Photo/IllutrationA list of individuals monitored by prewar police includes photographer Ken Domon. Information on other individuals is blurred for privacy reasons. (Yoshinori Doi)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Archival material has surfaced that shows prominent photographer Ken Domon was regarded as a dangerous radical to be kept under police surveillance in the lead-up to World War II.

Domon (1909-1990) found fame for his images of Buddhist temples, and has been held in high regard for his works themed on social issues. He also dabbled in a prewar movement to improve the lot of farmers, which led to his arrest on multiple occasions.

Toshihiko Saito, a professor of education at Gakushuin University’s Faculty of Letters, said he believes that Domon's involvement in the farmers' movement caught the attention of the Special Higher Police, which considered him a person of special interest whose activities should be monitored.

Saito found Domon's name on a list kept by the former home affairs ministry and stored in the National Archives of Japan.

It was among records seized by the United States following the end of the war to be used as evidence in the Tokyo war crimes trial. They were later transferred to the U.S. Library of Congress for storage.

The list was returned to Japan in the 1970s, along with other 2,200 documents. But this constitutes the first known discovery that Domon was on the list.

“Domon found a way to his style of realism under the eyes of the monitoring apparatus that the state set up as it geared up for warfare," said Saito.

In 1932, at the age of 22, Domon started working as a trainee secretary at the headquarters of a group called Zenno Zenkoku Kaigi that was seeking to improve the conditions of farmers.

After numerous arrests, Domon quit the movement.

Domon turned his lens to temples and Buddhist statues, and began touring Japan to pursue his interest when he was about 30 years old. This led to the release of his acclaimed “Koji Junrei” (Touring old temples) series of works.

Among photo collections with a social agenda that won him national renown are those titled “Hiroshima” and “Chikuho no Kodomotachi” (Children in Chikuho), which were published more than 10 years after the war.

“Domon developed a critical stance toward the state and the war when he was placed under government surveillance,” Saito said. “That stance, coupled with anger, likely lay behind his attachment to Hiroshima and coal mining operations in the Chikuho district (in Fukuoka Prefecture).”

The 56-page list on which Domon's name appears features more than 100 individuals monitored by police stations.

Domon’s name, along with the location of his official family register, date of birth and address, was written in the section for the Tsukiji police station in Tokyo.

The special watch program apparently took shape from around 1910 and continued until soon after the end of World War II.

In its internal regulations, the former home affairs ministry described those targeted as individuals displaying “threatening and extreme ideology and behavior.” It asserted they were “at risk of disturbing peace and order.”

Monitored individuals were categorized into two groups depending on their level of importance. The list shows that Domon was not regarded as a significant threat, but as someone to keep tabs on.