© Kenya Sugai
The Tokyo salaryman is a suit-and-tie-wearing, packed-train-riding, beer-gobbling creature of latter-day corporate folklore. Along with the manga-loving otaku, it's one of the two mythical images of Japanese men that has been transported back to the West. Of course, there is some truth to this image: Japanese and American corporate cultures are, after all, different, and it is possible to observe Tokyo salarymen in the wild, by visiting their natural habitat of Yamanote line train stations and cheap eateries anywhere after 7pm.
It's not surprising that the salaryman's position at the intersection of myth and reality is an attractive subject for photographers. Two contemporary approaches to photographing salarymen recently caught my eye—one from a French ex-pat, and another from a native Japanese photographer. In each case, the photographer has taken care to stress that their work isn't actually a project about the social reality of the salaryman.
Bruno Quinquet is a French photographer who's been living in Japan since 2006. As it happens, an encounter with a salaryman played a significant role in his decision to live in Japan. While on a sabbatical from his job as a recording engineer, he was hiking with his nephew in the foothills of Mount Fuji. Quinquet recalls, "As we were walking up the mountain, a fast-paced salaryman with a suitcase appeared on the trail. I stopped in my tracks, took a photo, and he was gone. This initial vision wouldn't leave me: Mount Fuji, the forest and the salaryman..."
"This initial vision wouldn't leave me: Mount Fuji, the forest and the salaryman..."
The next day, he says, he began his "Salaryman Project," which looks at the activity of salarymen in Tokyo. Quinquet treats his subjects in a subtle way, and this makes sense given that he doesn't see the project as a social critique, but rather a "slightly cryptic self-portait," and also a study of the seasons of Japan. He's planning to publish the work as a photobook soon.
At first glance, the photos in Kenya Sugai's series "Bird" appear to be a lot rougher than Quinquet's. We see salarymen in what we could call compromised positions: there is nothing glamorous about the man slumped over in a chair on the plot of land that he's supposed to be selling. Some of the other photos seem like they're taking a somewhat mischievious view of salarymen. But, like Quinquet, Sugai also doesn't see his project as an exploration of salarymen. He's thinking about fathers in Japan. "There's a kind of father that's really, really common here. Everyone wants their dad to be cool, but in reality that's probably not the case. It's true for me, too, so I'm not looking down on these people. It's more about feeling with them, 'Today was a tough day.'"
Of course, there have been other projects related to working people in Tokyo besides these two. Michael Wolf's recent work "Tokyo Compression" looks at the condition of people riding packed Tokyo trains, a subject that Japanese photographer Tomoyuki Sakaguchi has also shot. Martin Parr also took a series of snapshots in which he flashed Tokyo commuters at a closer distance than Wolf or Sakaguchi. We'll certainly keep our eyes for any further developments in the field of salaryman photography.