Photoessay: Life in Tokyo

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Sardines observing sardines

Tokyo ranks extremely highly on my top places in the world for street photography – the sheer visual difference notwithstanding, it is also an extremely tolerant society to photography, and photography of random people in public. Everybody is doing it to the point that nobody notices anymore; however, unlike in other parts of the world where camera phones dominate, there are plenty of people using more serious equipment, too. Blending in has never been much of a problem. That difference I mentioned earlier is eroding somewhat, though. Once again, globalisation has meant that a lot of the more unique ‘character’ areas of the city are becoming clones of international streets (or vice versa) or even other parts of Tokyo; the area around almost any major railway station is the same, for instance – an agglomeration of fast food eateries, convenience stores, and one or two major chains plus a business hotel. It’s a formula that probably works for practicality, but not so much to keep the world an interesting place for its inhabitants.

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Sushi conclave

Perhaps the slow homogenisation of the world is something that you only see if you visit enough corners of it at a regular rate – I’ve somehow managed to land up in Tokyo every year for the last five or six years, and I’m never quite sure whether it’s me becoming increasingly accustomed to it, or every major city on the planet starting to feel very much the same beyond its identifying landmarks and geography. It certainly makes it more of a challenge to find interesting images. I only had good light for a couple of days of this trip, but during those days, the images practically made themselves. I just aimed the camera. I should add that I’ve never thought of myself as a street photographer in the conventional sense; I just make observations on life as I go through it. Enjoy! MT

This series shot with a Nikon D750, AFS 50/1.8 G, AI 45/2.8 P, and Ricoh GR.

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Off to infinity

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Alone in a strange reality

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Untitled rush

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End of the line

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A step outside the boundary

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Above it all

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Together, yet isolated

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Shadow games I

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Shadow games II

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The ghost of a telephone

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Moving on…


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. Ming, these are wonderful. They resonate with the energy that I remember of my last visit to Tokyo. Thank you.

  2. I believe “structure” is the best in the set. The taxi driver stands out so nicely among all those geometric shapes, behind the glass. Classy.

  3. Love this set Ming, but I also rather like your image titles as they compliment the image completely and ever so unique. Do you ever get a little helping hand with the titles?

  4. For B&W subjects, can an Ultraprint meet or exceed the quality of a digital enlarger print onto silver gelatin paper?

  5. Jorge Balarin says:

    I like the most “Alone in a Strange Reality”. As always in Tokyo you can see people with those horrible clinic masks.

  6. Step outside the boundary is way awesome, Ming. Japan is a unique place/people. A while back I was there in spring and the place was lovely. Did not do the photography then so missed out that part. But hey, now I can see it through your lens. Thanks for that.

  7. Alone in a strange reality is quite trippy 🙂 Great set! Some nice examples of negative space here!

  8. Homo_erectus says:

    The untitled shot with the police car has some serious magic. I feel like I could walk right into it. The light is luscious.

  9. I love your black and white photos(perhaps I should buy into your Monochrome Masterclass video) Sushi Conclave is perhaps my favourite. They seem totally oblivious to the camera beeing pointed at them.

  10. Claus Biermann says:

    Have you changed your set values for the b&w pictures?
    The tonality look difference than before. A little bit more “leicasque” 😉
    Overall as usual great pictures.

  11. Those are some brilliant photos. I love the use of B&W with the strong contrast. I think my favorite is the guy in the ghost phone booth with his phone. Simple yet telling. I also live the sushi conclave.

  12. I’ll be there on Saturday! First time. Nice to see your thoughts. We’re a little bit excited…..

  13. Nice pictures as ever (and that candid shot in the sushi place is superb) – interesting that you chose black and white for all the pictures (because of the light?). That last shot is the passage through Shinjuku station, isn’t it?

    I wouldn’t agree about Tokyo losing its character, though. I go there with a similar frequency to you (although it’s easier for me to get there!) and it’s one of those places which never gets old. Of course places change with the times, but when a place is as bustling as Tokyo, the sheer variety of people makes every day unique. I remember the first time I went there, and I came away thinking that I’d just experienced the greatest place on earth. I still feel that way every time I step off the train.

    I think the trick is (as with anywhere) to try and see it like you’ve never seen it before.

  14. Wonderful images Ming! Would love to go to Tokyo some day.

  15. Nice to see a bit off a change up. Some real zingers in there.

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