Hiroshima Legacy Project

My projects, or more serious projects, have all revolved around shooting in Japan. For me the biggest aspect is being both an insider and outsider gives me a unique perspective. I spent years growing up culturally between Japan and the US, and so I know enough about the inner thinking and culture to recognize certain behaviors. But at the same time, I am very much American, and that gives me foresight into being able to view scenes or actions taken from an outsider’s perspective. This to me has made photography projects in Japan as one’s that feel like the most genuine. 

After graduating from Stanford University in 2018 with a degree in Engineering -Product Design, I set out to capture a project I titled the “Hiroshima Legacy Project”.  Using a 4x5 View Camera the goal of this project was to document the people of smaller towns all around Hiroshima Prefecture. Given the urban migration and the aging population, lots of small towns and even small cities in Hiroshima prefecture are starting to slowly die out. 

The inspiration for this project began in the summer of 2017, a day after my sister’s 12th birthday party, my grandmother Toshiko passed away in her home. Toshiko was born to Soichi and Kumayo Morimoto of Hiroshima on September 10, 1930 in Watsonville, California, where she grew up with her six siblings until World War II. In 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, and the government imprisoned the Morimoto family, including teenaged Toshiko and her siblings, in concentration camps – first in Poston, Arizona, then in Tule Lake, California. After the war, the US government repatriated the Morimoto family to Hiroshima. In her memory, I wanted to create a photographic essay capturing stories and faces of Hiroshima. Along the way she picked up a hobby of photography and always had a camera with her. One of the reasons I decided to take a film photography class at Stanford was to be able to share some common experiences with her and her passion for art in general. The summer before my senior year of college my grandmother had passed away after fighting illness for many years. Before she had passed, she rounded up lots of old film and gathered all the older film cameras she had collected. While many of them do not work, one of my favorite cameras of all time was a Yashica T4 Super Zoom. 

The main premise for this process was to create a project that would help me not only connect back to my ancestral roots, but also create a meaningful project to explore and learn about cultural nuances. During this course of brainstorming I was torn by which direction I should move in, as I was fascinated by a couple different areas. 

The first area I wanted to understand was the Akiya housing crisis that was taking place in the more rural regions of Japan. This was not only a point of interest based of research, I had made observations in many past trips to Japan that there seemed to be many abandoned homes not just in the country side, but also in the outer parts of cities. The second area I wanted to understand was what the daily life was like for people living the countryside of Japan. My conception of Japan had been limited to the confines of Osaka and Kobe. I heard stories of the countryside from my extended family, but I personally had never familiarized myself to it. I want to experience it on my own terms to gain empathy and understanding of what life was like in those regions. The third area was I wanted to just see Japan through new fresh eyes. Being so familiar with a place can numb you to the beauty that exists. I wanted to see Japan in a new light and framed this project as a way to do so. 

Ultimately the outcomes of this project was flexible. I actually didn’t know if I wanted to capture photos of people or photos of the environment when I first started this project. It wasn’t until a fateful encounter of the very first day of the project that I had made up my mind about it. To give some context, I come from a background of human-centered design; essentially design framed through the lens of building empathy with others. One of the key concepts is this idea of doing proper need finding. Need finding focuses on design research and design planning. The premise is that by studying the world around us, we can get a better understanding of what people need, and use those insights to create meaningful ways to think about a concept differently. Need finding draws upon theory and methods from anthropology, psychology, engineering and design planning. Yet my intial concept of this project didn’t have speaking and talking with people be the central focus of the project. My failure in all of this was I was too cocky and thought that I had enough information to conduct a successful project without the bounds of getting to know others. 

On the first day of the project I drove off into a ditch on a mountain road. This was totally 100% my fault for being naive about driving in Japan. One, the steering wheel was on the other side of the car. The second, mountain roads in Japan are narrow and tricky. I was distraught, in disbelief, and thought the project was going to end on the very first day. Luckily, right behind me was a mother who was on her way home from grocery shopping. She helped me call a tow truck and waited with me for over an hour until it arrived. We spoke about what life was like in Shiso and Hyogo Prefecture. It was during this conversation that I realized I was arrogant to think I could capture a place without understanding the people that lived there. Sure, I could take photos of trees and rivers that would print beautifully, but there would be no substance. Later that day, the very first photo of this project turned out to be a shot of a man working on his field in a tractor. He had on a SF giants baseball cap, and it turned out his daughter had moved to SF. He was so excited that he called her up and we spoke over the phone. I am not religious, but if there was a sign from God this was it. From then, I decided this project was going to be about people. 

The biggest learning I had throughout this project was the joy that people in these areas continue to have. I see the city culture of Japan to be depressing in many ways. The youth drink themselves in their sorrow and misery in the harsh working culture. In contrast, the countryside may be “dying off”, but the relationships people share with each other continue to be beacons of light in the area. I am not naive to ignore the fact that the population of the countryside and the towns are slowly fading away. In terms of population decline, I also shot many sheets of BW 4x5 film. These shots captured more of the sorrow and decline of the region. Many of these photos consist of abandoned homes, abandoned hotels, or even abandoned shops. The sad truth is that these areas are slowly disappearing, and the signs were prevalent wherever I went. I think part of my desire to continue to work on this project was to capture what would be lost before it is too late. 


The effects of the decline I noticed that had me the most saddened was the effects it had on communities that once thrived. While of course the abandoned buildings and deserted homes were shocking to witness in person, it was more how empty many central community centers for towns felt. At the same time, I think adversity creates new bonds for people. For example, I spent many days stopping by old elementary schools that had transformed itself into community centers for the elderly. There people from the town would get together to exercise and enjoy each other’s social company. It was a reminder of the power of people and relationships, and will be a lesson I will continue to cherish.

Name : David Kakuei Chao
Location :  Hiroshima, Japan
Official Website : davidchaophotography.com
Instagram : davidchao.film
Camera : Chamonix 4x5 45-F2 + Rodenstock Apo Sironar S 150mm F5.6 Lens

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