Photoessay: Serious Tokyo

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I can only surmise this is a cultural thing, or I’m going to the wrong places – in the ten years or so I’ve been regularly visiting Tokyo, the majority of people, the majority of the time – appear to have quite a load on their minds. Maybe it’s the economy, maybe it’s the government, maybe it’s because they don’t see a way out from whatever they’ve been doing for the last 30 years – oddly, though Japan once felt so societally, culturally and technologically different from the rest of the world as to be light years ahead like some porto-future, I keep getting the impression that everywhere else seems to have caught up in the last couple of decades. There is no longer this sense of wonder when I arrive, but more like a comfortable familiarity and a search for something hidden – which I can never quite quantify, but occasionally find in the form of something very traditional (think hundreds of years of continuity) or reinterpreted (hundreds of years of continuity but with modern influences). I’ve always found it interesting that Japan can be such a philosophical paradox: on one hand, so traditionally rigid, and on the other, still rather freeform and kooky. Or perhaps I’m just not being allowed into the wilder karaoke and hostess bar places… MT

This series was shot with a Canon 100D, 24STM and 55-250STM lenses, and an X1D-50c and 90mm, and post processed with Photoshop Workflow III. Travel to Tokyo vicariously with How To See Ep.2: Tokyo, learn to be stealthy with S1: Street Photography and see how to capture the essence of a location with T1: Travel Photography.

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Prints from this series are available on request here


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  1. Thank you for your pictures of typical, more traditional looking spots in Tokyo. Reminds me of my time living there. For me it was always so interresting to find almost everywhere something modern next to something traditional as for example just some old shrine sandwiched between modern highrises or your tiny traditional ramen/udon/… restaurant next to some other modern place. This mix is more to my liking then what I used to see in Manhattan.

  2. Seebaroni says:

    Nice set of images, thanks for posting. Reminds me of my time in Japan.

  3. Beautiful photos, I work not too far from the fish market and really liked the driver’s shot, the light is fantastic!
    With or without realising it you found one of the few things that have changed in Japan, and that is a renewed appreciation for the past and all things vintage. For too long Japan had been writing off the present for what looked like a golden future. Young people reflect a lot more on those times and many of the certitudes, be it economic growth or the much famed work for life guarantee have evaporated. The Tohoku disaster was another contributing factor. I am for one glad that Japan seems to have rediscovered a certain nostalgia, therefore feeling much more like other places.
    The current balance between past, present and future is about perfect.

    • Thanks Phil. I wonder if the preservation that balance is also a consequence of the ageing population – and the world being preserved as they see it ‘at its peak?’

  4. Love the photo of the tea man. He looks more like a scientist filling up test tubes!

    • Thanks – it was a very ordered, precise operation – ‘discipline’ comes to mind – but the results were pretty spectacular 🙂

  5. Crispian Balmer says:

    A wonderful set of photos. Beautiful light. Really memorable. I so like the fact your site focuses on images and inspiration.

  6. Excellent pics, I just love them.

  7. Japan looks so like the 90’s. It’s like flying in the past. You go inside a building and you can see all the very clean and very well maintained equipments, the color palette used, etc. which was certainly the best of best 20 to 30 years ago. Even when its new there is this 90’s feeling which is there flying with a smell of apogee which is now behind. I love it but it feels sad also somehow.

  8. Are you telling me in all your travels to Japan (especially Tokyo) you’ve never seen a saIaryman chundering in a subway? I lived in Japan for six years (Nagoya, Gifu) and still go back at least twice a year. My Japanese is good enough to pass for native over the phone if I’m careful. Passing as a generic Asian won’t help you as there is still a perceived hierarchy among foreigners, and if you’re a non-Japanese Asian it isn’t that high on the totem pole. A perception of wealth will get you some way in the larger cities (as an example if they think you are a rich Chinese tourist or American banker it’ll open some doors) but most of the really cool places require introductions. Combine that with the fact that any foreigner is considered a visitor no matter how long they’ve been in the country and it’s going to take some time to get to know things. It’s normal that most Japanese would look like they have something on their minds during the day as they take their work lives quite seriously. They tend to do a 180 during parties as the “you may now have fun” mental switch gets flipped. You can find as much mayhem as you’re willing to live with if you try, but I’m not sure that karaoke bars and hostess bars are necessarily the craziest places to be. Just about anywhere in Japan requires an introduction (and after six years there it would just be *weird* to go to a new establishment without an introduction or having a regular in tow). I guarantee all those people with game faces on you meet during the day are letting their hair down considerably, you can pretty much find any matter of entertainment. Most of the best places I’ve found I would never have known about if a friend hadn’t told me about them. There are simply too many watering holes (and their shelf-life varies enormously) even in a conservative town like Nagoya to ever get to know all of them. The nightlife in Japan is simply amazing, I was so spoiled there that I can’t go out in Canada because it’s too boring and predictable. In fact I’m just off to Japan in about 10 days, I’ll come back with some sakura party and night life photos (thanks for inadvertently giving me a theme to shoot for with my new Fuji 23mm f2 WR lens). As an example of a time to let your hair down, you’ll shortly see half the population of Japan under cherry blossom trees in the parks, drunker than lords. Oh, and stop going to Tokyo. Tokyoites are lame, especially compared to much cooler towns like Nagasaki and Osaka.

  9. This collection of images and your brief comments here are brilliant and fantastic! I’ve never been and blew a chance for a ten-day study program as I was doing some work for MITI and JETRO two decades ago (I considered myself too busy with other clients at the time which translates into being quite dumb). The Japanese I worked with ultimately all dropped the veil after much chest-beating about Japan’s superiority, confessing in the end that they (not one) wanted to return to Japan from America because life as a Tokyo salaryman was such hell. They were great men and women and my heart always sank for them. I love nationalism – and I love when our barriers are all smashed by our humanity and commonality. These images seem to reflect that ultra-seriousness I so often saw – and they are beautifully crisp and lit. Thank you for sharing your prolific work!

    • Thanks – I wonder what makes working in Japan so much worse than the US though – did your colleagues ever explain?

      • Ming – it was an assembly of things, I believe. Cost of living (we were in Houston at the time) was simply incomparable. Japanese could then live like kings, play tennis on Saturday mornings, live in large spaces, have large cars and do large things, Texas style. They also found Americans to be open to them; the rather hierarchical boundaries of Japanese society, at least 15-20 years ago, didn’t exist. Houstonians never seemed to care where one was from; half the city was from somewhere else. The question was can we do business, can we help one another or, if not, live and let live. Returning to Tokyo, their lives and those of their children were more regimented and so when the inevitable happened, most would grin and bear it but my several confidants would yield the truth and then, when it was their turn, be deeply saddened to return, lose their freedoms and friends, and be a smaller part of the machine.

        • Intersting; makes sense in a way. However, I suspect full localisation (i.e. no expat packages) might have yielded a very different view of life for them…

  10. A marvelous collection of images. The cook holding the noodles overhead is absolutely iconic. Thououghly absorbing in the stories it tells.

  11. Casey Bryant says:

    This set is a beautiful use of light. Well captured.

    For a first-time visitor to Japan later this year (Kyoto, Okinawa), this is inspiration.

  12. I wonder if there’s a cause-and-effect thing going on : you perceive that Tokyo has changed, and accordingly you are drawn (consciously or not) to photos which reinforce this idea. When I go there (typically at least once a year), I usually come back with very “upbeat” (for want of a better word) photos – or, alternatively, photos with which I associate positive feelings.

    Does this imply that you’re less inclined to visit Tokyo in the future, or does the sheer visual overload of the place still make it worthwhile for you?

    Either way, always interesting to see your photos. I’m almost certain I could pinpoint close to the exact location of one or two of those!

    • Almost certainly: we can’t avoid reinforcing our own innate beliefs.

      Don’t get me wrong, I still love Tokyo. But it isn’t the visual overload it used to be (or maybe I’m just used to it 🙂 )

      • Next time you could try something that I did with a fellow photographer a while ago in my part of Japan. Get a one day subway pass, pick a station at random, and go there. We added an extra restriction : you can’t go more than two or three blocks from the station in any direction. Shoot around there for a while, then repeat with different stations until you run out of time. Good way to force yourself to look closely at the area. Come to think about it, this is a little like the “blitz exercise” on your training video…

      • boyho4meme says:

        Our innate beliefs get reinforced much earlier and with minimal similar experience after you have taken a hardfall, suffering for no reason of your own.The people causing this contract into known figures.You recognize things quickly.Tokyo during my visits was elemental in very fast learning curve for me, many things I learnt were not related to Japan, but I would not have known them if I had not gone there.There is symbiosis between what is there and how it relates to you.Yes Tokyo is serious.You fill your own bucket.Your photos are something I saw there.

  13. Such humanity here !

  14. so nice

  15. Peter Wais says:

    Ming, I aim not to inflame anything, but instead offer respect for what I perceive as Japanese culture. As a Westerner, I appreciate the experience in Tokyo very much and enjoyed doing business with Japanese firms. But I always felt, quite poignantly, that I would never be afforded a true read.
    Bill Murray made a superlative American movie on just this point.
    As we say, jump in, the water is warm!

    • You’re absolutely right – I’ve probably got it a bit easier than you because I could pass for ‘generic Asian’ and I do speak some Japanese, but you still really must have an ‘in’ to experience everything…more so than in other cultures/countries, I feel.

  16. Lovely set. Particularly like the chef straining the noodles. Such wonderful light and colour.

    • Thanks – one of my favourite places to eat; it’s both tasty and cheap (and the latter is important, because it’s basically in grand-camera-central).

      • Where is grand-camera-central? And any good places to hunt for 2nd hand analogue gear? (No GAS, no GAS! :])

        For me, the stand-out image of the set is the first one – it feels like a visual poem.

        • The area around Yodobashi and Map Camera near Shinjuku Station; leave your credit cards and cash at the hotel. You have been warned. 🙂

  17. gnarlydognews says:

    Macdonalizing the world one mobile phone at a time 🙂
    More and more all cultures start to blend, started with TV, than Internet and now mobile phones. Of course cheap travel allows to bring in more external influences, would that be by foreigners visiting of locals going abroad.
    I like this set of images more than the industrial/architecture ones; human elements are more interesting to me

    • The ‘cultural exchange’ factor for Japan is pretty high, though it’s generally easier for them to import than export – perhaps this is why we’re seeing a gradual erosion of uniqueness…

  18. Jon Cummings says:

    I lived in Japan for three years in the late 1970s. The pictures could have (most of them) been taken then. Thanks for the memories.

    • It’s actually surprising to me how little Tokyo has changed: in the late 90s/early 2000s it felt like another planet; then it started to feel closer to the rest of the world; in places I now feel it’s been caught and passed. Difficult to describe…perhaps all societies play leapfrog in some way.

  19. I love this series. Reminds me of my time in the city

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