Tokyo is a city made for the homeless. In the winter, it rarely gets below freezing and the summers are hot and humid. The infrastructure of the city supplies abundant opportunities for shelter, whether its under a bridge, along the rivers or in the parks. Even the smallest public parks are equipped with toilets that are free of charge. Fresh water is available almost anywhere. Convenient stores sell packed noodles for as little as 100 yen (more or less a dollar). The hot water required to cook the noodles is again free of charge. Most small restaurants dispose of their leftover foods in bin bags left on the street over night. The circle line can be used to rest during the day time. The trains are also the place that supply a potential income to the city’s homeless men – and they are mainly men. Magazines left behind on the trains are collected and sold on to a central collection booth which sells the magazine back to the public. This creates a cycle of consumption from which the homeless can benefit. The term homeless therefore has different connotations in Japan, since, depending on the level of organization, some men have a daily income, have built permanent shacks and are part of a living community. There is no begging, no busking and, on the face of it, no crime.
Ryuji Miyamoto’s series of photographs called ‘Cardboard Houses’ depicts the living spaces created by the city’s organized homeless. The project began in the late 1980s but came to full fruition in the mid-1990s, just as Japan suffered from an economic crisis and the homeless population of Tokyo grew rapidly. Miyamoto is mainly known as an architectural photographer which might explain why he concentrated on the structures created by the organized homeless, rather then the homeless themselves. His cardboard houses are a typology of structures reminiscent of the ‘Water Towers’ by Bernd and Hilla Becher. Even his choice of black and white film, plate camera and silver gelatin printing techniques are an homage to the New Objectivity propagated by the Bechers. The view is supposed to be detached, objective, straight, uncompromising and cold. The photographs are meant to be documents that might inform the viewer on the cardboard chosen for the shacks or where the shacks have been built. Miyamoto observed that the cardboard houses are predominantly located in the cracks that the megalopolis Tokyo supplies in abundance. While Becher’s water towers are fully exposed to light, space and the lens of the camera, Miyamoto’s cardboard houses are usually next to, under or in between structures.
While Miyamoto photographed the living structures of the organized homeless, Manabu Yamanaka photographed the other end of extremes of Tokyo’s homeless population. In his artist statement Yamanaka points out that the subjects for his photographic series ‘Arakan’ wandered aimlessly through the city, lost the ability to communicate and had no bedding or clothing except for what they were wearing. Particularly Yamanaka’s observation that his subjects were ‘shuffling along because of malnutrition’ evokes the harrowing image of concentration camps victims. Giorgio Agamben’s analysis of the figure of the Muselmann describes men in the Nazi concentration camps who have lost their senses through malnutrition, emotional and physical abuse and have become a limit-figure between life and death. In reference to the etymology of the word Muselmann, the ‘Muslim’ is a figure who has totally submitted himself to the way of god. The title of the photographic series ‘Arakan’ also equates the homeless men to an encounter with god. Derived from the Sanskrit word Arihan (ari=enemy, han=kill), the Arakan is the highest goal attainable to those practicing Theravada Buddhism. In other words, the Arakan has ‘killed’ his ‘enemies’ greed, anger and delusions. Photographer Yamanaka writes that his subjects have severed all ties to the flesh and practice assiduous austerity. It is perhaps a more romantic interpretation of the homeless men that he photographed, as if it is a choice of lifestyle rather than a consequence of mental illness.
The white background in Yamanaka’s photographs also evokes Richard Avedon’s classic photographic series ‘In the American West’. Avedon too trained his lens on those considered to be marginal. But his is an extremely stylized vision of the human condition. Yamanaka’s photographs on the other hand are full with technical flaws such as scratched negatives, underexposure or out-of-focusness. In a sense, these photographic attributes underline the very condition of the people that he photographed. In other photo projects as well, Yamanaka has displayed a propensity towards extreme subject matters. His work could be regarded as exploitative and voyeuristic. The automatic reaction when encountering one of Yamanaka’s homeless men might be to look away, so base has their existence become. Instead, Yamanaka forces us to look at them, reminding of us of their existence in one of the most highly developed and industrialized countries in the world. Whatever the view of Yamanaka’s homeless men, they do exist and operate, even in the homeless community, on the very margins of human existence.
Gyahtei: Yamanaka Manabu Photographs is available as a book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.
If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.