A newly edited and expanded edition of Jōji Hashiguchi’s seminal photobook is published this month. Here, the photographer reflects on his past, and the time he spent documenting the plight of youth in the 1980s
In the early 1980s, then-30-year-old Jōji Hashiguchi began documenting the youth of his city, Tokyo, Japan. Repressed by the pressures of an oppressive education system and home life, the photographer felt an affinity with these youths, who sought freedom and self-expression on the street.
“It was somewhere one could always be, whether rich or poor,” says Hashiguchi. “For me, the street was one of the only places where I could be myself, and not feel as though I was faking it.”
The photographer went on to travel to five Western countries, documenting the parallel youth that prowled its cities’ streets. In 1982, the images were amalgamated in a photobook, We have no place to be, which would go on to influence generations of artists and photographers in Japan.
Now, a new edition of his seminal work is published by Session Press, comprising more than 30 previously unpublished images, and an essay by artist Yoshitomo Nara, who reflects on the work and his own youth in Europe during the 1980s.
In the following interview, Hashiguchi reflects on his process, and the time he spent chronicling the streets of Liverpool, London, Nuremberg, West Berlin, and New York.
How did you become a photographer?
I didn’t have any one special encounter with photography. It was rather a series of small occurrences that aligned, and before I noticed I was beginning to look at the world through the lens of a camera.
In late-1960s Japan, students my age were taking the lead in blocking the entry of nuclear-powered aircrafts from the US, and the anti-Vietnam War protests in Tokyo were beginning to gain momentum. It was not a time where one could stand by and live obliviously. I needed a reason to leave my hometown in rural Japan and move to the capital, so I decided that I would go to pursue photography.
Are there any Japanese photographers who have inspired you?
Initially, there wasn’t anyonein particular, because I had no real knowledge of photography. I am unsure whether I was influenced by, or empathised with, the beatniks, but I was definitely moved by the literature and music of that movement.
Having no influences or mentors meant I had to learn the craft myself. This gave me freedom, but at the same time I had no one to lead me. It felt as though I was groping in the dark, not only with photography, but also everything else including my social life. I learned the technical side as I worked, and once I started exhibiting my work, I began to receive requests from photography students who wanted to assist me. It was through them that I learned how to develop and print film, as well as about important photographers and work.
Some of the works that I greatly admire now are Miyako Ishiuchi’s Yokosuka Story, Kazuo Kitai’s Mura-e, Hiromi Tsuchida’s Zokushin (Gods of the Earth), Seiichi Motohashi’s The Coal Mine, and Eikoh Hosoe’s 1960s documentation of the Tōhoku region.
“The street does not choose the people who walk it — it is out of reach of ordered society. The street is the cradle of humanity”
Why did you choose to photograph in these cities: Tokyo, Liverpool, London, New York, Nurenberg, and West Berlin?
I photographed the area of Shinjuku, Tokyo, because the streets felt different there: they were more free than any other part of town I had been to.
There were a number of reasons why I wanted to go to Liverpool — one of them was to see the place where The Beatles had made their music. In the summer of 1981, I had also read about the Toxteth riots, a series of uprisings that arose out of the tensions between the local police and the black community. Images of young men hurling stones on streets engulfed in flames burned in my mind.
I went to West Berlin because of one book: Christiane F’s autobiography, Zoo Station: The Story of Christiane F. It is an incredible story about youth, drug abuse, school, and family life — I was taken by the world it presented. What Christiane F made me realise about society and the human condition became the basis of all my creative activity. From there I travelled to Nuremberg, to photograph an experimental society called KOMM, which operated as “a school outside of school”, where the youth, city, and building management were working collaboratively to upkeep a community.
When I travelled to England, rather than flying I decided to take the train from Paris, then a ferry to Dover. I did the same when I travelled from England to West Berlin. I wanted to experience the atmosphere of the space in-between; to feel the shift in culture, and to feel the physical distance between each city with my own body.
How do you feel now, republishing these images?
This is a difficult, and frightening, question. Almost 40 years have passed, and I wonder whether I still have the spirit and instinct of my days on the street. The development of civilisation has entirely changed the way we live and communicate.
But, although the way we live has changed, I do not believe the human experience has. Youth today are suffering from the same anxieties about their future, and relationships with their family and friends, as we were 40 years ago. In Japan, suicide rates among young people continue to rise year on year. Despite new ways of communicating, these statistics prove that isolation and division within society is deepening.
“I could not take away the pain from the youth I photographed, but I could get close to them because I understood their inability to build relationships with mainstream society”
Why did you photograph on the street?
Among all the disorder and violence, on the street I saw tolerance, and kindness. It was somewhere one could always be, whether rich or poor. For me, the street was one of the only places where I could be myself, and not feel I was faking it.
The street does not choose the people who walk it — it is out of reach of ordered society. The street is the cradle of humanity.
What was your process?
I took all of my photographs with a 28mm and 40mm camera, with the idea that my subject should be at arm’s length. At the time, I did not have a concept of what a photograph should be, and I was not caught up in the work of past practitioners. When I felt moved, my body reacted, and I pressed the shutter. When I thought about the emotional distance between myself and my subject, my choice of lens and distance came naturally.
Every day, I would wander the area and stand at the same street corners. Unlike now, the youth had little way of communicating with one another, so they also wandered the streets. I never tried to force a friendship, even when I was not taking pictures. I never accepted their alcohol or cigarettes either; at times they offered me drugs, but I always declined. I understood that my camera was a foreign object, and I was aware that as soon as I had it, I was on a different level to those I photographed. Even though I empathised with my subjects, I was still a man with a camera: I could become an acquaintance, but never a friend.
You were around 30-years-old when you made these images. Why were you interested in photographing youth subcultures?
When I think about it introspectively now, I can understand why. My own youth was when my emotions fluctuated the most. I found it difficult to verbalise my inner thoughts and emotions, and to manage relationships between my family, friends, acquaintances, and society. My feelings would oscillate between happiness and isolation on a daily basis, and they would attack me. I felt both invincibility and despair back-to-back.
I could not take away the pain and anxiety from the youth I photographed, but I could get close to them because I understood their inability to build relationships with mainstream society. I too felt anxious about the future, and though our anxieties may have been different, I did not feel a distance between us.
I never looked at the people I photographed with judgement. I looked carefully, and I shot carefully, but both me and my camera are cold. Although I empathise with the people I shoot, when I press the shutter, I feel as though my soul is coated in iron.
Perhaps the youth accepted me because people passed by them every day, either avoiding them or casting a cold glare. After all these times where they had been ignored, maybe they felt an affinity with the Asian man who approached them from across the street. But to this day, I still have no real idea as to why they let me and my camera into their lives.
We have no place to be 1980-1982 by Jōji Hashiguchi published by Session Press. This article is translated and adapted from an interview originally completed in Japanese.