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At some car shows, another kind of fan

Times Staff Writer

Not everybody snapping pictures at the Tokyo Motor Show is focusing on the cars.

Many of the camera-toting folks roaming the massive exhibit halls are more interested in the women whom automakers and parts companies hire to adorn their exhibits.

That’s not surprising, of course. But in Japan, photographing lovely ladies in public places is pursued with such enthusiasm that there’s a name for practitioners: camera kozo -- a kozo being a Buddhist disciple or a servant boy, though the word can be used in a derogatory way to refer to an inexperienced youth.

At big car shows, camera kozo -- kameko for short -- can be seen mobbing the models -- known as event companions -- pressing in close with their telephoto lenses and snapping hundreds or even thousands of digital images in a single day. Many kameko run websites on which they post photos of event companions, invite comments from visitors and blog about their favorites.

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“We realize that we are at the auto show for a different reason” than most people, said a 32-year-old information technology professional who goes by the handle Makuhari (the Tokyo Motor Show, which began two weeks ago, is held at the Makuhari Messe convention center in suburban Chiba) and asked that he be identified by that name. “There are actually many people who make the companions move away from the cars -- so they can take a photo of just the car.”

The single-minded pursuit of nonvehicular beauty can be irritating to exhibitors who, after all, are trying to get visitors and reporters to focus on their products. Makuhari, for instance, has a driver’s license but doesn’t even own a car, making him what the Japanese call a “paper driver.”

The Tokyo Special Import Car Show, a smaller event that focuses on non-Japanese vehicles, has tried to ban kamekos from its annual confab. It boasts on its website that it’s a forum for “serious business talk” that “excludes visitors to the extent we can whose primary purpose is to photograph the event companions.”

Not that they would ever consider giving up the models.

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Attractive and often scantily clad women have been a fixture at auto shows and racetracks worldwide for years. “Product specialists,” as they’re known in the U.S., will be on hand when the L.A. Auto Show begins its 10-day run next week.

But in Japan they are something of a cultural phenomenon. Race queens, who work under contract for Japanese auto racing teams, are especially popular, with some attaining the status of minor celebrities, complete with websites, fan clubs and swimsuit videos.

Event companions are generally less well known. They wear more risque outfits than their counterparts at auto shows in the U.S. and Europe, although many of the major automakers have toned down the sex factor in recent years. At this year’s Tokyo Motor Show, which ends Sunday, hot pants and halter tops were largely confined to exhibits sponsored by motorcycle makers and tire companies.

A daily wage of about $100 is typical for a companion, whose main function is to stand around and look good -- hana-yaku, or “playing the role of a flower,” as one put it. Narrating product demonstrations commands higher pay -- in fact, product demonstrations and the ability to mix easily with strangers are often part of the job.

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“Those who are shy and quiet may not be suited for this work,” said Saori Yoshimura of the Flash agency in Tokyo, which books event companions for auto shows, food exhibitions and other events.

Makuhari discovered event companions nine years ago and has been hooked ever since. He goes to about 10 events a year, mostly car-related “because they’re the easiest to take pictures at.” He typically takes 800 shots a day, although he was shooting twice that number at the Tokyo show. He’ll post many on his website (racequeen.seesaa.net), which he says gets 1,000 unique visitors a day.

The hobby can be expensive. Kameko are known for using pricey single-lens reflex cameras, and they travel all over Japan to attend events. Makuhari recently went to the Dream Car Show in Nagoya, a city about 225 miles west of Tokyo where companions were so scarce that he joked about asking for his admission fee back.

Once used to describe a teenage boy with an interest in photography, the term camera kozo now has a somewhat negative connotation. According to a Japanese Wikipedia entry, some serious photographers keep their SLR cameras stashed in their bags as much as possible to avoid being mistaken for kozo.

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“Although I do not consider myself to be a camera kozo, people around me will most likely call me that,” conceded Makuhari, who keeps his hobby secret from friends and family.

The companions have mixed feelings about the kameko-san.

Miki Kataoka, who was working at the Tokyo Motor Show for the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Assn., said she liked the attention and the occasional gifts from her fans (one set up her website, happymikimiki.com, as a birthday present).

But the crush of attention can be a bit much at times, not to mention the unauthorized photos snapped by kozo determined to catch companions in embarrassing or unintentionally lewd poses. Kataoka said her photo appeared on the cover of a DVD compilation of event companion footage without her permission.

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“So I made my DVD debut without even knowing it,” much less being paid for it, she said.

Shoko Hosoda, who was at the Tokyo show representing a maker of children’s car seats, said photographers sometimes interfere with her job.

“Customers will be asking questions about the product,” she said, “but the camera kozo are constantly asking us to pose for them.”

martin.zimmerman@latimes.com

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