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Tokyo Loves You

The story behind that picture: "Japan - a matter of Dignity"

By: Thorsten Overgaard


I was recently in Tokyo, and coming straight from Hong Kong where everybody and everything is in English, I realized just how fitting the movie title "Lost in Translation" was. I visited some buildings where every sign, every company name, everything you usually use to be guided by - it was all in Japanese!

Café in Shibuya in Tokyo

In my designer hotel room it took me three hours to figure out how to flush the advanced toilet. While going back and forth figuring this unexpected and rather ridiculous problem out, I also tried to figure out the Japanese culture. It's interesting that when you travel, you find out that mankind is more or less the same basic configuration, but that the manners and the surface may look different from culture to culture.

park in Shibuya in Tokyo
A bird looks down on the fashionable dressed dog owner in a park in Shibuya in Tokyo. For me an image of the unique Japanese haramony between nature, tradition and modern living. Leica M9 with 50mm Summicron-M.

But Japan is in a class of its own and took me a little more figuring out than the toilet. In fact, I haven't figured it out totally yet, whereas the flushing of the toilet was solved when I stumbled over a control panel for the (I thought) air condition on the wall with some interesting drawings of a butt in the midst of a lot of Japanese signs. Aha!

Perhaps flushing a Japanese toilet is part of undertanding the culture I have never ever experienced such an advanced toilet anywhere in the world where you could pre-heat the seat, flush back and forth, remote control lifting of the seat and many other things. And yet you see, know and feel the presence of a thousand year old culture that - different from American and European culture - have kept records of ways to behave and survive.

A number of people wear masks, and often for the protection of others: If you have flu, you can go to work and out in the public without harming others. But also people with allergies use them. Leica M9 with 50mm Summicron-M.

Survival and dignity

It's all about surviving for everyone of us, and for our culture, economy and even our pets. But when you look at Japanese people, you see more than a need for bare survival. Much contrary to the type of me-me-me survival displayed on Wall Street and in many Western cultures, you see in Japan what I would sum to be dignity. A respect for others and for the roots, yet an enthusiasm for the future.

Armani restaurant in Ginza, Tokyo
This is the 5th floor restaurant at the Armani store in Tokyo where design, food and service is carried out to a level above perfection in every detail. As it is the case for most Japanese things. If you visit, do the lunch which is fairly priced. Leica M9 with 50mm Summicron-M.

In the airport I immediately ordered a cup of coffee, but then had to make a phone call and also get a cigarette. So I forgot my coffee at the counter, and when I came to remember again how much I really needed that coffee, the shop had closed for the nigh. However, the manager spotted me, opened up the coffee bar again, made me a fresh coffee - and then refused to receive payment for it.

At the airport bus stop, the busses came and went with so much precision it almost gave me a headache. A clerks with white gloves waved passengers and luggage, and when the clock had arrived at the one-second window of departure, the clerk and the bus driver bowed respetfully for each as goodbye.

Waiting for green light in central Tokyo. Leica M9 with 50mm Summicron-M.

Sitting in the bus watching my bus driver steer the big wheel with white gloves and great pride and responsibility, I came to think of the movie "To Sir, With Love" where a teacher (Sidney Poitier) decides to scrap the schoolbooks and instead teach the youngsters to become adults. By which their responsibility grow as persons and they start to take responsibility for each other, wash their hair and dress smart.

Survival, in the case of Japan, is not just about making it, or making it for your self. It's about making it as a culture, to continue the thousand years of recorded and written down progress into an even greater future. And everywhere you turn, you see not youth on the route to destruction but intelligent progress. It's amazing.

Waiting for green light in central Tokyo. Leica M9 with 50mm Summicron-M.


You may love Tokyo as much as they love you

I plan to go back late in 2011, (and perhaps even sooner to photograph relief work). I guess the word Fokushima can't escape a talk about Japan these days, so let's talk about it. There was an interesting interview on CNN yesterday where radiation epidemiologist John Boice says Japan's nuclear crisis is not nearly as bad as it's portrayed. Not that the situation is not dramatic, but the earthquake and tsunami has been the real damage so far. The atomic situation is, as the interviewed John Boice stated, has mainly caused psychological damage so far (because we worry about something we can't see or feel, though the radiation levels right next to the reactors are still below what is allowed for security workers to be exposed to).

Tokyo taxi driver
Japanese taxi, with white gloves of cause. Leica M9 with 50mm Noctilux-M f/0.95

The Fokushima situation is about to grow some heroes, and the siuation also reveal how Japan i still run as a family. At least to me that explains how Japan seems to works as a sort of closed network. Something I noticed but didn't understand. But when the not-actual-ruler of Japan, Emperor Akihito unexpected and out of the blue went on television and did what was his first ever live television appearance, he more or less asked the workers at Fokushima to stay and handle the situation - despite personal danger. I'm not stating that I understand it all, but I do somehow see how the father of all things, the heavenly sovereign ask you to save the whole family of Japan, you do. It comes down to dignity, in a way.

The origin of dignity, buy the way, is "worthy". It all makes sense.

Leica cameras
Not to be forgotten, I was in Tokyo to deliver my photo seminar in the Leica Gallery Ginza, and this is some of the toys we played with. The Leica Store Tokyo is not "just" a store but a place so thought-through in every little interior and design detail that I would spoil it if I showed it in a picture. So go visit, please.

Leica Store Ginza Tokyo



–  Thorsten Overgaard, March 25, 2011





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Above: Tokyo airport.





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Thorsten Overgaard
Thorsten Overgaard is a Danish feature writer and photographer who contribute stories and unique branding to magazines, newspapers and companies through exclusive and positive stories and photos. He currently photographs for WireImage, Redferns, Getty Images and Associated Press.

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