Two Inadequate Voices


2IV is a platform for image-makers to recount and reflect textually on their stories of being out in the world whilst photographing.

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Interview: Koji Onaka - On The Early Days in Shinjuku

“On the streets of “Shinjuku in those days” there were 2 people, Koji-kun; funky-groovy and dashing and Onaka-san; despondent, disheartened with existential angst.”
– Daido Moriyama (opening quote in the photobook)

What was it like back then when you were making those photographs in Shinjuku? Was there a clear purpose for the work?

At that time, I didn't plan to record my everyday life and most of the photos that feature in the book were taken by chance. For many of the images taken indoors I just pressed the shutter to consume the remaining film before development. I couldn't easily photograph everyday life digitally like I do now. In addition to that, people weren't used to being photographed in bars, cafes, strip clubs, restaurants, etc.

There is one amazing image of you with Daido Moriyama, Takuma Nakahira and Masahia Fukase and many others that feature them and other important people. What was it like hanging out with those now seminal figures of Japanese photography? You must have been much younger?

During that period (1982-1994) there were not many young people taking pictures. But the connections between photographers that were working hard were very rich and collegial. We had many good times and enjoyed drinking, singing at a bar in Shinjuku Golden-Ggai or Daido Moriyama’s apartment. I was younger but I could make a good connection with Moriyama-san because I was a member of CAMP. And maybe because I was also a good drinker!

I had the pleasure of seeing Misemonogoya a couple times at Hanazono Jinja. It was quite a shock. Did you photograph their performances?

The Shinto festival called Tori no Ichi is held at Hanazono Jinja in Shinjuku each November. Every year, the Misemonogoya came and performed there, and I used to go see them. The first time I saw Misemonogoya was in 1983. I was taken aback to see something that seems to belong to the bygone era and also the people actually making their living out of it. All those performers seemed quite old already so I was worried for how long the group would exist. Back then, there were no restrictions about taking photos of the performance. However, digital cameras that can easily capture images in the dark, did not exist. Since I wasn’t thinking of recording the dying tradition or showing these photos at exhibitions at some point, I only took two or three photos.

There are a few images from an elevated position at an intersection that features a sento (public bath house). Was this place important to you?

Yes. Nice observation. It was a very important place for me because Kaido Gallery was across the road. I would view this landscape every time that I was exhibiting and sitting the gallery and I shot a lot of photos from the window.

From all your amazing experiences shooting in Shinjuku back then and now, can you tell us about one extraordinary, bizarre or mind-blowing experience?

Masahisa Fukase-san and Moriyama-san were good chums and both of them, as well as myself, were regular customers at this bar called Kodoji in Golden Gai – especially Fukase-san who used to show up at Kodoji at the same time, regular as a clock, every night. In one particular photo, you see a guy’s back in the foreground. That is the owner of the bar. Fukase-san is actually standing behind the bar whilst the owner is sitting there drinking. Fukase-san was a very kind man. However, when he got too drunk, he tended to get obnoxious. I believe there was an unspoken code at those tiny bars in Golden Gai that taking photos when people are drinking and having a good time, for example, was considered somewhat rude. I took that photo after a few drinks and was about to leave. I think the reason I was bold enough to take that photo was the combination of me being drunk and felt great and confident plus the vibes at the bar happened to be very relaxed. Maybe also because of my drunkenness, I totally forgot about taking that photo and discovered it 25 years later.

How has that body of work and those experiences influenced what you do now?

When I started to think back about these photographs made in Shinjuku I thought a lot of important information was recorded on those rolls of film. That's why I went back and rechecked my archive of negatives and subsequently produced a lot of new prints that now feature in the book.

What are your thoughts on how Shinjuku is now and how it has transformed over recent years?

In more recent years, many foreigners come to Shinjuku and enjoy site-seeing, shopping,  restaurants, etc. Many shops, establishments and bars changed to cater to foreigner interests. I am worried that foreigners won’t return due to Covid-19 and that the classic establishments have changed forever. I am also very worried about the economic situation. But I can still enjoy old-style bars in Golden-Gai, perhaps only until the tourists return again – sorry.

Do you think Shinjuku will continue to be important to Japanese photography?

Shinjuku was and interesting place for street photographers. There were and still are many interesting and funny people in the area including yakuza, homeless people, street girls and boys, etc. If you want to shoot them like a safari-style then Shinjuku is the best place to do that – the clash of people, culture, architecture, etc. No doubt, Shinjuku will continue to be an important hunting ground for street photographers. But I’m not particularly interested in that these days. There are also many small independent photo galleries in Shinjuku that will continue to be important.

Can you tell me about revisiting that work and publishing it more recently in 2018? The process of looking back, editing and book production.

I wanted to make a book that was mixed with images of my private memories and small histories of Shinjuku. Already, a lot of the buildings in the photos have been pulled down, and many people have passed away. In addition to that, I will soon be 60 years old in 2020.
As I get older, I probably won't be able to make many prints and also my memories will slowly vanish. That's why I made it. memories of younger days in Shinjuku was edited and published by myself. There is no explanation or extensive text, I want the reader to look for hints in the pictures and use their imagination.

CAMP! What was it? A collective?

CAMP was started by Moriyama-san and his students after a workshop by Shōmei Tōmatsu-san in 1974 and officially launched in 1976. They wanted to make an exhibition space and a shop for up-and-coming independent photographers that ran from 1976 - 1984. I was still a high school student, so I did not participate in the initial workshops. However, I remember seeing a small ad in a photo magazine and I was really interested in joining and I first participated in 1982. Moriyama-san was using CAMP to meet with important industry workers and especially the editor and this also helped me to meet many editors and other interesting photographers.

I am very interested in the links between photography and music. For this particular body of work, what soundtrack would you recommend while viewing the book or seeing prints in a gallery setting?

There was a jukebox at CAMP and I was listening to a lot of 70s Japanese pop songs. I still love that music and recommend it to you! The type of music people used to play on the jukebox, as well as the strolling guitarists that came from Golden-Gai, were mostly old-fashioned, already out-of-trend, Enka music from late 60’s to 70’s which Moriyama-san also loved.

Some excellent examples are:

Koji Onaka was born 1960 in Fukuoka prefecture in Japan. In 1982 Onaka graduated from Tokyo Photograph College (now Tokyo Visual Arts). Whilst in college Onaka was a member of the CAMP collective. In 1988 Onaka opened up the gallery KAIDO in Tokyo which ran untill 1992, and subsequently reopened from 2007-2014. In 2015 Onaka started a new photography magazine titled KAIDO, and in 2016 the KAIDO gallery was reopened.