Meet Tsuneko Sasamoto, Japan’s First Female Photojournalist and Now, at 107, Japan’s Oldest Living Photojournalist

You should never get lazy. It is important to stay positive about your life and never give up. You need to push yourself and pay attention so you can move on.

– Tsuneko Sasamoto

Good advice, whether you are interested in maintaining a creative practice or staying energetic as you get older.

Photographer Tsuneko Sasamoto is an excellent poster child for both. Born in Tokyo in 1914, shortly after the start of World War I, she is Japan’s first female photojournalist and – at 107, the oldest living photojournalist.

Her traditional father thwarted her hopes of becoming a painter, but early encounters with a black-and-white film of Man Ray and Margaret Bourke-White’s work suggested that photography could prove to be a similarly satisfying path.

In 1940, she was able to parlay a job as a part-time illustrator on the local news sites at Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun (now known as Mainichi Shimbun) to a rehearsal concert as a shooter, even though as a young woman she was limited by gender expectations.

Unlike her male colleagues, she was not allowed to document World War II at the front. Instead, she was accused of special interest stories of a patriotic nature and portraits of diplomatic envoys. She was deeply annoyed by her professionally mandated uniform – skirts and heels that occasionally prevented her from getting shot.

Her ambition provided the benefit of a stubbornly defiant streak. An article in The Japan Times describes how she went through discriminatory comments, resisted the scripts of male family members, and in 1947 he took the lead in asking General Douglas MacArthur, the commander-in-chief of the Allied Powers, if he would give her a repeat when her camera failed at the ribbon-cutting ceremony he attended.

Other topics from her eight-decade-long career:

Students protesters

The wives of coal miners who went on strike against the then largest coal mine in Japan

Young women are training to be geisha

The Imperial Family

The Socialist Party leader Inejiro Asanuma the day before his assassination attempt in 1960

One who is who of Japanese novelists, poets and artists

The earthquake and tsunami in 2011

And for her exhibition 100 Women at the Japanese Camera Industry Institute, she included some notable survivors from Meiji and early Showa eras, such as Queen of the Blues, Noriko Awaya. As Sasamoto recalled:

I photographed her towards the end of her life when she was in her eighties and bedridden. I was one of the few who was allowed to see her at the time I think because I was born in the Taisho era (1912-26) and she felt I could understand her…. She kept saying to me, ‘I’m not formidable.’

Shortly after they turned 100, Sasamoto weighed in on digital cameras – their lighter weight made them easy to carry around, but their features were hard to understand.

As for her health regime: maintaining contact with family and friends, a daily piece of chocolate, a glass of red wine every night and far more red meat than recommended.

Related content:

Meet Gerda Taro, the first female photojournalist to die on the front lines

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Ayun Halliday is a writer, illustrator, theater maker and chief primatologist at the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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