Attending a Photo School in Japan

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A personal account of going to a photo school in Tokyo.

by Philbert Ono

Originally written in April 1996

Photo school

In Japan, April is the start of the school year. This is true for all public schools, universities, and senmon gakko (vocational/trade schools). April is also when new employees start their new jobs. April is an ideal month to make a fresh start since it is the beginning of spring when everything comes back to life after a cold winter.

Tokyo has a number of photography schools. These schools cater mainly to new high school graduates. A few schools also conduct night classes for older students or people with daytime jobs.

Entering a photo school
Every fall, the senmon gakko advertise in the major newspapers and camera magazines. The dates and times of orientation sessions are publicized. Orientation sessions are held at the schools to explain the curriculum, distribute literature, and give a sales pitch to potential students (and often to their parents who end up paying the tuition). A tour of the school is also given. Potential students usually go to orientation sessions at several candidate schools before deciding which school to attend.

Tuition for daytime students is about two million yen for a two-year curriculum. Night courses are much cheaper at around one million yen.

Any high school graduate who can understand Japanese and pay the required tuition and fees can enter a photo school. There is usually no entrance exam nor any strict screening process (except for foreign students who need Japanese proficiency certification and student visas). There is none of the entrance exam hell and anxiety which university aspirants have to go through. If you have the money, you can attend any senmon gakko.

To graduate, you have to attend at least two-thirds of the class meetings and score at least 60 (out of 100) on all tests and photo critiques. And even if you are unable to meet these requirements, you could always do the short make-up assignments. Thus, flunking out of the school is unlikely for anyone except for those who never attend classes. The whole atmosphere is lax and lenient.

The students
The classroom behavior of daytime students is quite notorious. One night-class teacher who had taught the daytime students said that he quit teaching daytime courses because the students did not listen in class. During lectures, they constantly chatted in class. In a large lecture hall, most of the students chat loudly and the instructor keeps lecturing as if everyone were listening. It is a funny sight. No one seems to care about anything.

However it's different at night. Most students attending night classes are older, with daytime jobs. The night students are more mature, focused, and have specific career goals. Most of them really want to become pro photographers.

There are quite a few female students as well. This is surprising since professional photography is one of the most male-dominated fields in Japan. But in recent years, more females have been studying or entering professional photography in Japan.

Age-wise, most night students are in their mid-20s. A few are in their 30s. Their daytime occupations are varied. There may be a bike-bin (courier by motorcycle) delivery man, a son of a portrait studio operator, salarymen (company workers) looking for a career change, and even university students. It's quite common for university students to supplement their education by attending a senmon gakko. It's amazing how much free time they have in their senior year.

In class, age and occupation are never a factor. Everyone are in the same boat and they all get along well. It is great meeting people who have the same interest as you.

The curriculum
At this one photo school in Tokyo, the night-class program is divided into three 14-week semesters, starting in April and ending two Septembers later. Classes are held four nights a week from 6:20 p.m. to 8:40 p.m.

Students have to choose one of two courses of study: Advertising/portraiture or documentary/fine art photography. During the first and second semesters, there is a darkroom class, studio lighting class, photographic science lecture class, and a photography lecture class. For the third semester, the classes concentrated on the respective field of specialty. Each semester, there are two hands-on workshop classes and two lecture classes weekly. Most of the lecture classes are boring and seem to be just low-cost (for the school) fillers with little practical value. No textbooks are used and no syllabus is given.

The hands-on workshop classes are practical and form the core of the curriculum. Students learn how to develop black-and-white film, print black-and-white photos, and use studio lighting and camera equipment. However, these classes only scratch the surface. There is much more to be learned, but students are limited by time and the school budget.

Practical things such as the going rates for taking pictures at a wedding, how to market yourself and find a job, current market conditions, and career options are not covered.

It is obvious that the school cannot teach everything. Therefore it is up to the student to make the best of it and be aggressive and active enough to learn on his or her own.

The facilities
The school is in a high-rise building near a major train station in Tokyo. Besides classrooms, the school has a darkroom which can accommodate about 20 people and three photo studios. Students can use the studios and darkroom on Saturdays and weeknights when the facility is not used by any class. They can also borrow a variety of camera equipment and lenses for as long as three days at a time.

The teachers
Most of the teachers are well-qualified to teach photography. Some of them are well known Japanese photographers or camera magazine writers. The school principal is one of Japan's most famous photographers. He (or his name) seemed to be more of a recruiting magnet and a credibility element for the school.

The teachers are easy to approach and talk to. However, there are times when students doubted the effectiveness and practical value of their teaching methods or lectures. There is no set teaching method and no school of thought on teaching photography. Students have to bear in mind that it is only a senmon gakko, not a university nor an elite school.

Teachers are most useful whenever you have a question. They are a storehouse of knowledge and experience waiting to be tapped only upon the asking.

Inside observations
The traditional Japanese school-student-teacher relationship seems to be intact for the most part. At the school, students are the low-life, the bottom of the totem pole. Although the students are actually customers who pay a lot of money for a service being rendered, they are never treated with the care and respect normal customers receive. The teachers and administrative staff do not seem to be afraid of receiving any complaints from students.

Perhaps it is because few students complain to the school about anything. They usually complain to each other and that's it. The "it can't be helped" attitude is prevalent. The school does not seem to care about what the students think about the classes and teachers.

One teacher was rude enough to receive phone calls on his cellular phone right in the middle of his lecture. He talked on the phone for several minutes in front of the whole class. After this happened a few times, the students complained to the teacher on the spot and he finally turned off his cellular phone.

The administrative staff is mostly haughty. They are always right, and students have to follow and obey. Cold perhaps, but it is their way of maintaining order and authority.

The situation is a far cry from foreign language schools in Japan. Students there are treated as valued customers and foreigner teachers do their utmost to give good lessons. Close attention is given to any complaints from students.

Life after graduation
The most practical, logical, and typical step after graduating from a photo school in Japan is to work as a studio or photographer's assistant. However, such jobs are mostly limited to those younger than 25. In Japan, age is a major concern among job recruiters.

Daytime students who are still around 20 years old upon graduation usually find some photography-related job such as an assistant. Night-school students usually have slim pickings since most are already too old for the menial assistant-type jobs. The recession has also shrank the job market. Most night-school students continue their current jobs for the time being.

Japan is a country of connections and the photography world is no exception. Who you know can make a big difference. It is difficult to break into professional photography in Japan from scratch.

A good experience after all
Despite all the shortcomings of the school and system, all in all the school experience is a positive one. The best thing about it is that you get to meet people and make friends. It's easy to make friends with people having the same interests as youself. The comradeship among fellow students is infectious. It's also fun seeing other people's photos and showing your own. You can also meet well-known Japanese photographers who teach the classes. Although you don't learn everything you should learn, you still do learn a lot about photography in Japan.

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