Tokyo then and now: Photographer documents four decades of change

When Tokyo photographer Yoshimoto Kiichiro spent days taking shots around the city in 1984, little did he know they would form the basis of a long-term project. Tokyo changes fast, and Yoshimoto now finds himself a documentarian of the ages.

Tokyo Station 1984, 2020
Shinjuku's Golden Gai district 1984, 2020

When the coronavirus pandemic took hold during 2020 and forced people to stay home, the 62-year-old decided to sort out piles of old films. He found 1,000 negatives for a series of black-and-white 1980s Tokyo streetscapes that were exhibited at a gallery at the time.

"At first, I didn't remember taking those pictures," says the commercial lensman. "I enjoyed looking at them and thought it would be fun if I return to those locations and take the same pictures to contrast the past and present."

Since then, Yoshimoto has traversed Tokyo with his digital camera to revisit the scenes he first captured four decades ago.

Shinjuku Station southeast exit 1984, 2020
Shinjuku Station southeast exit 1984, 2020

"The twin photos of Shinjuku Station's southeast area illustrate the most visible changes," says Yoshimoto. "Back in 1984, the area — now bustling with shoppers and tourists — was a day-laborer district. Women and children were told to stay away, and I wouldn't go there at night."

It was a part of the city that hosted remnants of the postwar black market, as newly built skyscrapers loomed over the west side of the station.

"It was fascinating to shoot there. I knew the area would soon disappear," Yoshimoto says. He was proved correct, with development accelerating as Japan entered a new imperial era — Heisei — in 1989.

"The district changed drastically after the monument to Emperor Showa was relocated to a nearby shrine and a plaza that hosted the monument was demolished."

Asakusa Hana Yashiki-dori 1986, 2020
Yoyogi-Hachiman rail crossing 1984, 2021

In one instance, Yoshimoto managed to find a neighborhood character who was in one of his old frames of Shinjuku and convince him to strike the same pose. Forty years ago, the man was photographed from behind wearing a wig and a floral shirt with a boom box on his shoulder. He was still recognizable as the same colorful personality in 2021.

Shinjuku Tunohazu Guard East Exit Side Entrance 1984, 2021

Yoshimoto's project has drawn attention on social media, with his Instagram account attracting almost 300,000 followers. That popularity has led him to publish two books.

"Forty years ago, these photos were seen by only a handful of people at a gallery in Shibuya. I'm thrilled that now, the internet makes it possible for hundreds of thousands of people to see them," says the photographer.

Food market at Shimokitazawa Station 1984, 2021

Although he didn't initially intend it as a time-travel project, Yoshimoto hopes people can enjoy the contrast that his images offer of his city's 40-year journey. "I think Tokyo landscapes reflect Japanese culture and our people," he explains. "I'd like people to see what progress the city has made, and possibly what we have lost."

Photographer Yoshimoto Kiichiro spoke with NHK on January 24.
Watch video 03:19