Most North Korea watchers and researchers are lucky if they can visit the country a couple of times in their lives, but Masayuki Aramaki has gone more than 30 times over the course of 20 years.
Describing himself as a “photo documentarist,” Aramaki’s numerous trips to the DPRK give the impression that he has greater access than the average foreigner.
With his YouTube channel Aramaki Project having over 13,000 subscribers and 6 million views, the thousands of hours of footage he has captured show a surprisingly candid view of the daily lives of Pyongyang’s citizens.
The Osaka native spent his undergraduate years in the United States focusing on East Asian Studies, while his further higher education was spent in China. Between giving lectures at Waseda University on creating documentary content for Japanese television, Aramaki has devoted the majority of his adult life to DPRK research.
This unique position and close proximity to North Korea allowed Aramaki to gradually gain the trust of his minders, who let him film with few limitations.
Aramaki’s goal was to document the changes within North Korean society, specifically in Pyongyang, from the Kim Jong Il era to the present Kim Jong Un regime.
In his first interview with an English-language publication, NK News sat down with Aramaki-san to discuss his experiences.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and readability
NK News: What initially drew you to North Korea?
Masayuki Aramaki: I was doing Chinese studies in America — I had an interest in movies and originally wanted to be a film director, so that’s why I went to the U.S. It was the 1980s, the days of MTV.
During my study at Maryland University, College Park near Washington DC, the Tiananmen Square incident happened in China. The Cold War was coming to a crashing end, and this was having an effect on me.
I thought that big things were happening in the world, so I figured I’d turn it into a documentary. The draw for me was wanting to record nonfiction. I thought I’d do something with China or Tiananmen, and I wished to document how the country was going through considerable changes. That was the impetus for me to go to China for graduate school after finishing my undergrad in Washington.
During that time, I wanted to research the Cultural Revolution, but in China there’s no documentation for it. I wanted to know what people from the West thought about the Cultural Revolution, but after Tiananmen, it became a new age for China with its new open foreign policy.
China became a member of international society, capitalism gradually increased, and there was an evolution, so to speak. That was interesting, but there were already China experts and researchers from long ago, so I didn’t think that there was much reason for me to get involved. I thought about becoming a researcher on the Cultural Revolution, but there was no data. There’s only propaganda about it in China.
Feeling troubled about this, I visited North Korea as a tourist from Beijing in 1997 and was told that the mass games would be held there the following year in 1998. Mass games weren’t being held in China anymore, so the only place I could see them was in North Korea. I thought that I would go see them, and when I went, I wanted to see the countryside.
When I saw the mass games’ perfection and high level, I realized that there was a structure that didn’t exist in North Korea’s countryside and was only built within its central metropolis. I compared it to what I had researched up until then in China. I thought that North Korea would begin reforming, similar to how China had done, and that this was the age of their own cultural revolution. That was when I decided to document it myself.
When I tried doing research in China, there was no quality content from a data standpoint. In North Korea, there was now footage that could be recorded, and I went in with my camera. At that time, I thought that I would commute back and forth between China and North Korea. There were two things for me: the first being the importance of getting this footage, the second being looking at the structure of the countryside and center.
There was a structure that served a function of creating phenomena that only existed in North Korea’s center. Why did the countryside not change with the center? I realized that the countryside and center were two completely separate worlds.
“Most Japanese people don’t think North Korea is something extraordinary”
NK News: In your opinion, what’s the biggest thing the Japanese get wrong about North Korea?
Masayuki Aramaki: They think that North Korea is stagnant. What Japanese people misunderstand is that they think that when this generation of North Koreans changes, they’ll move towards liberalization, some kind of enlightened age towards cutting-edge development. However, what North Korea actually wants is a path towards stabilization. I think North Korea is heading in a direction that’s the reverse of what most people imagine.
NK News: How difficult is it for the average Japanese citizen to travel to North Korea?
Masayuki Aramaki: For travel, it’s actually surprisingly easy. In Beijing there are travel agencies, so through those, there are also Japanese agents and organizations. If you go through them, then these days going on a tour in North Korea is quite simple.
The package tours are expensive, sort of like a safari park. You can go by bus and see things from inside the capsule, but actually entering the safari itself is forbidden. But although it’s just a tour, it is possible to go to North Korea and back.
NK News: You’ve visited North Korea many times and have built various relationships and connections with North Koreans. Do you think that their perception of Japan has changed in any way?
Masayuki Aramaki: Actually, their image of Japan isn’t that bad. In fact, because the Korean War was such a big experience for them, their impressions of America and South Korea are more rigid in comparison.
While they were once under Japanese rule, they told me there’s a certain nostalgia for Japan in terms of feeling and history. Even though Japan is an enemy country, they actually feel close emotionally. The roots of the people of both countries are close.
There’s Japanese culture in North Korea, too. For example, enka style music is popular. What Japanese feel is actually very close to what North Koreans feel.
NK News: Given how negatively North Korea is viewed in Japan, has your fieldwork attracted any criticism?
Masayuki Aramaki: I haven’t lived in Japan full time for 30 years, so I don’t really know about what people think there. I went to America at age 18, then China where I lived consistently, and then I went to North Korea.
I’m Japanese, but don’t see myself as part of Japanese society. I’m doing independent studies, and from that position, it wasn’t in Japan, but in China and America where I had my experiences.
NK News: You haven’t received any negative feedback from other Japanese?
Masayuki Aramaki: Nothing in particular. That’s because my experience is very niche and specific. Most Japanese people don’t think North Korea is something extraordinary (laughs).
NK News: How many times have you been, in total?
Masayuki Aramaki: 35 times, I suppose. For fieldwork, not sightseeing.
“I’m not a journalist, and my goals are capturing footage of North Korea’s future and why the country is able to function with the structure it has”
NK News:Has any other Japanese person gone in more times than you?
Masayuki Aramaki: By other people, for example, you mean journalists through invitation? I’ve heard of people going for sightseeing, or perhaps invited by the government, but in terms of going there by yourself, I haven’t heard of anyone else doing the kind of fieldwork I’m undertaking systematically.
Over the course of 20 years, there’s probably no one else in the world that’s been as systematic as me. There are famous professors who go by invitation, for example, when there’s a conference, or television journalists that get called, as well as people who will enter once or twice. But systematically, I’m the only one.
NK News: Compared to the first time you went to North Korea, have you been granted more freedom of movement?
Masayuki Aramaki: From the beginning, I’ve always paid money, chartered my own car, did my research alone, and I’ve generally been able to get around. That hasn’t really changed. I don’t really use public transportation.
NK News: You appear to have access that many foreigners otherwise do not. How have you achieved this?
Over the first ten years of fieldwork in North Korea, having the same sense as them is very important. So that’s why, as a Japanese person living in Beijing, I was in a socialist country that was close to North Korea.
Like when you climb Mount Everest, Nepal is where you put your base camp. Beijing was my base camp. From Nepal, you go to the mountains. In North Korea, having the same air means being able to read each situation, being patient with your time, not doing anything political, choosing spirited guides, etc.
It took a lot of time to do those things. I’m not a journalist, and my goals are capturing footage of North Korea’s future and why the country is able to function with the structure it has. From the beginning, it was to be my life’s commitment.
Going back to the Everest image: fieldwork in North Korea is like climbing a mountain once or twice a year. For the mountain climber, their entire life is dedicated completely to that goal.
Masayuki Aramaki has uploaded thousands of hours of footage onto his Youtube channel
NK News: Have you ever been chastised for filming too much, or filming in the wrong place?
Masayuki Aramaki: I did have that experience in the beginning, but eventually it got to the point where they told me that I wasn’t a problem. They dislike it when foreigners do things in secret, but because I’m able to read the atmosphere, they let me film what I want.
NK News: When I interviewed Funky Sueyoshi, he told me that he steered clear of political topics and difficult questions with his guides. Do you adopt the same approach?
Masayuki Aramaki: There are people who will talk and people who won’t. But in my case, there are people who will talk. Speaking directly is certainly a bit difficult. But there are many different ways of approaching conversations, so I take my time and chip away with what gets said.
NK News: You and Sueyoshi-san worked on the multi-year “North Korea Rock Project,” the subject of a previous article for our website. What interested you about that project?
Masayuki Aramaki: This was a project of mine to research the new generation of North Koreans that took five years, and Funky-san participated in it for me. The goal of the project wasn’t to play rock music, but to observe North Korea’s younger generation. So I created the theme around that and did research.
The idea was for me to go and see the music club activities of one school in North Korea run by young North Koreans born under the current political system. The other goal was for this theme to be the basis of a documentary. I was thinking about turning it into a film.
NK News: What subjects related to North Korea interest you the most? Do you have a specific goal in mind every time you visit?
Masayuki Aramaki: There’s no concrete goal each time, but rather it’s to see how things have changed. How does the new generation think? What I do is fixed-point observation, which entailed being in the same places for 20 years and seeing what changed during that period.
Taking my time was very important. I filmed in the same locations 20 years ago, and if you film for that long, you can see things like fashion trends, their way of speaking, and even how their faces have changed. That’s the sort of thing I look for.
NK News: What’s your favorite film you’ve made so far?
Masayuki Aramaki: Probably the stuff where I’m filming children or young girls — they felt the most natural to me. During the rock project filming, I thought to myself that they were the same as the rest of the world’s children.
“What I do is fixed-point observation, which entailed being in the same places for 20 years and seeing what changed during that period”
NK News: When you started going to North Korea, there were no social media sites like YouTube or Instagram. Now you run a successful YouTube channel. What effect has it had on your work?
Masayuki Aramaki: It felt like YouTube was made for me. It’s great for my data. When I started 20 years ago, I was shooting via digital video and I used this system to record, but with the material I had assembled, it really could only be used for television broadcast and documentaries. I had a lot of data recorded from my fieldwork.
When considering how to sort this material, YouTube is the perfect kind of place. It was difficult before the platform existed, but now I’m able to upload my stuff there. It’s a place where all of the world’s people can submit their recorded material.
NK News: The DPRK government is known for trying to control what information gets out of North Korea and is extremely self-conscious of its external image. How have those limitations affected your work?
Masayuki Aramaki: It’s had very little effect on me. I didn’t widely present my research and data that much. I’m not really revealing any kind of classified information, I’m not a journalist, and I’m only recording scenes of daily life.
By recording scenes of daily life, there’s no point in just doing it once. There’s meaning over the course of 10, 20 years. It might be normal life, but journalism can only capture one moment. I’ve caught 20 years and am looking at those changes for the first time. I’m only capturing stuff that’s valuable to me, so there really isn’t that much effect on my work.
NK News: What do you think sets your work apart from other DPRK photographers and researchers?
Masayuki Aramaki: Firstly, I’m out there doing real fieldwork as my base. I have data, and based off the data I’ve gathered, I go out there and research. I do it based on what I’ve seen with my own eyes. That’s what I’ve done from the beginning.
I’ve gathered a ton of data and have completely chronicled the transition between the Kim Jong Il era to the Kim Jong Un era over 20 years. From those experiences, I think I completely understand the differences between both, which I think separates me from others. I don’t operate based on others’ impressions. I work on-site.
NK News: Your book compares Pyongyang to a “miniature garden.” In your opinion, what makes the city distinct from the capitals of most other countries?
Masayuki Aramaki: I think the biggest difference is that there’s no commerce. There are no advertisements. Pyongyang is the only city in the world that was made with political intentions in mind. The power of commerce doesn’t exist in Pyongyang.
NK News: Your book also describes the three different eras of North Korea’s history. Could you briefly talk about each time period’s specific traits?
Masayuki Aramaki: The first era was established with Soviet influence, the second era aimed to get rid of that and create something more in line with Kimjongilism, while the present third era is about creating a new vision for the future.
The new generation is different because of striving towards science and technology. There was the Soviet era, while those who were able to escape from that created an original system. There are already new developments now. The architecture and life of Pyongyang are completely different throughout these stages.
NK News: From your experiences, have you noticed any other major changes in North Korea under Kim Jong Un compared to his father Kim Jong Il?
Masayuki Aramaki: One big change is the progress of the nuclear family. Before, the state and the individual were directly linked, but now the family is also involved. It’s changing to where the nuclear family is the center of everything, especially in Pyongyang’s city center.
Under the current Kim Jong Un regime, they’re recognizing foreign currency and the market. They’re changing the system in order to preserve the family unit.
NK News: Do you think locations are ever prepped or staged for your arrival? In other words, do you think locals are coached for specific situations, such as playing at the Pyongyang waterpark for example, prior to your filming?
Masayuki Aramaki: Ah, that (laughs). It’s an urban legend. People might imagine that happening, but it’s never happened to me. Perhaps if I was a Japanese journalist there might be something like that, but they have no reason to do that towards me as an individual. They don’t have the money to do that. That kind of movement and staging would take a lot of money. I’m not a famous person or anything at all, so they have no reason to do that.
NK News: What’s a “secret spot” in Pyongyang or another city that you’ve never heard mentioned in mass media? A shop, restaurant, or other attraction for example, that caught your eye and you wish to talk about?
Masayuki Aramaki: The “secret spots” are the back roads, as well as the schools and the families of the students who attend them. I’ve been talking to the teachers within the schools for 20 years, as well as seeing the lives of the students and their families. More than anything having to do with politics, I’m looking at their normal lives and living spaces.
NK News: Is there a world of business ties, as evidence often suggests, between the DPRK and Japan despite sanctions that goes unmentioned even by Japanese authorities? Do you see any evidence of existing financial support or investment by overseas Koreans living in Japan?
Masayuki Aramaki: I think that would be difficult to do with Japan. Whether it’s with Zainichi Koreans or Japan, I think it would be almost impossible. However, they have a border economy with China. There are some ethnic Koreans involved as well. This can be done regardless of what’s prohibited by other countries.
NK News: Are your photos and videos reviewed by North Koreans before you leave the country, and have they been in the past? Or has such a policy changed for you over time, and how?
Masayuki Aramaki: To begin with, I’m not entering the country as any kind of important person and the North Koreans haven’t recognized me as such, so I wasn’t inspected even once. That’s important for my fieldwork, and since I don’t speak Korean I’m not viewed as a dangerous character. I bear in mind to not do anything conspicuous. I don’t film with that kind of goal. In the end, I’m only filming the normal lives of North Koreans, so it really isn’t a problem.
NK News: What’s something you saw that you didn’t film and you often think about, having wished that you would have filmed it?
Masayuki Aramaki: By interesting things I didn’t film, you mean political content, right? I try my best to not film those things because I don’t want to get involved.
“There isn’t anything I’ve filmed that I won’t publish”
NK News: If you could possibly describe in any way without violating your reason for keeping it secret, what is some video you have filmed but which you won’t publish, and why?
Masayuki Aramaki: There isn’t anything I’ve filmed that I won’t publish, but if it’s something I could make money off of, I tend to not put it out. The stuff I put on my YouTube channel are scenes of daily life, while I don’t release stuff that would be essential to my research.
NK News: What is a location in North Korea about which you are very curious but have never visited, and why do you want to visit there?
Masayuki Aramaki: There isn’t anything in particular. In terms of capturing the living space of North Koreans, I’m not too interested in the countryside, just the city center of Pyongyang.
I’ve been living in China for a long time, and the countryside and agriculture in the northeast haven’t changed too much compared to 20 years ago. The agriculture sectors controlled by the Communist Party haven’t changed that much, so it’s not that important. What’s important for me is the structure of the urban areas and the changes in the society’s people.
NK News: What is something you are looking forward to documenting in the future in North Korea? Perhaps something old but not yet filmed, or perhaps something new in the works or which you hope will appear in the country someday?
Masayuki Aramaki: It’s already been 20 years and I’ve finished filming, so I don’t have much interest in new things.
I’ve just returned to living in Japan full time after 30 years, so the research based on the data I’ve collected begins now. Everything I’ve captured from 1998 to 2018, I plan on using in order to present my findings on how North Korean society has changed during that time. I’m finally in a stable position to do so.
Oliver Jia is Social Media Editor at NK News and a Kyoto-based graduate student currently pursuing his PhD in international relations at Ritsumeikan University. His research focuses on Japan-DPRK relations and comparative foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @OliverJia1014