Kitai Kazuo, A Photographer Who Chooses a Side

Essay and edit by Dan Abbe 

A few months after arriving in Tokyo, and speaking almost no Japanese, I found myself at a small gallery opening. People were sitting around a table, and at one point a kind woman directed my attention to a sprightly older gentleman. “That’s Kazuo Kitai,” she whispered. “He’s very famous.” I nodded dumbly.

For a photographer from Japan’s celebrated generation of the 1960s and 70s, Kitai has had a relatively subdued reception in the West, and even, to some extent, in Japan. Still, that’s beginning to change; he was included in Martin Parr’s 2011 “Protest Box,” and a book of his early photographs (“Barricade,” designed by John Gossage) was published by the American bookseller Harper’s Books in 2012. Meanwhile, a career retrospective at Tokyo’s Metropolitan Museum of Photography, which just closed in January, will only help to raise his profile at home and abroad. It may have taken some time for audiences to recognize Kitai’s importance to Japanese photography, but then again, it’s nothing new for Kitai to wait around for others to catch up to him. In the 1960′s, he self-published his book “Resistance,” a pioneering document of his experiences in the thick of Japan’s student protest movement, but it met with little response.

Kitai is best known for these protest photographs, and it’s possible that he was the photographer most directly involved in the student movement. At the same time, it’s worth noting that there were other people with cameras who were similarly committed. In the notes for “Barricade,” John Gossage mentions photography books published by university photo clubs that show not just a similar level of engagement with protest movements, but also a similar aesthetic, so perhaps it’s best to say that Kitai is the most well-known photographer to participate actively in the student movement.

Kitai’s early work shows student demonstrations, and clashes with police. Still, in his recent retrospective, among the most powerful work was a series of photographs that Kitai took while living for months inside College of Art at Nihon University alongside fellow demonstrators, who had taken over the building. These images represent objects like a coat hanger or a chair in the context of this activity. Here, Kitai’s photographs are not violent, instead letting the objects—and the anti-government graffiti in the background—speak for themselves.

After the student protests in Tokyo, starting in 1969 Kitai began spending time in farming village of Sanrizuka, on top of which the Japanese government intended to construct Narita International Airport. As he did at Nihon University, Kitai spent months living alongside the farmers who fought against a forcible eviction from their land. It is a great privilege to introduce some of Kitai’s Sanrizuka photographs here.

Many Japanese photographers, even members of what was then considered the “old guard,” captured the raw power (so to speak) of students in the city, but Kitai’s documentation of Sanrizuka reveals a different face of resistance. The smiling face of an old woman appears next to aggressive graffiti declaring “Total Opposition to the Airport.” This woman, a group of children, and a man whose good looks would make him fit right in at any Japanese office all form part of the movement. Among other things, these photographs show that revolution is not the exclusive domain of the young and angry.

Sanrizuka eventually became a kind of stronghold, complete with a lookout tower. But when the government sent in troops to storm the encampments there, the village was taken rather easily. Kitai wryly notes in the text that accompanies these photographs that all of these places “are now beneath the runways of Narita International Airport.” Sanrizuka could be seen as the Altamont of the protest movement in Japan; not just the crushing defeat, but tensions between farmers and students led to a weakening of the movement in general. As for Kitai, he moved farther away from the city, and documented other rural communities like Sanrizuka. The existence of these villages was not threatened directly by government construction projects, but instead by a cultural shift towards urban economic growth. (This work was published as “Mura-e,” or “To the Village.”)

Look carefully at Kitai’s photograph “Old Lady Faces the Water Cannon.” Across the road, in the background, there’s another photographer shooting the scene. It’s entirely possible that he, too, made an image as visually dramatic as this one. That’s secondary, though; what’s significant about Kitai’s photograph is that he’s on one side of the road, and the journalist is on another.