In late October, 2015, I was in Tokyo, Japan for 25 days. I shot many photographs. This series presents the most interesting, compelling, or touching person or scene I saw each day I was there. Click here to see the previous entries.
He was selling The Big Issue Japan on the south side of Nakano Station, so despite his immaculate appearance I knew the man was homeless. Only homeless persons are authorized to sell The Big Issue on Tokyo’s streets. It’s a legitimate way to earn money to mollify the effects of the predicament they’re in. My wife was with me and I described to her what the man was doing and why. She immediately said “I hope he doesn’t have to be out here selling that paper for very long.”
(Nakano Station, Tokyo 2015)
How do I pay tribute to a man who both enriched and destroyed my life? If I had never read his work I’d be less of a boozer than I am, but also less of a human being. Charles Bukowski would have been 96 years old today, and I have praised and cursed his very existence with every gulp of cheap beer or sip of fine rum that I have ever taken.
(↑Kiyokawa, Tokyo 2012)
So what do I do here, Hank? Praise the fucking gods that I finally decided to get sober, or laugh at my own stupidity for leaving behind your horrible, desperate, inspiring, and beautiful world? I don’t really know. This is the kind of thing I used to have to consider over a cold beer.
(↑Nihonzutsumi, Tokyo 2012)
I would have liked to have had a drink with you just once, to probe with some sort of scientific accuracy the reasons why demons chew on my testicles and nap on my liver and never pay one fucking penny’s worth of rent for the spaces they take up in my soul.
(↑Nihonzutsumi, Tokyo 2013)
It would have been nice to talk with you about that. But you’re not here, and some days I’m not either, and who gives a shit anyway? It was your nihilism, probably more than anything else, that I admired most about you.
(↑Seoul Izakaya, Nihonzutsumi, Tokyo 2013)
The Art of Not Giving a Fuck, you were a master of it. You were a horse’s ass in a pasture full of donkeys, and therefore owned the patent on a certain type of irony.
(↑Freedom, Nakano 5-chome, Tokyo 2015)
And I love you, and I hate you, and to honor you I offer up these photographs of people whose beauty and tragedy not only rivals but exceeds your best writings about how our human condition is both wretched and worth living in defiance of sorrow and hope.
(↑San Bruno, California 2015)
I’m a better man because of you, Mr. Bukowski, but I am a worse person. I love human beings more because of you, but I also feel better when they’re not around…
(↑Brisbane, California 2016)
(Also published on Scholars and Rogues.)
She was sitting on a Japantown sidewalk, on Webster Street around the corner from Nijiya Market. She looked displaced, like a woman who’d just left a difficult relationship and the apartment that went with it. But she also did not look frantic, and I hoped that meant she had friends who could let her crash on a couch for however long she needed to.
Then there was the dog, Buddy. He may well have been the reason she was holding it together, not freaking out, while she figured out how to use the city to take care of them both…
(Japantown, San Francisco 2016)
She was shuffling around Nakamise Dori, the shopping boulevard that leads to Sensō-ji in Asakusa. She touched a lot of elbows trying to speak to people who pulled away and ignored her. This did not phase her. She kept moving through the crowd, sizing up the passersby with a laser-sharp focus that seemed to cut through the communal illusion that we are all okay and everything will be fine…
(Asakusa, Tokyo 2015)
You don’t normally look at these women. Be honest, you don’t.
They’re drifting-though-the-street crazy, as far as you know, so you don’t look. But you should. They’re the reason women are often superior to men. This black lady, for example, in the first photograph, she asked me for pocket change when I was loitering outside Original Joe’s in North Beach. And I gave her all I had, which was around three bucks. She was so appreciative. She hugged me and I hugged her back, for she was so warm and the night was cold and I figured the warmth she gave me was worth way more than the money I’d just given to her.
When our street business concluded she turned to walk away up Stockton Street and said “May the Force be with you” like she meant it. I considered myself blessed.
Then a few days later I was at Tanforan Mall when this lady walked up to me. She also asked me for money. I gave her all the coins in my pocket, which this time was about two bucks.
If you’ve ever imagined your favorite piece of candy speaking to you in the most beautifully cartoony female voice in the world, that’s how this lady spoke. And her hair was so luxuriously silver she could have killed werewolves with it. She was sweetness personified.
So pay attention to people, to the weird ones whom you think you know everything about. The biggest threat to us all isn’t anger or wariness, but withholding compassion.
(North Beach, San Francisco and San Bruno, California 2016)
In SL Square outside Shimbashi Station in Tokyo, there’s an outdoor smoking area cordoned off by a low wall and decorative metalwork. There’s no point in wasting words here on social commentary. The photograph tells you everything you need to know…
On a warm late September day they had staked out a spot in front of the Shinjuku Station A8 exit. He ate while she seemed to monitor their surroundings and the passersby, like she were guarding him so he could eat undisturbed. Their bags and overall appearances gave the impression that they weren’t just another couple out shopping. The step they sat upon was their cold stone home for the day, and they’d probably be moving on when Tokyo cooled down in the evening.
(Shinjuku, Tokyo 2013)
My cheekbones feel like
Hollywood marbles to me.
You’ve never been on
skid row in Tokyo so
similes or metaphors, or whatever the fuck,
are likely totally lost on you.
We like them.
Food is a simile for food, and
food is a metaphor for eat.
And we’re about to do that.
The Christians are making paella,
with lots of hot dogs,
and we’re gonna feast our asses off
and be okay.
(Nihonzutsumi, Tokyo, September 2013)
Physically handicapped, or afflicted with cancer, or merely very intoxicated, I didn’t have the chance to discretely ask why this man was in this wheelchair on a Tokyo skid row shōtengai. His friends in the background didn’t want me around him, but I shot this photograph anyway with my camera under my armpit while his guardians were briefly distracted. And I left quickly after taking it. Ethically this is a questionable picture, and I’ve never been entirely comfortable that I shot it. I’ve debated myself as to whether this photograph stole some of this man’s dignity, an issue of justifiable importance among photojournalists and street photographers concerning the destitute and the homeless.
I’ve concluded that this man, in the circumstances in which I encountered him, really didn’t have much dignity in the first place. That does not necessarily justify this photograph’s existence, and I still argue with myself about it. But what this picture shows about a dark side of Tokyo life is inherently important, the kind of thing people wish to ignore but need to see. So I may forever have problems with this photograph, and you may really dislike it, but I stand by it.
(Nihonzutsumi, Tokyo, October 2013)