Citing 90's Japanese youth culture in a humourous way - Tomoko Sawada as uber-tanned ganguro girls in "cover" of the "Cover/Face" series, 2002. Courtesy of MEM Gallery © Tomoko Sawada

The Many Facets Of Tomoko Sawada

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In her photo works, Kobe-based Tomoko Sawada shows us shifting aspects of her personality. By disguising herself as multiple women of Japanese society, she is playing with social norms and gender roles without judgment but simply imitating them with humour. Her work has been displayed as part of female art exhibitions such as last year’s global feminism at the Brooklyn Museum. Right now you can see it in the Self/Other group exhibition at Tokyo’s MOMAT (info below.) PingMag tried to grab her for a chat.

Written by Verena

Referencing youth culture: “cover” of the “Cover/Face” series, 2002. Courtesy of MEM Gallery © Tomoko Sawada

In the Western world you have artists such as Cindy Sherman, who is reflecting gender stereotypes and the Western image of women by acting out women’s fantasies, embodying celebrity wannabes, desperate housewives, or posing in film stills of imaginary movies.
Now, as with fellow Japanese artists Yasumasa Morimura, Tomoko Sawada has her own approach, using Japanese subjects and her unique conduct in the photo sessions: The Kobe native playfully poses in uniforms of everyday Japanese life, incorporating office ladies, giggling high-school girls, or trying to make a good impression in omiai photos. For these formal portraits of women seeking an arranged marriage, she repeatedly went to a professional photographer, each time taking on the guise of a different person: neatly dressed worker in a business suit, Stepford wife-a-like or kimono-clad lady.

It will always be me: Tomoko Sawada in 400 disguises. From the “ID400(#1-100) (detail)” photo booth series, 1998. Courtesy of MEM Gallery © Tomoko Sawada

For another project, she disguised herself as a ganguro, the uber-tanned Shibuya girls who idolised pop starlet Namie Amuro and drew from her neon chic to resemble mutant Californian beach girls. Tomoko imitates them without mocking, just showing a lighter, ironic side.


Incorporating everyday life uniforms – in a “Costume/YAOYA,” a vegetable shop… 2003 © Tomoko Sawada

… and as dutiful “Costume/FUKEI,” a police woman, 2003. Courtesy of MEM Gallery © Tomoko Sawada

But, who is Tomoko Sawada really? Since there are hundreds of photo booth pictures of the monochrome “ID400″ series, made between 1998 and 2001, showing her in hundreds of disguises – the chubby faced school girl, the chuckling ponytailed student with make-up, the stern-looking recruit, and so many dozens of other roles – it’s impossible to find the real one out since she shows you only the myriad facets of her mirror ball.

Obliging “Costume/OKAMI (proprietress),” 2003 Courtesy of MEM Gallery © Tomoko Sawada

Strikingly, Tomoko explains the making of “ID400″ in her statement for accepting the Canon – New Cosmos of Photography award in 2000:
I was bound by an inferiority complex. When I started to take pictures, I loved my image taken in photos, which looked attractive and cute. I could make myself look like a model or an actress in pictures. As I looked at my pictures again and again, the gap between my real image and my image in a picture widened. In other words, my appearance could be changed easily, but my personality did not change.
An ID picture proves the identity or the existence of a person in the picture. That is, even if someone does not exist in this world, if he or she appears in an ID picture, that person can prove his or her existence. One’s personality is said to show in one’s appearance. However, even if one’s appearance changes, the essence does not change. Such a contradiction motivated me to create my work. Anyone in these ID pictures could be myself.

In digital worlds, people would say iPhoto, therefore I am. Tomoko took the shots in the late 90s in a conventional photo booth located in a parking lot along the Kobe subway, where she used the restroom in front of the booth to dress up, unintentionally scaring away some of the restroom’s vistors.

From the “Recruit” series, 2006: the right portrait for an assessment centre. Courtesy of MEM Gallery © Tomoko Sawada

Interesting! We wanted to hear much more about her, but when we approached for an interview recently, she was reluctant to reveal much of the real Tomoko. However, her quite intuitive approach is obvious – when asked how she would prepare for a photo shoot and how she did research on the subjects before, Tomoko simply replied:
I don’t really do any detailed research before a new photo shoot. And preparing for a photo session would purely consist of the act of physical transformation:
I start by getting the necessary costume, and then I look for the wig and accessories. Sometimes I lose weight or put on pounds for a certain photo, said Tomoko.

“School Days/B,” 2004: school days as recurring incidents. Courtesy of MEM Gallery © Tomoko Sawada

But then again, her answer about preparing for her various roles revealed:
I am not really sure if I am like an actor, because I don’t really put my emotion into becoming another person. I suppose what is the same is that, like an actor, I change my physical appearance for the photos.


Flattering picture for a possible date – “OMIAI♡,” 2001. Courtesy of MEM Gallery © Tomoko Sawada

“OMIAI♡,” 2001 – show my best side. Courtesy of MEM Gallery © Tomoko Sawada

So the artist is not play-acting but rather mimicking someone’s mere appearance, apparel and pose. But that would still take some degree of acting, or masquerading at least. She doesn’t agree. When asked to what extent she acted or got into the personas she was representing, Tomoko insisted: I don’t perform the roles at all.
Depending on how she would define the line between posing and performing…

The face as projection surface. From the “Early Days” series, 1996. Courtesy of MEM Gallery © Tomoko Sawada

But can it be that she still acts as the blank surface we project onto? Then what about her office lady or omiai-hopeful guises? Isn’t that a statement against traditional Japanese gender roles?

I haven’t really thought about it.

But there must be something she feels about her own tradition and how important it is for her.

When you talk about tradition you have to realise that there are multiple traditions. I suppose I don’t want beautiful things that we have had for a long time to disappear, was the polite answer.
But even then, her formal portraits of women wanting omiai, an arranged date for a possible marriage, seem revealing in how they present these women (and some of Tomoko’s friends have participated in omiai.)


Deformation experiments, from “Early Days,” 1996. Courtesy of MEM Gallery © Tomoko Sawada

Another part of Japanese society is also the focus of attention of Tomoko Sawada: the ganguro movement among Shibuya girls. What did Tomoko think was the most important thing for the young girls with a sun tan and a lot of make-up she portrayed in her series?

I really couldn’t answer that question. I didn’t really want to understand those girls, I was just referencing their look, she said. Echoing herself in them, maybe? We’ll leave that to speculation…

Lastly, regarding future projects, she sayd that she aims to produce more video works. Any other final statement?

No matter what I wear, I am still Tomoko Sawada, she said.
Indeed, because of all these disguises, she is what she is: a very interesting person.

Tomoko, thanks for the talk.
Folks, hurry up for the group exhibition with her at MOMAT!

Exhibition Info:

Self/Other group exhibition
At MOMAT – National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
Address: 3-1 Kitanomaru-koen, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. Map.
Schedule: Running through March 9th, 2008.
Open Tue to Sat from 10.30am to 5pm.
Fee: ¥420.

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  • http://daraho.wordpress.com David Raho

    Did you not get just a little inspired by my blog entry I posted a year ago?

    http://daraho.wordpress.com/2007/02/19/the-many-faces-of-tomoko-sawada/

  • Pingback: The Many Faces of Tomoko Sawada « The First Word Blog

  • http://www.pingmag.jp Verena

    To David: actually I didn’t see your title before ^_^
    but thanks for the info. was meant to be as in the link, but…

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  • http://daraho.wordpress.com David Raho

    Dear Verena, Much obliged to you for changing the title. You and your readers are always welcome at http://daraho.wordpress.com for something a little different. DAR

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    I first saw Tomoko’s work on the cover of Asahi Camera in May 2004 (Yaoya photo) — she continues to impress..

    Great post, ping!

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    problem is just, that this is not original and this little girl just looks the same on every photo!

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