See Pics of Beatles, Stones and More From Koh Hasebe Archive - Rolling Stone
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See Pics of Beatles, Stones, U2 and More From Japan’s Top Rock Photographer

Koh Hasebe recalls documenting legendary artists in Tokyo, London and beyond

John Lennon and Yoko Ono

Koh Hasebe

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."

Talking Heads

Koh Hasebe

Talking Heads (Kyoto, 1981)

"We made friends with Japanese musicians over there, and hung out quite a bit with a group called Plastics, who were a bit like B-52s-meet-Kraftwerk. They'd been to New York a few times and one member's tiny apartment was filled with stuff scavenged from Canal Street. They had friends who were fashion designers, illustrators (Pater Sato), TV talk show hosts (Yuji Konno) and models (Sayoko). It was an exciting milieu. It was a counterculture that was not aggressively rebellious as were some Japanese in the '60s, but it did exist parallel to the main commercial culture. Obviously our friends were already aware of what had been going on in New York and elsewhere, but they were reinterpreting those signs, symbols and music in their own very unique way. Everything was being repurposed and somehow it all came out very Japanese. I loved seeing stuff from our culture stripped of the meanings we had attached to them. Similarly a new wave of Japanese fashion designers were about to have a worldwide impact — at that point their innovative designs were only available in one or two boutiques in New York. It was all very innovative and not as focused exclusively on luxury and branding as fashion is today. An exciting moment." —David Byrne


Koh Hasebe

U2 (Tokyo, 1983)

"It was a nice day and I suggested shooting them outside. So we went to a park. I thought it would be interesting to photograph them with this woman who happened to be there. But of course she likely wouldn't have been thrilled with the idea, so I had the band sit at the next bench. I shot the photo with a telephoto lens so she wouldn't notice it. U2 weren't that famous yet, and they were really friendly." —Koh Hasebe

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