Letter from Japan


Notes from a Biographer

Stephenson has been blogging for The Daily about W. Eugene Smith, the subject of his forthcoming biography. Here, he writes to managing editor Nicole Rudick from Okinawa, Japan.

Dear Nicole,

Today is my fourteenth day in Japan. The first nine days were in Tokyo, followed by four in Minamata, and now Okinawa. In a few days I’ll leave here for Saipan, Guam, and Iwo Jima, all part of my month-long Pacific tour on Gene Smith’s trail.

Photograph by W. Eugene Smith. Courtesy of Takeshi Ishikawa.

Smith often said he felt like he was from Japan in a former life. His second wife, Aileen Mioko Smith, was Japanese American, and he made three extended trips here: beginning as a combat photographer in World War II, then to Tokyo in the early sixties, and Minamata in the early seventies. I spent my first two weeks interviewing his former associates through my interpreter, Momoko Gill. The prevailing responses—some of them wordless, from body language to tears—were similar to what jazz pianist Freddie Redd once told me: “Gene Smith is just a sweet memory.”

In New York, Smith’s appeal wore thin among those that relied on him or expected things from him—publishers, gallery owners, benefactors, people from the “official” side of things. I don’t blame them. He couldn’t finish anything he started. He wrote long, complaining letters to people he barely knew, copying paragraphs verbatim from letters he’d written to others. He’d fake injuries for sympathy. His quixotic grandiosity—linked to feverish moral imperatives, alcoholism, amphetamine addiction, and bipolar disorder—went from valiant to insufferable. But over the past two weeks, I haven’t heard anything that indicates he behaved like that in Japan. Nor did he with jazz musicians and underground characters in the New York loft. He drank heavily in both places, though. I’m left wondering about the relation, for Smith, between people in Japan and the transient loft figures.

Did I tell you that last summer I left the full-time staff of Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies to become a part-time consultant? What do you do when you cut your pay by 60 percent and give up benefits? Answer: spend your entire book advance (in today’s publishing climate) on a four-week trip to walk in Smith’s footsteps in Japan and the Pacific. Jeezus. Hopefully this will work out as an investment. Somehow, my wife doesn’t think I’m a lunatic.

Five days ago, my interpreter Momoko and I arrived in the town of Minamata, which sits on the Yatsushiro Sea in deep southern Japan, quite a departure from Tokyo. It’s like a Japanese person traveling to New York on their first American visit and then going to Gulfport, Mississippi, immediately afterward. Minamata’s seaside mountains were a bigger presence than I imagined they would be. Mist and fog hung in the valleys, and there was a cold, stiff breeze when we rolled in. We found the Super Hotel in the center of town, dropped off our bags, and went wandering. At three in the afternoon, the streets were vacant, except for children walking home from school in uniforms, with raincoats and backpacks, and numerous alley cats. We had no map or directions and yet had no trouble finding the front gate of the massive industrial complex of Chisso, the company that dumped mercury waste into Minamata Bay from 1932 to 1968, poisoning the fish that had long been the lifeblood of the area. The toxins from these fish metastasized in the wombs of pregnant women, resulting in several thousand (at least) deformed babies. Later in the week we were told, “The babies absorbed all the poison and saved the adults.”

The next day, photographer Takeshi Ishikawa, now sixty, flew down from Tokyo to join us. In 1971, Ishikawa was a photography student in Tokyo when Smith’s exhibition “Let Truth Be the Prejudice” opened in a Shinjuku department store. Ishikawa saw publicity portraits of Smith and one day noticed him walking down the street. He approached Smith, and, though Ishikawa spoke little English, he ended up spending three years working with Gene and Aileen in Minamata, documenting the effects of Minamata disease. He remains close to Aileen today, and she vouched for me. He dropped everything and spent three days with us.

Ishikawa grew up in a family of rice farmers in rural Ehime Prefecture on Shikoku, the smallest and least populated island of Japan, about five hundred miles southwest of Tokyo. Painting first drew his interest, then design, but the gadgetry and handcraft of photography took hold. Today his kindness and sincerity give him a childlike quality: he’s quick to laugh and quick to become misty-eyed, especially when talking about Smith’s compassion and generosity. People in Minamata lit up when they saw Ishikawa, including disease victims he’d known for forty years. By our last day together, communicating almost entirely through Momoko, it was as though we’d known each other for a very long time.

Momoko and Ishikawa at a restaurant.

One day we went to see the tiny plot of land where Gene and Aileen had lived in Minamata. Ishikawa had stayed there, too, for a short time, before moving to another house close by, where he set up a darkroom for Smith. For years after the project was completed and the Smiths had moved away, there was a sign out front indicating “Eugene Smith’s House.”

About one hundred yards from the house, with railroad tracks running in between, there is a neighborhood store run by the Mizoguchi family. Smith bought a fifth of Suntory Red whiskey and ten bottles of milk there every day. Ishikawa sometimes ran that errand. The same family still owns the store. We went in, and Ishikawa asked Mr. Mizoguchi if he remembered Smith. Momoko told me he began talking about Smith casually, as if he still lived there. Mr. Mizoguchi’s wife disappeared into their house and emerged with a scrapbook that featured two vintage prints given to them by Smith as gifts. The prints, simple pictures of neighborhood cats, bore his trademark warmth and range of black and white tones. It was better than looking at his prints in a museum. Mr. Mizoguchi picked up the phone to call people who would remember Smith. We met with one of them, Takeru Uchigami, the next day. Smith had photographed his wedding, and the picture made it into the former’s 1975 book, Minamata.

Photograph by Takeshi Ishikawa.

After the visit to the store, Ishikawa called a taxi so we could head back to the hotel. The dispatcher knew our location when Ishikawa said, “Eugene Smith’s house.”

Later that night we had dinner with seventy-six-year-old Kyoko Mizoguchi (no relation to the store owners), whose family owned the house in which Smith and Aileen lived. Kyoko’s sister Junko, twelve years her junior, had a crush on Ishikawa at the time. They shared laughs about what might have been. Kyoko had another younger sister, Toyoko, who died of Minamata disease at age eight. When Kyoko was very young, before Junko and Toyoko were born, she often went fishing for the family dinner. Mercury-infected fish swam slower and closer to the water’s surface, Kyoko said, making them easy catches. She described coming home with baskets of fish, to the delight of her parents.

When Gene and Aileen Smith moved into the house of Kyoko’s family, there was a shrine to Toyoko installed in the main room. They didn’t take it down. In the enclosed picture you can see the shrine in the background, and that’s Ishikawa facing the camera. Aileen sits at the opposite end of the table in the striped robe.

Soon I’ll be off to Saipan, Guam, and Iwo Jima, which is only open to civilians one day each year. I expect the WWII combat sites that Smith photographed to be moving in a different way; there won’t be emotional oral-history interviews like there have been for the past couple weeks. It’ll be a new kind of Gene Smith story.



Sam Stephenson is the author of The Jazz Loft Project. He is currently at work on a biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Check back soon for more of Stephenson’s dispatches.