Bruce Gilden’s photos of Japan in the 1990s show a different side to the country

The Magnum photographer spent long stretches of time in Japan between 1995 and 2000, capturing Yakuza gangsters, salarymen and the homeless. A new book brings images from the period together

Japan, 1998. All images: © Bruce Gilden

Bruce Gilden is renowned for his unforgiving, in-your-face photographs of passers-by he has met on streets all over the world. He is drawn to those on the margins of life – a trait that has led to accusations of exploitation, though in a 2019 interview with the Guardian he explained the connections he saw in these portraits with his own childhood experiences of a violent home.

“I don’t do this to exploit people,” he said at the time. “It’s who I am. I’ve seen it in my own home to some degree. What I photograph is what I lived.”

Despite their often confronting content and his blunt use of the flashgun, Gilden’s photographs always prove surprisingly intimate, revealing every detail of his subjects’ faces along with their half-imagined stories. This is the case in a new book of his work taken in cities including Tokyo and Osaka in the mid-1990s, when he visited Japan for months at a time with “with wife, child, Leica, whole bags of Tri-X film”.

Tokyo, 2000

In a country that is often visually fixed in the mind, even for those who have never visited, he went in search of the unexpected. “In Japan, everything is harmonious on the surface, so I immediately sought to go beyond the images that jump out at you,” he writes in the book. This, with the help of advice from friends and locals, plus “a process of elimination”, led him to capture images of biker gangs, the homeless, as well as slightly incongruous scenes, such as his photo of a woman in an immaculate kimono shown eating fried chicken in the park.

Some of the most compelling images here are of Yakuza gangsters, which at times appear almost cartoonish, but in other shots are downright threatening. Gilden shares some of his techniques for photographing them in the book. “With the Yakuza, the infamous members of the Japanese mafia, things can turn sour very quickly,” he writes. “You can feel it right away, not with everyone, but definitely with the enforcers. Depending on their level of English, some would ask me nothing at all, while others would want to know what I was doing there.

“I always replied quietly that I was taking pictures and that was it. Occasionally, the ambiance could be a bit uncomfortable, but that was that.”

Asakasa, Tokyo, 1996

Bruce Gilden: Cherry Blossom is published by Thames & Hudson; thamesandhudson.co.uk

JUNIOR GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Milton Keynes