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The Floating World, Lost in Translation
Japan, and Tokyo in particular, has served as the setting for multiple iconic works of film and fiction. Ridley Scott’s imagined futuristic Los Angeles in the film Blade Runner was inspired by contemporary Tokyo. The opening scene in Neuromancer, the novel that made William Gibson famous and launched the literary genre that came to be known as cyberpunk, takes place in Tokyo, and Japanese culture anchors both its stylistic ambiance and the plot’s philosophical speculations. Sophia Copolla has described her film Lost in Translation as her personal valentine to the city of Tokyo, exploring her attraction and affection for the city, but also the inexplicable sense of opaque mystery that this modern metropolis conveys to many westerners.
It is impossible to remain indifferent to Japanese culture. It is a different civilisation where all you have learnt must be forgotten. It is a great intellectual challenge and a gorgeous sensual experience. – Alain Ducasse
Japan is a paradox, a culture that is simultaneously tradition-bound and hyper-modern, respectful and welcoming to visitors yet closed off to true acceptance and inclusion. Its a country that conjures images of Shinto shrines and Buddhist monks; traditional Japanese aesthetics that place value on nature, simplicity, grace, and refinement; art and design intended to generate feelings of warmth, calm, and respose. These are the values that form the basis of chadō (tea ceremony), ikebana (flower arranging), and the aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi (transience and imperfection).
While these traditional values may still be definitive of the smaller towns and more remote areas of Japan, in Tokyo the vibe is far more complicated.
William Gibson has described Tokyo as the world’s first genuinely 21st century city. I’m inclined to go further and argue that it may be this century’s first truly postmodern urban center (I’ve traveled there twice and admit that it got under my skin in the best of ways, it was both seductive and mystifying).
Jakub Pajek’s photographs from Tokyo explore this more complicated reality with the eye of a natural and gifted documentarian. His sense of timing and framing is intuitive, but also precise. He demonstrates an ability to recognize and capture those moments in time that epitomize the hyeractive buzz, fuzzy alienation, and furtive exhaustion that characterizes global urban culture – particularly as it plays out in this iconic asian city.
I can’t help but draw comparisions between Pajek photographing Tokyo, and Robert Frank traveling across America in the 1950’s creating the images that would later comprise The Americans. What Frank was seeing and documenting was the unseen America, a country and a culture that looked starkly different from the sanitized public narratives of the Eisenhower era. Frank’s America was gritty and tense, alienated and lonely, troubled and fractured. There are those who believe – and I place myself among them – that Frank’s nationality, the fact that he was not an American but a Swiss citizen, was a determining factor. His position as an outsider shaped and enabled his role as a witness to a particular cultural place and time.
Technicolor riches hide their own dark secrets – Daniel Rubenstein
I mention this because I believe that Jakub Pajek inhabits a similar creative space in his own photographs. It is important to point out that Pajek is Polish and has only lived in Tokyo for a few years. (I wish I knew more about what drew him to Japan initially and what continues to hold him).
Frank, and his photographic commentary on mid-century America, is not the only documentary work that comes to mind when considering Pajek’s portfolio. Lee Friendlander’s disjoined cultural landscapes and Garry Winogrand’s inquisitive, critical eye could easily be assumed to inform Pajek’s vision. So I was surprised when he expressed only a passing familiarity with these photographers.
The most perplexing images in Pajek’s body of work, at least to western eyes, is most likely those that appear to document Tokyo’s world of fuzoku – commercial sex. This huge industry – estimates suggest that it generates revenue of about $20 billion a year, making it Japan’s second largest industry, behind automobile manufacturing – is largely invisible to outsiders because in one of the many permutations of cultural xenophobia, most of these businesses refuse service to non-Japanese.
The commercialization of sex in Japan has a long tradition and is commonly traced back to what is referred to as the Floating World (ukiyo), which had its origins hundreds of years ago in feudal Japan and developed in Yoshiwara, the red-light district of Edo (modern Tokyo). The Floating World was imagined as a realm of urban sophistication and stylishness, but with overtones of extravagance, hedonism, and transgression. The fantasy of the Floating World exists in contrast to the mundane demands of everyday obligations.
If traditional Japanese aesthetics embrace simplicity and calm, then the aesthetic of fuzoku is just the opposite – gaudy, garish, and neon-lit.
The Floating World of contemporary Tokyo is ubiquitous. There is a red-light district near virtually every Tokyo train station (the largest of these is Kabukichō, which is adjacent to the frenetic Shinjuku station). Pornography is sold at every convenience store in the city and openly read in public, including crowded commuter trains. Flyers for sex services are stuffed into residential mailboxes on an almost daily basis.
The Japanese sex industry is the biggest in the world, at least in terms of revenue. Ironically, a 2005 survey of global sex practices ranked the Japanese at near the bottom in terms of the weekly frequency of sex.
The Japanese have a strong tendency to suppress their own feelings. That’s the Japanese character. They kill their own emotions. – Ichiro Suzuki
Today’s Floating World is the logical evolution of a postmodern consumer culture: a sexual supermarket where the shelves are stocked with a dizzying array of choices. There are Soaplands, which include a bath and a vigorous scrub, then full coital sex play; Pink Salons and Touch Pubs that allow touching and may culminate with oral sex; Fashion Health and Image Clubs that feature young women dressed as nurses, in animal drag or some other costume, and which orchestrate scenarios where patrons may be allowed to look only, and not touch (the japanese are obsessed with uniforms in public life, and this carries over into the commercial erotic realm where uniforms and costumes have become the fetishized fashion for pop culture sexuality).
The rules are frequently elaborate and explicit, have clear boundaries and limits, and must be followed to the letter. This has led Joan Sinclair, the author of Pink Box, to observe that the sex industry in Japan ironically “offers absolutely everything imaginable but sex.”
There has been a lot of curiosity and head-scratching about why fuzoku is so prevalent in Japan (its not just men: 10% of women in their twenties are believed to have worked in the industry, enjo-kōsai [compensated dating] has become a growing practice among teenage school girls with a taste for expensive fashion accessories, and Host Lounges catering to women are on the increase). Here is something to consider: Japanese social life is sometimes described as having two layers: tatemae – the surface of formality, polite deference, and rule-bound social relations; and honne – the private realm of real emotions, individual drives, and personal attachments beneath the formal roles. In a public world dominated by social norms such as tatemae, kenkyo (the appearance of modesty) and giri (social obligation) the netherworld of fuzoku allows the Japanese a way to access their individual honne.
Whatever the explanation, what is certain is that Jakub Pajek’s photographs provide an insightful and fascinating glimpse into Japanese culture and, perhaps, our own postmodern futures – for better or worse.
related post: interview with Jakub Pajek
images: © copyright 2016 Jakub Pajek. No use without permission. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
words: © copyright 2016 Joseph Squier. No use without permission. Contact: email@example.com