IN 1972, the Rho-Delta Press of Los Angeles published Tamotsu Yato’s book Otoko: Photo-Studies of the Young Japanese Male. The book has long been out of print, and it usually commands a hefty price from rare book dealers. But the story of its origins and eventual publication is notable—and ultimately poignant—because it intersects with the life of one of Japan’s most complex and fascinating literary figures.
By the time Otoko appeared, Yato had already started to make a name for himself with his photography. His first book, Young Samurai: Bodybuilders of Japan, was published in 1967 by Grove Press. It was soon followed, in 1968, by Naked Festival, published in America by the lesser-known John Weatherhill, Inc. The second book took as its subject the hadaka matsuri, annual harvest and fertility festivals celebrated across Japan and featuring huge, raucous processions of nearly nude young men carrying shrines dedicated to the gods of Japan’s Shinto religion. The common element of both subjects, of course, is that they allowed Yato to focus on the beauty of young men.
In the late 1960’s and early 70’s, for Western audiences at least, any kind of artwork celebrating the erotic beauty of Asian males was uncommon (one could argue that such is still the case today). What helped Yato’s first two books to find a wider audience was the fact that they featured introductions by Yukio Mishima, perhaps (after Nobel Prize-winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata) the most famous writer to emerge from Japan in the first half of the 20th century.