The Secret Dancing Rockabillies of Shibuya, Tokyo

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Harajuku City Gang by Phil Dunlop
Harajuku City GangPhotography by Phil Dunlop

Photographer Phil Dunlop discovered one of Tokyo's best kept secrets when he took to Japan with his camera

Every Sunday in Yoyogi Park, a vast expanse of green in the midst of Shibuya, Tokyo, a group of Japanese rock and roll enthusiasts gather and dance to rockabilly tunes. With their hair teased into quiffs worthy of an appearance in Grease and clad in leather and denim, the Tokyo Rockabilly Club have been dancing together at the end of each week for 30 years. When photographer Phil Dunlop ventured to Japan he was not yet aware of this unique style subculture. “I was there for a bit of a holiday and travel, just looking to shoot some personal work out there,” he tells AnOther over the phone. “The thing about Tokyo is that there are such rich subcultures and so much individuality shown in dressing. Someone told me about these rockabillies who dance in Yoyogi Park, so I went there and shot them.”

Dunlop spent an afternoon photographing the Tokyo Rockabilly Club, images that now form a series he has entitled Harajuku City Gang after a slogan he spotted on one of the dancers’ T-shirts. The series comprises black and white photographs of the dancers from a voyeur’s perspective, a subtle yet revealing look at this singular practice. Each shot communicates the enduring energy and fervour that the Tokyo Rockabilly Club evidently still harbours; indeed, Dunlop was quick to point out that it’s becoming somewhat of a generational activity. “I looked them up online and found pictures with the same guy who’s featured in my shots but looking about 15 years younger – you can see some of the men in my images are a bit older and now it looks like they’re passing it on to their kids.”

It was the unexpected nature of the Tokyo Rockabilly Club’s presence that drew Dunlop in. “You wouldn’t have thought that the American 1950s rock and roll culture had been taken up in Japan, but it has,” he says. “Style subcultures are something that I’m really interested in, especially the way they have this uniformity to them.” Uniformity is key to Harajuku City Gang; Dunlop’s images hone in on the precise details of each dancer, from the perfect slick of their duck’s tail hair to the tattered denim that hangs around their ankles. On another afternoon you might find them dressed head to toe in leather, always maintaining a crucial group aesthetic. Dunlop credits Yoyogi Park’s location in Tokyo’s famous Harajuku area as influencing the emergence of this and other style subcultures in Japan’s capital. “Yoyogi is very close to Harajuku, so it’s kind of situated in this fashion district that fosters distinct style”. Here's hoping they’ll still be there in decades to come.