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On January 29th, 2006, the “drifting photographer” of Shinjuku, Katsumi Watanabe passed away from complications of pneumonia. He left behind a vast amount of work, amounting to several thousand photographs.

Katsumi Watanabe graduated from his home town high school in Iwate in 1957 and moved to the capital to pursue life as a photographer. He was employed at the Tojo Kaikan Photographic Studio for five years, after which he was drawn into a shadier world. As it happens, this was just as Japan was reaching the peak of its post-war high-growth period. “At last I am finally free…” It was his realization and it required no qualification. “I used my insignificant severance allowance and bought myself a new photographic enlarger. And I decided to devoted my life to being “the drifting photographer of Shinjuku.””



In those days, Tokyo was equal parts dramatic growth and its more shadowy affects. It was an era wherein people gathered from throughout Japan to the glaring lights of Shinjuku, which illuminated their ambition and avarice in equal measure. As night fell Shinjuku took on a special countenance. The energy and tension of the people and town pricked one’s skin like needles. Within Katsumi Watanabe’s photographs you find the tattooed and howling yakuza, rent boys’ gazes of warm endearment, and prostitutes posing joyfully, all appearing at their definitive best. Now after 40 years, they seem to some the artifacts of “a great era,” or “a time when there was still warmth in the people, and the town.” As, with the high-growth period, the era of color photography became popular, Katsumi Watanabe changed jobs from “drifting photographer” to selling hot potatoes, then working in a photo studio, or as an editorial photographer, though he always returned to continue photographing “the stars” of Shinjuku’s living theater.

Before he passed away, when the photographic collection “Shinjuku 1965~97″ (Shinchosha 1997), bringing together 30 years of his work was published, Katsumi Watanabe left a letter to his two sons.



“My son, Haruyoshi, there are no bad people in this world. There are only the unhappy. Think about this once you’re older.”

“My son, Jiro, this book took your father 32 years to create. When times get tough take a look inside, there may be hints inside.”

These words, somehow reverberate for us as well.

WATARI-UM, The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art

3-7-6Jingumae Shibuya-ku Tokyo 150-0001 Japan
Tel: 03-3402-3001 Fax:03-3405-7714


BOOKS: Katsumi Watanabe

* Gangs of Kabukicho (2006)


ASX CHANNEL: Katsumi Watanabe

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Posted in Exhibit, Japan and tagged , , , , .