Hiroshi Okamoto

Young photographer Hiroshi Okamoto documented his university-leaving best friend as he job hunts in Japan. Known as shūkatsu, the Japanese job-hunting system can be complex and time-consuming, with numerous selection rounds. The process is often difficult and frustrating.

Hiroshi produced the dummy photobook ‘Recruit’ after taking a photobook-making workshop at the Reminders Photography Stronghold in Tokyo under Yumi Goto and Jan Rosseel. The photobook uses Hiroshi’s photographs, his friend’s correspondences and other material to tell the story of his job-hunting ordeal. The photobook won second prize at the Dummy Photobook Kassel 2016 and was shortlisted for Cortona on the Move’s dummy photobook award.

'The Recruit' photobook
‘Recruit’ photobook

When you attended the photobook making workshop at RPS, did you already have the whole project in mind or did it come about from the workshop?

I already had the photographs because I had started the project two years ago. When I did the workshop, it was at the beginning of my career as a photographer. I was already showing the work to editors, including Yumi (Goto). But every time I showed the work, especially to foreigners, they would be interested but they would say it was difficult to understand how job hunting in Japan is only through the pictures. Yumi said the same. When I showed the photos in a slideshow, it was the same thing, it felt like something was missing.

When I started the project, I didn’t think it was going to be a photo project. The subject of the story is my best friend from university – we were sharing the same flat. I thought his behaviour during the job hunt was interesting. I didn’t have to job hunt because at that time my job was not office work, so for me it was quite impressive. When my friend started job hunting, he totally changed his hair colour and hair style, his clothes, everything. So I started to shoot from my curiosity. I never imagined to do a project.

I asked Yumi if there was a way for me to summarise my project. She told me that making a photobook is completely different from making a slideshow or exhibition. You don’t always need the best images, because for a book, sometimes even simple photos can make a good point. So I got interested in making books, and applied for the RPS photobook making workshop. At that time I had no idea about making a handmade photobook.

From the photobook 'The Recruit'
From the photobook ‘Recruit’

What was your process in making the book?

Actually, during the workshop, I totally didn’t know what to do or how to make the book. I kept asking myself, “What should I do? What can I do?” In my first few consultations with Yumi and Jan (Rosseel), we talked about inserting manga images – there is a lot of manga about Japanese recruitment and culture, and also, manga is very well-known. We tried to work this idea, but it actually, it wasn’t a good idea.

It was challenging because I tried to do those things but I couldn’t find an answer during the workshop. Finally at the end of the workshop, we thought it would be better to focus on just one person, my friend. My focus here is more to express how Japanese job hunting is quite stressful and difficult. So at first I thought to put images of suicides and all those negative things. But most of my material comes from my friend. In his case, he didn’t commit suicide, but he kind of had it in mind. Yumi and Jan told me that it would be better to just focus on him and try to spread out the story from him. In Japan, each year, more than a million people are doing job hunting. So it is better to tell the story from a personal perspective, but it is also a typical story.

Once you got the idea, it was easier to develop your project.


From the series ‘Recruit’

What was your friend’s – the job-hunter in the story – reaction to the photobook?

When I told him I wanted to make a photobook about him, he thought I was going to make a traditional photobook. In Japan, when you say photobook, people imagine a photobook about idols or singers. He was wondering why I would want to make a book about him. When I showed him my book, he was quite surprised. Even for him it was quite interesting as I had put so much stuff about him and his memories. It’s pretty private.

Considering that the Japanese can be especially private in their personal lives, how does he feel about that?

Compared to general people, he is more open I guess. So he’s ok with it. But he did say it was tough to look at the black and white images of him and his ex-girlfriend. They had broken up because of the job hunting.

But the story has a happy ending. He found a job and is in fact, currently looking for a new job.

At that time, for the end of the book, we had just put a photo of his certification, but we were not satisfied with the ending. It felt like I needed to shoot additional images. At that time, it had been two years since the time he was job hunting and he was working in Osaka. I thought he was satisfied now with his life, but when we met, he told me he was thinking of changing jobs. So I thought maybe it’s better the end part of the book is about him changing his job. But this is quite general in Japanese society now, that people work two or three years and then they change companies.

From the series ‘Recruit’

You’ve mentioned that after doing the workshop and your photobook, your idea about photography changed. How so?

Before I participated in the workshop, I was at the beginning of my photography career, and I was thinking more of becoming an editorial photographer and to shoot in the traditional style of photography. But even then I was quite interested in making a photo project, but it would have been difficult to express in the traditional way of shooting.

I was starting on a personal project as a hikikomori when I was a junior high school student. Hikikomori is a Japanese social problem, especially for young people. They just totally shut themselves away from society and live in their room only. I had the same experience. I wanted to make a project about my experience. But already I’m no longer the same person. I’m already out. So how can I shoot right now if I do it the traditional way? It’s almost impossible. But I learnt of a more conceptual way of documentary story-telling through the workshop; it is possible to use archival photos or a conceptual way of shooting. There are various ways to express the story. For me, it made me feel quite free to make projects.

It is an important shift for you, to discover photography’s various possibilities.

Yes, yes. To Yumi and Jan, the method – such as the camera you are using – is not so important if your focus is story-telling. Even with barriers, such as shooting the invisible things, you can find a way to express it, if there is a story.

From the photobook ‘Recruit’

How did you get into photography?

In university, I was doing development and social studies, including anthropology. I know it is totally different from what I am doing now. I never learnt photography at that time. I had the opportunity to do an intership at a local NGO in East Africa. I met with so many media people there, freelancers and people working for the big news agencies. Everytime I communicated with them, it was very interesting for me and I was quite impressed by their work. After coming back to Japan, I realised that photography is more interesting for me compared to working with an NGO. I then started my photography.

I then participated in a workshop on photography, organised by a Japanese photojournalist. That was my first experience to learn about photography. It was a good point and a problem for me. He is quite a traditional style, photojournalistic photographer. But it was impressive for me. I thought this was the best way of photography and I need to shoot these kinds of photographs if I want to work in the documentary style. After the workshop, for the next three years, I thought this style was best.

From the series ‘Recruit’

And yet, you felt something was missing.

Exactly. I was suffering for those three years. And then I met Yumi at her editing workshop. She hadn’t started the photobook making workshop but she had already taught me that story-telling was the most important thing. It was quite surprising after my experience because when I showed my photos to editors, they prefer the more traditional way. But Yumi, for me, was a totally different person about those things. I like photography, but the most important thing for me is telling the story.

From the series 'Self-Responsibility'
From the series ‘Self-Responsibility’

What are you working on now?

I’m working on three projects right now. One is my hikikomori experience that I was talking about earlier. The other project is about a type of weapon used during the Japanese wartime. It is called Kaiten (or human torpedo) and it means a kind of kamikaze using the submarine. People can lie in the cockpit and attack. It is a kind of missile. This was actually quite a secret operation during the war.

One of the base for this weapon was near my university. When I was studying, I would pass it all the time and it got me interested. In Japan, when you say kamikaze, people think of attacks by airplanes. In the case of this weapon, even in Japan, it is not famous and people don’t know it. I’m also interested in the idea of kamikaze and its negative image. For the ultra-right people, they respect this kind of behaviour of sacrifice of the individual for the country. It is quite strange for me. Those soldiers (in the war) were quite young, so they would be about my age. So I think maybe I can understand their mind, although I cannot imagine to sacrifice my life. For me, it’s not about respect. I think maybe they didn’t have a choice. But now the conservative, especially the right wing groups, are making the kamikaze kind of culture; I want to make a cynical commentary about the use of this weapon.

From the series 'Self-Responsibility'
From the series ‘Self-Responsibility’

For my third project, it is something political but also personal. It is about the an incident in 2004. Three Japanese citizens were kidnapped in Iraq by terrorists; one was a journalist, one was a worker, the last was a high school student. The high school student is my friend. That time, in Japan, we were supporting the U.S. military. Terrorists demanded that the Japanese military leave. The kidnapped citizens were released after eight days.

The most important thing is that after coming back to Japan, people were very critical of the kidnapped persons. As the Japanese government had to negotiate for their release and to send them home, it cost a lot of money. They were also criticised for going to Iraq despite warnings, and that was their self-responsibility. That time was the beginning of the Internet and the online community, and they would form groups to criticize them, even showing their private information online. I think that was the first time there was kind of a public execution for an individual. It is about self-responsibility. After this incident, if an individual made a mistake and it had an effect on the society, society will attack the individual because of self-responsibility.

And photobooks are the end objective of these projects?

Exactly. That’s why I’m not only focused on my photographs. I am shooting already but archived material is also important in my projects.

Recruit is still available to order from here: