At Home in Japan’s Archipelago

Hiroji Kubota takes an aerial view of the country’s islands

Hiroji Kubota

Hiroji Kubota Looking towards Okamura Island from Oosaki Shimojima Island. Japan. 2017 © Hiroji Kubota | Magnum Photos

In more ways than one, Japan can be described as shimaguni, a term used to describe an island nation. Geographically, its 6,852 islands and islets are sprinkled across the Sea of Okhotsk, the Pacific Ocean, East China Sea and the Korea Strait. In a metaphorical sense, shimaguni has been used to describe the country’s enduring island spirit that has acted as glue in times of economic and political distress. It’s also been used to refer to the nation’s closed island mentality, which was fortified during its 250-years of self-imposed isolation – a policy named Sakoku – which ended in 1853.

Yet, whatever its connotations, shimaguni underscores how Japan’s geographical landscape has played a vital role in shaping its culture. So, when tasked with photographing his homeland, Magnum photographer Hiroji Kubota chose to photograph Japan’s islands.

Hiroji Kubota Oyster farming, looking towards Etajima Island. Setonaikai Inland Sea is known for its highest Oyster cultivation in Japan. Japan. 2017. © Hiroji Kubota | Magnum Photos
Hiroji Kubota Steel Works in Kure City. Behind is the Yamato Museum, where Battleship Yamato was built during WWII. Japan. 2017 © Hiroji Kubota | Magnum Photos

Choosing to photograph the lay of the archipelago from the air, Kubota doesn’t just capture Japan’s natural beauty but also manages to capture some of its cultural identity. Photographing its “most symbolic” sights, from the atomic bomb dome of Hiroshima to large-scale oyster production in the Setonaikai Inland Sea — he captures the physiognomy of the landscape.

Kubota produced the series at the invitation of Magnum Home, a group exhibition realized in collaboration with Fujifilm, which saw 16 Magnum photographers tasked with photographing and sharing what ‘home’ means to them. As the exhibition opens in Tokyo, Kubota discusses his thoughts on how to portray the island nation he calls home.

"Of course, the view from a helicopter is so beautiful."

- Hiroji Kubota
Hiroji Kubota Shimanami Kaido starting area in Onomichi City, Hiroshima Prefecture.Japan. 2017. © Hiroji Kubota | Magnum Photos
Hiroji Kubota Setonaikai Inland Sea is known for its highest Oyster cultivation in Japan. Ooyokoshima Island, Ehime Prefecture. Japan. 2017. © Hiroji Kubota | Magnum Photos
Hiroji Kubota Atomic Bomb Dome. Hiroshima. Japan. 2017. © Hiroji Kubota | Magnum Photos

“As many people know, Japan is an island country. From Wakkanai of Hokkaido to Hateruma Island of Okinawa, I guess the country stretches well over 3,500 km. I don’t know exactly how many islands we have. Believe it or not, the island of Iwo Jima is a part of Tokyo, though only military personnel live there.”

“To portray the island country of Japan, there is no other place like Setonaikai, or the Seto Inland Sea. Shimanami Kaido, the island sea road from Onomich (a city on the main island of Honshu) to Imabari (a city on Shikoku Island) are most symbolic. Of course, the view from a helicopter is so beautiful.”

Stay in touch
Monthly updates on the latest assignments, photographer projects and collaborations with brands.
Know when our quarterly 7-day square print sale is coming.
Learn about online and offline exhibitions, photography fairs, gallery events, plus fine print news and activities, on a monthly basis.
Get fortnightly tips and advice articles, find out about the latest workshops, free online events and on-demand courses.
Be the first to know about recent Magnum Shop drops. From new books and limited editions, to special offers, you can find it all on the weekly Magnum Shop newsletter.
Stay up to date every Thursday with Magnum photographers’ activities, new work, stories published on the Magnum website, and the latest offerings from our shop.