'60s photographer blazed trail for women in Japan

'60s photographer blazed trail for women in Japan
Noriko Nishijima, left, and Miho Ikeya.

The Yomiuri Shimbun, which marks the 140th anniversary of its inaugural publication today, broke new ground for Japanese women half a century ago by recruiting three female photographers.

One of them was 20-year-old Noriko Tashiro, whose married name today is Noriko Nishijima.

She was studying photography at a vocational school and working part-time at an apparel company when she heard from someone that "a newspaper company is trying to recruit female photographers." Nishijima instantly decided to "give it a try" and jumped into the world of journalism.

With one year left before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, there was concern that many cases would emerge in which news coverage would be difficult without female reporters, such as in female dormitories of the Olympic Village.

Her parents vehemently opposed her joining the newspaper company, which they said was "dominated by men." She convinced them to give their consent by saying that she would work "only for two years."

Her camera used film, of course. It was a single-lens reflex camera whose focus and shutter speed were adjusted manually depending on the situation.

Coverage required physical strength. The development of photos was a race against time. It was not an easy job to process the negatives and prepare the photos to go to press.

"Everything has changed entirely, but the skies are the same as they were on that day," Nishijima, now 72, said as she recalled the Tokyo Games on a recent visit to the Yoyogi, Tokyo, site where the Olympic Village once stood.

As she looked up, she could see the blue sky - like the one where the Air Self-Defence Force's aerobatic team Blue Impulse skywrote five Olympic rings.

Standing beside her was Miho Ikeya, 31, a current Yomiuri Shimbun photographer who had returned to work after finishing childcare leave.

Ikeya is engaged in day-to-day news-gathering, entrusting her 15-month-old daughter to a day care centre. She uses the latest digital, single-lens reflex camera.

When she goes out, she always carries a bag on her shoulder containing a set of two main camera bodies, three lenses and a personal computer capable of sending images from the sites of shoots. The bag weighs more than 10 kilograms.

"My daughter is growing bigger and weighs roughly the same [as the bag]," she said with a smile. She didn't mind the load put on her shoulders.

Ikeya anticipates taking photos of the Olympics and Paralympics that will be hosted by Tokyo again in 2020. By then, her daughter will be old enough to remember her working to cover the sports extravaganza.

"Women today try harder at work, in marital life and child-rearing," Nishijima said. "It's great, and I really envy them." She quit the Yomiuri after working for two years as she had promised her parents and got married. "That was the norm in those days," she said.

But the pioneering efforts by Nishijima half a century ago helped open the way for Ikeya and many other women to make their careers at the Yomiuri.

Photojournalism, Olympics seem to have evolved together

"I never dreamed that darkrooms would disappear from newspaper companies," said Noriko Nishijima, a 72-year-old former photographer for The Yomiuri Shimbun, when she made her first visit to the Yomiuri's new head office building in Tokyo, which opened in January this year.

As recently as about 20 years ago, there were darkrooms in the corners of editorial offices. Completely sealed off from light, the darkrooms reeked of the acidic chemical agents used to process photographic film.

In those days, the staff immersed film in developing fluid and then a photographic fixer to process negatives in the darkrooms. Working in the dark space required great intuition. If something went wrong, crucial moments that were captured on film could be lost forever.

News reporters were also trained to work in the darkroom. Every writer had the experience of making a mistake and getting yelled at by senior staff.

Around the time of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, The Yomiuri Shimbun became an early adopter of digital cameras.

The first images taken with the cameras were relatively blurry, as the resolution was only 400,000 pixels, compared to the 10 million pixels on the sensors of today's smartphone cameras.

Digital cameras became capable of being used in photojournalism around the time of the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville. It might be said that cameras have evolved in tandem with Olympic history.

Though telephotography machines were in existence before World War II, it was impossible to carry them to news-gathering sites.

At such locations as the Diet building, baseball stadiums and the scenes of crimes or accidents, staff on motorbikes stood by to shuttle film to the editorial rooms.

Until the 1950s, carrier pigeons were used. Around the year of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, there was a loft for pigeons on the roof terrace of The Yomiuri Shimbun head office building.

Today, reporters use digital cameras, personal computers and mobile phones, which allow clear photographic images to be sent instantly from news-gathering sites all over the world.

When Nishijima's maiden name, Noriko Tashiro, was input into The Yomiuri Shimbun's database, a large number of photos taken about a half-century ago appeared on the screen.

"This is like a dream," Nishijima said. Some of the photos were taken by her colleagues and showed her as a young photojournalist.

Women's presence grows

There weren't many at first, but female journalists began working for The Yomiuri Shimbun about a half-century before Nishijima started her career.

In 1914, the Yomiuri launched the nation's first lifestyle section for women in a daily paper and hired famous poet Akiko Yosano to write for it. That section was the beginning of today's lifestyle page, which has continued for 100 years.

Even so, the Yomiuri still had only several women reporters around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In 1982, the company began hiring women every year for the newsroom, including photographers.

In recent years, women have accounted for 30 to 40 per cent of all new reporters hired, and this year two women joined the Yomiuri's board of executives.

For female employees with small children, the new Yomiuri Shimbun Building has a child care centre.

"Newspaper reporting is not a job for women" was the common attitude in society when Nishijima began working for the Yomiuri. That's not the case anymore, as female reporters follow news events day and night.

The Yomiuri Shimbun believes the existence of many female journalists, actively working in tough news situations, will empower the women of this country in general.

"You should keep working as a reporter as long as you want," said Nishijima, to which her much younger colleague nodded in agreement.

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