Hayato Matsumoto, a Japanese-Kazakh photographer, recalls life in the Soviet Union and serving as a policeman investigating violent crime, before finding a calmer life in Japan.
It would be easy to write a film script from the biography of Hayato Matsumoto: The grandson of a Japanese prisoner of war, he was born in Almaty in Soviet Kazakhstan and worked for the police in the 1990s. He eventually headed the department investigating serious crimes in newly independent Kazakhstan, and then in 2000 he moved to Japan. Today he gives tours for photographers, and travels abroad for documentary work.
Here, in his own words, is how the former Kazakh policeman came to make his living as a photographer in Japan. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
My grandmother was a trans-Baikal Cossack, she married a Japanese man in the early 1930s. Such an explosive mixture -- Cossacks and samurai.
After Stalin's death, relations between China and the Soviet Union soured and all non-Chinese began to be evicted from Manchuria, where my mother was born. Our family went to the Soviet Union. At that time, settlers were considered politically "unreliable" and were forbidden from settling in the big Soviet cities, so our family ended up in today's city of Taiynsha, northern Kazakhstan.
In our family, the topic of Japanese origin was taboo: it was better not to mention it or acknowledge it in any questionnaires.
In 1982, my uncle, who was living in Kurgan, Soviet Russia, at the time, was at an art exhibition where he met a group of Japanese tourists. The guide of the group approached my uncle and said that the tourists took him for a Japanese man.
The guide asked him to explain that he was not Japanese, but a Kazakh. The uncle replied that he was indeed Japanese. When they met and talked, one of the tourists volunteered to help search for his relatives.
He advertised on Japanese television and in newspapers and managed to find my grandfather, a former Japanese soldier who had been captured by the Soviets in World War II. My grandfather had searched for his family in Manchuria for a long time but was told that all the Japanese there had been shot.
At the same time, my grandmother and mother had also looked for my grandfather, but the Soviet authorities replied that they had not found anyone. I think that no one really looked.
As soon as my grandfather found out that the family was alive, he came to the Soviet Union to see us. Grandfather suggested we move to Japan, but the year was 1985, no one even thought about moving.
In Soviet times, I had many problems with work and study, and when the U.S.S.R. collapsed, there was more freedom. I got a job in the police, in the state Investigative Committee. I worked there until the end of the 1990s. My final position was the head of the department for especially serious crimes.
We were naive then, we really fought against crime. Despite the fact that the '90s were very difficult and crime was growing, there were no resources. There wasn't enough ammunition, we even stopped shooting practice. There was so much work that we spent the night in the offices. Nevertheless, we somehow worked, searched for criminals, detained them, took risks. There was such youthful enthusiasm.
I remember early on I was having a smoke with some colleagues when one employee passed by, I was immediately warned: "Don't communicate with him, he's corrupt, he takes bribes."
Can you imagine? The whole department was pointing fingers at him. But then, in the late '90s, it all started: nepotism and bribes. The job became more and more difficult.
In terms of my decision to move to Japan, I just realized that I had burned out. I'm a sensitive person and have never been able to separate personal life from work. So every tragedy connected with a crime felt like something personal.
But at some point, it suddenly became clear that my comrades and I were turning into robots. Our mental protection worked, we stopped feeling. You arrive, look at the corpse, and see not someone's tragedy, but simply a work object.
I've been taking photographs since I was a child, but the serious passion for photography came to me only later. In Japan, I was finally able to buy myself an SLR camera that I had always dreamed of. My two sons were still at school, I began to photograph them, and at the same time I shot landscapes.
At first, I took my friends around Japan, showed them the country, and they suggested the idea of holding photo tours for photographers. Since I have many friends around the world, they began to tell their friends about me, and through word of mouth, tourists began to come from all over.
I've always been fond of the history of Japan, so it is interesting for me to share my thoughts, considerations, and my view of Japan with others.
To be honest, at one time we thought that someday we would return to Kazakhstan. But four years after my departure, I came to stay in Almaty and realized that the country had already changed a lot, and I was already used to Japan. Of course, there are also many disadvantages here, many problems of their own, but at the same time it is very comfortable, convenient, and calm here.
The topic of Ukraine has been painful for me since 2014. At that time I told all my friends that this was just the beginning.
In the 21st century, it is impossible to solve territorial problems through a military invasion. Japan also has disputes with Russia over the Kurile Islands, but Japan is categorically against a military solution. After 1945, Japan has tried to regain these islands exclusively through diplomacy.
I believe that Ukraine today is fighting not only for itself, but for everyone. I am 100 percent sure that if Ukraine loses (and I wish it only victory), Kazakhstan will be next.