The Alphabet of Light #7, by Kirsten Rian (Hiroshi Watanabe)

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Barber Shop, Asakusa, Japan, by Hiroshi Watanabe


I once worked with an immigrant from Vietnam who told me about living in a basement apartment the first eight years in this country. Each morning he’d wake and look out a narrow window that ran along the top part of his wall. At his sightline were just feet walking back and forth, to work, school, the store, shuffling or briskly maneuvering across the concrete and through the dailiness. The conversation of footfalls, the sidewalk of a world outside a room--the narrative of being somewhere, the beginnings of home, now. 

On the mantle of my home is a postcard Hiroshi Watanabe sent me perhaps 15 years ago. It’s one of his iconic images, a child scaling a play structure in Quito, Ecuador. It’s the child, rungs of hither and yon metal bars, and sky. From the angle the image was caught, the kid is suspended, traversing foot holds and hand grips one at a time to get to some sort of other side. Kids play in the moment and haven’t generally yet developed skills to over-think. They’re vested where they are, and the world is big enough right underfoot. This picture reminds me of the value of making maps of here to pick the way through each day.

Hiroshi’s photo projects show pieces and people from all sorts of internal and external geographies. His work is expansive and far-reaching in every sense. But what’s always struck me about his imagery is that location and context almost don’t matter. I’ve long been compelled by how everywhere-anywhere his images are. They feel to me to be intuitive, improvised revelations of a photographer who works to be present and awake in whatever situation, on whatever corner of earth he’s standing. 

Frederic Rzewski, composer and pianist, once relayed, "In 1968 I ran into Steve Lacy [saxophonist and composer] on the street in Rome. I took out my pocket tape recorder and asked him to describe in fifteen seconds the difference between composition and improvisation. He answered: 'In fifteen seconds the difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in fifteen seconds, while in improvisation you have fifteen seconds.' His answer lasted exactly fifteen seconds.” 

Hiroshi says to me, “When one is creating, they have no time to think what others are doing or where the medium in whole is going. They just think about their creation and what is means to them.”

Improvisation allows for composition, it’s just intuitively wrought composition that factors out past and future, relying on trust and reflexes to overturn meaning. No time to think, as Hiroshi says, just make. 

Hiroshi was born and raised in Japan, but has lived in the US the past 30 years. He splits his time and self between the two countries. “I feel home in both countries and I love both of them. I cannot choose one or the other even if I am forced to do so.  So I stay with both of them. I see good and bad in both and compare them, and it gives me something to think about the world all the time.”

His American Studies/Japanese Studies project more overtly turns an eye on the splitting of time and self, but this idea is also revealed in another of his recent projects, Artifacts: ‘Things’ from Japanese Internment Camps. The photographs show items people made or used during confinement, many of which Hiroshi dug out of the ground himself with his bare hands during a visit to the Tule Lake site at the Oregon/California border, considered one of the most heavily guarded and severe camps of this era. 

Hiroshi writes, “Many of the internment camps were on dry lakes which used to be lakes thousands of years ago, and if you dig, you will find many shells underground. People were not allowed to go outside, so they used whatever they could find inside the fence on the dry land.”

His image titles tell the story. My words are not necessary, there is no space in this story to fill with rhetoric:

  • Pipe-Cleaner Flower Arrangement in Mayonnaise Jar
  • Deer Carving
  • Carved Bird Pin in Box
  • Walking Cane made from Natural Wood
  • Raggedy Ann Doll
  • Standard Bucket Distributed in All Camps, One Per Family
  • Bottle with Dead Bugs
  • Metal Rafter Cap, Embossed “May Happiness Come Here”
  • Dice
  • Carved Bird Dressed with Shell Beads
  • Metal Two-Cell Flashlight
  • Maxwell House Coffee Tin
  • Broken Bottle Neck No. 54
  • Broken Light Bulb
  • Medicine Bottle with Dropper
  • Flower Brooch Made with Shells
  • Standard WW II US Army Canteen, Shot Through with Bullet
  • Cane Made with Cocobolo Wood Commemorating 60th Birthday
  • Johnson’s Baby Powder
  • Japanese Doll Made with Old Kimono Fabric
  • Melted Glass Bottle No. 33
  • Rice Bowl
  • Tea Pot
  • Shell Flower Arrangement in Gallon Jug
  • Hair Brush, No Bristles
  • Major Walter Tanaka’s Cap
  • Pipe Cleaner Doll with Painted Face on Shell
  • Flock of Carved Birds Flying Away

“I am not sure why I was so intrigued by the artifacts that Japanese Americans left many years ago,” he continues. “I have no interest in reminding the negative chapter in the American history, and I am not interested in reclaiming the right of Japanese Americans on their behalf. I was born and raised after the war. I enjoyed the freedom and prosperity that the United States brought to Japan. And now I am living a good life in the United States without much struggle. I am not qualified to speak about injustice and hardship that the American government might have given to the Japanese people. I have no right to do so.

“What I see in these ‘things’ are unsettling emotions that Japanese American must have had when they were conflicted by Japanese ideas and American ideas that they gained in their lives in the United States. When they were asked directly, ‘Which side are you?’ they had to choose a country. They must have not been able to close their eyes from the paradox that their own beings brought to themselves. The real tragedy for the Japanese Americans who lived in that era was that they could not have a single place to stand on, American nor Japanese. That seems to apply for me who is living a life in the present tense.”

I asked Hiroshi what he believes about the world. 

“I think the world is very, very complex and that my imagination is too small and simplistic to understand and figure out what is happening or predict what will happen in the world. It's like looking at a chip board inside my computer. I have no idea what it is and what it does. But that does not mean that I should not try.”


To view images from the Artifacts series and other portfolios, visit



Name index: 
Hiroshi Watanabe