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Vintage photos show underbelly of boom-era Japan

<i>Greg Girard</i><br/>The inside of a hotel room in Nara
Greg Girard
The inside of a hotel room in Nara

Oscar Holland, CNN

When celebrated 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 “broke traveler” in his early 20s, he was headed 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 roaming the streets of the city’s lively Shinjuku district, camera in hand.

“I was just floored 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 on that first night, that I was going to stay,” he said.

What began as a whim became a four-year stint, which saw Girard teaching English by day and photographing Tokyo by night. He rented an apartment and, nearby, a small darkroom where he would develop his pictures.

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

“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 a dynamic kind of growth of Japan as a place that was starting to become treated as an equal (to the West).”

Light in shadows

During his nocturnal wanderings, Girard became fascinated not only by the Japan’s rapidly ascendent economy but by what unfolded there after hours. Many of the book’s images hint at the country’s darker underbelly: Posters of nude women, entrances to seedy nightclubs and empty hotel rooms that leave viewers wondering what might have unfolded in them.

“There was this division between the practicality of running ‘Japan Inc’ — making sure people get to bed early — and the release mechanism of staying out all night if you wanted to,” the photographer said. “Both of those things were going on at the same time.

“The trains would stop at midnight, so there was a whole subculture around what to do between the last train stopping and the first one beginning (the next morning),” he continued. “There were game arcades and all-night coffee shops where people parked themselves in front of an expensive coffee and no one bothered you for sleeping in a booth all night — that’s kind of what they were there for.”

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 into his lens and illuminate what lay in the shadows. Often using a tripod to steady his shots, he focused on where the light fell, not where it originated from, painting Japan’s cities basking in a neon glow rather than emitting one.

“It felt right to move away from the cliche of neon signs,” he said, “and to see where the light was landing, whether it was on people, buildings, cars, puddles or whatever it might be.”

A career in pictures

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 from assignments that took him to Japan in the late 1980s, after he had relocated to Hong Kong). Dozens of daytime pictures also feature, as does a selection of black and white photos. Girard would often carry two cameras — one with monochrome film and the other color — at the same time.

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

“The alleys and streets just off the entertainment districts, or the ordinary neighborhoods — they had a life of their own, too,” he said. “I went wandering, just looking down alleys around the waterfront, before it became a popular part of the city. Whatever place you live in, making pictures is a way to make it your own.”

Girard’s experiences also helped honed his camera skills, laying the groundwork for a successful photography career. Experimenting with long exposures and different types of film was something he “consciously started to explore and get good at technically” in those years, he said, adding: “So it was that learning process as well.”

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

Looking back, Girard says his photos of Japan serve as a kind of diary of his youth. But despite spending his nights on the town, he always maintained a certain distance from the nightlife he documented. His focus was always on photography itself.

“I didn’t go to bars to drink or to party — in those days, anyway,” he said. “I was doing almost anything and everything just to make pictures.”

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

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