Revisiting an iconic National Geographic cover

All images in this story appeared in the July 1987 issue of National Geographic magazine, except the current photo of Miho Sakai.

Twenty-nine years ago photographer Chris Johns set off for his first international assignment. It wasn’t a glamorous one—the topic was soybeans—but he was determined to make it memorable.

“When you are doing a story on soybeans, you are looking for any surprising and interesting things you can find—that’s sort of the fun of a story like this,” says Johns, now executive director of the National Geographic Society Centers of Excellence.

A freelancer at the time, Johns had submitted 17 story ideas to then director of photography Bob Gilka, and all but one had been rejected, so he was excited to finally catch a break.

“[Gilka] asked if I’d be interested in a story about soybeans, and I said, ‘Sure,’” says Johns. “People weren’t clamoring for that assignment. I love research—I love that journey—so I jumped right into it. I’d never worked overseas, and I’d never been to Asia, so this was cloud nine.”

Johns’ picture editor, Susan Welchman, sent him to China and Japan to make images for the story. He describes her approach to editing as “tough love.”

“For one of my first film shipments I was completely enthralled with a tea ceremony,” recalls Johns. “I called [Susan] up from Japan and she said, ‘These pictures aren’t special at all—they are just people in exotic clothes. You have to do better than this.”

Conducting research for the story, Welchman learned about the incredible dexterity needed by geishas-in-training, or maikos, while eating with chopsticks. Tofu was especially tricky to handle, and she wanted Johns to make an image that demonstrated this skill.

And that’s how Johns first met Miho Sakai. She was an 18-year-old maiko who was willing to demonstrate the art of eating tofu without smudging her intricate makeup. (The role of the maiko is one of entertainer and includes performing songs and dances and playing traditional Japanese instruments during meals.)

The image of Sakai delicately handling the slippery soybean curd wound up on the cover of the July 1987 issue of the magazine.

“I knew that I was making a memorable picture. You don’t always know that,” says Johns. “I think there is a beauty to the picture. I think there’s sensuality to it; it’s exotic, but it’s real. This is what Miho-san did—this is what maikos did. And what I loved about it was the simplicity of the picture.”

Johns only spent a few hours with Sakai that day in a small, dark room in a Kyoto teahouse— and he could only communicate with her through his guide and interpreter, Kunio Kadowaki, so he wasn’t able to learn many details about her life. After the photo shoot, he never saw her again and wasn’t even sure she’d even seen the cover shot on the magazine.

But recently Johns was back in Japan for a business meeting and was surprised to learn that a reunion had been arranged with Sakai. He met her at the original place where he had photographed her, along with the current owner of the teahouse, Yasuko Tsujimura.

Johns learned that Sakai had only worked as a maiko for three years and is now married to a successful business owner based in Kyoto. It had been her teenage dream to work as a maiko, but her father only allowed her to do it for a limited period of time.

“It was just so cool to be reunited with her, to have this little reunion, and to see that she’s doing great,” says Johns. “You don’t know what to expect. You see her, and she’s glowing. She seems to be this incredibly happy woman—that’s what she radiated to all of us.”

In November 2015 Chris Johns was named executive director of the National Geographic Society Centers of Excellence. For the preceding 18 months he was the Society’s chief content officer, overseeing the expression of National Geographic’s editorial content across its media platforms. Johns served as editor in chief of National Geographic magazine from January 2005 to April 2014, the ninth editor of the magazine since its founding in 1888.

See more of Johns’ work here on Proof:
Chris Johns: A Magical Moment With an African Elephant
A Master Photographer Reflects on Work, Love, and Finding a Voice

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