Japanese women reborn in the nude through photography

One photograph shows Yoco sitting naked on a bed, smiling softly as she admires her ample breasts in her cupped hands. In the next picture one of her breasts has gone, the right side of her chest wrapped in a bandage.

"I can't feel it anymore," the picture caption reads, as she blankly stares out of a window, bruises and blue arteries criss crossing her bosom after a surgeon's knife did its brutal but vital work and cut out the cancer.

The unusually intimate images are from a new Japanese photography book entitled "Sono Saki-ni Arumono" (What Awaits Beyond), the story of a 38-year-old mother of two who survived breast cancer.

Photographer Maki Miyashita, 35, who published the book in October, spent two years with Yoco, documenting her loss, her tears and depressions, and her emotional journey to finally accept her new body.

"Yoco first hired me for only one photo shoot," which was intended to preserve her original, natural body in pictures, Miyashita told AFP. "I was then struck by the thought that I must document her experience."

Miyashita asked her subject whether she could follow her with a camera, a project which lasted for two years up to last July and documented Yoco's rebirth into a new self - part creative project, part therapy.

"Those desperate years for me were like being swallowed in a storm," Yoco, who preferred not to give her family name, recalled as she sat with Miyashita.

"I can't remember exactly what I was thinking or feeling at that time, but I must have strongly desired it. I now realise that taking nude portraits has some therapeutic effect for women."

The independent photographer remembers vividly a moment after the operation when Yoco unveiled not only her body but also part of her inner self.

One monochrome shot shows her tearfully breaking down in a bath tub.

Her right breast and nipple have been surgically reconstructed using cartilage from her ear and skin from her inner thigh, an addition to her body that felt so alien that she said she wanted to tear it off.

And, at one sitting, the photographer found herself showing her own breasts to her subject.

"We were in the middle of a nude photo shoot, and Yoco said, sort of out of the blue, that she wanted to see my breasts," the photographer said. "So I took off my clothes, and she said they were beautiful."

"She quietly collapsed in tears. She said she missed her once warm breast."

In Japan, despite ubiquitous sexual images on subway male magazine ads and billboards, the public still demands women stay traditionally prudish about nudity.

In 2006, when US fashion magazine Harper's Bazaar tried to display a wall-sized advertisement of a pregnant Britney Spears in the nude, a Tokyo subway station demanded the full-body photo be reframed from the waist down.

But in a new trend, many Japanese women have become more at ease with taking off their clothes before the camera - not to titillate but to rediscover themselves, both at times of sadness and of joy.

A Tokyo studio that specialises in nude photography of pregnant women has seen orders surge from about one or two to up to 70 clients a month in the space of several months.

"I've been having fun by myself, watching my belly grow bigger and bigger everyday," said a heavily-pregnant 31-year-old after she bared all for the camera.

"Female nudity is always being exposed to many curious eyes. Society values the young, curvy female form, but a woman's body, once she is pregnant, is a long way from that valued standard."

"I thought to myself that my body, despite moving away from the standard, is beautiful," she said. "I wanted to be photographed in the nude by somebody who looks at me through eyes much different from those of a man."

Another mother-to-be, Aki Hiraoka, 34, also had a professional maternity photo taken, although not in the nude, after some initial reluctance.

"I wasn't prepared to become pregnant so early, and it was even frightening to see how quickly and massively my body was changing," said Hiraoka, at the time in her seventh month.

"But when I became able to accept this change in myself, I decided to take a self-portrait and keep it on record," she said.

Natsuko Takada, who runs the maternity and baby photo studio Navel, said many expecting women seem to have been inspired by popular Japanese singer Hitomi, who last year released a nude photo book of her maternity.

Miyashita said many of those now taking nude self-portraits are aged around 30, the generation accustomed to carrying a disposable camera.

Yoco has her own reason.

"Major life events, like going through surgery or giving birth, leave many traces on a woman's body," she said.

"When I was able to accept my own and to think I am still beautiful with this body, I realised there was a therapeutic effect in taking nude portraits."

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