Islands in the Stream
Project info

Japan’s seclusion on a group of islands has resulted in a very distinct culture and particular social norms compared to its mainland cousins. One of these is the dynamic in public areas.

Anyone who has elbowed their way through busy Bangkok streets or a major Chinese railway station will be familiar with the chaotic sensation of being pinballed about by people with more pressing priorities than regard for others' trajectories. But something is different in Japan.

Tokyo is a megalopolis, constructed around a paucity of space, and home to 13.5 million people; Shinjuku station alone processes over 3 million passengers daily. In such a dense environment one could reasonably expect an urban melée, yet instead a striking sense of order is preserved.

Even on Tokyo’s fabled crossings or metro at peak hour, Japanese young and old have an innate, intuitive ability to keep a discreet distance, to create their own private zone and an unconscious space in-between. Several of the more tranquil images presented here actually had swarms of people just outside the frame.

On the one hand this sense for personal space would appear to confirm clichéd Japanese traits of restraint, control and self-awareness. It is also testament to a mastery of finding peace even in the most built up and frenetic environment.

Yet at times these spaces in-between also contain a tension that raises entirely different questions: of the individual’s growing isolation in the 21st century, of a modern style of immersion in one’s own world through the smartphone, and of a disconnectedness from others, even as social networks beep and buzz and one lives amongst countless millions.

John Donne wrote that ‘No man is an island’, but never could he have anticipated the rise of the modern megalopolis, much less the irony of technologies that isolate as much as they connect.