Bewildering in its scale and density, Tokyo has been an enduring subject for print artists and photographers for over a century. The city has evolved through multiple cycles of reconstruction since 1868, when Edo was renamed Tokyo and designated the capital of Japan. Urban plans based on Western models, new railways, and rapid recovery from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and World War II transformed the city into a symbol of progress throughout much of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Astounding economic and population growth also made Tokyo the embodiment of the tension between modernization and the search for Japanese identity—and a fertile ground for artists.

Coming out of World War II, photographers became increasingly aware of the social and political function of their medium. As many Japanese magazines and newspapers revived, Tokyo became the center where realism in photography was vigorously debated by such leading practitioners as Domon Ken and Kimura Ihee. In the context of a country devastated by war, the documentary approach became paramount, as seen in the work of artists like Hayashi Tadahiko. A prolific photographer of this period, Hayashi published many images of soldiers, street children, and life amid burned-out ruins in the streets of Tokyo’s Ginza and Ueno districts. Photographers also documented the pervasive US military presence: Yamamura Gasho, for example, produced a study of Washington Heights, a US military housing complex in central Tokyo. Both photographers employed disorienting perspectives and a particular eye for the moment to convey the unsettled mood of the times.