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An American in Tokyo

By Imtiaz Gul

The Friday Times, Dec 16,2011

It is an amazing story of love and hate, like and dislike: the father fought against the Japanese army; the son flew with Japanese fighter pilots. The father - noted Hollywood cinematographer Frank W. Stanley, A.S.C. - viewed Japan as an enemy nation. The son found countless friends in Japan. The father looked at the Japanese with aversion but the son discovered his love among scores of Japanese. This is the story of Michael Stanley, 64, an American professional photographer-turned-teacher, who landed in Japan in 1979 for work but ended up staying on for good. 

Michael has excelled in a country that is known for its extremely competitive and closed-to-foreigners environment

In retrospect, Michael has excelled in a country that is known for its extremely competitive and closed-to-foreigners-environment.

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He now teaches at the Meiji University, one of Tokyo's private educational institutions. Michael outclassed many of his Japanese contemporaries and earned fame by going after targets as diverse as African famines and conflicts and nuclear test sites in Nevada and other Cold War-related military sites. 

What brought Michael to Japan?

"They saw me as a kind of pet. Every night we would go drinking to the most exclusive bars in Ginza"


"I was curious to find out why my father was against the Japanese," he says. [His father, originally a cameraman for Disney, served as a US Marine during World War II.] "Once at one of those Christmas receptions he met with a stunning Japanese and became interested in Japanese life. Then he would take me to the Japanese enclave in Los Angeles. This began about the time I was eleven."
"When in university, I had a Japanese roommate who became my first informal tutor of the Japanese language and bridge for meeting with other Japanese."

Then Michael was pursuing a doctorate in archaeology, and studying Russian and Chinese. But his journey would take a sharp turn.

"I sent my father those pictures - somebody who had fought against Japanese forces now saw his son standing by the Japanese pilots"


My father had taught me the basics of still photography.  I began

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using that skill after interrupting my graduate-level program at university, and began with different companies who liked my innovative work, and my abilities and connections were useful on the business side of things."

The turning point came when a Japanese producer with whom Michael was sharing a post-production celebratory dinner in a restaurant in Los Angeles invited him to Japan. The producer had recently completed a commercial with Japanese talent in California and was apparently looking for more professional talent.

Michael lost no time in getting ready for the journey. When he arrived in Japan he knew the language to a degree, and that was a critical element indeed.

"They saw me as a kind of pet. Every night we would go drinking to the most exclusive bars in Ginza [Tokyo's most expensive commercial district]," says this tall, handsome and well-built American, who instantly became a darling at the parties. 

Within a few months, Michael's calendar was covered with assignments

Every new place you go to there is a transplanted clump from your soul. No matter how prejudiced I was about a certain place, I found nothing obnoxious. Moreover, when you arrive at a new place, it smells and looks different. The first whiff of air, the first shaft of light that strikes you, becomes an immutable impression and works a change in you deep inside."

After a while Michael began working with the Japanese media in still photography. In 1984 he did a shoot for the magazine Brutus, with one of his photographs on the cover.

Within a few months, Michael's calendar was covered with assignments.

"I came to Japan and discovered the world - meaning I went all over the world for assignments - from Asia to Africa to American deserts for filming," says Michael while displaying some of his breathtaking photographs. He went all over the world: in India he visited Gujarat, the Rann of Kachch and the Andaman Islands; he went to South America (Argentina) and the far 'outback' of Australia; he saw Alaska, Europe and North America; also the equatorial countries of Africa and remote islands in the Pacific. Michael documented history and showed it on Asahi TV, Nippon TV, Fuji TV, and in leading Japanese magazines and newspapers.

In this time he also ended up looking at the wreckage of inter-continental missiles. How did that happen?

"I was at a party. MTV was running a film matching the music - bomb drills - sirens - something we did as schoolboys every Friday back in the 1950s. I began wondering what happened to all those old things - the bomb test areas, the big airplanes? Just then START had gone into effect. And they had begun destroying some of the weapons." 

In 1986 Michael got an assignment for shooting during a competition among U.S. Air Force fighter pilots. This was to take place at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. Michael was allowed to take photographs while sitting behind a young pilot in an F-15 jet. For this, the photographer had to go through high-altitude and ejection training before being allowed to get into the aircraft. Michael then traveled as part of a team from the Kadena Air Base (Okinawa, Japan) on an aircraft that took them to Florida in 14 hours for the competition. The aircraft was refueled mid-air over the Pacific Ocean.

Impressed with Michael's work, the commanding general in Japan in 1989, Lieutenant General J. B. Davis, asked him to produce something commemorating the 50 years of Fifth Air Force, the part of the U.S. Air Force that is based in Japan.

"The general asked me and I suggested why not do a book," says Michael. As a part of that project, Lt Gen Davis asked the Chief of Staff of the JASDF to cooperate; the Chief of Staff agreed and the doors of the Japanese airbases opened to Michael.

"Japanese pilots and officers were so welcoming. I knew Japanese and they were so cooperative. I sent my father those pictures - somebody who had fought against Japanese forces now saw his son standing by the Japanese pilots."

When the book came out in Sept 1991, the Fuji TV Network asked Michael whether he could do the same for them in video. He did it in 1992. His career was galloping in leaps and bounds. Although digital cameras had already hit the market, Michael did most of his work on the Nikon F3P (35 mm).

His images regarding the remains from the nuclear competition of the Cold War have been shot in black-and-white infrared-sensitive film. "It has an unusual 'feel' to it - especially the high contrast and dark skies. It often seems to carry an ominous tone. The photographs are usually 'banked' to left or right or apparently warped by the optics of extreme wide-angle lenses; my intention has been to inculcate a sense of unnaturalness, of imbalance."

Michael, though himself American, is wary of the way his countrymen think, particularly those at the helm of power.

"I wish Americans were more conversant with openness to others - to be able to accept things that don't fit their almost petrified perceptions," says the professor when I mention US policies in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Michael believes he has figured out the essence of America by being away from that country. "You are able to get the clearest view of what America is only after you live elsewhere."

Michael also offers a cool comparison of American and Japanese societies when speaking of socio-cultural values.

"If someone insults the Imperial Family, most Japanese won't take it and would react severely. But aside from things of that order, Japan is marvelously open in its approach to the freedom of expression." Also, discussing socialism - or new and 'out of the box' approaches to the economic problems before us all - he says it is not a taboo in Japan, but it certainly is in the USA.

To learn the art of flexibility, Americans should travel more: "The old conceptions yet remain too fixed. We have a new century before us!"

South Asia and the Indus Valley civilization have always fascinated Michael. He hopes to visit Harappa, Mohenjo-daro and other historic sites some day. The objective would be to do some expressive monochrome photography with an eye toward a book and some gallery exhibitions. 

Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and is currently a Fellow of International House of Japan/Japan Foundation, Tokyo

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk