Kohei Yoshiyuki: Sex in the Park

Laurie says:

A friend whose opinions on art I really respect pointed me at this work a while ago. Because of that respect I’ve been thinking about it but I keep ending up in the same place.  Kohei Yoshiyuki has had both gallery and museum exhibition and the work is being treated as important and serious.  He spent several months befriending and becoming part of the sexual peeper groups in the parks before taking these secret photos.  The infrared flash he used meant that his shooting was invisible.

There is more work at the Yossi Miho Gallery


The Yossi Miho Gallery talks about the exhibition — “For these photos, taken in Tokyo’s Shinjuku, Yoyogi, and Aoyama parks during the 1970s, Mr. Yoshiyuki used a 35mm camera, infrared film, and flash to document the people who gathered there at night for clandestine trysts, as well as the many spectators lurking in the bushes who watched—and sometimes participated in—these couplings. With their raw, snapshot-like quality, these images not only uncover the hidden sexual exploits of their subjects, both homosexual and heterosexual and also serve as a chronicle of a Japan we rarely see; as Martin Parr writes in The Photobook: A History, Volume II, The Park is “a brilliant piece of social documentation, capturing perfectly the loneliness, sadness, and desperation that so often accompany sexual or human relationships in a big, hard metropolis like Tokyo.”


As does the New York Times. “If the social phenomena captured in these photographs seem distinctly linked to Japanese culture, Mr. Yoshiyuki’s images of voyeurs reverberate well beyond it. Viewing his pictures means that you too are looking at activities not meant to be seen. We line up right behind the photographer, surreptitiously watching the peeping toms who are secretly watching the couples. Voyeurism is us.” There are more photos at the gallery site.

I’m appalled by the work.  I usually have complex reactions to work and the questions it raises, but not this time.

This isn’t about shocking — shocking is fine if it’s interesting and or good art. Stealing photos of people who think they have personal privacy very rarely can be justified and certainly not in this case.  Voyeurism is about spying when you know you shouldn’t.  Clearly, it can be thrilling, but that doesn’t make it OK when you’re violating people’s non-public lives.  The consequences for people if they had been recognized from these photos would have been unfortunate.  There was also the potential here for violating real lives.  (The work was published in book form at that time.)

I’m not talking about the quality of the art.  I’m very unimpressed with the web images but I don’t know how I would react to the actual prints.  But I doubt that this is that kind of remarkably good work that can make you want to re-evaluate.

I would be interested in the commentators’ reactions if these photos had been taken in parks in the US in the 1960’s or now.  Would they be talking about it “being linked distinctly to US culture” with quite so much confidence?  Would it be “capturing perfectly the loneliness, sadness, and desperation that so often accompany sexual or human relationships in a big, hard metropolis like New York?”  And I wonder if they would be quite so comfortable about people being recognized.

7 thoughts on “Kohei Yoshiyuki: Sex in the Park

  1. Watching the pictures is a little voyeuristic, and visually, I don’t find them very appealing – but I’m not apalled at all. It’s a park! Can you expect privacy when having sex at a park?

  2. This raises very interesting questions about the public/private divide, which I found to be quite different in Japan (as compared to Australia). People who were polite and tidy in their homes, or other people’s homes, treated public spaces as their own private litter bin, love hotel, public toilet and drunken orgy. I was quite astonished at the degree to which people treated public space as their own private space, just a metre or two away from other people doing exactly the same thing. Is Yoshiyuki violating this code of public behaviour where no-one interferes with everyone else, or is he engaging with it by taking that voyeur role, as others are doing?

  3. I agree 100% with the Beta (first commentator). This is a public park and it is not part of the social contract to reserve the park for private sexual exploits. If people don’t want to be filmed/watched doing intimate things perhaps they should have respect for themselves and others and do those things at home.

  4. I wonder what reaction he’d have gotten from the media if, instead, he had spent time lurking in the park, photographing the voyeurs with his invisible-flash camera.

    Would the more-or-less-organized voyeurs have argued that he was somehow intruding or cheating by watching them instead of the people having sex? Would photos without the titillation of “strangers having sex outdoors at night” have been considered to be a comment on society in the same way?

    To me, it seems less noteworthy that would go to a public park at night to make love than that there is, or was, an organized group of people hiding in the bushes to watch them. Some of the people being photographed may have been exhibitionists, but at least some probably had no other place to go with their partners.

    Also, and this may have been more true 30 years ago than it is now, people will do many things in more-or-less public that they wouldn’t do if they believed they were, or might be, photographed or filmed.

    Yoshiyuki knew at least some of this, or he wouldn’t have made a point of using a camera with an infrared flash, and he would have befriended the people he wanted to photograph, not the organized voyeurs.

  5. A couple of things occur to me about public-private space in Japan and the US, not quite in order of the comments and post. In 1986 I was in a (rather small) national disaster in Japan, riding a local train, not a high-speed bullet train, at rush hour returning from a Buddhist pilgrimage, a sudden snowstorm knocked the power out on our train. I was one of 3 American women, a mother and daughter and myself, who spoke no Japanese in a train with 2,000 stranded commuters. I was the most experienced person and I assured my terrified companions that we would be fine. Several people on the train overcame their shyness to translate announcements. On the train there was a “we’re all in this together feeling” and–for example–a little boy who needed to go to the bathroom very badly was handed along the line to the front of the overwhelmed bathroom line.

    The National Guard evacuated us one-at-a-time but very efficiently, through the engine–I think the electric doors were stuck. We made our way slowly (the mother was in her 60s and not able to walk well) through the snow to a darkened train station packed with thousands of displaced commuters, standing room only, where the “all in this together” spirit . We immediately encountered an English-speaking drunken Japanese man who amused the rest of the crowd by draping himself on my younger companion and tempting her to violence, “I could punch him in the mouth and never hurt my hand, Lynne,” she whispered, “Because he doesn’t have any teeth.” I whispered back that the best way to get to Tokyo and home was to not hit anyone.

    Eventually a couple of buses showed up–laughably few considering the crowd. I assured my friends, “This is Japan, everyone will be polite.” Instead there was a stampede for the few available buses. My younger companion grabbed her mom’s hand and dragged her along as we ran for it, elbowing people out of our way, who were trying to elbow us out of the way. We were bigger, so we won, squeezing onto a bus and eventually making it to the big city, a hotel for the night, and on a flight out a day later.

    To me this illustrated the famous Japanese phrase, “He acts as if he has no neighbors.” In a nutshell–peer pressure is way more of a motivator in Japan than in America at least, and in situations where no one you know is watching or no known rules apply, it can be every man and woman for him or herself.

    This kind of anonymity happens in the western world as well, particularly when disinhibiting factors like drugs or sex are involved. But I would suspect that we’re definitely more disorganized about it. I am sure that to this day there are parks in the city where I live where sex is available, weather permitting, in certain subgroups. But the voyeur aspect of it is probably neither so organized nor so great in numbers.

  6. When I wrote this blog it felt like I was less nuanced then usually and I felt like I was missing some pieces. It was good to have these comments to think about.

    As Vicki says, concepts of privacy tend to be time bound. The expectations when the photos were taken were very different in the 70’s. We’re living in times when privacy is vanishingly hard to protect and realistic expectations are low.

    My experience it that concepts of public and private space are indeed different in Japan. For example, nudity in the public baths is acceptable, a nude photo of the same person in a Museum is very radical, far more then it is here.

    I think that having your stolen sexual photo exhibited in public space (book, exhibition) would be considered more unacceptable in Japan then here not less.

  7. Watching the pictures is a little voyeuristic, and visually, I don’t find them very appealing – but I’m not apalled at all. It’s a park! Can you expect privacy when having sex at a park?

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