In his latest photobook, Canadian photographer Greg Girard offers a vivid portrait of Tokyo during the 1970’s and 80’s, before it became one of the world’s most dynamic megacities.
It was April 1976 when Greg Girard first touched down in Tokyo. The idea was to make a brief stopover before continuing on to Southeast Asia, but plans soon slipped away as he ventured deeper into the city. After stowing his luggage at the airport, Greg took the monorail from Haneda Airport into the city and then rode the Yamanote Line – all 26 stations – around Tokyo.
Leaving the train at Shinjuku with no idea where he was going to stay, Greg began to walk. It was his first time in the city – and he’d never seen anything quite like it.
“In the mid-1970’s the West had no idea that Tokyo was even there,” Greg says, “so to stumble across it was a complete realignment of the world I knew.” Even the air in the Japanese capital seemed different to Greg’s native Canada, “smelling curiously like a new car”.
The next morning, having spent the entire night wandering Shinjuku’s streets and alleys, Greg resolved to stay in Tokyo, a plan that was solidified after he took over a part-time teaching job from an American he met at his hostel. “I moved into a tiny one-room apartment and within a week of arrival I was officially living in Tokyo.”
Born in 1955 in Vancouver, Canada, when it was just a small port city, Greg’s earliest engagements with his hometown were through photography. As a young teen, he spent his weekends staying in cheap hotels downtown and taking pictures—mostly of people—in the pool halls, cafes, hotels and train stations near the city’s waterfront, which formed the subject of his 2017 photobook Under Vancouver 1972-1982.
“At that time (early 1970’s), the only place to see photography was in magazines like Popular Photography or Modern Photography, where tech tips and camera ads would be mixed with portfolios by the greats of the day,” says Greg. “People like Gary Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, Daido Moriyama etc. (plus others, now more or less forgotten, like Marie Cosindas, Eva Rubinstein, Pete Turner, Eliot Elisofon). I wouldn’t have been able to put it into words at the time but I sensed how transporting it was to be out making pictures in the world. A way to make the world your own.”
Arriving in Tokyo in the ’70s, Greg was 8,000 km from home. Yet despite the novelty of the city, he sensed an odd familiarity there too. Back then, a friend had loaned him a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and Greg says he inevitably saw 1970’s Tokyo as an update to Miller’s Paris of the 1930’s. “Decades later, today, I think the comparison is even more apt. Tokyo is the new Paris. Different but not that different. Exotic but familiar. And yet sufficiently unknown as to hold infinite promise.
“As a young person in a new place hopefully you’re forgiven for thinking that you’re discovering it all for the first time. And the truth of it is that there’s no substitute for going and seeing a place for one’s self, no matter how well-trod the path. But then there are the less-trod paths. And 1970’s Japan was one of those places.”
Although Tokyo’s population was already a staggering 27 million in 1976, there were very few skyscrapers. “The city was mostly a low-rise affair, with new towers clustered in a small number of areas. The new techno future that the world would soon associate with contemporary Japan was already a matter-of-fact landscape of daily life at this time, and yet lingering post-war scruffiness was inescapable. The back alleys with outdoor bars and eating places near train stations, the non-flush toilets, the WWII veterans and amputees begging in front of train stations. All that hadn’t gone away yet.”
But change was underfoot. Living in Tokyo for four years between 1976–1980, and then moving to Hong Kong to work as a professional photographer, Greg returned to Japan frequently for assignments. While before he’d lived paycheque to paycheque in a tiny room, spending most of his earnings on film and food, he now stayed in good hotels and made pictures for the world’s top news magazines, experiencing the city in ways he hadn’t while living there.
“By the late 1980’s Japan had entered its “bubble” period of prosperity and western media was reporting on the Japan that was set to take over the world,” says Greg. This island country once unknown in the West was now suddenly a threat, fears that gave rise to the cyberpunk genre and films like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), which was partly influenced by Japan.
In his latest book JAL 76 88, Greg presents the images he took during these decades of change, charting this extravagant phase in Japan’s history – a time of growth, prosperity and the thrust of Tokyo into western popular imagination. While he photographs both day and night, Greg is best-known for his night photography: rain-slicked streets and moonlit puddles, neon signage and hotel rooms at dawn.
As in his early photographs of Vancouver, Greg exposes a side to the city that’s unfamiliar to most: “the orphaned and unloved parts”—as Greg calls them in his book—often rendered in the strangeness of night-time colours.
“I think anyone who goes walking at night in parts of a city that goes quiet after dark can relate to the feeling of having the place to themselves,” says Greg. “Photography is particularly good at slowing things down and allowing the orphaned and overlooked to show themselves on night walks through the city. The evidence of life is everywhere when the living aren’t around.”
But as much as he’s drawn to the solitude of the streets, Greg is equally interested in the people he meets and documents during his nocturnal wanderings, and he makes a distinction between the ordinary night scenes of Tokyo neighbourhoods and those of “nightlife”.
Alongside these images – taken both on the streets and inside establishments – the book also contains photographs of 2D figures on late-night television, billboards and posters, which were all at the forefront of communication in this pre-Internet era. As Greg says, he tries to show with these images “the way in which the outside world/the West was close at hand in Japan, in a cultural sense, and keenly observed, whereas the opposite wasn’t true.”
Today it’s almost impossible not to have a preconceived idea of Japan, a version packaged by mainstream culture. Tokyo conjures the sensory overload of blinking billboards, arcades, vending machines, and sprawling intersections—a city in perpetual motion. Yet beneath its chaos there is a surprising calm and in its anonymity there is also connection. During lockdown, thousands of people tuned into youtuber Rambalac’s videos filmed walking through Japanese cities, one writer describing them as “a reliable psychological escape during this time of limited mobility”.
“Pedestrians were like white noise for the spirit,” he added. “Even if you spoke to no one, their presence fed something fundamentally human inside you.” To me, many of Greg’s images possess a similar somnambulant quality, the idea of the streets (and the nights) containing endless possibilities, never quite knowing what you might find around the corner.
While Greg hasn’t been able to visit Japan since early 2020, he’s returned frequently over the decades, and each time he visits the thrill is no less than it was that first night in Tokyo in 1976, as a 20-year-old fresh off the plane. “Despite the obvious physical changes over the decades, it’s more or less still the same place I knew in the ’70s,” he says. “More people are out photographing absolutely everything these days, no doubt. With phones and also with serious equipment. But I’ve never had a problem with that. If somebody ended up photographing something I wanted to photograph I’d buy their book and then figure out another project for myself.”