Book Review: Yamabito, the Mountain People by Osamu Sato

In the 1970s, an unassuming Tokyo salaryman used his one day off each week to journey into the mountains of Gunma Prefecture, an 8×10” view camera in tow. Leaving the city behind, he trekked—first by train, then by bus, and finally on foot—until he arrived at the remote villages there.

The resulting series of black-and-white photographs by Osamu Sato, entitled Yamabito, the Mountain People, is a lyrical work that honors a way of life diametrically opposed to the alienation and stratification of city life.

Sato’s body of work didn’t reach a wide audience until about ten ago, when it was exhibited at Zen Foto Gallery in Japan. In the preface to the catalog accompanying that exhibition, Sato describes the villages as lost utopias in the mountains, places where close relations with others are highly valued, where people still maintain a strong connection to the natural world, and where time moves at a more relaxed pace.

In the photos, the Yamabito (literally, the “mountain people”) are seen planting and harvesting crops, caring for animals, celebrating festivals, visiting gravesites, and climbing trees. Children attend a small school, families spend time together at home. The images reveal a strong work ethic and a rewarding way of life in harmony with the natural world. The values reflected are those of interconnectivity, simplicity, and spirituality.

By utilizing a large-format camera, Sato chose a slower, more deliberate way of working that mirrored the pace of village life. Due to the limitations of a camera of that size and speed, most of the images are portraits, and most were taken outdoors in broad daylight. Like the people he photographed, his way of working was quite traditional. Yet he was not entirely disconnected from the movements reshaping and revolutionizing photography in Japan at that time.

The mutual affection between Sato and the villagers is clear. In a number of pictures, people smile as they pose for the camera—not artificially, but in a way that indicates they feel comfortable and relaxed. There’s a common platitude that every photo is also a photo of the relationship between photographer and subject. If that’s true, then this series reveals genuine admiration and respect for one another.

Taken over a three-year period, Sato’s photographs represent an attempt to do something that, when it comes down to it, photography seems invented to do: preserve something rapidly changing or disappearing. As Zen Foto Gallery owner Mark Pearson notes in his introduction, since the villages were just a day trip away from the city, the younger generation was steadily drifting towards it, lured by what they perceived as the promise of a better life. Tellingly, that age group is largely absent from the photographs, which are mainly populated by elderly people and young children.

“Better” is a relative term, of course, and the promise of city life is not often fulfilled upon first arrival. A more journalistic approach would have required following at least one and likely several young people who had relocated to Tokyo and observing their lives. Sato’s goals are more subjective and poetic, so his photos remain rooted in the magic of a place that seems to exist outside of time.

A large, slender paperback volume, Zen Foto’s exhibit catalog boasts a simple, classical layout: one photo per page, generally two per spread, with a short caption beneath each one, and enough white space to frame the images and give them room to breathe.

This type of presentation places the emphasis on the photos themselves. There are around 50 total, which seems like the right amount for this type of project—although the final edit could have been pared down a little further without sacrificing much.

That being said, it’s a hidden gem of a collection, and worth seeking out, especially for those interested in Japanese photography of the 1960s and 70s.

The text is in Japanese with an English translation at the end.

Yamabito (The Mountain People) by Osamu Sato. Zen Foto, 2011. 60 pages. 53 pictures. Softcover. $23.

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