Japan Modern | Places


Bewildering in its scale and density, Tokyo has been an enduring subject for print artists and photographers for over a century. The city has evolved through multiple cycles of reconstruction since 1868, when Edo was renamed Tokyo and designated the capital of Japan. Urban plans based on Western models, new railways, and rapid recovery from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and World War II transformed the city into a symbol of progress throughout much of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Astounding economic and population growth also made Tokyo the embodiment of the tension between modernization and the search for Japanese identity—and a fertile ground for artists.

Coming out of World War II, photographers became increasingly aware of the social and political function of their medium. As many Japanese magazines and newspapers revived, Tokyo became the center where realism in photography was vigorously debated by such leading practitioners as Domon Ken and Kimura Ihee. In the context of a country devastated by war, the documentary approach became paramount, as seen in the work of artists like Hayashi Tadahiko. A prolific photographer of this period, Hayashi published many images of soldiers, street children, and life amid burned-out ruins in the streets of Tokyo’s Ginza and Ueno districts. Photographers also documented the pervasive US military presence: Yamamura Gasho, for example, produced a study of Washington Heights, a US military housing complex in central Tokyo. Both photographers employed disorienting perspectives and a particular eye for the moment to convey the unsettled mood of the times.

The Freer|Sackler collections include numerous extraordinary prints and photographs that explore Tokyo and its role in Japanese photography’s development during the second half of the twentieth century. Japan Modern presents just a few examples by two legendary photographers who used the medium to explore their relationship to the city: Hosoe Eikoh and Moriyama Daido. Recalling his time as young photographer roaming Tokyo’s streets, Hosoe documented performer Yotsuya Simon wandering through old neighborhoods and along the banks of the Sumida River, a familiar setting for earlier print artists such as Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915). In his series Simmon: A Private Landscape, Hosoe captured Simon’s lithe body interacting with the urban landscape to create an intimate record of the photographer’s encounter with a time and place.

Working as Hosoe’s assistant from 1961 to 1964, Moriyama Daido was exposed to the work of photographers who challenged the conventions of traditional documentary photography. He was also introduced to the emotional intensity of Tokyo’s avant-garde theatrical world. Both experiences, along with William Klein’s (born 1928) images of New York, would shape his high-contrast, dynamic style of street photography. The three images featured here were shot later in his career, when he returned to exploring the fundamentals of light and shadow. He also revisited his old haunts, like the streets and back alleys of Shinjuku. Using his snapshot style, Moriyama conveyed his furtive encounters with an endlessly fascinating city.

Japan Modern also highlights how Tokyo continues to inspire a younger generation of photographers. Born in 1982, Nishino Sohei drew on the example of Ino Tadataka (1745–1818), who traveled throughout Japan on foot to create the first detailed map of the country. Two hundred years later, Nishino spent several months walking throughout Tokyo and gathering thousands of images. He then printed the negatives as contact sheets, cut out each image, and painstakingly assembled them into a single composition. The resulting “map” is an amalgamation of moments and perspectives that represents his memory of wandering through Tokyo.