The Design Observer Group

Posted 03.01.10

Alan Thomas

Open Secrets: Photographs of Japan


Beyond the entertainment districts, the pachinko parlors and the crowded department stores, Japanese cities are uncannily silent. Walking through their stillness, one begins to discern the peculiar geometries of urban Japan. These photographs take the measure of Japan’s spaces where they are most easily overlooked: the vernacular architecture of its backstreets, the layered density of neighborhoods, the ephemeral effects of constant building and rebuilding. I have photographed in Japan since the mid-1980s, but it was not until a third extended visit, in 1997, that I began to recognize a visual logic in Japan’s ordinary city spaces. These photographs are a set of formal solutions to the problem of a traveler’s disorientation, solutions drawn from the everyday structures of cities.


Japanese urban space is famously dense but at the same time astonishingly malleable. The architect Fumihiko Maki, in a book now reviewed on this site, observes that “compared with New York, Tokyo is a disorderly, relaxed city, whose architectural framework offers few constraints. That is precisely why the formation of territory in Tokyo is either very delicate and personal or extremely abstract in nature.” My pictures are concerned with both kinds of territory, but I am especially drawn to the spaces between planned projects. It is in these narrow confines that people and businesses perform the countless small-scale improvisations that give Japanese cities their character. These minor spaces are at once public and oddly intimate, and easily missed — the open secrets of urban Japan.