Meet Tsuneko Sasamoto, Japan’s First Female Photojournalist and Now, at 107, Japan’s Oldest Living Photojournalist

You should nev­er become lazy. It’s essen­tial to remain pos­i­tive about your life and nev­er give up. You need to push your­self and stay aware, so you can move for­ward. 

– Tsuneko Sasamo­to

Sound advice whether one is inter­est­ed in sus­tain­ing a cre­ative prac­tice or remain­ing vig­or­ous as one ages.

Pho­tog­ra­ph­er Tsuneko Sasamo­to is an excel­lent poster child for both. Born in Tokyo in 1914, short­ly after the begin­ning of the first World War, she is Japan’s first female pho­to­jour­nal­ist and — at 107, its old­est liv­ing pho­to­jour­nal­ist.

Her tra­di­tion­al father thwart­ed her hopes of becom­ing a painter, but ear­ly encoun­ters with a black-and-white film by Man Ray and the work of Mar­garet Bourke-White sug­gest­ed that pho­tog­ra­phy might prove a sim­i­lar­ly ful­fill­ing path.

By 1940, she was able to par­lay a job as a part-time illus­tra­tor on the local news pages at Tokyo Nichinichi Shim­bun (now known as the Mainichi Shim­bun) into a pro­ba­tion­ary gig as a shoot­er, though as a young woman, she was con­strained by gen­der expec­ta­tions.

Unlike her male coun­ter­parts, she was not allowed to doc­u­ment WWII at the front. Instead, she was charged with spe­cial inter­est sto­ries of a patri­ot­ic nature and por­traits of diplo­mat­ic envoys. She deeply resent­ed her pro­fes­sion­al­ly man­dat­ed uni­form — skirts and heels that occa­sion­al­ly ham­pered her from get­ting the shot.

Her ambi­tion ben­e­fit­ed from a stub­born­ly defi­ant streak. An arti­cle in The Japan Times details how she weath­ered dis­crim­i­na­to­ry com­ments, resist­ed male fam­i­ly mem­bers’ scripts, and, in 1947, piped up to ask Gen­er­al Dou­glas MacArthur, Supreme Com­man­der of the Allied Pow­ers, if he would grant her a redo when her cam­era mal­func­tioned at the rib­bon cut­ting cer­e­mo­ny he was attend­ing.

Oth­er sub­jects from her eight decades-long career:

Stu­dent pro­test­ers

The wives of coal min­ers who were on strike against the then-largest coal mine in Japan

Young women train­ing to be geisha

The Impe­r­i­al Fam­i­ly

Social­ist Par­ty head Inejiro Asanu­ma the day before his 1960 assas­si­na­tion

A who’s who of Japan­ese nov­el­ists, poets, and artists

The 2011 earth quake and tsuna­mi

And, for her exhib­it 100 Women at the Japan­ese Cam­era Indus­try Insti­tute, she includ­ed some notable sur­vivors of the Mei­ji and ear­ly Showa eras, such as Queen of the Blues, Noriko Awaya. As Sasamo­to recalled:

I pho­tographed her toward the end of her life when she was in her eight­ies and bedrid­den. I was one of the few allowed to see her at that time, I think because I was born in the Taisho era (1912–26) and she felt I could under­stand her…. She kept telling me, ‘I am not for­mi­da­ble.’

Short­ly after turn­ing 100, Sasamo­to weighed in on dig­i­tal cam­eras — their lighter weight made them easy to car­ry around, but their func­tions were dif­fi­cult to under­stand.

As for her health reg­i­men: main­tain­ing con­tact with fam­i­ly and friends, a dai­ly piece of choco­late, a glass of red wine every night, and way more red meat than rec­om­mend­ed.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Meet Ger­da Taro, the First Female Pho­to­jour­nal­ist to Die on the Front Lines

Women Street Pho­tog­ra­phers: The Web Site, Instra­gram Account & Book That Ampli­fy the Work of Women Artists World­wide

Vis­it a New Dig­i­tal Archive of 2.2 Mil­lion Images from the First Hun­dred Years of Pho­tog­ra­phy

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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