Beyond the cherry blossoms, festivals, and buzzing nightlife, Dan Bailey’s photographs offer a deeper discussion about Japan’s history and its sense of national and individual identity
Dan Bailey and I speak over the phone in late-May, from our respective homes in locked-down Tokyo and London. Among some of the things we share in common, there is one, which is most significant: we have both spent 18 years of our lives living in Japan. Bailey moved there in 2002 to teach English — “I thought I’d be gone for a year, now it’s been 18” — and I was born and raised there until I moved to the UK.
Japan has long been regarded as a homogenous culture: one must look Japanese and speak Japanese to be Japanese. It is the birthplace of countless of symbolisms and subcultures, such as cherry blossoms, Harajuku-girls, kimonos, and salarymen — all of which contribute to a strong sense of national identity. But what does it actually mean to exist as an individual within that? It is a loaded question — something I have certainly thought about in my upbringing as a ‘hāfu’, an individual born to one Japanese and one non-Japanese parent. I feel an affinity with certain sensibilities, values, and subcultures, yet I will never fit within the country’s homogenised ideals of beauty, or how a Japanese person is expected to look and behave. In his work, Bailey probes these kinds of inconsistencies, documenting numerous facets of culture and tradition, exploring how it has adapted throughout the country’s incredible history.
His project, Disposables, began shortly after moving to Tokyo. Bailey was invited to a punk-rock concert, and asked to help translate their lyrics into English. From there, he began discovering the city’s many subcultures, from the electro-clash scene — ”a mixture of rockabillies and Harajuku kids” — to high-fashion parties and salacious club nights. He started photographing but didn’t have a place to publish the images, so he set up Tokyo Dandy, a bilingual online magazine, with his partner Joe Kazuaki. The pair soon became key influencers in Tokyo’s fashion scene, and their platform took off, covering both Japanese and international fashion, art, photography, and music.
But it wasn’t until 2011, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, that Bailey began to think about national and individual identity — a subject that has consumed his work and thinking since. “After the earthquake, a lot of the reporting grouped people together — it became very statistical,” Bailey explains. “I started to think about individualism and explore how this fits within a country that is seen to be very group-led and hegemonic.”
At the end of 2019, Bailey published a photobook of 119 images, and now, a selection is available to view on his website, with additional texts that explain the contextual layers behind his images.
“I’m finding out new things about Japan all the time, and I’ll never figure it out — that’s what I love about it so much”
Photographs of traditional festivals — some thousands of years old — explore how rituals have adapted in modern society. Other images examine national symbols like the cherry blossom — a native fauna threatened by climate change. His photographs of the Battery Islands — constructed out of soil that was rooted out of a cherry blossom park in 1853 to prevent attack by sea — explores the destruction of nature in order to protect culture. And, at the ruins of a WWII training base off the coast of Nagasaki Prefecture, Bailey tells the story of kamikaze pilots: “the ultimate sacrifice of self for national ideology”.
The fashion and nightlife work is also about identity, but Bailey wanted to expand it, to think more about “what individual identity means within this culture”. On top of this, there is a poignancy in how the project captures fleeting moments using the medium of a disposable camera, all shot in a country where the transient nature of life forms such an intrinsic part of the culture.
“These are snapshot photos, but they are deeply personal,” explains Bailey, when we discuss the subject of ownership over images of a certain culture or identity. “It’s not just Japanese people who feel protective over Japanese culture. Anyone who has spent any amount of time here thinks they have a good understanding of it, but I’ve lived here for 18 years, and I don’t have a fucking clue.”
Looking into the country’s history is a huge part of Bailey’s process, and, as someone who was raised in Japan, what is most intriguing about it. “I’m finding out new things about Japan all the time, and I’ll never figure it out — that’s what I love about it so much.”
Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.