Tokyo Panic Stories is an ongoing literary-photojournalism project chronicling the lives of the destitute and homeless in Tokyo. Dan Ryan, a photojournalist based in Brisbane, CA is the creative force behind this project. When I first discovered his work via Twitter I was immediately struck by the power of his photography and poignancy of his words. We both lived in Tokyo during the same era, so his writing, reminiscences and love and longing for this city resonate with me on a personal level.
Dan feels such a deep connection with Tokyo that he's made it his mission to share a darker side of this glittering metropolis that's too easily ignored: the shadowy world of those less fortunate, the desperate citizens on the streets who subsist in the forgotten cracks of Japanese society. I had a lot of questions about Dan's work and he was kind enough to agree to a Q & A, which follows below.
What was your first experience of being in Japan?
It sounds dull, but having pork shuumai and a Coke at Narita Airport right after I arrived in Japan for the first time in February, 1987. I had traveled to Asia before, because my family and I had lived in Singapore in the late ‘70s. But I had never been to Japan ever, and I was there to take my first job right after university, from which I had graduated literally only weeks before. I hadn’t eaten much on the plane and I was starving. So I looked around for somewhere to eat that had things I recognized and knew I liked. I easily found a place where the menu was in Japanese and English, ordered my stuff, and had my first meal in Japan. To be newly-graduated and on my own for the first time and embarking on a great adventure of unknown result in Japan, this made that humble plate of shuumai with a Coke on the side one of the most delicious meals I have ever had.
During the fall of 1986, I was editor-in-chief of Lehigh University’s student newspaper, which was basically the same as having a full-time job while also taking a full class load. I didn’t really have time to properly look for journalism jobs before I graduated in January, 1987. Fortunately for me and the concept of nepotism, my dad had an Australian friend in the Tokyo office of the American computer services company they both worked for. I managed to talk the Australian into giving me a combined editing and graphic design job if I got myself to Tokyo. I used most of the cash my parents gifted me for graduating college to buy an economy ticket to Narita.
What was life in Tokyo like in the late 80s?
Crazy, wide-open. There were far fewer Americans and foreigners in general in Tokyo then, but everyone seemed to have shitloads of money and no problems spending it in 1987 and 1988. This was before the Recruit scandal broke in late 1988, which I always kind of remember as the beginning of the collapse of the Japanese Bubble Economy. It was nuts. My bosses, who were all Americans except for the Australian, and I were cowboys. Arrogant American cowboys. We were allowed to expense everything, even $500 bottles of Jack Daniels at the odd Roppongi or Shibuya karaoke bar. And part of the arrogance, a big part looking back on it, was none of us spoke Japanese. We didn’t have to in order to do our jobs. We had Japanese staff and business partners who spoke English and could translate for us. Some of my bosses only ate western, American-style food and shopped in outrageously-expensive supermarkets for foreigners in places like Aoyama. Our American company was just throwing money at us, figuring that would get us the business contracts with the Japanese that everyone wanted. It was a foolish strategy. I personally was paid in yen, but making the equivalent of about US $40,000 per year in 1987. But I was out partying so much on weekends, mostly in Roppongi, that I was often broke at the end of each month. Crazy times.
Some best/worst memories?
I deeply, deeply regret never properly learning Japanese. I could have. My company paid for lessons for all foreign employees. But I was fresh out of college and I hated the idea of taking more classes in my free time or during lunch hours. That was stupid. I did manage to learn how to read katakana and hiragana. But as far as speaking Japanese, damn, I barely get by. And kanji? Forget about it. I plan to change this, to finally and properly learn Japanese, I just haven’t quite gotten to it yet. Luckily, the language issue has not been an inhibiting factor in the kind of photojournalism work I have chosen to pursue in Tokyo. I am quite thankful for that.
And my best memories of living in Japan, well, there are just too many to relate with any sort of depth. That country, that town, got into my DNA, my soul, whatever you care to call it. Some days, I still wish I was living in my modest concrete apartment-box right next to Yushima Tenjin, able to spend Saturday afternoons or Sunday mornings watching the birds at Shinobazu Pond, and then checking out all the people in Ueno Park. Then maybe going to shoot photos at the Ameyoko marketplace near Ueno Station. Hell, I probably would have moved back to Japan a couple of decades ago to teach English had I not met my wife. She’s the only thing that keeps me sane and generally content in California. But she also understands my strong attraction to Japan, to Tokyo, and the work I have done there.
How did Tokyo Panic Stories come about? Why the name Tokyo Panic?
Before ‘Tokyo Panic Stories’ existed, there was a folio of photos and poems I created in the late ‘80s called ‘Tokyo in the Underbrush’. You can have a look at that here. I took these photos because at the time I was astounded by the existence of homelessness and severe alcohol abuse on the streets of Tokyo. Before actually living in Japan, my preconception of the place was that it was an orderly, homogenous society, possessed of great conformity and wealth. But I started seeing disheveled and destitute homeless men within a week or so of getting to Tokyo and starting my job. The odd or unexpected things about Japan capture the attention and curiosity of foreigners to varying degrees, and this aspect of Japanese society riveted me. So I started taking photographs of these homeless and often drunken men. And pairing the photos with poems to create an odd sort of ‘literary-journalism’, as an editor of mine once described it. The goal for creating the ‘Underbrush’ folio in 1989 was to get into Yale photography school, but that didn’t quite work out.
Twenty-two years later, in January, 2011, I published the ‘Underbrush’ work on my blog to see what people would think of it. One person liked my old work so much that he gifted me the money I needed to return to Tokyo in April of 2012 for five weeks to do more work like the ‘Underbrush’ stuff. And I create and publish my work from 2012 onward under umbrella title of “Tokyo Panic Stories” for two reasons: The whole time I was in Tokyo in 2012, I was personally panicked about whether I still had the skills and instincts to do meaningful, quality new work after so many years. I still personally panic about whether the people who look at my work, and who I am asking to fund it, think it has value and meaning and quality as photojournalism and poetry/narrative. The other reason for the “Tokyo Panic Stories” title is, well, there must be a lot of day-to-day panic that goes along with being poor, homeless, destitute and drunk, spending your days on dirty streets and your nights under tarps or on park benches or in some seedy doyagai. And in many cases not being able to apply for Japanese welfare because it would bring shame upon your family. It just seems like a natural word to describe that kind of life in Tokyo. Well, anywhere really. I’ve been personally poor, but I’ve never been homeless, and there was enough panic at the time being poor.
What is your process for the poems and essays you write to your photos? Do you take pics at random, then see how they inspire you after? Or do you have a more structured approach?
I take the photos, then I let them talk to me. However, sometimes the poems are already written, and I match the words with a photo because I think they have similar tone. Sometimes, I look at one of my photos and it inspires its own poem. My essays and factual narrative are just basic journalism, which I was trained to do while majoring in that discipline in college.
My pictures aren’t typically random, in that I am very clear about the places in Tokyo where I want to shoot, and what I want to shoot when I get there. But what I have learned is homelessness is more pervasive in Tokyo than ever, so I have had many friends in Japan suggest areas of the city in which to pursue my work that I had never considered before. Ginza, for example, on Sunday mornings often sees the homeless. One friend told me they dig through Saturday night’s trash for food. But you never know what you’ll see prowling the grittier areas of Tokyo, so taking pictures of that stuff on the fly does introduce a random element.
What are some of the more unforgettable moments you captured on film?
Of the work I did in 2012, “Ningenkusai” and “Tales from Seoul Bar” contain some of my best images. And the images you’ve used to accompany this Q & A are also very special to me.
Any truly scary moments that made you want to quit?
No, not really. I’ve been threatened with physical violence a few times, back in the ‘80s and also last year, but nothing ever came of the threats. This guy in Sanya last year scared me a little. He was really drunk and belligerent. But I scuttled away from him before anything could happen. It maybe also helped that I’m six feet tall and weigh 200 pounds. Maybe.
After your upcoming Tokyo trip and the works you hope to produce from it, what comes next?
Gosh, that’s tough to specifically say. My vision for the next six to twelve months is to publish my major Tokyo Panic work from 2012, then set about writing and publishing Tokyo Panic Stories from 2013. These works will be initially published as eBooks, but because they are so visual I am starting to look into publishers of physical books where I live in the Bay Area who see value in my work and would give it the hardcopy treatment it really needs.
And that actually sounds a bit arrogant to me. Because as far as I know I have yet to establish my reputation and credibility as a writer, photojournalist, and effective agent of social change. But I am trying. That is what this work is all about. I’ll be 50 next year. So far I’ve had a couple different careers and loads of crummy jobs by now. Establishing a reputation as a writer and photojournalist while doing socially-conscious work is the only thing I have ever really felt passionate about. Along with my long-standing affection for Japan. If what I have done, and will do, leads to ongoing photojournalistic advocacy for Japan’s underclasses, I couldn’t wish for a better career.
Your work is very emotional and bound to stir reactions from readers who want to help do something. What do think is the best way one can help effect change for the homeless and destitute in Japan?
First things first: ignore me and donate your time or money, or both, to organizations like Sanyūkai NPO or Second Harvest Japan. These organizations are on the front line of providing medical services, housing assistance and food to the homeless and poor of Japan. With the kind of cuts to government assistance programs the Abe administration currently has planned, there will be more impoverished folks on Japan’s city streets, which will make any support you give to Sanyūkai or Second Harvest that much more important in coming months. Alternatively, and much less importantly, you can have a look at my Tokyo Panic Stories Kickstarter page and decide to help me with my part of the homeless crusade. Maybe I’m some kind of Don Quixote here, but I have to try. I am called to try.
Photography (C) Dan Ryan