Tokyo X: Orwellian Photographs of Modern Japan


Book Review by Paul Murray

In 1984, veteran Tokyo-based photographer Shunji Ohkura was channel surfing and came across a television documentary discussing George Orwell’s novel “1984.”The programme was debating whether the modern world was a manifestation of Orwell’s prophetic 1949 masterpiece about the supposed utopian society of “Oceania.”

Ohkura had read the book and remembered it as a “scientific novel of the remote future.” However, after watching the programme and considering the points raised in the debate, he began to look at Tokyo in a different light and decided to “hit the streets” in an attempt to prove the hypothesis that Orwell’s vision had been realised.

The result was “Tokyo X,”a haunting collection of urban scenes taken principally in Tokyo, but also in other parts of Japan. The book captures the starkness and brutal modernity of life in the metropolitan sprawl that is contemporary urban Japan.

Most of Ohkura’s photos concentrate on what Orwell termed the “Outer Party,” or middle class, and the “proles,” or proletariat. Shots of the “Inner Party,” or bureaucratic elite, would have completed the study and added more conviction to his claim that modern Japan is the realisation of Orwell’s futuristic revelation. Such photographs would also have been the most difficult to obtain given the secrecy surrounding the upper echelons of Japanese society.

Ohkura firmly states in the book’s appendix that “in the consecrated space at the very summit of the hierarchy of this world, there exists a god-like, demon-like ruler whose power is so vast that is envelopes the entire planet and transcends all human understanding and religion.” Many of his photographs have subtle, sometimes blatant, references to money, religion, sex, fashion, youth and the all-pervading cultural invasion of the United States into Japanese society

Ohkura seems to suggest that U.S. icons are the modern-day equivalent of the posters of “Big Brother”––the infallible head of Oceania––that were displayed on every street corner to constantly remind people who was in control.

Statue of Liberty replicas, fast-food signs, advertising boards, commercial icons, clothing styles, flags and other cultural memorabilia provide constant reminders to the people of Tokyo that their own omnipresent Big Brother is watching. This sense of paranoia is heightened by the inclusion of security cameras in many of the shots––wherever you go, whatever you do, Big Brother sees all…there is no escape.

One shot shows two languid, melancholy men travelling up an outdoor escalator in Ginza under the watch of a surveillance camera and beneath a sign for Kofuku (“happiness”) Bank, a financial institution that is now insolvent and which conceivably caused a great deal of unhappiness to its depositors.

This photograph highlights the ease at which people are deceived into believing that their lives are better than they actually are and the futility they feel in the face of big business. Orwell describes this as “newspeak,” the language of Oceania as “doublethink,” or people’s belief that their lives are improving, while also knowing it not to be true. People simply accept what they are told––what Orwell calls a “vast system of mental cheating.”

The Japanese concept of “shoganai” that something “can’t be helped,” is also encapsulated in this photograph. The two men, who are dressed in conservative, dark business attire, appear to be shouldering a great burden as they make their was wearily to the office, like Winston Smith, the principal character in “1984.” The sign screams happiness, but the photograph echoes grim reality and despair, while the camera continues its tireless watch.

Homeless people often feature as a means of highlighting the broad financial gap between social castes. A wizen, bearded waif shuffling past a Luis Vuitton window display in Ginza shows the disparity between Tokyo’s social classes, as do other more subtle photographic references to wealth, age, status and educational contrasts.

This book is not for paranoid conspiracy theorists or the psychologically depressed, as observation of Ohkura’s photographs will do nothing to allay their fears. “Tokyo X” is a wake-up call for everyone in Japan: Where is this society going? Who is in control? What can be done to improve lives? And is there any escape from the regimented, electronic, natureless world into which people have allowed themselves to be drawn?

Orwell sounded a warning 65 years ago that to have an orderly society people must submit to a centre of power, a tyrant head of a government bureaucracy, with the cost of doing so being the loss of personal freedom. Ohkura has provided us with a powerful visual message that we are already there.

War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.


 Tokyo X by Shunji Ohkura: Published by Kodansha International

About LivinginPeaceProject

Paul Murray is the founder of the LivinginPeace Project. Paul originally from Australia, but have been living in New Zealand for 14 years. Before that he was in Japan for a decade working as a journalist. He met his wife Sanae in Japan and they married in 2008.
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