Feature: “Shinjuku Story”
by Kaz Senju
Kaz Senju is a Japanese photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. He spends his time traveling between Japan and the USA. In “Shinjuku Stories” — Kaz collects stories from Shinjuku Ni-chōme, an area of Tokyo that is populated by small gay bars. Each of these bars contain spaces that embody the owners and their regulars. An ongoing project, Senju has published some of his work on VICE. He plans to continue documenting the stories from Shinjuku Ni-chōme in the next year or so. You can follow the project on Kaz’s Instagram account.
Tell us a little bit about “Shinjuku Stories.”
“Shinjuku Story” is documentary photography, interviewing gay and lesbian bar owners and bartenders in the small, gay, neighborhood of SHINJUKU NI CHOME, in Tokyo, which I consider to be my home. Shinjuku is the busiest neighborhood in the world, 3.4 million people travel though Shinjuku station every day. The ni-Chome neighborhood of Shinjuku has the highest concentration of gay bars in Tokyo, about 350 bars in one city block, providing for every different kind of taste, from high fetish, to simpler spaces for friends.
How long have you worked on this project?
I have been interviewing bar owners for about 3 years now. My first visit to Shinjuku was when I was 19, preparing to go to school in the US. This was also where I first came out as a gay man. Moving from the country side of Japan to the big city, I finally found people I could truly consider as my friends, people who I could talk to about all the different aspects of myself. I quickly became a fan of Shinjuku. Whenever I travel back to Japan, I visit Shinjuku, where I have made lots of friends. I lived there from 2006 until 2008 when I was a reverse expat for a US company. I spent lots of time there making friends, and Shinjuku became like my second home.
How did you meet the people that you documented in this project?
My first round of interviews were with people I already knew, I was a regular at their bar. After the first found I asked some of these bar owners, who are my close friends, to introduce me to other bar owners who were friends of theirs. I explained my project to them and they were all very supportive. They pointed me to the next set of bar owners and it became a chain of friendship within the gay and lesbian bar owners in Shinjuku
Why did you decide to photograph the bar owners?
Bars in Tokyo are like living rooms, though often even smaller than those you’d find in the U.S. Many of them are smaller than 40 sq feet, the size of a walk-in closet. Each bar has different clientele, some have a specific theme, or sexual fetish, but all of them have bar owners who are called “Momma”, who are the center of bar. The “Momma” greets new comers, keeps the conversation moving, decides on music and entertainment, and connects the people in the bar. The Momma sets a stage for us, and then all of us are entertaining each other on that stage. Bars in Shinjuku are also secret living rooms where we can share our stories, everyone can be who they want to be.
What was the hardest thing that you encountered when working on this project?
The HIV/AIDS epidemic hit Japan during 90’s and early 2000 not as significantly as in the US, but we have lost many great bars, clients, and Mommas. There are dozens bar Mommas from Shinjuku who were all unique, and wo helped me to become who I am, but I was unable to photograph them.
When do you think you’ll be done with the project?
This is a life long project. I would like to continue this project for as long as I can carry a camera. For this phase, I am planning to review what I have photographed over the past three years, and compile it into one photo book this summer. I would also like to plan a show in a private space and gallery so I can share their stories.
How does this project fit with the rest of your body of work?
I have done two distinguishable lines of art; one is more traditional, documentary style, photography, and the other is more conceptual, still life, art photograph. I have also produced a documentary film. This project is produced in my documentary style. I feel especially connected during the interviews at their bars. The space feels somewhat different, not like in the evening when the bar is packed with customers, voices, laughter, and music. It’s the same space but is very quiet, just the Momma and me, them revealing their life. It’s a magical moment when Momma starts talking about their childhood, how they figured out that they are gay, or lesbian, their challenges growing up, their first love, and how they decided to become a bar owner. No matter how small these bars are, they are unique, and they are the Momma’s space.
This Feature is part of COLLECTION #01: “IN THE CITY”