Friday, November 19, 2010

Gangs of Kabukicho - The Art of Watanabe Katsumi

A good buddy of mine just recently sent me these photos, and I just had to share them. I’m completely blown away by the characters in Watanabe Kastsumi’s street photos from Japan’s Red Light District.

Taken during the late 1960’s to early 1980’s, in Kabukicho in East Shinjuku, Watanabe captures the vibrant and colorful night life of this seedy part of town. Well known for its “love hotels,” night clubs, and hostess bars, Kabukicho was home to the gangsters, prostitutes, pimps, and drag queens that filled Watanabe’s frames.

Inhabitants of Kabukicho called it “Sleepless Town,” and it’s pretty clear from Watanabe’s photos that these folks had a rollicking good time. From the yakuza swaggering down the streets to the prostitutes posing, their lust for life is clearly visible.

Their eagerness to pose and generally joyous expressions, despite their station in life, is likely the result that Watanabe was also an inhabitant of this seedy underworld rather than a voyeur. He developed a relationship with his subjects, rather than exploiting them. Using a camera mounted flash (still rare at the time), he would sell these snapshots to the subjects to eke out a meager living.

The beauty of these photos lies in their lack of pretense or artistic nature. The subjects are such interesting characters in and of themselves that simply letting them pose and taking a centered photo is enough to make an arresting image. The viewer finds themselves strangely attracted to these people simply for the sheer force of their personalities, studying their expressions, poses, and clothing to get an idea of what makes people like these tick.

Sadly, Watanabe never really made a comfortable living as a photographer or received the recognition that he deserved in his lifetime. At one point he was even forced to hang up his camera, to earn money by selling sweet potatoes on the sidewalks. He died of stomach cancer in 2006, the same year his book was published, unable to see the attention that his work received in the wake of his book’s successful publication and the exhibits that followed.

Check out his photography below and his book here.


  1. Looks like a great book,have to see if i can track down a copy,thanks for posting!