TAMOTSU YATO (矢頭保): The Born Of Homoerotic Photography In 60s Japan

amotsu Yato (矢頭保), a photographer working in Japan from the mid-60s to the early 70s, created images of Japanese men that had a currency and evocativeness that were rare for his time. In his less-than-a-decade-long career, he photographed constantly and sometimes furiously, pointing his camera at friends, friends of friends, bodybuilding competitions, mens’ festivals and non-professional models from Tokyo’s thriving urban culture. Eventually, he developed the photographs into three distinct bodies of work which were published as “Young Samurai” (体道:日本のボディビルダーたち), “Naked Festival” (裸祭り) and “Otoko” (男 – Man). The last, “Otoko”, was inspired to a great degree by the photographer’s close friendship with novelist Yukio Mishima. Yato’s photographs portrayed a Japanese masculinity distinctly contrary to stereotypes, absolutely contemporary, wholly masculine, and completely Japanese. His death in 1973 cut short a pictorial investigation which promised to go deeper into a territory with little parallel or precedent.

The exact date of Tamotsu’s birth is not certain and varies within the 1924-28 range.  He was born in Nishinomi, a suburb of Osaka, southeast coast of Japan.  Some mention was made by Tamotsu of his mother, but none of his father and the latter seems likely responsible for Tamotsu’s estrangement from his family. Actually he later changed his family name from Takada (高田) to Yato, maybe for the desire to “protect” his family name once his photos became published or, as may be the case given the familial dynamics, to remove himself from his family. There is also a mysterious brother who makes an appearance after Tamotsu’s death.  The brother apparently forbade any future publishing of Tamotsu’s work by threatening the publisher of Tamotsu’s books. Events in the years between Tamotsu’s birth and 1956 remain unknown. On the basis of friends’ reports, in that year can be dated Tamotsu’s first visit to a gay bar was in Osaka.  He had been contemplating suicide in his less than amenable home circumstances and had been cast out by his family.  There is good reason to believe Tamotsu was quite a handsome and well built young man.  And on this first bar visit he met Meredith Weatherby (1914(?) – June 27, 1997(?)), an expatriate English publisher and what could be called today a “promoter.” Tamotsu went home with Weatherby and remained with him until 1970. The pairing of Tamotsu and Weatherby was certainly beneficial for Tamotsu.  He began starring in films as a bit actor, usually as hoodlum or tough-guy.  The parts were small and rarely credited in the films in which he acted.  Donald Ritchie, the film maker of “Aoyama Kaidan” and Weatherby’s friend and roommate, features Tamotsu in that 1957 film.  That is the earliest date at which Tamotsu’s presence in Tokyo can be documented.

It seems clear from all friends’ reports that Weatherby and Tamotsu were lovers.  But Weatherby was also Tamotsu’s mentor, advisor and financial support until late in their relationship.  And it was an open relationship by all accounts. Richie’s part in it remains unknown.  Yet it is clear that it was through this happy happenstance that Tamotsu became the centrepiece of Richie’s film. But even more important was the influence Weatherby had on Tamotsu intellectually and culturally.  It was under Weatherby’s influence that Tamotsu found an interest in photography.  As well, Weatherby was working on English translations of Yukio Mishima’s books and Yukio was a frequent visitor to the home of Tamotsu, Weatherby and Richie. As years passed, the home of this threesome became a sort of artistic-intellectual salon where the elite of the artistic and intellectual worlds gathered.  Yukio and Yato became close friends and Tamotsu took many photos of the prominent novelist.  Yukio’s photos are in both “Young Samurai” and “Otoko.”  And Yukio wrote long and glowing introductions to “Naked Festivals” and “Young Samurai.” By the mid 1960s Tamotsu was already photographing Japan’s traditional and multitudinous “naked festivals” and body builders when he encountered George Rodger’s photography book featuring wrestlers, the Nuba wrestlers.  In Rodger’s work Tamotsu found the theme for his first and second books, “Young Samurai,” on body building, and “Naked Festivals,” on the multitudinous male, ritualistic, quasi-religious, body-challenging exhibitions in Japanese towns. From the first day Weatherby and Tomatsu were together until the late 1960s, Weatherby was Tomatsu’s guide, promoter, teacher, and supporter.  Weatherby is credited with the typography in both “Naked Festivals” and “Otoko.”

Within a few short years, Tamotsu blossomed on the artistic scene.  “Young Samurai” appeared in 1966-67.  “Naked Festival” debuted in 1968-9. “Otoko” published in 1972. (The double dates indicate Japan and U.S. publications.)  During this period, Tomatsu was also the official still photographer for the Japanese scenes in “Tora Tora Tora,” an epic film on the defeat of the Japanese navy by the U.S. Pacific fleet. But also during this short six year span, the year 1970 becomes a watershed.  Yukio Mishima commits seppuku (harakiri) and Weatherby makes a firm personal break with Tamotsu and moves Tamotsu into an apartment in the Takanadobaba district in Tokyo. It’s not clear if there is any connection between Yukio’s departure from life and Weatherby’s exiling of Tamotsu to a poor neighbourhood, but for sure it had a negative emotional and psychological impact on Tamotsu.  Tamotsu fluctuated between depression and anger, being deserted and cast adrift by his two closest friends, his intellectual, emotional and artistic mentors.  And in Weatherby’s case, Tamotsu loses his lover of 14 years.

Tamotsu began drinking and smoking too much even though he was already suffering from physical ailments.  He took to consorting with what is today called “rough trade.”  He died in May 1973, of an enlarged heart, a life-long affliction aggravated severely by Tamotsu’s latter-day self-destructive life-style. Weatherby was out of the country when Tamotsu died.  By the time Tamotsu’s friends got to his apartment, it had been thoroughly picked over.  All the cameras and peripheral equipment were gone.  Little of his negatives and prints remained.  Tamotsu’s alleged brother appeared and bullied publishers and associates into remaining quiet about Tamotsu’s sexual orientation and his professional accomplishments.  Tomatsu’s books were never to be reprinted as a result of the brother’s interference. Tomatsu was cremated, with some of Tomatsu’s models and friends in attendance, in a temple next door to where he had lived with Richie and Weatherby.  There is no record of the disposition of Tomatsu’s ashes. What negatives, prints, and other material that could be gathered finally are now collected in two safe caches, one in Tokyo and one in San Diego.

To better understand the importance of Yato’s work, must be considered that before 1964 no book of photography even remotely resembling it had been published in Japan.  No one even knew what a book of the new Japanese male generation was supposed to look like.  The concept of young Japanese men exposing the beauty of their bodies in such a collection of quasi-nude photographs was totally inconceivable: still today it is not wholly accepted in Japanese culture that a man should be proud of his muscular build and exhibit his buffed body in such an exhibtionist venue. “Young Samurai” was a revolution in Japanese photography and in the self-esteem of Japanese youth.  Looking at the photographs today, one could easily ask, “What’s so special about these?”  The answer is, “That they exist.”
A wide analysis by Richard Hawkins of Yato’s life and work can be found here