The End of an Era


Somethings change, and somethings stay the same.

Let me take a moment to share with your three Japanese words:

Taisho, Showa, Heisei

These words are the names given for the three most recent imperial periods. The Taisho era was from 1912 until 1926 and encompassed the Kanto Earthquake that destroyed most of Tokyo, it saw a literary revolution that bore some of the greatest poets of modern Japan. While only 16-years long, it has also been called the Taisho Democracy. Its icons were not all born of that era, but they redefined literature, philosophy, and art in just a few short years.

Following this, the Showa era from 1926 until 1989 saw the death of that democracy. A slow march towards a world at arms eventually consumed itself and the old empire completely. The phoenix moment saw the rebirth of a new Japan from the ashes that went on to join the world again and redefine itself. The before and the after, not attributable to one, neither to all, was nevertheless often forgotten.

And on April 30th the Heisei-era which began in 1989 will come to an end when the aging emperor is set to abdicate. The name of the next era of the Japanese Imperial calendar will be announced tomorrow in advance.


A deep longing for the past drives my work, seeking to understand a history that was never mine. I was born in the third year of the Heisei era yet I am an interloper between time, constantly attracted to that which came before. My friends and I used to wander the backstreets of Tokyo looking for Showa jazz clubs and whiskey bars that never quite realized that their time was up. We derived meaning from half-forgotten anecdotes as if they were our own. I photographed old buildings and we all read even older books.

The present is not just the world as it is, but also the world as it was. I run my hand along a building or I walk down a street in those twilight hours and I see the things which came before: the form and the material, but also the struggle and the joy, the dreams and the hopes, and I photograph them.


Though the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are often spoken about, few would call its a turning point in the nation’s history, nor an icon of the new Japan.

I instead turned my lens to the past, to photograph the architecture of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the moment which many would argue Japan reentered the world stage as a peer. To see these buildings in the early morning light of summer as they had stood for over fifty years was profound.

The pillars of concrete and steel stretched to the sky with the dreams of modernity and a new Japan in mind. A nation came together to build not just stadiums, but a future. As time moves on many of the people who were there are no longer, but the buildings remain. Thus we can read the dream by reading the building.


I took this concept even further with my first photobook, Danchi Dreams. The Danchi apartment buildings which emerged in Japan in the 1960s revolutionized housing on a massive scale. Whereas a generation earlier had lived in wooden tinderbox houses in narrow alleyways, the people now had skyward cities of the future.

Photography for me is not about capturing moments, but about capturing places. My images are not a half-second exposure, they are a half-century.

But is it not a romanticization of the past?

Nobody, even those who were there, can lay claim to everything. The nuance of even one human lifetime is impossible to recite, but what can be decoded are the dreams which were shared by the people, the flows and larger motions that solidified into the very real buildings and places we see today.

Maybe it is exactly because I was not there, that I am a stranger in a strange land that it is my duty to tell the story of these places. It is up to me to divine meaning from steel and concrete into something human.

With the coming of this new era, whatever name it may bear, I see both an opportunity for a discussion and a reflection on what Heisei really meant. For us in the Heisei generation we have had very little time to even begin to make our mark, every single one of us are under the age of thirty-one, yet now the era is over.

I posit the challenge then: Do something. Break boundaries. Synthesize the old and the new. Reflect on the highs and the lows. Imagine a little. Heisei was not just what was said and done, but what was hoped and dreamed.

As for me? What do I think our monument to the future looks like?

I will let you know in about fifty years.


Cody Ellingham

DERIVECody Ellingham