Looking at Jun Yokoyama’s portfolio, you would never guess how short his career as a photographer has been. Born in Japan and currently based in Tokyo, he began to take his photography hobby seriously only during a student exchange to London, where, frustrated and bored, he took to his camera as a way of engaging with one of his passions: grime music. Jun, who says that “my camera was like a passport into the grime scene”, shares with us his thoughts on grime and tells how, in an incredibly short space of time, he managed to immerse himself in this environment which seems, on paper, a far cry from his own background. As well as the grime photography which he is best known for, Jun, who comes from a cultural studies and sociology background, explains his interest in documenting anyone with strong convictions or who fights for political change, and reveals the message behind his work, which goes far beyond pure aesthetic value.
Can you first describe yourself?
I’m from the Mie Prefecture 1 but currently live in Tokyo and work as a photographer. I started taking pictures a little bit more than a year ago. I’ve been kind of trying to expand my photography career as much as I can by telling lies, not far off from scamming people — I don’t really know if I can properly take pictures but I just say I can, go to work and do it.
What can you tell us about your background?
From 2002 to 2010, I was a undergraduate and then a master’s student. In 2010, I started working for Uniqlo 2 but stopped after a year. The earthquake happened in 2011, 3 so that year, I spent my time doing some volunteering and organising anti-nuclear protests. 4 Then in 2012, I started a PhD programme while still being active in the anti-nuclear movement. I moved to London for a year for an exchange in 2014 5 and I came back to Tokyo in 2015, quit my PhD and started working for an online magazine. 6
Debuting as a Photographer
You began your career in photography in London, and rather recently. Can you tell us what about London ignited this new interest?
I actually wanted a proper DSLR 7 since before going to London. When I was protesting at anti-nuclear demonstrations, 8 there were always people coming to take pictures and videos of us. I became friends with one photographer, called Akiyama. 9 He used to show me his camera and, with time, I became more and more curious, but ended up moving to London without an DSLR. I bought a Ricoh GR instead. 10
After half a year in London, it was winter and I was very depressed. It wasn’t like I’d got much better at English in six months, and everyone I knew was studying for exams around that time while I didn’t really have anything to do. I wasn’t pursuing my interests. I used to say to myself, “I came all the way to London and I am not involved with grime, I haven’t left any traces yet. I need to change this.” Right at this point, Sinta from Double Clapperz, 11 who was in Madrid as an exchange student, was invited to DJ for some artists in London so he stayed at mine for a week. When I went to see him perform, I brought my compact camera to take photos of him but I couldn’t get any good shots. I wasn’t pissed because I knew from going to gigs and events before that it was always too dark to take nice pictures. So, for the first time, there, I thought “I absolutely need to get one good photo.”
Why did you decide so suddenly to focus on photography?
There wasn’t any specific reason. Let’s say I’d have started DJing – there are already plenty of great DJs in London so it would have made no sense. I can’t really write in English as a journalist would do, and videos are quite hard to master. I thought of going into rap too, but at this point I only had about four months left in London and when I thought of how ‘deep’ I could go, of really getting into something, there was only photography left. If I had to choose again, I would make the same decision. At that time, I was going back to Japan for a bit so, after a bit of research on Yahoo! Auctions, 12 I bought the most sensitive Sony camera you could get at the time, 13 so that I could take photos in very dark setups. I think I bought it in April, went back to London in May and the first event I properly had the opportunity to take photos of was POKO. 14
You’re best known for your photographs of London’s grime scene, but what else have you explored?
As a general theme, I often take photographs of grime and street politics, like demonstrations. For example, the racist movement EDL 15 is almost never allowed to organise protests, but when they were allowed to march in Walthamstow, 16 I had the opportunity to document a counter-protest.
I also took photographs of the actors who played in Pride, a BBC-produced movie, as well as the actual people behind their roles: a group of lesbian and gay activists who were involved in the British miners' strike. 17 It took place in around 1985 and so they’re about fifty years old today. The documentary based on their story was about to be released, so actors and the real people behind the plot were marching and I had the chance to take photographs as a sort of official cameraman.
Also, further east in Stratford, East London, there’s a football team called Clapton F.C. 18 which is in the Essex Senior League, the ninth going down from the Premier League. 19 Their supporters let me take pictures of them. It’s a very left-wing team that fights against homophobia, racism and neo-liberalism. There are similar groups of football fans in Glasgow and St.Pauli, 20 and it’s basically the London version of this kind of football activism. It’s a very weak team, but for a few years they’ve been attracting quite a lot of fans and it seems to be going very well for them. At this point, I was photographing the grime scene at night so during the day, I was taking these kind of photos.
I think that art can change people’s way of thinking. After doing five years of socio-political work, I understood that it is nearly impossible to change people’s ideologies [...] through logic.
All of the themes you touch on involve people who are fighting for radical change – often in a political sense. Similarly to your subjects, is there a political goal that you are trying to achieve through your photographic work?
I don’t intend to have a firm political objective. However, politics, especially when oppressive or violent, can impact our daily life, and I try to grasp the beauty of how people resolve these situations. In that sense, it is greatly political. I’d like to use this creative channel to empower those people who feel they are oppressed - to give them a voice. Otherwise, I don’t believe my work can be called ‘creative’ per se.
I think that art can change people’s way of thinking. After doing five years of socio-political work, 21 I understood that it is nearly impossible to change people’s ideologies and political convictions through logic. The idea of something being ‘beautiful’ or ‘cool’ is totally subjective, so it’s impossible to control it or force this perception on someone. Having said that, you don’t gain anything if you don’t try. Something I’m interested in is subcultures: in contemporary urban life, there are countless subcultures, people are constantly looking for what’s cool, for new things to look at or consume. Going into the world of subcultures provided for me an amazing opportunity to understand the political, economic and cultural worlds we live in – I thought of myself almost as a cultural ‘soldier’, going into and infiltrating these various subcultures. You might have noticed already, but this way of thinking is based on Stuart Hall’s cultural theory. 22
While its fanbase is growing every day, grime hasn’t always been a particularly popular music genre, especially in Japan. How did you come across it?
In around 2011 when, for example, tofubeats’s 23 manager CE$ 24 released a mixtape, grime was beginning to be a new subculture that loads of people were getting into in Japan. It’s a bit different to the success of the grime scene today – the most hardcore people would talk about it, it was something that was seen as really underground and exciting, and I became interested in it through this movement. Some time after, when I used to DJ, I would play dubstep, and once or twice I’d play a track and find out only after that it wasn’t actually dubstep but grime. Back then, information about grime was difficult to find, so I learned about a lot of it quite a while after that.
Was there a specific trigger that ignited your interest in grime?
I started listening to it in around 2011, on overseas pirate radio stations, 25 recordings on Soundcloud or Mixcloud, and through the archives that people were posting online at that time. Before then, it was quite tiring to find grime tracks online as we had to look deep into online forums to find anything. Then, Twitter blew up and it became easier. Even though with pirate radio stations, we could listen to grime using an analogue radio, from 2011 onwards, you could upload any recorded material – so, from this point, information was better organised and more accessible.
I went to London just before the 2012 Olympics, just at that point when it was becoming easier to read about grime artists and to find tracks. There, I went to an event organised by Butterz, a label run by Elijah & Skilliam, 26 and Hardrive, another label run by Terror Danjah. I had so much fun because it was my first time going to a grime event since getting into it – it really opened my eyes to this new genre. Everyone was so enthusiastic, the artists were giving everything they had and the energy from the audience was amazing too. There’s nothing like it in Japan.
The grime scene in London can be intimidating for a newbie photographer from Japan. How did you manage to get so deep into this scene in such a short time?
At the beginning I lied. I used to say “I’m a journalist from Japan.” I’d chat to the event organisers to get permission to take photos of people in the clubs, and I was introduced to loads of people, mostly through E.L.I. from GOODWEATHER who has been organising events at Nagoya. 27 I would take photos, the photos were uploaded on Twitter with my credits and would get loads of retweets. People were like “OMG, who’s that sick photographer?” – some even started to recognise me, and every day I would get asked “there’s an event, can you come take pictures?” That’s how I made a name for myself at the beginning.
I’m not actually taking photos because it’s my vocation, but I started doing it because I wanted to be involved with the grime scene and the people in it.
People in your photographs often seem to be very true to themselves. Is this effect intentional?
After a while, the artists started to let me take photos which went beyond just photos of their performance, beyond the signature poses like you see in fashion editorials – I mean, to be honest, I used to just sneak in and take them, I was acting like a paparazzo. I really like this kind of photo. I was constantly hanging around with the artists, even when they were just chatting about dumb stuff or passing a joint around. I didn’t always understand what they were talking about because my English wasn’t good enough, but that’s just that way it was. They’d ask me why I was there, because it wasn’t like there was anything really worth photographing. I was at most of their events, I was probably the only photographer going to internet radio stations. By constantly being around these people, they probably came to depend on me in a way.
I’ve said before that my camera was sort of like a passport into the grime scene 28 – I’m not actually taking photos because it’s my vocation, but I started doing it because I wanted to be involved with the grime scene and the people in it. I’m not a fine art photographer, taking photographs is just something that comes naturally to me.
Do you feel like you got to understand the grime scene in its sociological context through your engagement as a photographer?
Of course – compared to before I moved to London, I understand it one hundred times better. But that’s still not really that meaningful. I don’t think grime is going to have a big impact on society. It felt to me like the people I met were similar to people who go to the gym everyday, or people gathering to do some rock climbing for example, a bit like a club activity – everyone gets together, catches up and goes home. The overall feeling I get from the sort of ‘fieldwork’ I’ve undertaken into grime is: obviously it’s important, and it’s interesting to think about how music can change society... but on the other hand, I could see grime as a daily routine, almost an activity like going to church. Thinking of it in that way, I feel, gives a new meaning to what grime can represent socially to its artists.
You also work as a writer for FNMNL, a Japanese cultural online magazine. Looking at your articles, you sometimes seem to be acting as an advocate for UK grime in Japan. Is that deliberate?
I am quite evangelical about the grime scene in FNMNL, though less and less so these days. I’m definitely not losing interest in the genre but I can sense that it’s becoming increasingly popular in Japan too, 29 so I’m starting to think that maybe it can become popular organically, without my intervention. I’m actually thinking about distancing myself from grime a bit now. I don’t think there’s much meaning to it anymore – I don’t think of it as a genre or industry that should necessarily be promoted, though as a subculture, I think grime artists should just keep on doing what they feel, what they consider ‘grime’ is. I think it’s easier to understand the grime phenomenon if we think of it as an attitude or a way of life.
What themes or topics would you like to photograph in the future?
At the moment, if you asked me if there’s something I would specifically like to shoot in Tokyo, to be honest, I would have to say that I haven’t found anything yet. Rather, I’m more focusing and reflecting on how to properly explain and communicate the photos I have taken so far. 30
- The country of Japan is made of forty-seven prefectures. The Mie Prefecture is part of the Kansai region, located on the Honshu island – pictured below is the Prefecture’s flag. Tsu is its capital, but many visit the Prefecture for its extremely popular Ise Shrine, considered one of the holiest and most important sites for Shinto, Japan’s most popular religion. It gained considerable media attention recently for hosting the forty-second G7 summit in May 2016, as you can see below. ↩
- Uniqlo is a fashion brand from Japan with a focus on selling functional, high-quality products at low prices. One of Uniqlo’s unique selling points is their HEATTECH clothing, made from a special fabric that is not only very comfortable to wear but also keeps you warm. Definitely worth trying if you haven’t yet! ↩
- Jun is of course talking about the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, which, by also provoking a tsunami, resulted in 15,894 deaths, 6,152 injured, and 2,562 people missing. The tsunami in turn caused nuclear accidents which led to the creation of some exclusion zones, similarly to the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The following video by VICE tells the story of a man who deliberately decided to live within the radiated exclusion zone. Source: Wikipedia ↩
- After the tragedy in 2011, where Japan saw an earthquake and tsunami that led to a nuclear catastrophe, anti-nuclear power movements became increasingly popular. While large-scale political protests are extremely rare in Japan, in July 2012, 75,000 people gathered in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park for the capital’s largest anti-nuclear event to date. ↩
- Jun studied at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies) during his stay in London. ↩
- Jun works for FNMNL, a Tokyo-based online magazine focused on music, fashion and culture. Jun contributes to FNMNL not only as an interviewer but also as a photographer and videographer. ↩
- By DSLR, Jun is referring to Digital Single-Lens Reflex cameras, which look like this: ↩
- Jun was massively involved in anti-nuclear movements, particularly with two groups, called THINK FUKUSHIMA+WALK and TwitNoNukes Osaka. ↩
- You can find Akiyama’s documentation on his Youtube channel. ↩
- The Ricoh GR is a compact digital camera manufactured by Japanese electronics company Ricoh. You might recognise its predecessor, a 35mm film camera called the Ricoh GR1, which was famous amongst street photographers in the nineties. ↩
- Double Clapperz is a duo from Japan featuring artists Sinta and UKD, who are producers and DJs known mainly for their work in the grime and bass music genres. The grime scene in Japan is relatively small and Japanese grime artists are a rare breed, so they tend to be more widely recognised abroad, and have been invited to events internationally including guest sets at London-based net radio stations NTS and Radar Radio as well as playing Boiler Room Tokyo in mid-2016. ↩
- Most people’s first stop for an online auction platform would be eBay, though Yahoo! Auctions, launched in 1998 as a competitor, dominates the market in Japan – unexpectedly so, as it failed in most countries. Don’t forget about it if you’re looking to buy any niche products from Japan. ↩
- To be precise, the camera Jun is talking about is the Sony α7S which can take pictures with ISO up to an impressive 409,600. ↩
- POKO is a club night series founded in 2015 by Keiichi Toyama, who, when living in London for his master’s degree at SOAS, had the opportunity to co-organise Maltine Records’ first overseas event in London and launched POKO for the occasion. Since then, other POKO events have included a collaboration with Project Mooncircle in London, photographed by Jun, and a special gig bringing together two online music communities from Tokyo, JACK and Maltine Records. ↩
- The EDL stands for the English Defence League, a far-right street protest movement opposing what it considers to be a spread of Islamism and Sharia in the United Kingdom. The Islamophobic movement frequently makes headlines for its extremist views. The following video from BBC News showcases the danger they pose but also reveals the naivety of some of their members – the scene from 2:55 to 3:12 is hilarious and terrifying at the same time. ↩
- Jun is probably talking about the English Defence League protest and the counter-protest which took place on 9 May 2015 in Walthamstow, North-East London. You can find footage of the demonstration below: ↩
- Pride is a British movie released in 2014 which depicts a group of lesbian and gay activists who raised money to help families affected by the British miners' strike in 1984, sparking the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners campaign. The National Union of Mineworkers was reluctant to accept the group's support due to worries about being openly associated with a gay group, so the activists instead decided to take their donations directly to Onllwyn, a small mining village in Wales, resulting in an unlikely but successful alliance between the two communities. Source: Wikipedia ↩
- The Clapton Football Club was established in 1878 and is based in East London. As Jun mentions, the football club has a group of supporters called the Clapton Ultras, who are famous for defending left-wing views to oppose the discriminatory, far-right politics often found in football fan communities. The following video by the Guardian sheds some light on what they believe in. ↩
- Football in England has a long and extremely rich history and is deeply rooted in national culture. England has more football clubs than any other country, numbering over forty thousand, and the league system is divided into an impressive twenty-two levels, where the lowest two levels alone make up a total of fifty-one teams. As a comparison, Japan has only six levels. ↩
- Jun is talking about Celtic F.C.’s and F.C. St. Pauli’s supporters, who are indeed known for defending left-wing ideologies – and both clubs seem to have a long-standing friendship. However, while they are against the right-wing opinions often found in the sports world, they are nonetheless extremist groups in their own right, which is why the Green Brigade, a group of Celtic F.C.’s supporters, were disbanded by their own club in December 2013 following trouble including damage to the stadium after a game earlier that year. The following video is a short documentary by VICE exploring the spirit of F.C. St. Pauli’s left-wing supporters, but also their feelings of confusion in facing up to the ever-present capitalistic side of football. ↩
- Between 2011 and 2013, Jun was heavily active in Japanese anti-nuclear movements. See the 8th footnote for more detail. ↩
- Stuart Hall (1932 – 2014) was a Jamaican cultural theorist, sociologist and political activist who worked for most of his life in the United Kingdom. He is well-known for founding a bi-monthly political academic journal called the New Left Review in 1960. The theory Jun is referring to is Hall’s encoding/decoding model of communication, saying that media language is interpreted in different ways depending on an individual's cultural background, economic standing and personal experiences. This model led media theorist Dick Hebdige, who studied under Hall at the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, to write his influential book Subculture: The Meaning of Style where he argues that younger generations are challenging dominant ideologies by developing distinct styles and practices that manifest their separate identity. In the cultural sphere, British film director John Akomfrah praises Hall’s influence and has dedicated two movies to him including his latest, The Stuart Hall Project, from 2013 in which he depicts Hall’s life. See the trailer below. ↩
- tofubeats (born 26 November 1990) is a Japanese producer, singer and DJ. While in the Japanese music industry, major labels often wield tremendous power over their artists and audiences, tofubeats is one of the rare artists who has managed to build his own success organically, thanks to the internet. From a young age, he has distributed his music for free online, mostly through Japanese net-label Maltine Records with which he has a long-standing relationship, going from his first releases under the name of djnewtown up until he signed with Warner Music Japan. This new partnership has allowed him to collaborate with mainstream artists such as Dream Ami, a member of E-girls who he worked with on the song ‘POSITIVE’, from his latest album of the same name, which you can listen to below. We also love this mix he made for the Diplo & Friends radio show on BBC Radio1Xtra. ↩
- CE$, who is now tofubeats’ manager, contacted him after seeing some of his videos on YouTube when looking for a new artist to perform at the 2008 WIRE music festival in Tokyo. They’ve since formed a duo called SOYCEE – listen to SOYCEE’s ‘420’ below. Source: Nikkei Trendy ↩
- Tangentially, People Just Do Nothing is a BBC comedy mockumentary depicting a group of friends running Kurupt FM, a pirate radio station broadcasting garage and drum & bass from Brentford in West London. The show was initially a series of YouTube videos uploaded from 2010, but the BBC decided to make it into a TV show after a successful pilot in 2012. We find it hilarious and so does the Guardian. Watch the short video below to get a taste of the sitcom, and check out the review here. ↩
- Butterz is a London-based independent record label specialising in grime music. It first started in 2007 as a blog run by grime unit Elijah & Skilliam, and became a label in 2010, now also co-owned by Terror Danjah, Swindle, Royal-T and Dane Bradshaw. See below for a short documentary produced by FACT Magazine, ‘Grime Through The Eyes of Butterz’. ↩
- GOODWEATHER is a collective run by E.L.I., which organises music events in Nagoya. ↩
- Jun said this in an interview for FACT Magazine in November 2015. Read it here. ↩
- The following video from Boiler Room released in October 2016 shows how grime is represented in Japan and highlights the growing success of the genre there. It features Elijah & Skilliam behind Butterz as well as Sinta from Double Clapperz, both of whom are mentioned in previous footnotes. ↩
- Jun has indeed been working on how to communicate the photos he’s taken so far with his solo exhibition called ‘London, Beyond Hate – LGSM, Grime, Antifa’, which took place in Tokyo from 1 to 8 May 2016. ↩
This interview was posted on 24 January 2017 and was originally conducted in Japanese.
Interview (Us Blah) & Footnotes (Me Blah):
Translation (Japanese to English):
Translation (English to Japanese):
Special Thanks to Ririko Sano and Marina Kobayashi.