Beyond the border – Yoko Ishii
Yoko Ishii was born in Yamaguchi Japan, in 1962. She is currently based in Kanagawa, Japan. Yoko specializes in deer photography in the city of Nara, Japan.
Due to a lack of tourists in the city of Nara in the early parts of 2020, the deer that are used to being fed routinely every day now have to fend for themselves. This means venturing further into the city than ever before just to survive.
We thought we would ask Yoko Ishii about her previous shoots of the deer in Nara and see what’s changed.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Like all animals, deer require sustenance, companionship and the ability to contribute to the future of their species. Unlike most wild animals, however, there are Sika deer that live freely in the midtown section of the ancient capital Nara in Japan. These picturesque moments when early in the morning the deer can be found standing in the middle of desolate intersections, not bound by man’s borders and laws, yet inhabiting a man-made city is fascinating and inspiring. The Sika deer in Nara are considered a divine servant of the Kasuga shrine and are protected as a special national treasure. However, in various other regions of Japan, the deer’s feeding habits are damaging and are causing serious problems for farmers and the local governments. As such, the governments in these affected areas encourage the citizens to practice population management. In 2017, more than 160,000 deer were hunted and 450,000 deer were eliminated as harmful animals throughout the country. Inside these arbitrary boundaries created by man, the deer are beloved and treated as if they were domesticated animals. Outside of these boundaries, they are killed as destructive animals and unknowingly go beyond the borders with a spring in their step. By taking photographs of the free Sika deer in Nara, I dream that one day they will occupy an abandoned town.
Where were the photos taken and why are there deer roaming freely in the town?
In 767, in order to pray the peace of the ancient capital Heijo, Kasuga Shrine has been built in Nara, the ancient capital of Japan, by inviting God Takemikazuchi from Kashima Shrine. It is said that the god of thunder traveled over 200 km to Nara astride a white deer. Ever since the deer at Nara has been regarded as a servant of God and protected as a special national treasure.
Today, about 1,200 deer live freely in the midtown section of Nara. In the early morning, deer can be seen standing in the middle of desolate intersections or in front of an empty building. These picturesque moments may look like a deer planet after the destruction of humankind, or like a deer transformed by humans.
How did you find out about the deer and how did you come to take photos of them? What was your inspiration?
Japanese people know deer live in the park of the ancient capital Nara. Many of us have a memory of feeding them deer cookies when we went there for a school trip. However, even for us, it is surprising deer walk freely in the middle of town. In March 2011, just after the Great East Japan earthquake, I went to Nara after so long. In the early morning, I met up a couple of deer standing at an empty intersection, and I remembered a scene I watched in TV that cows roaming in the radiation-contaminated area in Fukushima, I started taking pictures of deer without human, to fix this apocalyptic image or Kafkaesque world by using a camera without staging.
What does the deer mean for you and your theme?
For me, the deer is a mirror reflecting human contradictions. The deer in Nara is considered a divine servant of the Kasuga shrine and are protected as a special national treasure. However, in other regions of Japan, deer are currently labeled as vermin that cause damage to the forests and crops. . As such, the governments encourage the citizens to practice population management of deer. In 2017, more than 160,000 deer were hunted and 450,000 deer were eliminated as harmful animals throughout the country.
Inside the boundaries created by man, the deer are beloved and treated as if they were domesticated animals. Outside of the boundaries, they are killed as destructive animals. By taking photographs of deer freely stalking the streets in Nara, I dream that one day they will occupy an abandoned town.
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