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Crossing the Sea, awarded the 13th annual Visual Arts Photo Award, introduces to a wider audience the ties which bind Japan to under-considered aspect of the recent history of its people, people who, from both directions and for different reasons, crossed the sea which surrounds the island nation. This is a book about Japan, but also about how nations and culture surround and affect the human experience.
Tsurusaki began his project- one that stretched out over a decade- with interest in a human legacy of Japan's imperial ambitions in Manchuria, photographing people whom are known as "Chugoku Zanryu Hojin (Japanese nationals left behind in China)".
These people, often orphaned or somehow abandoned as Japanese citizens whom "settled" Northeastern China fled back to their homeland at the end of World War 2, spent the post-war years finding their own way in the world, halfway between nations but not fully belonging to either. The images which make up Tsurusaki's photographic testament to these "forgotten relatives" are solidly descriptive, quiet, and beautiful. They stand with the best which photojournalism can offer but there is more than mere visual reportage to this project. Shown along with these images of Japanese survivors are photographs of their descendants, native Chinese of Japanese heritage- and young Japanese whom have been relocated to this part of China by their employers. The tension, felt through time and native-place, provides a fascinating look at globalization.
Upon completion and exhibition of the Manchuria series, Tsurusaki felt a need to further his understanding and exploration of Japan's immigration history. For this he looked farther west, to Myanmar, a nation whose citizens Japan had officially begun taking in refugees from. Images from the photographer's visits to the Mae La refugee camp in Myanmar give way to photographs taken of the refugees' new lives in Japan- both of their struggles and determination.
Even with the inclusion of such a fine portfolio as Japan X Myanmar / Myanmar X Japan images, Tsurusaki was not yet finished. It is in the final third of this book that the viewer is led once more over the sea- this time to the East, to Brazil, home of the largest Japanese community outside of Japan itself. In 1907 immigration from an impoverished Japan began when the first 790 Japanese, mostly farmers, crossed the sea to find employment on the coffee farms of Brazil. Today over one million and four-hundred thousand citizens of Brazil claim Japanese heritage. Among them, Tsurusaki has compiled a vivid and honorable portrayal of their lives. As with the previous two sections of the book, the theme again folds back onto itself- viewers are taken back again to Japan and into the homes and lives of the young Brazilians of Japanese descent whom have settled in the land of their ancestors- people whom were called back over the sea for employment in Japan's automobile factories during the bubble economy heydays.
It is precisely this back-and-forth element to Crossing the Sea that helps provide the book its power. Perhaps Visual Arts Award judge and photographer Daido Moriyama's comments put it best:
Possessing a precise insight into history and the present day, the author captures with acuity and warmth the complex reality of human relations between Japan and Manchuria (now Northeast China), Japan and Myanmar, Japan and Brazil, and encapsulates the very essences of photography in his work: memory, commemoration, and documentation. Intelligence and heart lay at the foundation of this trilogy by Moyuru Tsurusaki.