Visual Culture

These Photographers Have Captured Tokyo’s Vibrant and Powerful Youth Culture

Ha Duong
Nov 1, 2018 8:47PM

Photo by Monika Mogi. Courtesy of Monika Mogi.

In 1968, Tokyo experienced its bloodiest, most violent protests. In one incident on October 21st, known as the 1968 Shinjuku Riot, protestors demonstrating in honor of International Anti-War Day clashed with police in Shinjuku station. In a single night, the station was set ablaze, and hundreds of demonstrators were arrested. The riots represented the dissent of a society grappling with the realities of rule under a stifling, conservative state that was essentially governed by the United States following the resolution of World War II.

Though demonstrations of such intensity would be unimaginable today in Japan, the riot was far from an anomaly. Soon after the war, many Japanese citizens struggled to negotiate their culture with the nation’s rapidly changing landscapes. While post-war Japan’s growth can be understood as a developmental success, the policies behind it bred fervent youth movements that rallied against the Japan–U.S. Security Treaty and the United States’s later wars in Korea and Vietnam.

While student movements such as the on-campus Zenkyōtō groups, the Communist-anarchist league Zengakuren, and today’s SEALDs (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy) made visible efforts against these issues, youth subcultures throughout Tokyo navigated society’s far-reaching changes in a multitude of ways—from finding solace in brothels to building organized communities based on shared lifestyles and identities. Today, Tokyo youth culture is often depicted as extreme. Between its motorcycle gangs, Lolita girls, the Harajuku scene, and otaku—a derogatory term for obsessive anime and manga fanatics—these subcultures allowed the youth of Tokyo to take control of their identities. Below, we feature photographers who have captured the exceptional, idiosyncratic youth cultures of Tokyo.


Shōmei Tōmatsu was just 15 years old when World War II came to a close in 1945. Born and raised in Nagoya, the center of Japan’s aircraft industry at the time, Tōmatsu witnessed firsthand the devastation of war. Between the horrific atomic bombings and air raids across Japan, the world around him was left ravaged and desolate.

Later in his career, Tōmatsu would describe the point of departure for his work as the genkōkei, a “spectacle that is at once an actual landscape and a mental image, with such power as to be the source from which all other images follow,” as photographer and critic Leo Rubinfien wrote in Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of the Nation. For Tōmatsu, this spectacle was the destruction of war.

While living in Tokyo in the 1960s, Tōmatsu photographed two pivotal youth cultural movements in Japanese history—student protests and sexual deviancy—later published in his 1969 book Oh! Shinjuku. In his series “Protest, Tokyo, 1969,” Tōmatsu captured familiar yet abstract images of dissent. In one photograph, a lone student throws a rock amid a torrential landscape; in another, a mob of armed riot police is obscured by the dark. As Japan’s student movements raged on, Tōmatsu’s photographs in “Eros, Tokyo, 1969” document the sex-fueled, rebellious youth of Shinjuku, revealing the cavernous rooms of prostitutes where the ecstasy and perversions of copulation take place. In several of these photographs, images of militants and cityscapes are projected onto the body of a naked woman—the living screen swallowed by the hope and despair of post-war Japan.

Hitomi Watanabe

Photo by Hitomi Watanabe. © Hitomi Watanabe. Courtesy of nap gallery.

Unlike Tōmatsu, Hitomi Watanabe lived through Japan’s infamous student protests not as an outsider, but as part of the Zenkyōtō movement on the University of Tokyo campus.

In the late 1960s, university students all across Japan joined hands in a struggle for democratization on their campuses. Though initially small in scale, the protests soon escalated as university administrators responded violently with riot police. In turn, the protests became more than a demand for education reform—they symbolized opposition to the conservative, pro-American government.

As the flames were fanned, students at the University of Tokyo barricaded themselves in the school’s Yasuda Auditorium. Watanabe, equipped with a Zenkyōtō armband given to her by the leader of the Tokyo branch, was given insider access in a dubious environment. Transfixed by the movement, Watanabe stayed on campus day in and day out. Her images capture both the all-consuming passion of the students—zealous speeches and massive demonstrations—and the state’s ruthlessness: helicopters dumping tear gas, violent encounters with police, and a campus destroyed.

Even after the dissolution of the University of Tokyo’s Zenkyōtō branch, Watanabe continued to photograph the student movements in Tokyo. By 1969, Zenkyōtō broke up. “People started getting cynical and apathetic, myself included,” Watanabe toldA/Fixed in 2017. “Some people lost their minds or went so far as to commit suicide. I spent my time in a deep depression, just drinking in Shinjuku.” In the end, nothing changed. By 1970, the Japan–U.S. Security Treaty was renewed, and Watanabe’s photographs retain the memories of a powerless society struggling to confront the legacy of war.

Photo by Katsumi Watanabe. Courtesy of Andrew Roth and PPP Editions, New York.

Photo by Katsumi Watanabe. Courtesy of Andrew Roth and PPP Editions, New York.

Every day in the late 1960s to early 1970s, photographer Katsumi Watanabe would wander through the streets of Shinjuku with his camera in hand. Shinjuku at the time was the seedy underbelly of Tokyo, where people on the fringes of Japanese post-war life took refuge, including the yakuza (members of organized crime), prostitutes, the LGBTQ community, and street musicians and performers. Capturing those cast off by society, Watanabe would sell his portraits of Shinjuku’s residents at 200 yen for one print of three images.

Watanabe’s service was collaborative in nature, meant to satisfy the customers who allowed him to make a modest living. In an essay for his 1973 book Shinjuku Guntoden, 1965–1973: The Story of the Shinjuku Thieves, Watanabe described Shinjuku as a “theater.” As characters of Shinjuku’s grand stage, his subjects’ identities emerged in front of Watanabe’s lens: “Gay boys came very much alive inside my [view]finder, putting their hands to their cheeks just like Kabuki actors striking impressive poses,” he wrote. “The yakuza looked gallant and made grim faces. Those we call vagabonds clinched their fists and threw out their chests so they won’t be mocked at.”

During Watanabe’s years as a drifting photographer, affordable discos and strip clubs proliferated throughout Shinjuku. Influenced by rock, punk, and disco, the itinerant youth of Shinjuku danced their nights away, adorned with extravagant pompadours, wide-legged pants, fishnet tights, combat boots, and metal chokers—precursors to Japan’s various subcultures, from yankii to goths.

In 1982, after the kidnapping and murder of a 14-year-old girl in Kabukicho, Shinjuku, the all-night clubs and bars Watanabe and his subjects frequented soon shut down. And as cameras became cheaper and more accessible to the wider public, Watanabe had to seek out other forms of income, such as selling roasted sweet potatoes. (He did, however, keep shooting, eventually opening a small portrait photography shop.) Lost in Tokyo’s ever-changing landscape, Watanabe’s photographs archive the fleeting energy of the intimate world built by post-war Japan’s most unwanted.

When Nan Goldin visited Tokyo in 1992, editors of the Japanese magazine déja-vu introduced her to fellow photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. Goldin agreed, fascinated by the parallels she found between his work and her own. “I was astounded to find a man on the other side of the planet who was working the same obsessions I was,” she wrote in Artforum. After meeting in a Shinjuku jazz bar, Araki led her on a night tour of his Tokyo.

Goldin’s encounter with Araki became one of many that would come to influence her work. While in Tokyo, Goldin, enamored by the city, photographed strangers on the street for the first time. “I sensed change in the air, things boiling up from underground, people coming out, and women emerging with new attitudes,” she once said.

Two years later, Goldin returned to Tokyo to photograph what she called “the new Japanese youth.” Capturing freeing, bold, and intimate portraits of drag queens, queer youth, and loving couples, Goldin found a community in Tokyo that resonated with her. “I fell in love with face after face,” she said. Her photographs culminated in a collaborative book with Araki, entitled Tokyo Love: Spring Fever 1994. In its pages, Goldin captured what she once described as “a household of kids who are living by the same beliefs that I did as a teenager, and who transcended any definition of hetero or homosexual.”

Photo by Estevan Oriol. Courtesy of Estevan Oriol.

For the past three decades, photographer, director, and designer Estevan Oriol has traveled intermittently between Japan and his hometown of Los Angeles. A frequent photographer of L.A.’s Chicano lowrider scene, Oriol was introduced to an agent in Tokyo who got him jobs for album covers, videos, advertisements, and editorials. Aware of Oriol’s interest in street culture, his agent connected him to a group of bosozoku in Tokyo. Known for their loud, obnoxious racing and customized motorbikes, the bosozoku are teenage motorcycle gangs clad in helmets, kamikaze (Japanese suicide pilots from World War II) uniforms embroidered with detailed kanji, and images of the Japanese imperial flag.

The term “bosozoku,” which translates to “violent speed gangs,” emerged in the 1970s, when riots between the bikers and the police materialized. Born from nationalistic beliefs of a pure, pre–Meiji Restoration Japan, and inspired by rebellious American greaser subcultures, the bosozoku youth believe themselves to be the inheritors of the samurai—loyal to the emperor and their nation in an era where Japan has been thoroughly defeated and occupied. Because they are typically from low-income families who live at the margins of Japanese society, the boys and girls of these motorcycle gangs are often neglected. Beyond being mere delinquents, the bosozoku are organized underground societies with their own values and convictions that parallel the collective hierarchies of Japanese culture. Together, the bosozoku youth find meaning in a world that has forgotten them.

Fascinated by the similarities between lowrider culture and the bosozoku, Oriol would ride around with the gangs at night, even attending underground parties in Sendai where roughly 500 bikes were present. With lighter and easier-to-control motorbikes, the bosozoku would perform snake-like maneuvers together, leaning their bikes “side-to-side, going back and forth, and revving up the gas,” as Oriol described to Artsy. Despite the stigma surrounding these communities, Oriol insists that their culture revolves around integrity, culture, and tradition. “The number one thing is respect,” Oriol noted. “Respect the higher-ups, follow the code—the rules and the traditions—and make nice-looking bikes.”

Shoichi Aoki

Photo by Shoichi Aoki. Courtesy of Shoichi Aoki.

Photo by Shoichi Aoki. Courtesy of Shoichi Aoki.

Every Sunday from 1977 to 1998, a large section of Harajuku’s tree-lined main street, Omotesandō, would close to cars and open to pedestrians. Dubbed hokosha tengoku, or “pedestrian paradise,” these streets allowed youth to openly convene; to see others and be seen.

During this time, street-style photographer Shoichi Aoki left London and returned to Tokyo, settling in Harajuku in 1985. Inspired by the self-expression he witnessed in European cities, Aoki founded STREET, a magazine showcasing photographs of urban style from abroad. Despite his keen eye for fashion, he never thought to take photographs in Harajuku, which, at the time, was consumed by the monochrome, avant-garde fashions brought about by Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, and Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons.

Then, in 1997, Aoki spotted three girls while walking through his neighborhood. “These girls had made a style that was completely theirs,” Aoki told Quartz. “I had never seen yellow hair before. These completely new girls appeared and seemed to have the potential to make a new style that had never existed previously in Japan.” Within the streets of Harajuku, Aoki soon witnessed the rise of a seemingly infinite number of subcultures—from eclectic mixes of traditional Japanese dress and Western style to goth, cyberpunk, and many others that defied definition.

These subcultures allowed the youth of Tokyo to create their own unique communities within a society wrought by conformity and the import of Western individualism. “Their distinct fashion stands out, and sometimes it is ridiculed or looked down on but when they meet their fellow members, they know they are accepted as a member of the community,” sociologist Yuniya Kawamura explained to the BBC.

Aoki began recording this stylistic transformation through straightforward portraits, which he then compiled in FRUiTS, a monthly magazine he founded featuring Tokyo street style. After 20 years, FRUiTS shuttered in 2017. “There were no more fashionable kids to photograph,” Aoki declared in an interview with Fashionsnap. With the closure of hokosha tengoku in 1998 and the rise of digital media and fast fashion, the community built around the open streets of Harajuku was left without a physical stage to present their self-fashioned identities and diminished over time.

Monika Mogi

Photo by Monika Mogi. Courtesy of Monika Mogi.

Photo by Monika Mogi. Courtesy of Monika Mogi.

Growing up between the U.S. and Japan during the rise of social media in the late 2000s, photographer Monika Mogi began her career sharing her photographs online. At age 16, Mogi met Canadian photographer Petra Collins through Blogspot, and began contributing to Collins’s collective of female creatives, The Ardorous. Soon after, her career swiftly took off: Within two years, her work was published in Vice; the following year, she became a photographer for American Apparel. Today, Mogi is one of the most prominent fashion photographers in Japan, known for capturing editorials for some of the most widely circulated magazines in the country.

While much of Mogi’s output is client-based—for advertising campaigns and magazines—her oeuvre blurs traditional lines between commissioned and personal work. “By shooting for mainstream fashion magazines, I get to put my ideas out there to a wider audience and really affect girls,” she told Metal in 2016. “I don’t think the editors realize, but I always intend for my shoots to convey a message.”

In a recent campaign for her friend and model Kiko Mizuhara’s newly established brand, Office Kiko, Mogi photographed a highly stigmatized female subculture: gyaru, who adorn themselves with extravagant dress and disavow Japanese standards of beauty by tanning their skin; circling their eyes with white, racoonish eyeshadow; and styling their big, colorfully dyed hair. (Some gyaru undergo extreme tans, which have been controversial for their comparison to blackface.) In Japan, many people worry “about how one might be perceived, which creates a cycle of self-doubt and limits people from being free,” Mogi explained to Artsy. “That’s why I’m interested in gyaru culture. I see beyond the fashion trend and more of an attitude.…The attitude is to be free.”

From self-possessed women to blue-collar workers and Hello Kitty tracksuits, Mogi’s photographs capture youth in an unadulterated, quotidian way amid common scenes of life in Japan. Devoid of the impulse to sensationalize the cultures that surround her, Mogi’s work represents a new generation unafraid to propose a fluid, complex, and intimate world.

Ha Duong