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Please note: RPS House is closed for our exhibition install. We will be open again from 10am on Friday 9th August 2024.

'Thirty Eight Sticks, Nagahana, Honshu, Japan. 2002' By Michael Kenna

Michael Kenna: My visual love letter to Japan

In his latest book the photographer celebrates a nation he has visited for more than 40 years. So why does he want to keep his locations secret?

'Thirty-eight sticks, Nagahana, Honshu, Japan, 2002' by Michael Kenna

Television shows such as the recent Disney+ hit Shōgun and the latest instalment of the BBC’s Race Across the World series are among the current reasons that Japan continues to attract international tourists.

English-born, US-based photographer Michael Kenna has been visiting the country for nearly four decades. Since 2002, he has repeatedly visited Hokkaido – the northern Japanese region where season four of Race Across the World kicked off.

“Hokkaido has changed a lot,” says Kenna. “It’s become far more popular, far more populated. When I first went, I was advised by well-meaning Japanese people not to go, because it was too dangerous, bleak and brutal. No one went to Hokkaido in the winter but now it’s a destination of choice for many people.”

'Percy's Perspective, Okhotsk, Hokkaido, Japan, 2023' By Michael Kenna

'Percy's perspective, Okhotsk, Hokkaido, Japan, 2023' by Michael Kenna

Kenna admits his images, which celebrate the stark winter landscapes of trees, fence posts and snow, have contributed to Hokkaido now feeling over-exposed. “My impact has not been particularly good in places,” he explains. “Many of the trees I’ve photographed have been cut down because, naively, I gave the location at the time, and coachloads of well-meaning photographers would trample across farmers’ fields, despite there being signs, usually in Japanese, saying ‘Do not enter the field’.

“Farmers have had no recourse other than to cut these amazing trees down because they became too popular. So now I turn GPS off on my iPhone and I don’t give specific locations because I don’t want these lonely, gorgeous places to become arenas for masses of people.”

'Red Crown Crane Feeding, Tsurui, Hokkaido, Japan, 2005 By Michael Kenna

'Red crown crane feeding, Tsurui, Hokkaido, Japan, 2005' by Michael Kenna

While photography is made for sharing, Kenna believes photographers have a duty of care to the places they capture.

“It’s a basic courtesy,” he says. “When I speak with a person, I’m courteous – I have respect for that person. If you’re photographing anything, you should have the same respect.

You should revere and honour what you’re photographing. If it happens to be in the middle of a private field you don’t just wander into the field.

“I work with a guide in Hokkaido with great integrity and he knows everybody – he will refuse to allow me to photograph without going to ask the local person for permission. They’re always friendly and fine, but it’s basic courtesy that you don’t become a paparazzi. You don’t steal something – you try to pay tribute, to share, to express something that’s beautiful and share it with the rest of the world.” 

Japan: A Love Story by Michael Kenna is published by Setanta Books, £60, with an exhibition at Asia House, London, 24 September-20 October.

See more work by Michael Kenna in the July-September 2024 issue of the RPS Journal.

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