Parallel Universe: Tokyo Through Western Eyes

A smile crossed my face as I read an article by Amy Chozick in The New York Times travel section about her recent trip to Tokyo. How could she know so well those feelings of familiarity, yet otherworldliness that I experience every time I go to Tokyo – a place I’ve taken to calling a parallel universe? Always upon arrival in Tokyo, I’m temporarily fooled by all the recognizable trappings of western consumer culture: late night convenience stores, coffeehouse chains that serve lattes and cappuccinos, familiar global brand boutiques, and vending machines on every corner. Yet, that sense of the familiar quickly vanishes as it is replaced by the recognizable filtered through the bizarre and then reintroduced as the recognizable. All is familiar, yet all is not. The convenience stores, along with standard junk food offerings, also sell delicious onigiri seaweed and rice snacks; in the coffeehouse chains I ask for my café latte “hotto”; and in the fashion boutiques my western body barely fits into the clothing. And this is just the beginning. Dig deeper and it gets even less familiar. Not just the outward consumer trappings and physical disconnect of always requiring either Google maps or a business card with a map to find a Japanese address, or having to look upward for shops on the 2nd and 3rd floors, but inevitably the social interactions too. As a native New Yorker, I never anticipate polite checkout encounters when I shop. I expect to have my purchases thrown at me and the change dropped on the counter. No surprise, in Japan my purchases are carefully wrapped and handed to me with both hands, as if being offered a gift; same for the return of my credit card or change. Truly, we are a long way from home.

And then add to the mix, my late night meet-ups with Japanese photography and photobook friends where I find myself squeezed into a basement izakaya or 6-seat narrow bar in one of Tokyo’s raucous entertainment districts. Where else – in between shots of whisky or bites of delicious flesh picked from a plate containing a fish head – would I have the pleasure of being told by my slightly inebriated Japanese friends that I must buy a certain photobook by an up-and-coming young photographer? (And yes, I inevitably buy it and yes, they were right.) These are all symptoms of parallel universe syndrome, a slightly off-kilter condition that doesn’t propose to derive from a deep scholarly analysis of Japanese culture and is admittedly rife with clichés – unavoidable when visiting Tokyo.

I am not alone in succumbing to this affliction. Quite a few western photographers have produced books that explore various views of parallel universe syndrome… with many probing beyond superficial observations. Some take what I would like to call a “carnivalesque” approach that catalogues the uncanny disconnects of western standards as filtered through quirky and infantilized interpretations of Japan. If not careful, these images can veer towards a shallow Orientalism that highlights a trite depiction of the exotic. But if done well, a carnivalesque perspective can be used to examine daily life and social interactions. Books such as William Klein’s Tokyo (1964), Paul Graham’s Empty Heaven: Photographs from Japan 1989-1995 (1995), and Pawel Jaszczuk’s Salaryman (2009) take the standard clichés as starting points in explorations that move beyond the clearly observable.

At the other extreme are photobooks by western photographers that undercover the deviant and liberatory behaviors that reflect rips in the Japanese social fabric. Bruce Gilden’s Go (2000) is such a book, with its images of sex-workers, transgender performers, bosozoku motorcycle gangs, yakuza, subversive youths, and homeless street people. Gilden’s images reveal the side of Japanese society that is not in plain view – the marginalized and disenfranchised.

In between these two perspectives are photobooks by western photographers that mix and match both conceptually and visually upon the carnivalesque and marginalized. Some create the mélange in an emulative visual style, while others juxtapose images of uncanny Japan next to degenerate Japan – leaving the viewer the task of sorting out the clichés and contradictions. Jacob Aue Sobol’s I, Tokyo (2008) and Andre Príncipe and Marco Martins’ Tokyo Diaries (2009) are mix and match crossover photobooks, offering up a smorgasbord of both the carnivalesque and the degenerative underbelly to varying degrees in both content and aesthetic style. The results are a complex and clearly western commentary on Japan that embraces cliché and deep exploration in equal parts.

More recently a few books by westerners have transcended the barriers implicit in a “gaijin” perspective. Sumimasen (2014) by IPG Project (Tamara and Yoshi Kametani) is a good example. As a genuine synthesis of a Japanese aesthetic with Japanese content, this Slovakian (Tamara) and Chinese-Japanese-American (Yoshi) creative team take the avant-garde aesthetic of the deviant underbelly and show how it has merged with the carnivalesque to become mainstream via our current Internet-everywhere culture.

What follows is a book-by-book discussion of the parallel universe themes that are mentioned above:

The Carnivalesque 

I have to agree with David Campany’s 2009 review of William Klein’s Tokyo (1964), which refers to it as one of his favorite Klein city books – a book that he “takes down from the shelf most often.” Less well known than its predecessor New York (1956), Tokyo is a big book that requires a table for viewing. Yet, it is far from a coffee table book. Rich inky gravure images of modernized Japan are on view in Klein’s trademark compositions of full bleeds and gridded sequences. Every imaginable modern meets traditional Japanese cliché is presented: an overcrowded subway car with salarymen, grandmother in kimono with granddaughter in western garb, dense Tokyo streets with a mix of Japanese and English signage, street festivals, baseball players and traditional bathhouses. It is the carnivalesque or uncanny approach of the familiar as it intersects with a western view of quirky Japan. But, in the case of Klein, who has been cited by numerous postwar Japanese photographers as an influence, the depiction of the everyday doesn’t get stuck within the narrow confines of simplistic voyeurism. Through Klein’s aggressive and critical eye, the Japanese woman in a beauty parlor chair getting a western-style 1960’s beehive hairdo is a lesson in social commentary.
ICP call number: TR820.5 .J3 .K54 1964

Paul Graham, Empty Heaven: Photographs from Japan 1989-1995 (1995) is a collection of color images that probe subconscious themes below the surface. Keenly aware of the clichéd images that have populated many travelogue depictions of Japan, Graham photographs the mundane in a quest to reveal shared social disquiet within the Japanese psyche. His photographs of fragmented signage and women holding their hands close to their faces are juxtaposed with everyday objects such as a sugar bowl, car engine or diapers on a nondescript windowsill. As Graham states in the interview text that accompanies the book, “…Japan [is] a society which has a traumatic recent history… yet on the surface seems to reflect a huge collective amnesia.”[1] But, in showing this collective subconscious amnesia, Graham stays far away from the repeated and sanctioned historical refrain of victimization. Instead he shows the daily trappings of a bubble economy (1986-1991) Japan that uses a cheerful kawaii aesthetic to obscure the shadows of a barely hidden collective wound.
ICP call number: TR647 .G73 1995

When I first saw Pawel Jaszczuk’s Salaryman (2009) zine-like book at the New York Art Book Fair several years ago, I was immediately drawn to it… and this worried me. Superficially, it has all the outward signs of a trite Orientalism. Its images of wasted and drunken salarymen fulfill many of the worst clichés about the “soul-sucking” existence of Japanese office culture. But as I looked further, past the hand screen-printed ornate Japanese paper cover with tidy white obi, I found that the black-and-white images within were teasing me with their nod towards Orientalism. Technically, Jaszczuk’s photographic compositions are extremely western – leading lines, rule of thirds and a conscious symmetry. This fueled my initial concern  that the splayed and drooling salarymen in this book could be the work of a bemused tourist sympathetically looking at a parallel universe, where all is familiar and all is not. But, upon closer inspection, I realized that Salaryman is actually a very clever book and that Jaszuczuk is fully aware of the highly charged visual language in use – this is a case of Orientalism employed as an aesthetic device within the carnivalesque.
Unavailable at the ICP Library. Published by Morel Books

The Marginalized

Bruce Gilden takes delight in unearthing the seamier and marginalized side of life. In Go (2000), a completely immersive book bound by sensually embossed red covers devoid of text, Gilden presents full-bleed depictions of the prostitutes, yakuza and societal rejects that populate Tokyo’s underbelly. While these photos are depressing and unnerving, they are also addictively engaging. In one spread, an aging sex worker with breast exposed is shown opposite a photo of a dog’s anus. Another spread juxtaposes a typical middle class couple at leisure with a toothless woman whose skirt is hiked overhead. Raw black-and-white street photography images are mixed with full color and red monochrome pages from Japanese manga (comics). Visually, this is a beautiful book, which seems like a counter-observation given that many pages show bloodied and scarred heads.
ICP call number: TR680 .G55 2000

The Carnivalesque / Marginalized Hybrid

Upon first look, Danish photographer Jacob Aue Sobol’s I, Tokyo (2008) feels very familiar. His black-and-white full-bleed images, taken in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, immediately suggest Daido Moriyama’s daily photographic walks and blurry high-contrast street aesthetic. But, like my initial impression of Jaszczuk’s Salaryman above, I also find in I, Tokyo a more nuanced and layered view beyond an emulative one-liner. Sobel, who lived in Tokyo with his girlfriend for 18 months during 2006-2007, felt quite isolated upon his arrival. Like Moriyama, he took to wandering the streets with his camera, focusing on the liberatory practices and marginalized lifestyle of those working in Shinjuku’s seedy entertainment districts. Visually, the resulting images are a melange: some feel quite western, while others suggest the theatrical composition of a Hosoe nude or the disarmingly close perspective of a Tomatsu portrait. I, Tokyo is a crossover book in the best sense. Sobel mixes an innate Scandinavian detachment with a foreigner’s desire to learn more about his new home – befriending many of his photographic subjects and in the process gaining a brief glimpse beyond a limited tourist perspective of Japan. The result is a complex examination of Japanese culture through images that juxtapose a plate of noodles with exposed pubic hair; and a splayed semi-nude man on a discarded Budweiser banner. Is he drunk? Is he sunbathing? Is this just another example of quirky Japan or a deviant activity at the fringes of the socially acceptable? We are not sure – and that uncertainty is where I, Tokyo succeeds.
Unavailable at the ICP Library. Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing.

André Príncipe and Marco Martins’ Tokyo Diaries (2009) reads as part travelogue, and part documentary narrative on postwar Japanese photography. As the documentary images associated with Traces of a Diary, a film by Príncipe and Martins that explores the diaristic practices of seminal Japanese photographers such as Araki, Takuma Nakahira, Kohei Yoshiyuki, Hiromix and Daido Moriyama, Tokyo Diaries is a wonderful behind-the-scenes look at the Tokyo photo world and the process of filmmaking itself. Visually, this book forms a strong connection with the are-bure-boke Provoke aesthetic being documented. Photographs of parallel universe tourist experiences – sleeping salarymen on crowded Tokyo subway cars, ubiquitous vending machines, and small back alley noodle shops – are interspersed with images of Moriyama, Araki and Nakahira going about their photography routines. First impressions of this book as a simple travelogue are deceptive. As one digs deeper into the photos of Príncipe and Martins engaging in various Tokyo meet-ups, the initial documentary narrative gives ways to a more layered reading of both the filmmakers and their subjects. Through third-person encounters the book expands and offers up a wider view of Japanese society as seen via the filmmakers’ dialogue with well-known Japanese photographers. Príncipe and Martins are photographing the Japanese, but the Japanese are photographing them, too. The book begs the question, “Who really is under scrutiny here?”
Unavailable at the ICP Library. Published by Pierre von Kleist Editions.

Gaijin Transcendence

Sumimasen (2014) by IPG Project (Tamara and Yoshi Kametani) is a wonderfully sly book with unassuming pink covers that uses a Hello Kitty kawaii aesthetic to transcend a standard-fare gaijin perspective. Addressing issues of privacy, Sumimasen is a collection of snapshots of Mayura, a webcam pornstar whose entire life is on view 24/7 for her subscribers via 4 home cameras that stream her every movement. Superficially reminiscent of mid-1990s “girl photographer” (onna no ko shashinka) self-portrait nudes that were regularly criticized for their narcissistic bent, IPG’s photos of Mayura succeed by going beyond a clichéd reading. In Sumimasen, they use a nuanced and conceptually grounded aesthetic to explore marginality and its blurred existence within a newly defined public and private space. In the past, porn clubs were easily identifiable and always quietly out of view. Now porn is everywhere, no longer relegated to a sex club. Through the Internet, the marginalized is mainstream – deviancy mixes with the commercial everyday. And Mayura is a prime example. We see her nondescript girlish apartment with its stuffed animals, Hello Kitty paraphernalia and excess cardboard packing boxes. We see her going about her daily routines: shopping for food and eating instant noodles. But we never see her face. Instead she always wears a Hello Kitty mask to obscure her identity and bring forth questions of privacy and identity. The mask acts as a metaphor for tatemae (public behavior) and honai (true feelings). In the digital space, Mayura is in control and through the subjective-ness of photography her identity fluidly conforms to her subscribers’ desires.

Sumimasen is a détournement of the western perspective fully transformed into a Japanese visual and conceptual space – the boundaries between the everyday carnivalesque and the marginalized are no longer. Parallel universe syndrome has been transcended.
ICP Library recent acquisition. Published by Éditions du LIC.

[1] “An Interview with Paul Graham by Uta Grosenick,” Paul Graham Empty Heaven: Photographs from Japan 1989-1995 (Germany: Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, 1995) unpaginated.

About Russet Lederman

Russet Lederman is a media artist, writer and photobook collector who lives in New York City. She teaches art writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York and writes on photobooks for print and online journals, including Foam, The Eyes, IMA, Aperture and the International Center of Photography’s library blog. She is a co-founder of the 10x10 Photobooks project, lectures internationally on photobooks, and has received awards and grants from Prix Ars Electronica and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
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One Response to Parallel Universe: Tokyo Through Western Eyes

  1. Gould says:

    Very good! A+ :-))
    Talking about westerners in Japan, this one looks interesting too :
    http://www.mikitimibooks.com/product/ed-van-der-elsken-sweet-life-1968-photobook-1st-japanese-edition
    Does Tokyo reprint brings something new by the way?

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