Nakada Kenzō photographs down a tunnel

It’s been 24 years since the opening of the Seikan tunnel, linking Honshū and Hokkaidō (Japan’s two biggest islands). The tunnel’s 54 km long, making it the longest rail tunnel anywhere and over twice the length of the longest road tunnel. Planning and surveying took decades, construction started in 1971, and the tunnel opened in 1988. This Aomori government page makes the staggering claim that over time the number of workers totalled 13.8 million.

A search engine will find photographs of the construction of the tunnel. Here’s Jiji’s selection: strong on ceremony but weak on anything else. (The website of the tunnel museum offers stuffed dolls but not a single photo of construction.)

Nakada Kenzō, Otoko-tachi no kaikyō (the book)Look up 青函 (i.e. Seikan) in the OPAC of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, and there are three hits. One’s for a 1988 book about the ferry (now history). The other two are for a book about the tunnel: 男たちの海峡 青函トンネル風雪20年 中田健造写真集 Otoko-tachi no kaikyō: Seikan tonneru fūsetsu 20-nen: Nakada Kenzō shashinshū. (If you’re in the library, the call numbers are P810/N31-2/1 and P810/N31-2/1a.) The title means something like: “Strait of men: 20 years of Seikan tunnel hardships: A photobook by Nakada Kenzō” (“strait” as in Hormuz, not dire). This 1988 book is a very early entry in the BeeBooks series: according to its spine, no. 21; according to the publisher’s list, no. 23. It’s tiny: 17×18.5 cm and about fifty pages. Printing quality is 1980s (some later BeeBooks would have superb printing), and some pages have as many as twelve photos (all B/W). You get the sense that the book doesn’t do the photographs justice, but sometimes the reproductions are so short of detail that you can’t be quite sure.

Nakada Kenzō, Otoko-tachi no kaikyō (the book)
Nakada Kenzō, Otoko-tachi no kaikyō (the book)

It’s not that there are other books and the museum’s library is simply weak in the genre of tunnel-construction photography. As far as I know, Nakada was the only photographer to have spent much time in the tunnel before its completion, his is the only sizeable collection of photos of the construction process, and this is the only photobook that exists.

Nakada Kenzō, Otoko-tachi no kaikyō (book and booklet)

Nakada very generously gave me a copy of this rare book when I visited his current exhibition. Today’s the last day of this show at JCII of a different selection of the same title (男たちの海峡 青函トンネル風雪20年 Otoko-tachi no kaikyō: Seikan tonneru fūsetsu 20-nen). The wall-space isn’t wasted, but the prints are big enough (and excellently printed). And there’s a 32-page booklet of the kind that normally accompanies a JCII show, a booklet that like the earlier book is rather too full, with as many as six photos per page. Again, some do little more than jog the memory of what you’ve seen. Gems among them: top left on p.11, top left on p.16, bottom of p.22.

Nakada Kenzō, Otoko-tachi no kaikyō (the booklet)

Not all the photos are of work. There are perhaps one or two too many of work-related celebrations and ceremonies. But there are also good photos of family life: p.27 of the JCII booklet has two in particular: one of a couple of boys nonchalantly dragging their bags along the road and another of a mother and two young children that might be one of the high points of an early book of Araki’s.

Nakada Kenzō, Otoko-tachi no kaikyō (the booklet)

But mostly they are of work. When Douglas Stockdale recently asked about photobooks about work, I had trouble coming up with Japanese examples. Two generations ago Japanese photographers whether international (Hamaya Hiroshi) or local (Shimizu Bukō) photographed work, but there’s little sign of this among the contemporary Japanese photobooks at London. Predictably, a visit to NADiff two days ago brought nothing related; instead, I was mostly treated to photographers artists working in lens-based media tastefully exploring and exhibiting their sensibilities (which tended to resemble each other). All very worthy, but my own tastes instead run to Yamamoto Sakubei.

Paging photobook publishers: If there were a well-edited, sensibly-sized collection of Nakada’s photos in duotone, I’d buy a couple of copies.

All the images above are copyright © Nakada Kenzō.



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