At the age of five Nagi Yoshida was clear in her mind about what she wanted to be as an adult. While other kids dreamed about becoming superheroes, professional athletes and astronauts, she had already decided on a career as an African tribal warrior. Not exactly an obvious choice for a young girl growing up in Japan, but she didn’t care about that. A TV program about a Maasai village in Kenya convinced her that it was the only way to go.

Unfortunately for Yoshida, due to her background and ethnicity, it was a dream that was about as realistic as becoming a superhero. To experience the life of a tribesperson in Africa she would have to go down a different route, so that’s what she did. Here, she shares her story with Weekender…

Namibia’s Himba tribe

At ten I was told by mother that it wasn’t a job so it would be impossible for someone like me to be part of a tribe. While this was heartbreaking to hear, it didn’t put me off going to Africa. People around me only seemed to speak about the negative aspects of the continent: corruption, disease, war, and so on. This annoyed me as they’d never been there. It made me more determined to go. After working as an illustrator, I finally went at the age of 23.

My maiden journey took me to Ethiopia. Having never been officially colonized [Mussolini’s Italy did conquer the country in 1936, but during a five-year period never maintained full order], I felt it would be the best place to meet tribal people. It wasn’t quite as I envisaged. The tribes I visited were very business-orientated: give us money and you can take a picture. Of course, I understand why, it was just a bit disappointing. The warmth I felt from locals, however, was like the Africa I’d imagined as a child.

The next countries I visited were Mali and Burkina Faso. In both places, I had selfish guides who tried to have sex with me. These experiences didn’t tarnish my impression of Africa; they just made me realize I needed to be stronger and less naive. Over the past eight years I’ve visited around 17 African nations and learned so much in each. I’ve also traveled around much of Asia. Spending time in India with Sadhus – Hindu men who shun the material world for a life of asceticism – was particularly fascinating.

Yoshida has also photographed Sadhus in India

I only started taking photographs properly two years ago. In Japan, the image people have of Africa is often based on Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning picture of the famine-stricken Sudanese girl lying on the floor while a vulture eyes her from behind. Of course, in certain areas, this is a realistic portrayal, but I wanted to show the continent in a more positive light. I’ve stayed in homes made of cow faeces and you think these people are so poor, yet they don’t feel like that. There’s so much joy within the communities and that’s what I hoped to convey in my photos.

My most recent trip was one of the most enjoyable. I visited the Bororo tribe in Niger where they have a male beauty contest. Participants emphasize the whiteness of their eyes and teeth, which is meant to look cool, though some might find it bizarre. I also enjoyed Kibish in Southern Ethiopia, where I met the Suri tribe. Unlike the tribes during my first trip, they were just fun people that look amazing. It was well worth the three-hour bumpy drive from Addis Abba. The kids asked me how long it would take in the car to Japan.

Bororo tribe male beauty contestant

Yoshida with the Suri tribe in 2015

One memory that sticks in my mind was when I drank with city-dwelling Maasai in Tanzania. I told them where I was from and they started talking about a crazy Japanese lady they’d seen online who they respected because she stripped off and took part in the rituals of Namibia’s Himba tribe. They obviously didn’t recognize me so I told them I was the girl, and showed pictures on my cellphone. They were very excited and everyone wanted a photo. It was a surreal night.

Yoshida dressed in one tribe’s traditional wear

In that kind of environment, it’s completely natural to be naked so I wasn’t nervous at all; just excited. I probably felt the way kids do when they dress up in their favourite superhero costume. My dad’s not very happy about seeing me without clothes, though. When he Googles my name the words “nude” and “nipple” come up. He worries about me going out there, but I have no intention of stopping. The next African country on my list is South Sudan. Before that I’m planning to visit the indigenous Yanomami tribe of the Amazon rainforest.

Yoshida’s photos are on display at Seibu Sogo Shibuya’s gallery until June 26, 2017. For more information go to our event listing.