Yasumasa Yonehara

by W. David Marx
29 January 2009
An interview with Japanese editor and photographer Yasumasa Yonehara
Yasumasa Yonehara is undoubtedly one of Japan's most dynamic and influential magazine editors, and now, photographers. A life-long freelancer with some of Japan's most important media institutions, Yonehara helped bring kogyaru culture into the mainstream during the 1990s with his early work at iconic magazine egg. Later, his brainchild Smart Girls — a collection of erotic Fujifilm "cheki" instant camera shots of the hottest female models — established Yonehara's signature "lo-fi sexy" photographic style. Over the last few years, Yonehara has become a one-man nexus for Japanese pop culture, working with street-wear brands, music groups, female celebrities, and occasionally, stars of "adult video." Now with last year's gallery show at Barry Friedman Ltd. in New York, Yonehara has taken his unique aesthetic into the world of fine art.

We sat down with Yonehara in his Tokyo office to discuss his background, recent work, photographic aesthetic, direct influence on American Apparel advertisements, and thoughts on the state of the Japanese girls culture he has faithfully documented and embraced over the last 15 years.

Where did you grow up?

I am originally from Kumamoto in Kyushu. I came to Tokyo at 18 for college. I was in the Law Department of Gakushuin [elite college attended by the Imperial Family]. But the thing about Japanese universities is that all the hard work ends the minute you are accepted, so I never studied during college. I just went surfing all the time and partied at night. I just did exactly what I do now.

In college I did part-time work for magazines, so when I graduated, I started working for different publishers. I didn't do the formal recruiting system, so I just continued what I was doing and became a freelance writer. I worked for places like Shueisha's Weekly Playboy and the entertainment desk of Shukan Myojo.

It's not like I set out to be an editor, but since I earned money editing in college, I just kept doing it. The most important prerequisite for my job was that I wanted to stay attractive to women. No matter how you think about it, Japanese salarymen are just not cool.

In Japan, you try to go to a famous university so you can get a good job. What you do up until college is the most important thing, and then if you get into a good school, you automatically get into a good company. A certain amount of your future is guaranteed, so everything is determined at the college level.

So what happens to the guys who go into good companies? Japanese salarymen live and die by their companies' rules, and those rules are created by ossan [a somewhat pejorative term for middle-aged men]. Japanese companies are havens for ossan. So all the young guys who go into the company end up becoming ossan.

I knew women don't like salarymen, so I decided I would do anything other than become a salaryman. As long as I was an editor, I could enjoy my work to a certain degree and not be hated by women.

But isn't there a pretty big social risk in Japan by not becoming a salaryman?

Until I was about 40, my parents kept saying to me, "Get a real job!" In Japan, the "elite route" is to work at a big company, or if you are in the countryside, work for the government. So they wanted me to work one of those jobs.

It's very Japanese to think you have to belong to an organization. This is still true. Personally, I was freelance because I didn't want to join any groups and wanted to start up something myself. I went down a different path.

American magazine editorial is relatively independent from advertisers. Does the strong influence of advertising on editorial in Japan make the content suffer?

Japanese magazines are boring. I hope to do my job under a relation of trust with advertisers that says, trust me with what I am doing and don't complain. In Japan you always have to get confirmation from your partners in whatever you write or make. This is a kind of "journalism" where you have to change any content upon advertiser request and change it to what they want. And it's not just with entertainment news, but writing about anything. So writers tend to not research or report anything themselves. I can't say that's a good thing.

I value independence, but if you work for a Japanese publisher, the idea of independence disappears. You always have to look at what clients and talent agencies think, not readers.
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