Somehow, of love and immortality

Upon returning from photographing a wedding on Pearl Beach last weekend, I found a message from a man named Greg Leon in Melbourne:

I have just seen a news article at ABC Online… regarding Yasukichi Murakami and your biographical work on him. The article mentioned the scarcity of his photographs from his Darwin years. I have a set of 15 photographs that Mr Murakami may have taken of my parents when they were married in Darwin in May 1940. If you are interested please let me know… Regards, Greg

Interested?! This is what I’ve been doing for nearly 3 years: Looking for Yasukichi Murakami’s photographs, especially from Darwin.

I telephoned Greg immediately.

Back of the envelope

Back of the envelope found by Greg Leon.

Dear Mayu,

I was surprised and delighted to receive your call today. The timing was something of a coincidence as I was scheduled this afternoon to perform (inter alia) a song I wrote that refers to Murakami-san’s photos of my parents’ wedding in Darwin in 1940. For info, I am a part-time singer-songwriter (and a semi-retired IT Consultant, Project Manager, Business Analyst).

I have attached scans of the envelope in which I found the photos (as film negatives). I have also attached one of the images revealing the shadow of the photographer!

Imelda (nee Leahy) and Tony Leon on their wedding day in Darwin, 1940. Photo probably by Yasukichi Murakami

Imelda (nee Leahy) and Tony Leon on their wedding day in Darwin, 1940. Photo probably by Yasukichi Murakami

When I was a younger photographer working for Fairfax Media, many of my colleagues said wedding photography was not a path to pursue for a serious photojournalist. Yet I enjoyed enjoy being of service as a photographer who endeavours to leave memories of love.

Photographing a wedding gives a photographer a great chance for his / her work to serve for generations to come. In a sense, it is our best shot at immortality.

Greg added:

My parents were Imelda (nee Leahy) and Tony Leon. Both were born in Adelaide, but my father’s family were from Melbourne. I understand that they met in Darwin just three weeks prior to their wedding. I am not sure when they returned to Adelaide, but I assume it was prior to 1941. After the start of the “Pacific” war, my father enlisted and went to New Guinea, while my mother remained in Adelaide as a nurse in one of the military hospitals. After I was born in 1947, my parents moved to Melbourne where I have spent the rest of my life to date.

Looking a little more critically – and from an amateur photographer’s perspective – some questions spring to mind:

– Why would a professional photographer allow his shadow to fall within the frame?

– Wouldn’t a professional photographer retain the negatives, rather than returning them to the client?

– Looking at the photographs as a set, I cannot help thinking they are almost too casual for a pro.

So, the Big One: was Murakami-san the actual photographer, or did he just process the film as a service for the person who took the photographs? What do you think?

Looking forward to further discussion!

Best regards, Greg

Envelope found by Greg Leon. The handwriting is that of Yasukichi Murakami's.

Envelope found by Greg Leon. The handwriting is that of Yasukichi Murakami’s.

I do not know all the answers.

I know that when I had photographed weddings on negatives, I often gave the negatives to the bride and groom. They are best with them, and not for us to keep a hold on the work we have taken part and brought to creation.

Murakami did leave his shadow in two of his family photographs.  There could be many more. John E deB Norman told me once that he has a photograph of Eki Nishioka’s shadow. Perhaps it was Eki who taught Murakami to leave his shadow in a photo every so often.

Somehow, the words love and immortality to come to mind.

Emma Dean and Joon Yang at Pearl Beach 2014 Photo by Mayu Kanamori

Emma Dean and Joon Yang at Pearl Beach 2014 Photo by Mayu Kanamori

– Posted by Mayu Kanamori

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Diasporic condition

Every two hours a slow local train stops at Tanami station, a small seaside village near the very southern tip of Honshu Island. This is where photographer Yasukichi Murakami was born, and left at the age of 17 in 1897 to sail to Australia.

The old Tanami port where Yasukichi would have farewelled his family is only a few hundred meters away from where the Murakami family home once stood. Yasukichi would have grown up looking out to sea everyday watching the men of Tanami leave, many who sailed overseas to find work in places like Hawaii and Australia on indentured contracts.

Old Tanami port. The stone wall of the Murakami family home can be seen on the far left. Photo by Mayu Kanamori

Old Tanami port. The stone wall of the Murakami family home can be seen on the far left. Photo by Mayu Kanamori

Reiko “Ruruka” Minami, Yasukichi Murakami’s grand-daughter met me at Tanami station. Ruruka is about my age, and like me, an artist, a performance maker. She performs in sign language whilst my performances use photographs to communicate.

Ruruka Minami at Tanami station. Photo by Mayu Kanamori

Ruruka Minami at Tanami station. Photo by Mayu Kanamori

Ruruka took me to her family home to meet her mother, Yasuko Pearl Minami (nee Murakami). Travelling to meet a 89-year-old woman whilst carrying on my iPad a photograph of young Yasukichi induces my mind to play tricks, creating an illusion as if I am meeting Yasukichi’s mother, but this woman is his daughter.

Yasukichi Murakami's photo travelled with me to his hometown in Tanami, Wakayama, Japan. The eucalyptus bark and nuts were found at Yasukichi Murakami's gravesite in Cowra, NSW. Photo by Mayu Kanamaori

Yasukichi Murakami’s photo travelled with me to his hometown in Tanami, Wakayama, Japan. The eucalyptus bark and nuts were found at Yasukichi Murakami’s gravesite in Cowra, NSW. Self portrait photo of Yasukichi Murakami by Yasukichi Murakami, Courtesy of Murakami Family Archives. Photo by Mayu Kanamaori

Yasuko Pearl who was born in Broome, Western Australia and married a man from Tanami whilst they were both interned in Tatura, Victoria during WWII. She is the third born between Yasukichi and his wife Theresa Shigeno.

In her home, Yasuko Pearl showed me many original photographs taken by her father Yasukichi Murakami. In Australia, these photographs were lost when Yasukichi and his family were arrested in Darwin in 1941 for being an enemy alien. But Yasukichi throughout his life had sent his photographs to his mother in Japan, allowing us to see what life was like for Yasukichi during his lifetime.

Ruruka Minami and Pearl Yasuko Minami looking at old photographs. Photo by Mayu Kanamori

Ruruka Minami and Pearl Yasuko Minami looking at old photographs. Photo by Mayu Kanamori

Whilst looking through these old photographs we came across a family photograph taken in Tanami. It is the only photo I have seen of Yasukichi and his mother Yasu in Japan along with Theresa and 5 five of his 9 children. I am told that this photo was taken in Tanami when Yasukichi returned to his place of birth. I know from his immigration records that this was 1925.

Yasukichi Murakami and family in Tanami, Wakayama Prefecture. 1925.Left to right: Yasu Murakami, Frances Yasunosuke Murakami, Theresa Shigeno Murakami, Bernadette Yoshiko Murakami (baby), Pearl Yasuko Murakami, Kathleen Masuko Murakami (standing), Richard Jukichi Murakami and Yasuichi Murakami. Photo by Yasukichi Murakami. Courtesy, Murakami Family Archives

Yasukichi Murakami and family in Tanami, Wakayama Prefecture. 1925.
Left to right: Yasu Murakami, Frances Yasunosuke Murakami, Theresa Shigeno Murakami, Bernadette Yoshiko Murakami (baby), Pearl Yasuko Murakami, Kathleen Masuko Murakami (standing), Richard Jukichi Murakami and Yasuichi Murakami. Photo by Yasukichi Murakami. Courtesy, Murakami Family Archives

Yasukichi’s father Jubei Murakami was a successful man. Unlike other men from Tanami, Yasukichi did not need to leave home to find work. I imagine Yasukichi left home full of youthful energy, looking forward to his adventures ahead. I too remember when I first left Tokyo to come to Australia in 1981. I too did not need to come to Australia.

His family home was on what would have been the best part of the village, along the main road in the centre of town. There is still a stone fence facing the sea today, which had belonged to the Murakami family. This block is now sub divided into three lots with houses on each end and a vacant block in the middle. This vacant block is now owned by Yasuko Pearl.

When Yasukichi returned to Japan in 1925, he found that the Murakami family had fallen on hard times and their property had been sold to others. With money he had earned in Australia, Yasukichi bought back part it and housed his mother there. This is the vacant block owned by Yasuko Pearl today.

Hearing this story made me a little teary. It was not so much that I was moved by the actions of a faithful son, but that of the diasporic condition.

It is recorded in Yasukichi’s unsuccessful Australian application for naturalization in 1939 that he had returned to Japan for “holidays” in 1925. It is our diasporic condition that touches my heart. Whilst others enjoy their holidays in exotic and fun-filled destinations, when people like Yasukichi, myself and so many of us who have crossed the seas go on our holiday, we mostly go back to where our loved ones live, and we do what we will to reconnect and rekindle that love. And then we move back to another life with other loved ones.

The day I left Tanami, Ruruka decided to perform for her grandfather Yasukichi Murakami on this vacant block of land that she would most probably inherit one day. I videoed her performance to take back to Australia and to play it back by Yasukichi’s grave in Cowra.

Ruruka Minami performing in sign on the stone wall by her family block. Still image from video by Mayu Kanamori

Ruruka Minami performing in sign on the stone wall by her family block. Still image from video by Mayu Kanamori

– Posted by Mayu Kanamori

* For Ruruka Minami’s Shuwa Nikki (Sign Language Diary), click here.

* For more on the diasporic condition via a speech transcript for the Japanese on the Move, a project by Ingrid Piller and Kimie Takahashi, click here.

Archivists and heritage experts

Julie Murakami and I began our search for Yasukichi Murakami’s life and photographs he has left behind at the Northern Territory office of the National Archives of Australia. Thankfully the archivist who assisted us was supportive, encouraging and enthusiastic, giving us an auspicious start to our research. She helped us with clues about how to tackle the massive archives that held the records of our national heritage. A local woman of Aboriginal and Chinese descent, she was also interested in her own family history, searching for information about her Chinese grandfather. She told us that research can be addictive, and watching her navigate the massive web of our archives, continuously clicking her mouse, following one lead after another, made me think that this could indeed be a portrait of an addict. But then again, I think it may be my own delusional tendencies that needed a reality check: I was beginning to believe that it was the spirits of those buried underneath the vaults of our archives that possessed us to so passionately dig into our hidden histories.

Archival Officer Joanne Wood at National Archives, NT Office. Photo by Mayu Kanamori

At the Heritage Branch of the Northern Territory’s Department of Natural Resources, Environment, The Arts and Sport, we met a dedicated and very helpful heritage expert who had some years ago written a report about the heritage listed building in Cavanaugh Street in Darwin’s Central Business District, commonly known as the Stone Houses. In the report is the name Murakami as one of the occupants of this building in the early 1940’s. It is by coincidence that he had answered the phone when I rang to seek some help in locating where Yasukichi’s photographic studio may have been. Such coincidences make me feel that the spirits are with us, and once again, I find the need to remind myself not to be carried away.

At the Northern Territory Archives Service we met an archivist who awakened us to the broader and more meaningful implications of the search for Yasukichi Murakami’s photographs. So professional was her approach to her trade, it made clear to us her dedication to public service, beyond the servicing of Julie and I and her current array of clients / researchers, but for the generation after and the generation thereon after.

Julie Murakami at NT archives. Photo by Mayu Kanamori

Meeting with archivists and heritage experts have inspired my processes of art making to take shape in a very different way to what I had imagined. I am unsure how to put it in words just at the moment, but I do know that it will be an important part of the story I am about to tell of Yasukichi Murakami’s life and work. The current clues point towards how an individual photographer / image maker takes part in service of the collective memory of future generations, how our archival practices take part in this process, and how art making can make a difference. It all sounds very grand and perhaps very vague, but I can begin in small specific ways: by suggesting corrections when noticing an error in the records, whenever possible requesting digitization and opening of records which are yet to be opened, and to encourage wider public access to the treasures and secrets hidden in our archives.

– Posted by Mayu Kanamori

The Family Photo Album

Julie Murakami shared her family album she had inherited from her great-uncle Peter Sakichi Murakami. When he passed away, Julie said to her aunty, “Please don’t throw away the photos.” And so the family photo album was entrusted to her, and Yasukichi Murakami’s photographs of his wife and children survived another generation.

Julie allowed me to copy photograph these precious family photographs for this project. There was a photograph of Yasukichi’s wife Theresa sitting on a cart with their oldest daughter Kathleen Masuko Murakami, Julie’s grandmother. As I looked through the viewfinder onto this photograph to photograph it, I intuitively knew the exact spot Yasukichi had focused on – the eyes of young Kathleen. I too focused on her eyes, and she was returning my gaze. Or was it Yasukichi’s gaze? Through the viewfinder, for a moment, I thought was Yasukichi. Or was it Yasukichi’s ghost photographing through me?

Theresa Shigeno & Kathleen Masuko Murakami in Broome, Western Australia circa 1920. Photo by Yasukichi Murakami. Courtesy of Julie Murakami.

-Posted by Mayu Kanamori

Julie Murakami

Julie Murakami and I met in a restaurant in Rapid Creek, a suburb of Darwin for a Japanese meal. After sharing with her my efforts to date of locating photographs Yasukichi Murakami had left behind, she helped me with the family tree on her father’s side of her family, starting with Jubei and Yasu, Yasukichi’s parents from Tanami in Wakayama Prefecture.

Yasukichi married Theresa Shigeno and had nine children, six boys and three girls. Julie is the daughter of David Yoshiji, who is the second son of Kathleen Masuko and Yoshio Murakami. Kathleen Masuko is the oldest daughter of Yasukichi and Theresa. Julie’s father David Yoshiji Murakami was born in an internment camp in Tatura.

Julie had contacted me last year by commenting on this project blog, letting me know that she was Yasukichi’s great granddaughter. Since then we have kept contact by email, exchanging information about her great-grandfather, and we decided to join forces in our search of his legacy.

Rapid Cafe at Rapid Creek Business Village. Photo by Mayu Kanamori

-Posted by Mayu Kanamori

Murakami’s photographic studio

Yasukichi Murakami’s studio must have been around where Bungalow Bar or where Camdons Broome Pearls and Fine Jewellery stands now.

In search of where Murakami’s photographic studio may have been, I walked up and down around the block between Canravon St, Short St, Dampier Terrace and old Johnny Chi Lane in Broome’s Chinatown. Because of advertisement records in old phone books, we know that Nishioka’s Emporium where Eki started her photographic studio at the back of the shop had its address in Canarvon St. But back of the emporium where the studio was may have faced Dampier Terrace or the old Johnny Chi Lane. That would have been very early 1900s.

Carol Tang Wei, the co author of The Story of the Chinese in Broome has created a map of China Town circa 1935 – 1940 based on her mother’s memories. In her map there is a Japanese photographer’s studio on Dampier Terrace, three doors down from the corner of Short St. Is it possible that Murakami’s photographic studio moved their premises between his earlier days in Broome and just before he moved to Darwin? Perhaps the studio always remained in the same spot — either where the Bungalow Bar or next door where the Camdons Broome Pearls and Fine Jewellery stands today.

Bungalow Bar and Camdon’s on Dampier Terrace, China Town, Broome. Photo by Mayu Kanamori

On the morning of my departure from Broome, my long time close friend and fellow photographer Jon Armstrong and I met in China Town. It was Jon who taught me how to use Final Cut Pro to tell stories with still photographs. I asked him to photograph me in front of the Bungalow Bar on Dampier Terrace.

There is a photograph of young Murakami held at the Broome Museum. It must have been Eki who photographed him. The caption on the photograph reads: Murakami Aged 21. Photo taken outside Nishioka Store. Item Dated 1st May 1901. Eki was the one who brought the camera to Australia and she taught Murakami how to take photographs. To ask Jon to photograph me in front of the Bungalow Bar seemed to me like the most natural thing to do.

– Posted by Mayu Kanamori

The intuition

How do I tell the difference between Eki’s photographs and Murakami’s? Luckily for me, Noreen Jones, the author of No 2 Home was back in town.

Without delay I saw her in her son’s home in Broome. No 2 Home has been for me one of the most inspirational books written in the last ten years. I have read and re-read chapters of her book like a bible, taking notes and making use of the valuable information she has shared with us all. I had so many questions for her:

Who was H. Wada, the photographer who has left many photographs in the Mise Photographic Collection, which is held by Jones. Does she mind if I exhibited my photographs alongside the photographs in her collections? Who were the other five Japanese photographers she mentions in her book? Is one of them Eki? Is Wada the other? In the Jones’ National Archives collection, there is a copy of the certificate exempting Hichijiro Wada from the dictation test. Is this the same H. Wada?

How do I tell the difference between Eki’s photographs and Murakami’s?

Of course no one can know, but perhaps it is possible to know intuitively. As a photographer I know this is possible. I want to learn more.

– Posted by Mayu Kanamori