Watabe Yūkichi

five by Watabe Yūkichi

When the book A Criminal Investigation, by Watabe Yūkichi (渡部雄吉, 1924–1993), came out, I knew that if it was as good as Watabe’s Morocco (seemingly unknown outside Japan), it would be good indeed — but it cost more than I was in any rush to pay. Eventually I got hold of a copy.

A Criminal Investigation

Watabe, A Criminal Investigation

Here you have A Criminal Investigation, a 2011 book whose elegance has entranced a number of reviewers.

Let’s not dwell on the elegance. After a couple of photographs to set the scene, short texts in French and English (but oddly, not Japanese) explain that the discovery of certain body extremities raised the question of whom they’d been attached to and led to the discovery of the disfigured and burned remainder, identified as “Sato Takashi” (i.e. Satō Takashi). Though the body had been found in Ibaraki, Satō had come from Tokyo — yes, Tōkyō, but I’m not claiming total consistency here — and so the Tokyo Metropolitan Police were called in.

One particular policeman was involved, it would seem: the photographs follow him. We’re not told his name. Actually we’re not told anything else until about halfway through the book, when we’re told that the police were looking for, and had an arrest warrant for, a man (Nishida) who’d stayed at the same “hotel” (I’d guess flophouse) as the deceased.

Toward the end of the book we’re told that this was a dead end and that the investigators were stuck. There are a few more photographs. After these, we learn what was discovered a few months later within a much larger investigation. The perp was “Onishi Katsumi” (Ōnishi Katsumi 大西克己), who’d murdered three others too. (For more on Ōnishi’s unusually lurid story, see this or this — both in Japanese, but perhaps translations by Google etc will be comprehensible.)

Luckily we’re not shown any part of the deceased. What we are shown is the puzzled detective and his younger sidekick looking around, talking to people, and looking baffled. Necktie, overcoat, cap — Japan looked better before polyester and brand names (even if, with all those cigarettes, it smelled worse). But although the content is handsome (like the packaging, of course), it’s pretty uneventful after the alluring blurb on the back cover.

A Criminal Investigation, by Watabe Yūkichi
A Criminal Investigation, by Watabe Yūkichi

Watabe Yukichi. A criminal investigation. Paris: Éditions Xavier Barral – Le Bal, 2011. ISBN 978-2-915173-82-6 (here at Worldcat).

You’ll find other reviews at or by 5B4, the National Media Museum, CroCnique, Le Monde, and Atsushisaito.

Postwar Japan

Watabe Yūkichi sakuhin-ten “Sengo no nihon”, by Watabe Yūkichi A very grotty copy of the booklet made for an earlier exhibition at JCII Photo Salon of Watabe’s work. (Mine was tucked into the tired copy I bought of Watabe’s Morocco.) Various series are sampled here: both “A criminal investigation” and the capes of Japan, but also life on canal boats, Hokkaidō, and more.

First, a couple of spreads from “A criminal investigation” (1957):

Watabe Yūkichi sakuhin-ten “Sengo no nihon”, by Watabe Yūkichi
Watabe Yūkichi sakuhin-ten “Sengo no nihon”, by Watabe Yūkichi

From the series “A typhoon has landed” (Taifū ga kita), on Yoron-jima/Yorontō (1957):

Watabe Yūkichi sakuhin-ten “Sengo no nihon”, by Watabe Yūkichi

From the series “Men of the mountains” (Yama no otoko-tachi), mining for sulphur on Meakan-dake (1959):

Watabe Yūkichi sakuhin-ten “Sengo no nihon”, by Watabe Yūkichi

Watabe Yūkichi (渡部雄吉). Watabe Yūkichi sakuhin-ten “Sengo no Nihon” 渡部雄吉作品展「戦後の日本」. JCII Photo Salon Library 40. Tokyo: JCII Photo Salon, 1994.

Here’s JCII’s page advertising the booklet. Even though it’s almost twenty years old, it’s still in print.

Indeed, if this page is to be believed, among all the booklets JCII has published since 1991, only one is out of print. As for the the remaining titles (more than two hundred of them), most (all?) are uncontaminated by roman script (aside from “JCII Photo Salon”) and are therefore sure to improve your Japanese, to bemuse you, and to impress your friends. Putting aside membership of the friends of the “Salon”, there are two obvious purchasing options:

  1. Go to JCII and buy them. JCII is in central Tokyo.
  2. Phone JCII and ask. JCII speaks Japanese and has a Japanese bank account.

(And I’ll try to come up with less obvious options if there’s any interest.)

To the sea

Umi e no michi, by Watabe Yūkichi Here’s the catalogue of the show I wrote up before. Again, it shows a variety of the capes of Japan, and the photographs were taken close to half a century ago.

Below: Like all of these JCII booklets, it starts with a preface by Moriyama Mayumi, the head of the “Salon” and an amateur photographer (though better known to the general public as a government minister). On the right is a preface by Watabe’s second son.

Umi e no michi, by Watabe Yūkichi

Cape Shiretoko, on a peninsula jutting east from Hokkaidō and even colder than you might imagine:

Umi e no michi, by Watabe Yūkichi

Cape Inubō (“howling dog cape”), in Chiba:

Umi e no michi, by Watabe Yūkichi

Cape Seki, on Sado:

Umi e no michi, by Watabe Yūkichi

Cape Seki, in Miyako, Iwate; and a little bio of Watabe:

Umi e no michi, by Watabe Yūkichi

Watabe Yūkichi (渡部雄吉). Watabe Yūkichi sakuhin-ten “Umi e no michi” 渡部雄吉作品展「海への道」. JCII Photo Salon Library 244. Tokyo: JCII Photo Salon, 2011.

Here’s JCII’s page advertising the booklet.

Alaska Eskimo

Alaska Eskimo, by Watabe Yūkichi Entire books by Watabe are devoted to each of Venice, Suzhou, Egypt, Andalusia, France and more. Some will be of little interest to photobook fans; they were instead simply intended for people who, back before Wikimedia Commons, Flickr and the rest, wanted to see photographs of and read about this or that place. (Nagano Shigeichi and Ueda Shōji are among the many fine photographers who did similar work.)

By contrast, Alaska Eskimo was published within “Sonorama Shashin Sensho” (ソノラマ写真選書), one of the very earliest (1977–80) of Japanese series of books produced for people interested in photography itself and not only the scenes, people or objects that the photography showed. Each of the 27 volumes is worth a look. Perhaps half a dozen among them now cost a lot as the particular photographer (Moriyama, etc) has developed a cult, but the remainder can be picked up for less than their original price (adjusting for inflation) if you avoid a handful of shops that cater to rich dimwits. Each has both an afterword and a potted bio in English. Reminders that the series is a generation old: (i) the printing quality; (ii) every photographer is male; (iii) every plate (I think) in every volume is in black and white.

The photographs in this book were taken in 1962, when Watabe, working for the publisher Heibonsha, accompanied a research group from Meiji University led by the ethnologist Oka Masao (岡正雄). (For a quick background to such expeditions of around this time, see the very readable abstract to this paper.) Some of the photographs would appear in the first issue of Heibonsha’s magazine Taiyō.

Below, please excuse my thumb.

From part 1, “Inland Eskimo” (Anaktuvuk Pass):

Alaska Eskimo, by Watabe Yūkichi
Alaska Eskimo, by Watabe Yūkichi
Alaska Eskimo, by Watabe Yūkichi
Alaska Eskimo, by Watabe Yūkichi

From part 2, “Coast Eskimo” (Point Barrow):

Alaska Eskimo, by Watabe Yūkichi

Alaska Eskimo, by Watabe Yūkichi

From part 3, “Whaling feast” (Point Hope):

Alaska Eskimo, by Watabe Yūkichi
Alaska Eskimo, by Watabe Yūkichi

Almost at the end of the book is a double-page spread of four photographs of people silhouetted against the sky (thanks to a trampoline). It’s an extraordinary close. (I’m sure I’ve seen something similar in a much later book, but I can’t think which. Ideas?)

Watabe Yūkichi (渡部雄吉, “Yukichi Watabe”). Arasuka esukimō (アラスカエスキモー) = Alaska Eskimo. Sonorama shashin sensho (ソノラマ写真選書) 20. Tokyo: Asahi Sonorama, 1979. (No ISBN, here at Worldcat; here at Open Library.)

atsushisaito presents more photos of the book here.


Morocco, by Watabe YūkichiMorocco, with a Japanese subtitle meaning “the road(s) to (the) labyrinth(s)”.

The unopened book looks like those in a series from Iwanami Shoten, each by a middle-aged or older photographer who very competently presents the architectural or other treasures of this or that part of the world. In other words, worthy uses of a library budget but somewhat unexciting.

Open the book, though, and you have a happy surprise. Yes, there are picturesque buildings. But there are street scenes, street portraits (both environmental and tightly framed), architectural details, the Atlas, the desert: the lot. It’s hardly surprising when we read that Watabe visited Morocco seven times. He worked as hard as any photographer commissioned to make a tourist trophy, but with far more stimulating results.

There are 92 plates and depending on your particular taste you might think of cutting this or that group of five or so among these. And for all I know the book may exoticize the Morocco of twenty years ago. (I wouldn’t know: I haven’t been there since a long time before that.) The printing could be slightly warmer, or of course in tritone. (And I wish my copy weren’t so speckled with mildew: I worry that it could infect its neighbours.) But it’s good:

Morocco, by Watabe Yūkichi
Morocco, by Watabe Yūkichi
Morocco, by Watabe Yūkichi
Morocco, by Watabe Yūkichi
Morocco, by Watabe Yūkichi
Morocco, by Watabe Yūkichi
Morocco, by Watabe Yūkichi
Morocco, by Watabe Yūkichi
Morocco, by Watabe Yūkichi

The Japanese branch (“.co.jp”) of a certain US book monopolist currently (2 Dec ’11) offers six used copies of this book, each for around 15% the price of a new copy of A Criminal Investigation. The book didn’t win any design award, so far as I know, and it certainly wouldn’t do so now; but it’s worth your money.

Here’s a page about an exhibition by Canon of its holdings of photographs by Watabe of Morocco.

Watabe Yūkichi (渡部雄吉, “Yukichi Watabe”). Morokko: Meikyū e no michi (モロッコ 迷宮への道) = Morocco. Tokyo: Creo (クレオ), 1994. ISBN 4-906371-49-3 (here at Worldcat).

Copyright of the images shown above of course belongs to the estate of Watabe Yūkichi or the respective publisher, not to me.

January 2012 PS: There’s perceptive comment and also fresh information in Marc Feustel’s “Books of the Year: Yukichi Watabe’s A Criminal Investigation” (20 December 2011).

2 Comments on “Watabe Yūkichi”

  1. mrs. deane says:

    The Watabe book is pretty much sold out now. I got myself a copy at Paris Photo, thankfully. No doubt it will appear on many 2010 top book lists. Printing is gorgeous, done in Germany, by a company which usually only prints ordinary text books, but which has outdone itself and its competitors.

    • microcord says:

      It certainly is a charming production; and yes, I’ve already noticed it on two “best-of” lists.

      But spare a moment’s thought for other photobooks by the man. (Actually he has produced a lot more than the few I’ve described above.)

      I hope that his other early work in Japan gets a publisher. (The later Japanese work I’ve seen, of “kagura” or shrine dances, may be ethnographically valuable but to me it’s visually unexciting.) Unfortunately, prospects in Japan seem bleak: the elastic-band book is virtually unknown here and so Watabe’s name on a new book wouldn’t have much of an impact. If you’re Kimura Ihei, your work from the 1950s is handsomely repackaged (and priced accordingly); but too many of the newer photobooks of Japan in the 1950s are aimed at the social history (or nostalgia) market and, it seems, designed by blockheads.

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