Portrait by Dylan Griffin
A guy taking pictures of a bunch of people’s bedrooms sounds, well, it sounds kind of creepy. But when that guy is Kyoichi Tsuzuki and the photos go into a book called Tokyo Style, the end result is a much talked-about, candid window into the lives of Generation X Tokyoites.
That was a decade ago, and Tsuzuki’s been busy ever since. Very busy. The award-winning journalist has authored about a hundred books on topics ranging from the chronicles of love hotels (short-term motels designed to be rented by the hour, usually for sexual trysts) to roadside attractions of rural Japan. For the past several years he’s been showing his “Happy Victims” project in galleries around Europe. The project consiss of unflinching depictions of ordinary people’s obsessions with high fashion.
Theme met up with Kyoichi in his fantastic, airy lot in the Chiyodaku section of Tokyo, where he graciously served us tea, revealed his collection of replica oil paintings from Thailand, and imparted a great deal of insight into the psyche of youth living in Japan today.
Vivienne Tam Collector
Theme: Tokyo Style was shot in 1993. Do you think the insides of apartments have changed much since then?
Not really. Maybe more computers and less TVs, and more mobile phones than regular phones. A lot of young people’s apartments still look like they do in the book.
Before you shot the book, you were editing for the magazines Brutus and Popeye. What was the first thing you did as a photographer?
The first thing I did as a photographer was, in fact, Tokyo Style, in 1993. Then I expanded to the Osaka and Kyoto areas. I published another book three or four years ago called Universe for Rent which covered not just Tokyo but other cities too.
How did you get into doing Tokyo Style?
In the late 1980s I was working in magazines. At the time I made a group of young friends, younger than me. We started to go out. They took me to their hangouts, cheap bars and restaurants. And then they started to take me to their own apartments because they didn’t have money to go to bars all the time. Their spaces were so small, like “How can you party here?” But it felt so comfortable. Everything was there, we didn’t have to move. It was fun. I thought it would be fun to make a book about this.
The publishers I talked to all said no, so I started the project myself. I had no money for a photographer, so I purchased some camera equipment and started to learn how to load cameras. I had never used a large format camera before. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but it wasn’t that difficult.
Martin Margiela Collector
How did you get these people to invite you into their homes?
That was my first concern—when I was doing the magazine, it was very difficult to gain access to the types of high-end apartments we were covering. The architect and the flower arranger had to be there when we were shooting, you know? But people living in small spaces are much more open. They don’t care, they say, “Come in if you want!” Sometimes I would ask them to recommend some other apartments; they would take me next door, to their friend’s apartment and say “Take the picture, I’ll tell them later.” These apartments weren’t locked. Poor people are more open. I asked 100 people, and only one or two people turned me down.
Is Tokyo rent really that affordable?
Yeah, it’s a big myth that Tokyo is expensive. It costs twice as much in London and New York. I’d say the average rent of the apartments featured in the book was about 50,000 yen [US$500]. I tried not to cover apartments over 100,000 yen. Some of the Kyoto apartments were less than US$100 a month.
Why the title Tokyo Style?
At that time I realized, in order to really call something a style, it has to be everywhere; if it’s hard to find, it’s not the style, it’s the exception. Style means that that particular aesthetic dominates. So I thought the normal apartments shown in the book should be the Tokyo Style.
After I saw the photos I took, it looked so interesting because it shows their own lifestyle. When you go to a “beautiful” apartment, like the kinds I was covering for the magazines, those don’t really show what kind of people live there.
Rich people with big spaces—when there’s more than one level in the house, and all these walkin closets—it doesn’t really show what you have. But in a three-meter by three-meter room, everything shows. The room becomes a part of yourself.
Maybe it’s more obvious in Japan. Because in, let’s say the U.S., you might have a dinner party in your home, your friend might bring a friend, you’re enjoying yourself, you go into your bedroom and you might find someone you don’t know talking on your bed. That is normal in the West. But that would be really abnormal in Japan, because your room is much more private here. In Western culture, your home is an extension of the public area—that’s why the bed has to be made. But in a Japanese environment it’s different. The living environment is closed off from the outside world. So when you go in, there’s much more personality shown.
Tell us about “Happy Victims.”
It’s about how fashion is consumed and appreciated, about the people who are buying these clothes. Recently I was at a fashion show for a good Japanese label named Dress Camp. All the media people had seats, and the younger people stood in the back and couldn’t see the show. But they are the customers! I got a seat, but I don’t buy those clothes.
I wanted to see how fans of fashion live. They are not rich. Actually, the people buying these clothes live in a small place, saving their money to buy the clothes, but they don’t have any beautiful place to go. That’s the truth.
I don’t want to say it’s stupid, but imagine it: A very small room, the person doesn’t have a lot of money but they spend all their money on books, and they fill their small room with books, you wouldn’t say they’re stupid. Right? But a small room filled with Comme des Garçons, looks really stupid, no? That is our prejudice—that the person who spends all their money on books looks better than the person with Comme des Garçons. There’s a hierarchy: Books have the highest position, then records, and fashion is kind of on the bottom. But it’s all the same. It’s how your passion flows.
Speaking of books, someone could fill their room with your books, seeing as you’ve written about a hundred. Do you consider yourself a writer?
Not really, I shoot because I have no budget, so it’s purely economics. It would be nice if I could hire a photographer or writer, because there are so many things I want to do. Doing it by myself takes lots of time. If I had a budget, I would hire a huge team.
I never use a researcher for my projects, so it’s time consuming. Like driving half a day to find out a museum in Idaho is closed in the winter. It would be easier if I could hire a researcher, but that’s not interesting. Because then the researcher sets the schedule and I just go for the ride. The experience is more important. Driving half a day to find out the museum is closed makes you decide if you’re really interested in that museum. I’ll go back if I’m interested.
So what are you working on right now?
One of my new projects is to record the “International Villages” scattered throughout the Japanese countryside. There are so many. Let me explain: “International Villages” are these perfect, idealistic recreations of foreign countries. For instance, a beautiful recreation of Holland, complete with replica windmills and canals. And these are full-scale, immersive villages. No people actually live there, they are purely for tourists. You pay to enter and it’s supposedly like being in that country. They are peculiar to Japan; you can’t find these in any other country.
Most of them were made fifteen to twenty years ago, during the bubble economy, and most are now closing down due to financial problems. I want to photograph these places in a dreamy way.
One of my long-term projects is visiting every state in America. I published some books called Roadside Japan and Roadside Europe, and now I’m doing a story called Roadside America. I’m going to New Jersey in a couple of weeks. It’s my fortieth state.
It’s my sixth year working on the project now. I go every couple of months to do a story for a monthly magazine in Japan. So I go to the real countryside parts of America. I really like it.
With the work that you do, what really fascinates you?
What fascinates me most is imbalance. You are taught that it’s nice to have a hobby, but also that you have to think about balance—30% of your income should be spent on your home, 15% on your hobby, 20% on your food, whatever—to have a harmonious lifestyle.
But some people lose their balance. They spend like, 80% on their hobby. I like that! That might sound stupid, but that’s energy. A harmonious life doesn’t have energy. So that sort of imbalance encourages me. These young people could move out to the suburbs and have better rooms; if they didn’t spend so much money on clubbing and mobile phones, they might be able to have a better lifestyle. But they don’t, that’s not their interest.
I like that they know the power to step out of balance. Whether it’s in their home or with fashion. The subject might change, but it’s that lack of balance that makes me interested.