The beautiful photography of the Japanese homoerotic photographer Tamotsu Yato (originally Tamotsu Takada) includes three distinct bodies of work created across the span of less than a decade. These works were published in three books – “Young Samurai”, “Naked Festival” and “Otoko” – between 1966 and 1972.
The photobooks of Tamotsu Yato received limited attention at the time. However, the influence this troubled photographer had on the nude male genre, particularly inside Japan, was profound. He pushed the boundaries of how Japanese men perceived their bodies and sexuality in a Japan that had no gay publications. Censorship laws forbade mentioning the genitals in print or photography.
Tracing out the life of Tamotsu Yato is both interesting and tragic. Suicidal and with family conflict, friends say that his first visit to a gay bar in Osaka was in 1956. That night he met the publisher (promoter) Meredith Weatherby. Ten years senior to Tamotsu Yato, Meredith became lover, benefactor, mentor and promoter in an open relationship as they co-existed with filmmaker Donald Ritchie. It was in this early period where Weatherby encouraged Tamotsu Yato to make photographs.
At this time Weatherby was translating the books of Yukio Mishima and their home with Ritchie became a focal centre for artists and intellectuals. Yukio Mishima and Tamotsu Yato became good friends, as evidenced in the introductions and several photographs from the first two photobooks.
Tragically, Yukio Mishima comitted seppuku (ritualised suicide) in 1970 and Weatherby broke off the relationshjp with Tamotsu Yato. The troubled photographer was exiled to a seedy suburb. Life spiralled into anger, bitterness and substance abuse. He died of an enlarged heart in May, 1973.
The greater tragedy occurred after his death. When friends arrived at Tamotsu Yato’s ransacked apartment the cameras and equipment had disappeared. Only a few negatives and photographs remained. It is interesting that an estranged brother appeared and threatened lawsuits if anybody republished the work.
What has survived exists in two places – Tokyo and San Diego. Sadly, there was never a reprinting of a Tamotsu Yato book. Outside those three books, the work was never publicly shown and the type of men represented within “Otoko” have disappeared from Japanese society. Nevertheless, Tamotsu Yato maintains a cult following and is cited as a major influence by several male erotic photographers. The pictures he made were absolutely beautiful.