On her sixtieth birthday Toshie Saito was clearing a garage of her father’s belongings when she found an old biscuit tin.
In Japan, turning 60 is a significant birthday: a time of rebirth; a chance to start again. For Toshie, this was about to be realised in the most astonishing way.
Inside the biscuit tin were hundreds of negatives; photos she’d taken in the 1950s but that she believed had been destroyed by her father decades earlier.
“She looked at them, she couldn’t stop crying,” her daughter Yumiko Uda translated. “[Her father] hadn’t abandoned these photos; he’d kept them.”
Today Toshie lives in Hope, south of Nelson, where she moved to join Yumiko during the pandemic. Now in her early 80s, the photographer is warm and animated as she tells her story through her daughter.
An only child, Toshie grew up in Kiryu, about 100 kilometres from Tokyo.
Her father was a keen photographer, and when Toshie was 10 she started tagging along on outings with his photography club.
The amateur photographers would snap photos of models, posed in front of a landmark or scenery.
This didn’t interest Toshie, who would slip away to capture street scenes. Children were a particular focus: her work from this time features children playing in the streets, swimming in the river, and playing at a railway station.
Toshie, who had wished for sisters and brothers, was drawn to children, Yumiko explained. “She didn’t play with many children. Her father dressed her in beautiful clothes, and she wasn’t allowed to play outside.
“Maybe she wanted to play like that; run around, mad and dirty.”
The teen began entering photography competitions, soon winning bigger prizes than her father. Her talent was recognised at her high school, and Toshie was allowed to skip class to take photos on snow days and festivals.
By the time she graduated, the young woman had an offer of work from a Tokyo newspaper.
However, her father said no: it was the late 1950s, and Japan was still in a post-war slump. It was outside social norms for a young woman to live alone in a big city like Tokyo. And as an only child, Toshie’s parents wanted her close, they told her.
Toshie still recalls the shock and upset vividly.
“She wanted to run away, but it was very difficult to say no to her parents,” Yumiko said.
She started a small camera shop, which she ran with her new husband. In her spare time, she kept taking photos and entering competitions.
For one, judged by the emperor’s doctor, Saito entered a baby photo of Yumiko. Not only did she take first place, but the doctor was so taken by the photo he visited the family privately, Yumiko said.
The high-profile win angered her father, who told Toshie she was neglecting her customers at the store. It was time to give up photography, he told his daughter. He took all the negatives Toshie had collected of her work, telling her he would destroy them.
For the next four decades, Toshie concealed her true self, Yumiko explained.
“She was living a different life than what she expected and wanted, but she hid her emotions.”
Finding the long-lost photos changed everything. Toshie believed the discovery was a present from her father, and a sign he finally accepted her gift and chosen career.
“After I turned 60, amazing things happened,” Toshie explained through Yumiko.
With Yumiko’s help, Toshie exhibited her photos in her hometown. This led to a show in a prestigious Osaka gallery, and a flurry of publicity.
Thousands of people came to see Toshie’s work, captivated by the lively street scenes and a glimpse into a lost time and place.
Some of the children Toshie had captured recognised themselves in her photos.
“They came and said, ‘this is me’, they were hugging [Toshie] and crying,” Yumiko said.
For the next two decades, Toshie was busy with interviews, exhibitions and publishing deals. And she kept taking photos, concentrating on her family: her grandchildren, and her mother at the end of her life.
Today, her mother felt a sense of achievement, and of a life fulfilled, Yumiko said.
“Finally, after she turned 60, she lived the life she wanted.”
Toshie Saito’s story features in the NBS Bittersweet Podcast series, part of a Cultural Conversations exhibition at the Refinery Art Space, between June 12 and 27. For more information visit facebook.com/culturalconversationsnelson.
Source: Amy Ridout 05:00, May 13 2023, Stuff