I, Tokyo: Jörgen Axelvall

Peek into the lives of international Tokyoites with our I, Tokyo series

i, tokyo
By Time Out Tokyo Editors |
Originally published in Time Out Tokyo magazine issue 16 (September 2017)


The photographer and artist talks about his life and impressions of Tokyo from an artist's point of view.

You moved to Japan in 2011 after 15 years in New York City. What made you choose Tokyo as your new home, especially in the wake of the natural disasters that rocked the country that year?
I moved here for love. My flight actually landed, or rather attempted to land, on the exact minute of the Great East Japan earthquake on March 11, 2011. After a touch-and-go at Narita airport we eventually got redirected to Yokosuka military base where we were stuck onboard for another ten hours or so before finally disembarking at Haneda. Quite a tumultuous start to life in Japan, but nothing really compared to what others went through.

When did you first feel like a Tokyoite?
Spiritually I felt part of the city quite quickly, possibly because I was here for the aftermath of the earthquake, a time when a lot of foreign residents left and very few tourists would visit. Artistically I considered myself a Tokyoite when I started exhibiting my work at galleries around Tokyo and getting my books published in Japan. I also felt a legal entitlement to call myself a Tokyoite the day I got my residence card and started paying my dues and taxes in Japan.

You work mainly as a photographer. What do you think of Tokyo as a subject?
Tokyo is not a classically pretty city – I find a lot of the post-war architecture hideous. However, Tokyo has some fantastic gems. I spent some seven years shooting the Park Hyatt Tokyo building and those photographs were eventually awarded an exhibition at the National Art Center and published as a book. I still find new and interesting things here every day. Tokyo is always changing, for better or worse – either way it’s inspiring.

It’s been seven years since you moved to Tokyo. What has changed for you, and do these changes also affect your work?
Tokyo has made me a nicer person. I love NYC and its energy but there’s also a lot of rage and selfishness. Tokyo is slow compared to NYC, but much kinder. It’s a good place to focus and get things done. My artistic style was pretty well developed when I moved here and the core hasn’t changed much, but of course I am influenced by the local culture – sometimes unconsciously. Little elements of Japanese aesthetics have made their way into my work.

What aesthetic aspect of Japan is your favourite?
I like the concept of wabi-sabi, the acceptance and admiration of imperfection. It’s something I always strived for in my photographs, before I even knew what wabi-sabi means.

Where would you take visitors to Tokyo?
One of the things that really appeals to me about Tokyo is that you don’t have to do anything else than just walk around, hang out and look at the the city and its people. So far it’s the best city I ever lived in for bicycling and whenever I have visitors I like to show them around by bike.

Finally, any survival tips for international visitors?
Stay happy and positive. Things are different here, very different. But that’s just it – different doesn’t mean wrong. Most visitors will get frustrated at some point. I too used to have meltdowns and at times still get frustrated, but made a conscious choice to at least try to laugh about the situation.

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