The photographer documenting Tokyo's homeless teens

The photographer documenting Tokyo's homeless teens
Yusuke Nagata spent 2019-2021 getting to know the "Toyoko Kids" – a group of young people, many of school age, living around the Kabukicho district of Shinjuku after been kicked out or driven from their homes.

Tokyo-based street photographer Yusuke Nagata is known for his spontaneous street portraits, often spotted around the city with his trusty Leica. From 2019-2021, he spent time photographing the "Toyoko Kids" (トー横キッズ), a group of homeless teenagers living around Shinjuku’s Toho Cinema in the Kabukichō district.

Nagata lives close to Shinjuku, a place loved by Tokyo’s many street photographers for its bustling activities. The nightlife district of Kabukicho is home to love hotels, bars and restaurants open till late. Packed with host bars, where clientele pay a high fee for drinking with young men; and girls bars, generally frequented by old men who pay a premium for women’s services, the area screams stimulation via neon signs and shouting bar staff who clamour for attention from potential punters passing by. As a photographer and founder of Tokyo Street Photography Club (Tokyo SPC), Nagata spends a significant amount of his free time around the Shinjuku area.

He started frequenting Kabukicho in the latter half of 2019, after being inspired by Yang Seung-Woo’s 2016 book, Shinjuku Lost Child, which documents the Shinjuku homeless families of Kabukicho Square in the late 90s and early 00s. “I originally went there to photograph the homeless community,” Nagata says when we meet in Shinjuku on a rainy Friday evening in March, “but by the end of 2020, it had changed.”

Gradually, the older homeless people who Nagata first met in 2019 began to disappear. The Tokyo government had started to prepare for the highly-anticipated 2020 Olympics, with the square set to be completely redeveloped with shiny new buildings home to shops and restaurants. The homeless had originally slept on the steps behind the cinema, but this set-up changed along with the new developments – a possible reason for their sudden departure. In the second half of 2020, Nagata says that the previous homeless were replaced by teenagers, many of them girls. “I guessed they were homeless because they had bought suitcases. They never seemed to leave.”

During the Covid-19 lockdowns, parents and children had been forced to spend more time together. Abusive behaviours from both parties highlighted the previously hidden flaws in Japanese home life, which often dictates living at home until getting their first ‘proper job,’ or getting married. Fathers abused daughters, forcing them out onto the streets, and others were simply kicked out by their parents. One by one, the teenagers found their way to Kabukicho Square. They would spend long periods drinking and hanging out in the space next to the cinema, eventually becoming known as the Toyoko Kids (kids next to Toho).

Nagata would go to the area regularly to chat to the people hanging out drinking there, sometimes with other members of the Tokyo SPC, often alone. “I’d stop by in the evening with a beer and just start chatting,” he tells me. “Once we’ve been chatting for a bit I might snap a picture.” During these chats he got to know the Toyoko Kids as much as they’d let him. He never asked for names, and they didn’t either.

Nagata tells me how the teenagers did not trust adults, thanks to experiences with their parents and the police. The local police are active in the area and upon finding out their ages would either send the teenagers back to their – often abusive – parental homes, or to detention centres. “But the kids wouldn’t want to go to the centres. They’re cramped and empty with nothing to do.” The teenagers would tell Nagata that they felt “safe” or “at home” in Toyoko. “They have friends and a community here.” Nagata met teenagers who’d travelled from across Japan to be at Toyoko, often turning up with just some suitcases after finding out about Toyoko through social media. According to the homeless charity Japan Last Minute Push, which has been monitoring the area, the amount of teenagers has increased fivefold since Covid.

"The girls in this photo said they came from Osaka. The boy on the right is a college student I had met a few times before. I met him first on that day, and he invited me to drink with them. The girls said they planned to spend the whole night in the square. We drank together for about 15 minutes with shōchū that someone had bought from a convenience store." – Yusuke Nagata

The teenagers who had nowhere to go would often get a room together. “They’d club together to buy a night in a business hotel,” he says, gesturing to the hotel in front of us. “During the pandemic, there were no customers so the prices were cheap. Although it was not allowed for extra people to stay, they would sneak into the hotel overnight to stay in a room booked by one of their friends, so as not to get caught by the staff.”

There is a dark side to the neon lights and pumping music. Hanging out at the square regularly, Nagata heard his fair share of stories, and saw the extent to which the homeless teenagers had become tied up in Kabukicho. What had started in late-2020 as a relatively innocent place to spend time for those with nowhere to go became wrapped up in the dangers of Kabukicho life.

“Many of the teenagers drank cough medicine,” he says. Once “a couple got so high that they fell out of that hotel and died,” he adds, pointing back to the same hotel.

Nagata remembers meeting a man who genuinely wanted to help the teenagers with nowhere to go, handing out food to those who asked. “When I first started coming here, I was with my friend [another Tokyo SPC member] Haruki when we met a guy trying to help the teenagers.” The man had been part of a volunteer group called Manjikai.

Fast forward to winter 2021 and Nagata had stopped frequenting Toyoko, having noticed a change in attitudes and the people there. “It became less of a gathering of runaway teens and more of a gathering of delinquent boys,” he tells me. Many teenagers had started to find out about Kabukicho through social media, as the original runaways went viral as ‘Toyoko Kids,’ through TikTok posts showing drunken antics next to the Toho Cinema building, on the Kabukicho Plaza. It is possible that social media fame contributed to the collapse of the Toyoko image, as the area began to attract more attention for the wrong reasons.

In November 2021 he read about a homeless man who was tortured for seven hours by four people of Toyoko, including a couple of boys aged 18 at the time. “When I read the story, I felt bad for him,” Nagata says. “I was even more shocked when Haruki told me it was the same guy we’d spoken to from Manjikai.” Reading up on the incident afterwards, the victim had been killed over a misunderstanding. The trial reported that the 18-year-olds had followed the leader because they “thought he was cool.”

When we met at Toyoko on that Friday night in March 2023, it was raining and there was a small group of normal, albeit messy-looking teenagers near the area, with a few security guards nearby. Where did the original Toyoko Kids go? I wonder. 

Nagata takes me around the corner to Okubo Park and we see a line of roughly 50 young women. A group of men loiter opposite them on the side of the park – many of them middle-aged and wearing suits, indicating the end of a long day at the office. Some are on their phones. Occasionally, others would go over to the women and whisper into their ears as they stand, stony-faced, pretending not to hear. “That guy is probably offering something too low,” Nagata explains. “If they get a customer tonight then they have a bed sorted.” We stand there for a few minutes, before the atmosphere gets too intense, heading back to Toyoko, which is empty in comparison. “I think the guys probably got involved in crime," he explains of the largely absent teens. "And the girls? That’s where they went.”

Follow Kim Kahan on Twitter and check out more of Yusuke’s work here.

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