Japan 1979 by John Shingleton

Japan 1979

by John Shingleton

In the last couple of years Steve has kindly published a number of my contributions on his blog the most recent two were on the XVario Leica and most recently an opinion piece on the curse of digital photography. Sadly that last story although it was intended to provoke serious thought and reflection generated many what I consider very unfair comments and a level of unnecessary personal abuse and although I pride myself on having a reasonably thick skin the overall experience left me proclaiming that it would be the last time that I ever put my head above the trench with an opinion piece or indeed any other story on Steve’s blog! And yet here I am again.Well this time hopefully noses will not be put out of joint. I originally posted these pics on my personal blog but a number of friends have urged me to give them wider exposure as they are a unique glimpse into another era so here’s the story and the photos.

Back in 1979 I went to Japan on a business trip. Japan was an exotic and mysterious destination then. In Tokyo only the main central metro stations had the station names in western script so navigating the metro unaided was a challenge. Westerners were still very much an oddity outside the main centres. Very few people even in Tokyo spoke any English at all. Taxi drivers spoke none. They could not read western script so unless you had your destination written down in Japanese you could not travel by taxi.

Since 1979 I have visited Japan many times most recently a couple of years ago and it has always been an extraordinary experience. In 1985 I even drove my family without a guide and of course without GPS in a big left hand drive car (Japan is a RHD country) extensively on the north island over the Christmas/New Year period when it was snowing. I must have been very brave or just crazy.

I had my Olympus OM2 SLR with me on that first trip all those years ago. The yen was very weak then against the Aussie dollar so camera gear was a real bargain in Tokyo and I bought a 28mm Zuiko lens for the Olympus. I took photographs in the Kawasaki small motor and motorcycle factories and Tohatsu outboard motor factory I visited. As the light was very poor I used a very fast film, Ilford HPS-which was harsh and grainy . I developed it at home in a very fine grain developer. The photographs were taken on the run as I was on business factory visits -not sightseeing.Focussing was very difficult in the low light and even with the fast film the shutter speeds were slow. Camera shake ruined quite a few of them.

The factories were very noisy, hot, dirty and very crowded. They smelt of hot oil and hot metal. As you can see the working conditions were harsh. OH&S was not a consideration -note the lack of ear and eye protection. It would be so different today.I am sure much of the small engine production is now highly automated or has moved offshore most likely to China and other asian countries.

Today they would be much less willing to allow you to take photographs on security grounds and just imagine trying to focus manually if I had been wearing plastic lenses safety glasses. I was fortunate to record quite literally another time.

Only a couple of these photos were printed at the time. I was too busy with work and a young family to spend hours in the darkroom and in any case they needed printing skills which were beyond me. I found them last weekend in a big box full of thousands of negatives in my garage. With a scanner and Lightroom I have been able to give them their first visibility.

I hope that you appreciate this record of an extraordinary place.



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  1. John Shingleton — I owe you an apology for misspelling your name in a comment to an earlier article you submitted. It was not intentional and I apologize. I tried to post this on the original article but comments were closed when I realized my error.

  2. “The photographs were taken on the run”

    Isn’t that the definition of a snapshot? And isn’t the snapshot what you looked down your nose at in that previous article?

    You should have stuck to your guns back when you took those shots and used a pinhole camera. Because film lets you take the picture in a fraction of a second…and that sort of thing KILLS photography.

    • Jan , “methinks that thou tryeth to maketh mischief”.
      Anyway , you are drawing a pretty long bow here as I make it clear in the story that circumstances dictated that I took the photos on the run.If I had the luxury of time I would have taken them at a slower pace and maybe have even used a pinhole cameras you suggest.The problem with using a pinhole camera in a factory environment is that pieces of swarf do tend to block up the pinhole and also there is a real danger of being flattened by a fast moving forklift truck whilst you are taking the 10 minute exposures.

      • Touché. I was writing half in jest. And those are pretty interesting shots from a historical point of view.

        I did read your previous article about digital being the death of us all and while there is something to it, I think you rather (and probably intentionally) overstated it in order to get a reaction out of people. I just find this sort of reactionary kneejerk syndrome to be incredibly unoriginal: it’s like going on youtube and writing “I’m 15 and I listen to Deep Purple, aren’t I cool?”

        In other words, it is far too easy to hoodwink people into entering this pollyanna-ish regressive state where everything was wonderful 20 years ago and everything since then has been awful. Doesn’t mean we should do it though.

        If digital were really the problem, don’t you think people like Steve McCurry, Jay Maisel and Joe McNally would still be shooting film?

        A good picture’s a good picture. Any further discussion is just for mental onanism.

        • Oh Jan ,I’m not going there.Never again.Digital photography is great.I love it.And no dust specs either.Just that sometimes people need to smell the roses instead of taking so may photos.My story in a nutshell.Nothing more.Nothing less.As they used to say in magazines-remember them?-“this correspondence is now closed-Ed.”

  3. Beautiful pictures John – I have a soft spot for motorcycles, expecially the ones made in the ’70 (and for film cameras too, just acquired a beautifully aged Olympus OM-1).
    Keep up with the good work!

  4. These pictures really carry a sense of place and time. I can almost hear the factory noises or smell the metal and chemicals in the air. I like the images in their simplicity and honesty. I’m glad you found that box full of negatives! Keep ’em coming!

  5. I like the images and your writeup. And I totally agree with your previous post about the curse of digital photography. One of my sons refuses to take pics meant for memorialization of place or event–he thinks it really takes away from the actual experience and seeing. 🙂

  6. John, Thanks for the quite nice photos of your Japan trip. They are enjoyable. The nastiness that some people express on some of the photo web sites (including this one) is disturbing, but not surprising. We are living in a world that has become, unfortunately, somewhat nastier (just look at our political culture in the US) because of the ubiquitous nature of the internet. Post more.

    • Hi,Mike.Yes as the article says the photos were taken in Kawasaki small motor and motorcycle factories and the Tohatsu outboard motor factory.I cannot remember where they were located except that the Kawasaki plants required a long journey on a bullet train and the Tohatsu factory visit a slow meandering journey through the countryside on a train which was most definitely not a bullet.

    • Nice article.I for one also enjoyed your last article and thank you for contributing to a great sight.Steve generally does a good job of keeping the boarish and bullying behaviour off this sight but occasionaly it raises its ugly head.The majority of viewers see it for what it is and simply feel a level of embarrasement at such bad manners and vitriol

  7. John, these are great photographs, but was it really necessary to use this as an opportunity to complain about the controversy surrounding your previous article? Sometimes it’s better to just give it a rest.

    • Thanks John for your photos and story. Your earlier digital comments make some sense when I scroll through your images. Lovely light and texture; film still has something about it.
      Sadly, my darkroom has gone and my Om2n sits on the bottom shelf under a plethora of digital stuff, obsoleting faster than rotting meat.
      But I’m too lazy to change back!

  8. What is striking in your beautiful photos, John, is an atmosphere of extreme concentration of workers. But seriousness and focus on work in progress are not reflected on the faces that appear serene, without apparent stress. The pace of work seems very quiet, controlled. Amazing!

  9. These were the days when machines were hand assembled and made to last.
    Crazy, I’m wasn’t even born yet until 7years later.

  10. Enjoyed very much the documentary look of your photos; you’ve captured scenes we will never see again. Also, the fact that some photos have a soft focus adds to the realistic feel of the scene.

  11. Great article. I’m sorry about the bad experience you had submitting your work/articles here, also because I find mr. Huff site probably the most polite and interesting.
    Of course there are times when opinions might be different if not opposite, but people should explain them politely.
    I assure you that posting your photos in a website I check everyday for rumors would have been even worse.. Some say it’s normal, but not to me.
    Congratulation again.

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