigantic 70 m high Western Red Cedars to small moss and mushrooms embedded in their roots. It might be only an excuse to go muse in the woods though… I’d also like to get back and document a bit of this other jungle which is the urban land. I live very close to a very lively neighbourhood in Vancouver (namely, for those who know, East Hastings Street) and everyday is a new surprise down there. For me photography is about whatever triggers my interest and a way to make my life interesting as well. I often remember Jim O’Connell’s words (whimsical as always): “live an interesting life and you’ll take interesting pictures,” words that I may have a tendency to misinterpret or at least try and reverse.

JE: Thanks! Anything you’d like to add in closing?

ADG: Go out, take pictures!

Arnaud would like to acknowledge: UBC Forestry, Alliance Française de Vancouver, and BivouacWest

Arnaud De Grave’s Photographic Site

Andrey Shapran - Lands at the Edge of the World

Andrey Shapran – Lands at the Edge of the World

Why do some races of people seem to have an advantage over others? Why are some countries rich and others poor? Why are some people haves and others have-nots? For argument’s sake let’s say that having (education, health, work) is the ostensible goal of human society on earth and not-having (basic somatic needs insecure) is the place from which we came. Why are the majority of the haves people of Eurasian origin while the have-nots are the Native Peoples of the world? What’s the deal?

Luck mostly. In Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997, W. W. Norton) geographer Jared Diamond writes that as hunter-gatherers transformed to agricultural societies it was the nutrient-rich plants of Eurasia (barley, wheat) as well as the successful domestication of docile animals (cow, horse, sheep, goats) that allowed surpluses to be stored, and specialized societies to develop. The rest of the world initially had only one domesticatable animal (Llamas) and produced mainly low-nutrient maize and potatoes and have failed to figure out a way to lengthen the short shelf life of bananas. From the stores came surpluses, specialization, population growth, class hierarchy, bureaucracy, nations, and empires.

The bureaucracy par excellence had to have been the post-WWII Union of Socialist Republics under Stalin. Be it the 17th, 19th or 21st century, Russia has never been without political controversy, never without misunderstanding, never without raw beauty. She is so big that she always surprises and is always surprising, at least in part, because she is so big. And full of the unknown and the overlooked. Look at a map of Russia, pan to the extreme northeast of Asia to the edge of what was the landbridge humans crossed into the western hemisphere some 16,000 years ago and you will see the snub nose of the Chukchi Peninsula, facing off across from Alaska’s Seward Peninsula.

Bering Strait Map

Bering Strait Map

The tail ends of two vast landmasses, which once connected the world as Beringia, exist today in the form of the people, the dialects and traditions of Northwest Alaska and the Russian Far East. This is the ancestral home of the Chukchi, Evens, Koryaks, and Eskimos, the native peoples who have inhabited this land for millennia. As Latvian photographer Andrey Shapran said when he visited Mechigmensky Bay of Russia’s Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, “Walruses, whales and other sea mammals are daily food for this people, and sea hunting is their daily life.”

Imagine that. No 9-5 at the office or school for the kids. No television or commercials. No Christmas shopping or summer vacations. No politics or perestroika, red scare or cold war. The only cold they know is waking up and hunting for food in the long Arctic winter. Brr. Most might choose bureaucracy over fending for oneself at open sea.

The small coastal town of Akani has long been a settlement of sea huntsmen where for centuries they have chased walruses and whales through the chilly Arctic waters on their annual migration. Yet during the Stalin’s reign the local people were relocated 30 kilometers to the south in Lorino, off the migratory path of their atavistic foodsource. Despite the infamy of Soviet bureaucratic prevailing wisdom, migratory patterns of walruses and whales remained stubborn, continually making their annual visit off the coast of Akani, where the local huntsmen come to try their luck, before cutting inside the Alaskan Peninsula and heading down the coast of North America to breed. Shapran points out, “The most lucky is who come out of the sea first.”

But what do we mean as Russian? These people live in Russia, speak Russian as well as their native languages, and they belong to Russian nation as before they were the Soviet people. Click To Tweet

Andrey Shapran – Lands at the Edge of the World

Lands at the Edge of the World © Andrey Shapran (HESO Magazine)

A Chukchi hunter takes aim at a Grey Whale with his spear - "Lands at the Edge of the World" © Andrey Shapran

I ask him about the ongoing photographic series Lands at the Edge of the World chronicling the native people inhabiting the north-east of Russia, the South Kuril Islands, Kamchatka and Chukotka peninsulas, “Do these indigenous reindeer herdsmen, fishermen and sea mammal hunters practice traditional survival techniques the same way as their ancestors? How is it different or similar?”

“Yes, the ways are similar. But speeds have changed—huntsmen on the Chukotka peninsula today use modern high speed engines for their boats, herdsmen in the tundra often ride powerful off-road vehicles. Although generally the situation remains the same—the immense northern areas define the rhythm of life for these people.” Andrey continues, “A harvested whale on land is as amazing a sight as a live whale at the open water. No one animal looks the same as others. The ancient tradition of sharing the kill between all local people according to their needs perseveres and all are welcome to cut off his part of the common catch. It is the only way to survive in the extreme conditions of the north.”

Talking to the hunters, Shapran has heard tales of how it has become harder to hunt whales. To ease their toils (the I.W.C. annually allots them 140 Grey Whales), humanitarians have donated American-made dart guns, which the locals save for hunting the big Baleen whales that pass through their waters in late autumn, also using a kind of hand-made metal charge for Gray whales, but whale harvesting with such weapons is complicated, because only a precise hit guarantees success. The Stone Age arrows, spears and harpoons continue to dominate their modern hunts. Shapran adds, “They say even American-made firearm cannot compete with this ancient weapon.”

Hunting and butchering are such integral skills that are done almost as automatically as walking and eating. Several hours after the hunt and not a trace of the bloody carcasses remains on the shore. Here in the far north, life and… Click To Tweet

I ask the obvious question, “Is this lifestyle sustainable in 2011 and further into the future?”

“Certainly this lifestyle is rational here, but only small part of local population lives in a such way. Settlements and towns with heated houses, TV, shops which are full of food from our civilized world, all these things deprive people the opportunity to develop those qualities that are necessary in the tough conditions of the Far North. The percentage of people who live in the traditional way is very low, the young generation do not move on to the tundra or to hunt in the sea, because living, or even survival conditions there are absolutely diverse.”

As Shapran recounts a story from one of the whalers, saying, “…The whales attacked their boat twice—first time a wounded whale dove down under them and struck the boat bottom with his head…” he gestures like the old Chukchi hunter throwing up his hands, showing how hunters flew from the boat. “The next time, he did not fall out from the boat—it did not turn over. ‘Now,’ the hunter added, ‘I am fearful to go out to sea.’ But he has to hunt. He needs to feed his family.”

He continues, “The hunters venture out to sea at dawn, eating only once before coming back home, and often not returning until after sunset. Their meal consists of a piece of cold boiled meat, bread and tea from vacuum flask. Hunting always takes a lot of energy. A way back with a killed whale is always a difficult trial. The longer hunting continues, the longer coming home is. And they never go hunting alone. The sea, they believe, for sure takes a single man away.”

Lands at the Edge of the World © Andrey Shapran (HESO Magazine)

The carcass of a Grey whale on the shores of Akani - "Lands at the Edge of the World" © Andrey Shapran

HM: “The World Wildlife Fund reports that in addition to some of the underdeveloped areas of the Chukchi peninsula being in danger of exploitation of natural resource deposits, such as oil, natural gas, and gold, ‘nuclear waste pollution from the Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant and spreading tundra fires are threatening the Chukotka’s ecosystem,'” I ask Shapran, “Are the indigenous peoples in any danger from outside economic interests disrupting their lives or their food supply? Do they benefit at all?”

AS: “The danger certainly is high. In the past the state interfered with the traditional northern peoples way of living trying to impose on them the ‘civilized’ lifestyle, but now it invades the living space of indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, looking back in history we can see the negative impact only after many decades or even several generations. So, may be it is too early to talk about benefits or harms, but obviously any so-called development must not be done thoughtlessly.”

HM: “Are these Northern people, the Chukchi, Evens, and Eskimos considered Russian?”

AS: “But what do we mean as ‘Russian’? These people live in Russia, speak Russian as well as their native languages, and they belong to Russian nation as before they were the Soviet people.”

HM: “The idea of nationality is a very peculiar issue in regards to the fact that so many nations were under the umbrella of the USSR, including the Baltic countries, eastern Europe, nations in and around the Black Sea, even Mongolia and the provinces of the far east, such as you have photographed. Is there an extended brotherhood of Russia that exists to this day? You are from Latvia, but are you included in the Russian family? What is the situation with all of these recent independent states in relation to modern day Russia?”

AS: “This is a very complicated question and it is impossible to answer it in one sentence. Every former Soviet Republic has its own point of view on this issue. To speak about that confidently you must visit these now independent countries and converse with local natives and Russian people, but I have not had such experiences. It happened, for last several years I have worked only in Kyrgyzstan, in its northern part, where not so many Russians remain and only native people older than thirty more or less can speak Russian. The older generation of Kyrgyz people still respects Russia and the Russians. Despite twenty years since the fall of the USSR they still call Russia ‘older brother.’ In Latvia, where I am from, lots of Russians live nowadays, but the nationalist attitude is quite highly represented and at the same time the situation in the Baltic region is quiet.”

HM: “Your photographic work with Great Patriotic War (World War II) veterans presents an alternative point of view for western audiences of living veterans of the war. Is there a big difference in experience when talking to veterans from Tobolsk as opposed to Riga?”

AS: “No, I did not feel any difference in this work. Lots of veterans who live now in Latvia were born in Siberia and relocated to Latvia right after the Great Patriotic War. And in spite of long years away from their motherland, as well as Siberians they speak Russian. But in Riga the nationwide Victory Day on May the 9th is celebrated quite differently than in Russia. This day is a day of unity for the entire Russian-speaking population of Latvia and the most important participants of it are old people in their Soviet military uniforms. In Siberia such celebrations are more formal and not so sincere.”

HM: “Can you tell us about what you are working on in the future?”

Lands at the Edge of the World © Andrey Shapran (HESO Magazine)

Whale bones on the shore of the Chukchi peninsula - "Lands at the Edge of the World" © Andrey Shapran

AS: “My current projects are the continuation of the themes which were begun several years ago. The project “Land at the edge of the world” is not limited in time and geography. The work demonstrates the need for more careful research of subjects, of indigenous peoples traditions and their lifestyles. The “Far East” project about the South Kuril islands also requires special two-three-month trip to complete.”

HM: “The South Kuril Islands are part of Russia, but Japan claims a right to some of them. Have you talked to locals about this? How do most Russians feel about this issue?”

AS: “Mostly Russians are for retaining the South Kuril islands within the Russian Federation. On the Islands there is a quite large migration flow, people often go there in search of well-paid work. Usually they are seasonal workers whose families live on the mainland. They are barely interested in political and social issues around this area.”

It’s the haves who start most arguments about politics. The have-nots are just trying to put dinner on the table.

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