― Tell us about your home town Kunisaki Peninsula in Kyushu?
The Kunisaki Peninsula is a volcanic landform, with Mt. Futago (721 m) in the center and valleys fanning out from it, that looks like a bump jutting out into the Seto Island Sea. Shipping was such a thriving industry that there is a place named Tomiku, meaning “fortune come.” Although the mountains are low, many of the slopes are perpendicular, making this an ancient place of ascetic training for mountain worship. The area is home to Usa Jingu, a head of Shinto shrines dedicated to the deity Hachiman, as well as to various Buddhist institutions, which gave shape to Shinto–Buddhist syncretism and a unique mountain–Buddhist culture upheld for 1,300 years.
― Are you originally from the Kunisaki Peninsula?
Yes, I was born here. When I was a child, I liked to fish at the nearby port and play in a secret base I had created. But my high school was an hour’s commute one way by bus. I couldn’t wait to get out of the area and live in a big city.
― Did you end up leaving Kunisaki for city life?
I graduated from university and was trained as a teacher but I ended up working in fashion for about a year before returning to my hometown. Once back in Kunisaki; I took a job as a nursery school teacher, but at the time, I still had no special attachment to the community and planned to leave once again for the city. In time, though, I began thinking that as long as I was back, I might as well get to know my hometown. I got a friend to teach me photography, and began shooting the local children and landscapes. When the Kunisaki Art Project kicked off in 2012, I still held on to my job as a nursery school teacher, but before I knew it, I had become a local guide for artists. This encouraged me to continue to rediscover the attractions of my hometown, and from then on, I spent more and more time taking pictures.
― As you go about your daily life, what do you feel is special about Kunisaki?
For the past seven years, I have been living in a small seaside settlement one mountain over from the national highway. Outside my family, all of the residents are over 70, and they are very kind to us. Soon after we moved in, we found a box full of eggs or vegetables at our door each day. People left them there without a word, giving us a daily surprise. This was when I started shooting the gifts and keeping a photographic record.
― Tell us about your work and your life at home.
I left my job in education and went freelance three years ago. The Kunimi area, where I live, happens to attract many immigrant artists. They ask me to shoot their work and their portraits, and this keeps me busy enough to make a living. I also have a lot to do between jobs—planning project with friends, helping to start a charcoal grill, attending community meetings as a squad leader, and so on. No leisure for the poor, as they say, but I have a lot of fun every day.
― Do you ever photograph community events?
At our age, we take part in quite a few community events, since we are often put in charge of festivals and the like. The Kunisaki Peninsula is the birthplace of Rokugo Manzan—the temples erected in the six districts radiating from Mt. Futago in the center—and a 1,300-year-old place of training for the Tendai sect of esoteric Buddhism. Around the Lunar New Year, there is a fire festival called Shujo Onie. Oni (ogres) are fierce and evil in Japanese folklore, but the ones here are good ogres representing incarnations of the Buddha. The residents who dress up as the ogre make the rounds of the community homes, exchanging cups of sake, praying for the family’s happiness, and walking around until early in the morning. As the photographer, I work very closely with the oni, who are my subjects, but I try not to reveal my presence in the pictures. Similarly, I am on the lookout every day for differences in the cultures of the Kunisaki Peninsula, from the coast to the mountain to each of the valleys, and for sights that I have yet to see.
― What would you like to try in the future?
There are moments every day when I feel the community aging and the population declining. I hope to take advantage of the insights I’ve gained as a returnee and create a private, non-governmental hub of exchange between the original residents, the immigrants, and those who wish to settle here in the future. As an example, right now there are few places to stay overnight in the Kunisaki Peninsula. During the Kunisaki Art Festival, I offered my grandparents’ vacant house as an artist residence, and it helped me meet artists working in various medias. This is the sort of “lighthouse” of a space that I hope to create, somewhere both the locals and my friends from elsewhere can feel the vibrant energy of the Kunisaki Peninsula, and I hope that once Kunisaki’s glow can be felt and seen by more and more people it will act to persuade children who have once left to return to their hometown.
Tomohide Tani was born in 1984 in Kunisaki City, Oita Prefecture. He became a self-taught photographer while working as a nursery teacher, and at present leads the life of a half farmer, half photographer, and father of two. Tani is seeking out projects to contribute to the community through his photographs and films.