Tsuneko Sasamoto: Celebrating the 100th Birthday of Japan’s First Female Photo-Journalist

Tsuneko Sasamoto’s 100th birthday exhibition catalogue

A couple of weeks ago, on of my students talked about a photographic exhibition that was being held at the Fukuya department store in Hachobori, in the centre of Hiroshima.

The exhibition was celebrating the 100th birthday of  Japan’s first female news photographer, Tsuneko Sasamoto.

Intrigued by my student’s report and by the brochure she passed around the class, I decided to check out the exhibition later that day as I happened to be going into town. I was very pleased to have done so.

Tsuneko Sasamoto was born in Tokyo in 1914. She worked for the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shinbun and took up photo-journalism after making contact with the Photography Association.

She resisted pressure to give up working and get married at a time when women were treated as second-class citizens in Japan. Instead, against all the odds, she went on to document seven decades of Japanese life.

Perhaps the most intriguing photo in the exhibition is of a delegation of Hitler Youth who visited Japan in 1940 and are being entertained by a bunraku puppeteer. Presumably, they flew across the Soviet Union to reach Japan, during the time when the Nazi-Soviet non-Aggression Pact was still in place.

Tsuneko Sasamoto also photographed various other events of the Axis powers in Japan as well as the seventh Japan-America Student conference, also in 1940, just over a year before the Pacific War broke out.

A Bunraku puppeteer entertains a delegation of Hitler Youth, Osaka, 1940.

After the war Tsuneko Sasamoto worked as a freelance photographer. She recorded scenes from the occupation, from MacArthur and his wife, (successfully requesting that he and his wife allow her to re-take a photo – an unprecedented breach of protocol at the time), to the bar life of the occupation forces after restrictions on mingling had been lifted in 1949.

A US army sergeant and his girl enter a restricted access hotel (L). Of duty occupation force soldiers and Japanese girls at a Ginza bar (R).

In 1946 Tsuneko Sasamoto was in Hiroshima and photographed the A-Bomb Dome one year after the dropping of the a-bomb on the city.

A bomb dome, Hiroshima, 1946.

For me, though, the most moving section of the exhibition was a whole series of portraits of notable Japanese men and women who Tsuneko Sasamoto photographed during the postwar years, most of whom have now passed away, giving the photos an almost elegaic quality.

Here is a news report in English about Tsuneko Sasamoto to mark her 100th birthday. In the film clips we get some idea of how dynamic and engaged with life this remarkable and inspiring Japanese woman continues to be.

What is Tsuneko Sasamoto’s secret of longevity? A large glass of red wine while contemplating the moon every evening!


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