HomeTechnologyGadgetsGreg Girard's vintage photos show underbelly of boom-era Japan

Greg Girard’s vintage photos show underbelly of boom-era Japan

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

When celebrated photographer Greg Girard entered Tokyo in April 1976, he expected to spend only a few days in the Japanese capital. At the time, he was a “broke traveller” in his early twenties, heading to more affordable destinations in Southeast Asia.

He left his luggage at Haneda Airport and, without a place to sleep, spent his first night in Tokyo walking camera in hand through the streets of the city’s vibrant Shinjuku district.

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

“In the end, pretty much on that first night, I decided I was going to stay,” he said.

A 1979 image shows a crosswalk in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. 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 rented an apartment and nearby a small dark room where he would develop his photos.

Little did he know at the time, but these images captured the boom years before Japan’s infamous economic bubble burst in the 1990s. With a rising yen, a surge in market speculation would eventually lead to a financial crisis. But before that, Girard said, there was a palpable sense of emerging prosperity — a sense intertwined through his images of consumer electronics, office towers, and busy intersections.

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

Light in shadows

During his nocturnal wanderings, Girard became fascinated not only by Japan’s fast-growing economy, but also by what went on there after hours. Many of the images in the book reference the dark underbelly of the country: posters of naked women, entrances to seedy nightclubs and empty hotel rooms that leave viewers wondering what might have happened there.

“There was a disconnect between the practical side of running ‘Japan Inc’ – making sure people go to bed early – and the release mechanism of staying out all night if you wanted to,” the photographer said. “Those two things happened at the same time.

“The trains stopped at midnight, so there was a whole subculture around what to do between the last train to stop and the first to start (the next morning),” he continued. “There were game arcades and all-night coffee shops where people parked themselves for an expensive coffee and nobody bothered you for sleeping in a booth all night — that’s what they were there for, really.”

The inside of a hotel room in Nara, Japan.

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

Girard’s once futuristic photographs exude vivid greens, pinks and blues, colors saturated by his use of long exposure settings. The photographer poured light into his lens and illuminated what was in the shadows. Often using a tripod to steady his shots, he focused on where the light fell, not where it came from, and painted Japanese cities basking in a neon glow rather than exuding one.

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“It felt good to get away from the cliché of neon signs,” he said, “and to see where the light landed, whether it was on people, buildings, cars, puddles or whatever.”

A career in the picture

The title of Girard’s new book, “JAL 76 88,” combines Japan Airlines’ callsign with the years between which the photos were taken (he also included images of assignments that took him to Japan in the late 1980s, after moving to Hong Kong). There are also dozens of daytime photos, such as makes a selection of black-and-white photographs.Girard often carried two cameras at once—one with black-and-white film and the other in color.

But for all the vibrancy captured in the photographs, some of his most compelling images are empty of human activity, whether it’s abandoned construction sites or empty passageways illuminated by streetlamps. As he got to know Tokyo, Girard used photography as an excuse to explore quieter areas he might not have visited otherwise.

“The alleys and streets near the entertainment districts, or the regular neighborhoods – they also had a life of their own,” he said. “I used to wander and just look through alleys along the waterfront before it became a popular part of the city. No matter where you live, taking pictures 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 hone his camera skills, laying the foundation for a successful photography career. Experimenting with long exposures and different types of film was something he “consciously started to explore and get technically good at” during those years, he said, adding, “So it was that learning process as well.”

In the decades since he left Japan, he has shot 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 most famous for his Pictures of the now-demolished Kowloon Walled City, an almost entirely lawless, mafia-controlled enclave in Hong Kong that once housed some 50,000 residents on just 6.4 acres.

Looking back, Girard says his photographs of Japan serve as a kind of diary of his childhood. But despite spending his nights on the town, he always kept a certain distance from the nightlife he documented. His focus has always been on photography itself.

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“I didn’t go to bars to drink or party in those days,” he said. “I did almost anything and everything to take pictures.”

JAL 76 88,” published by Kominek Books, is now available.
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