Walking past Tokyo’s Zojoji temple in March 2016, the Japanese photographer Shin Noguchi noticed what he describes as a “world cultural exchange event” taking place in the grounds. He wandered in and found himself drawn to the Namibia tent, where an irresistibly bizarre contrast with the venerable Buddhist temple and the Tokyo Tower in the background was provided by one impassive-looking giraffe.
It’s easy to see why the scene caught his attention. An award-winning street photographer based in Kamakura, outside Tokyo, who has been observing everyday (yet quietly extraordinary) Japanese life for the past 20 years, Noguchi views his work as a way of deepening understanding between cultures. “Even if it is difficult to completely erase the boundaries between cultures, races and colours,” he says, “I strongly believe that, through the steady activity of photography, we can lower the boundaries to a height where children can easily jump over them like a skipping rope.”
Noguchi’s marvellous debut photography book, In Colour in Japan, is full of children at play: a boy pointing a toy gun at an old man at a summer beach festival; a kid in a Spiderman T-shirt gleefully bombing through an intimate wedding photograph; Noguchi’s own daughters running at speed towards the camera. But it’s the arresting image he took at Zojoji temple that connects most vividly – and strangely – with Noguchi’s impulse to explore what happens when different cultures come into contact.
The giraffe outside the Namibia tent is not, as it first appears, alive: it is the work of a taxidermist, and you can see the blue of the tent canvas through a hole in its right ear. Noguchi never found out why Namibia chose the stuffed giraffe for their display. He was more interested in capturing the scene – the majestic creature of the African savanna, apparently blending in unnoticed among the Japanese temple-goers – and he got what he wanted with a single click of the shutter. “It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime moment,” he says.
In Colour In Japan by Shin Noguchi is published this month by Eyeshot