Vintage photos show the underside of boom-era Japan

Vintage photos show the underside of boom-era Japan

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

When the famous photographer Greg Girard landed in Tokyo in April 1976, he expected to spend only a few days in the Japanese capital. At that time, a “broken traveler” in his early twenties, he was heading to more affordable destinations in Southeast Asia.

He left his luggage at Haneda Airport and, with nowhere to sleep, spent his first night in Tokyo wandering the streets of bustling Shinjuku, camera in hand.

“I was just stunned by the way everything looked, because it was never presented in the West, this modern city,” Girard recalled in a video interview, noting that his arrival was long before movies like “Blade Runner” and 90s pop culture exposed mainstream Western audiences to Asian metropolises.

“I ended up deciding, pretty much the first night, that I was going to stay,” he said.

An image from 1979 shows a crosswalk in Tokyo's Shinjuku district.

An image from 1979 shows a crosswalk in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. Credit: Greg Girard

What started as a whim turned into a four-year stint, during which Girard taught English by day and photographed Tokyo by night. He rents an apartment and, nearby, a small darkroom where he will develop his photos.

He didn’t know it at the time, but these images captured the boom years before Japan’s infamous economic bubble burst in the 1990s. With the yen soaring, a surge in speculation in the markets would eventually lead to a financial crisis. But before that, Girard said, there was a palpable sense of emerging wealth — a sense woven through his images of consumer electronics, office towers and bustling intersections.

“It was the time of Japan’s rise, before the rest of the world was really aware of what was going on,” said the Canadian photographer, who published a selection of his vintage photos in the new book “JAL 76 88”, adding, “It was a time of genuine optimism and a kind of dynamic growth of Japan as a place that was beginning to be treated as an equal (to the West).”

Light in the shadows

During his nocturnal wanderings, Girard became fascinated not only by Japan’s rapidly rising economy, but also by what was happening there after hours. Many of the book’s images allude to the country’s darkest underbelly: posters of naked women, seedy nightclub entrances and empty hotel rooms that leave viewers wondering what could have been going on inside them.

“There was this split between the practicality of running ‘Japan Inc’ – making sure people go to bed early – and the release mechanism of staying out all night if you wanted to,” said the photograph. “These two things were happening at the same time.

“The trains stopped at midnight, so there was a whole subculture around what to do between the last train that stopped and the first one that started (the next morning),” he said. he continued. “There were arcades and cafes open all night where people parked in front of an expensive cafe and nobody bothered you for sleeping in a cabin all night – that’s kind of why they were the.”

The interior of a hotel room in Nara, Japan.

The interior of a hotel room in Nara, Japan. Credit: Greg Girard

Girard’s once futuristic images ooze vibrant greens, pinks and blues, colors saturated by his use of long exposure settings. The photographer allowed light to flood his lens and illuminate what lay in shadow. Often using a tripod to stabilize his shots, he focused on where the light was falling, not where it was coming from, painting the cities of Japan basking in a neon glow rather than emitting one.

“It was just getting away from the cliché of neon signs,” he said, “and seeing where the light landed, whether it was on people, buildings, cars, puddles of water or whatever.”

A career in pictures

The title of Girard’s new book, “JAL 76 88”, combines the Japan Airlines call sign with the years between which the photos were taken (he also included footage from missions that took him to Japan in the late 1980s, after moving to Hong Kong). Dozens of daytime photos are also presented, as well as a selection of black and white photos. Girard often carried two cameras – one with monochrome film and the other color – at the same time.

But for all the dynamism captured in the photos, some of his most compelling images are devoid of human activity, whether it’s deserted construction sites or empty passageways lit by streetlamps. As he familiarized himself with Tokyo, Girard used photography as an excuse to explore quieter areas he might not have visited otherwise.

“The alleys and streets right next to entertainment districts, or ordinary neighborhoods, also had a life of their own,” he said. “I was walking around, just looking at the alleys around the waterfront, before it became a popular part of town. No matter where you live, taking photos is a way to make it your own. “

Nightlife in Yokosuka, a city in Japan's Kanagawa Prefecture.

Nightlife in Yokosuka, a city in Japan’s Kanagawa Prefecture. Credit: Greg Girard

Girard’s experiences also helped him hone his camera skills, laying the foundation for a successful career as a photographer. Experimenting with long exposures and different types of film was something he “consciously began to explore and technically master” during those years, he said, adding, “So it was also that process learning.”

In the decades since leaving Japan, he has toured for magazines such as National Geographic and TIME while publishing books about a number of Asian cities including Hanoi, Okinawa and Shanghai. He is perhaps best known for his images of the now-demolished Walled City of Kowloon, an almost entirely lawless and mob-controlled enclave in Hong Kong that was once home to some 50,000 people on just 6.4 acres.

Looking back, Girard says his photos of Japan are a kind of diary of his youth. But although he spent his nights on the town, he always kept a certain distance from the nightlife he documented. He has always focused on photography itself.

“I didn’t go to bars to drink or party — back then, anyway,” he said. “I did almost anything and everything just to take pictures.”

76 88“, published by Kominek Books, is available now.

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