When Koh Hasebe became a rock photographer in the 1960s, the word "rock" didn't even exist in Japan. "It never even came to mind to try to become a rock photographer," the 85-year-old lensman tells Rolling Stone in Tokyo. "I was at a dead end as a film photographer — the arrival of rock in Japan gave my career new life."
Born and bred in Tokyo, Hasebe had gone to Paris to recharge and happened to meet the head of one of Japan's biggest music publishers. "He offered me the job of shooting the Beatles in London," Hasebe recalls. "After the Beatles, all my offers came from rock photography. It was just as Western artists began to visit Japan, and I somehow became the go-to guy to document tours."
The quiet, unobtrusive Hasebe jokes that when he went to his high-school reunion and told his friends he was a rock photographer, they replied, "So, you take pictures of rocks?" It's an indication of just how alien rock culture was to a Japan that had only just emerged from the ruins of World War II, a time of hardship etched on Hasebe's memory.
"Rock wasn't something that decent people listened to," Hasebe notes. "But for anti-establishment youth, it was a beacon. I was already a bit older, so I was able to view rock a bit more coolly. But it wasn't as if rock changed Japan overnight. It's only now that we can look back and see that rock did in fact gradually — but, in the end, greatly — impact Japanese society."
Over time, rock provided a powerful spur to individuality in a highly conformist society. "Japanese musicians didn't write songs for themselves at the time, like, for example, Bob Dylan," Hasebe observes. "Artists weren't really able to express themselves freely. It was in the Sixties and Seventies that self-expression was born."