Photo Essay: Tokyo Jazz Joints, Vol.1 - 'Thresholds'

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Words & Images: Philip Arneill

Although jazz has been a part of the Japanese musical landscape since before World War II - brought initially through imported 78 records in the early 1920s, and by visiting American and Filipino jazz bands on military leave - following Art Blakey’s tour in 1961 the floodgates opened for jazz to fully enter the mainstream. The Japanese word kissaten (喫茶店) translates directly as ‘tea-drinking shop’; the Japanese jazu kissa (jazz kissaten) originated as audio-listening bars in the post-war years, and peaked in ubiquity in the late 1960s and early 70s, during which they were often a hub for counterculture movements.

TOKYO JAZZ JOINTS is an ongoing, audiovisual documentary research project, created by photographer Philip Arneill and broadcaster James Catchpole, which has documented this rapidly vanishing culture of Japanese jazu kissa since 2015.

The unique environment of the Japanese jazu kissa is a sacred, pseudo-religious space, replete with its own ritual, protocol and iconography. Although products of the cultural environment which created them, they often exist in direct cultural contestation with that same environment; their very existence is a result of their owners’ decision to step outside of Japanese mainstream culture, and their survival depends largely on their continued fervour and commitment to keeping the faith in an era of changing tastes, digitisation and relentless urban gentrification.

Starting initially in the Tokyo Metropolitan area in 2015, the project has since expanded to cover the whole of Japan. It has documented over 160 of these jazz ‘joints’ to date, with an accompanying podcast series which places the research in the wider context of audio culture and Japanese society. This first series of images focuses on the thresholds of the jazu kissa, characterised as they are by their graphically arresting signs, often notoriously narrow, rickety staircases, and hidden or poorly lit entrances through which one passes from one world into another one entirely: one James Catchpole describes as “a hidden, insular world where time ceases to exist.”

The project website can be found at


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