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April 12, 2024

Portraits of Young Japanese Women at Kabukicho, Shinjuku’s Red Light District in Tokyo From the 1960s and 1970s

Katsumi Watanabe (1941–2006) is probably best known for his work in Shinjuku’s red light district, Kabukicho, in Tokyo. Between 1966 and 1980 he took hundreds of black-and-white portraits, capturing the sex workers, dancers, drag queens, and yakuza members who frequented Kabukicho by night. The images are stark and frank in their monochrome, captured under the impact of a strobe flash.

Born in 1941, Watanabe is one of Japan’s most iconic photographers. An itinerant portrait photographer, throughout his career he worked primarily in Shinjuku in Tokyo, making a living from selling his portraits back to his subjects for a modest sum. It was in the 1970s that the photographer began to receive critical acclaim, with other iconic artists such as Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki hailing him as one of the nation’s great talents.

Born just before the end of the Second World War, Watanabe saw the fall and the re-birth of the district that he documented. Razed to the ground in 1945 following an air raid, Kabukicho was quickly redeveloped after the war’s end, mostly thanks to foreign investment. In the wake of the war, the district became populated by cabarets, Chinese restaurants, love hotels, theaters, and discos.

Surrounded by the eccentricities of the district, Katsumi Watanabe was reportedly a quiet and unassuming character, yet the tenacity of his photos is frank and confrontational.


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