“Tokyo in the Underbrush”: ArtsWeek

Pictures and poems from Japan’s bubble years…

In January, 1987 I graduated from Lehigh University with a B.A. in journalism. By the first week of March I was in Tokyo, Japan to start my first real adult job and the rest of my life. I was 23 years and two months old, and had decided I wanted adventure instead of an entry-level stateside newspaper job. So through some business contacts of my father’s I secured an entry-level marketing position with an American information services company in Tokyo.


What I present to you here are poems and photographs I created while living and working in Tokyo in 1987 and 1988. All the images are of Tokyo drunks and homeless people because, at the time, I was naïve and couldn’t believe this aspect of Japanese society existed. I felt I had to document it.

Poverty and homelessness still persist in Japan, of course, and through some strange twists of fate I resumed documenting Tokyo street life four years ago. This has resulted in a book I’m trying to get published called “Tokyo Panic Stories.” You can see samples my recent Tokyo work here and here.

So please enjoy this 28 year-old folio of words and images. And keep in mind that while I make no apologies for the quality of the poetry (I am actually still pleased with some of it), the poems were written by a man less than half his current age of 52 years. Also note that each photo is paired with the text right beneath it, and click any image to see it full-size.

Tokyo in the Underbrush


Akihabara—May, 1988

Humor of the ‘surd

When you stare straight ahead, people love you. They use that stare as a guide rope to the smooth underside of a city. Then they talk to the loops of themselves, whipping about their hair to combine, crashing, at the bus stop.

And they can fill their cold capsules with beer. Large beer capsules, to claim they are no longer the child who loved Star Wars.

People who seem to breathe when they should not. They exhale and breathe more, and soon the mixture is not air. One can see through it, yet it blocks the pores like a bad handshake.

Some say there are valleys because mountains trip and fall. Or, proportionately, there are potholes.



Ueno Station—May, 1988

A bruised and side-tracked equinox

My body is hot, though my brain won’t feel it. Hot nerve flashes scale like firemen up my neck gathering to swim where my jellied thoughts collect.

I trip the crust of the curb. A fine Goodyear necklace forms the halo for the ghosts of my hands, I dream. In the way my toes wriggle, there is the hint of the prehensile, of the old way of walking.

I think of all those grimy seasons, the sun singing “I am the Queen of Anonymity” to me. Hard luck pressed to bad. The cowboys are weeping tonight between some snowflakes and the blue Ueno fog.

These manholes are the holes in the lute of Earth. My heat, xenophobes killing xenomorphs. There is a tangible future; I know others will be born.

And for them, heaven should be renamed.



Ueno Station—May, 1988

Varmint Burgundy

Cool metal. Bent metal aluminum siding. Shiny, warped, and reflecting the street beacon in the shape of a 6. Metal warped with head impressions; perhaps the heads were Cambodian. The Cambodians of Rio, where I have lived for many years. They learned from Pol Pot to take small bites, as people do on T.V.

So come those crushed in my crackers, denting my house, those green in the salad of the Earth. I pray to some monochrome muddy that I do not go to the moon and marry.



Akihabara Station—June, 1988

When one feels low, go where the low go

At times, I must lean against the refrigerator and think. That is all, and whether boiling bleach makes chlorine gas, I wonder. I have too many bugs, too much video tape. And a mass in my mean body that takes a protectorate form. For once, this grunt of a wicked rainbow makes you laugh.

What else; the clock and what it represents do not impress me. Just as time is rubber, so are intentions. The way today’s rain falls sounds as if the earth was frying.

And it makes some think the lives we make are fit sculpture for some men’s lavatory. Weeks of wood can not build this, or centuries of fire burn it. So I disagree, but not so hot, or feeble, to faze a sternly casual method. I should leave them, perhaps you, to “When something wants to eat something, What does it do?”

An eye drifting from the TV to the wallpaper told me about this. And more, of your earth-son domus and shamed elastic, and changing the channel with a brick.



Mikimoto Rat (Keiseiueno)—June, 1988

Venison Love

You call me dear. Is this because you love me? Or, have I misspelled it? Do you view me just really as meat? A 6-point prize to be hunted?

Shot? Skinned? Bonnet-slung?

Dressed up and….eaten?



Ueno Park—June, 1988


“Organic lifelessness refracts light” to an old man coughing lovely luminous vapor trails in the park. He tells this to a pretty woman, who, in the process of describing trousers as “pyants,” does not listen to him.

He coughs up the nervous laugh of the aged, dumps his head upon his duffle and sleeps. Distantly, there ring slide guitar chords made using a finger inserted in a hip-flask bottle.

They sing.



Ueno Park—August, 1988

Terrible Clichés

If there were cocaine in the Bisquick, do you think we’d live better lives? Really? Let us be intelligent about this; let’s pretend we’ve read Newton’s Principia. Sometimes, you, well, maybe not, however, you know, I feel like crying.

I’ll run my fingers through my hair and wish it was yours. Yet you wonder if the sun will be brilliant tonight. You wonder if your gun is loaded. And you wonder if the cat’s water dish is full.

I haven’t read much since college. Yet, I’ve read enough prostitute cards in smog-coffin Tokyo phone booths to know: love’s harbinger, lust, is alive and welcome if you’ve an 80-minute coffee break. But, there are certain things you care nothing about. There are certain things I object to. Why are they the same things?

Tomorrow, if my love hits you between the eyes, don’t say “Love hit me between the eyes.” It’s a terrible cliché.



Okachimachi—August 1988

Quietly sinking with the Japanese sun (written in Kamiya Bar, Asakusa)

Some electrolytic brandy, and the brain’s synapses change and lose voltage, like a battery, sparking of its own chemical volition. We change this way, and we squeak.

Remember, John Wayne proclaimed some liquids unfit for the young. Here, an older crowd; here, a louder loud. Boot tips, and teeth grinding the edge of some brandy glass.

When poured, brandy has its own inertia. This is a fact. This is a physical law. Yet, why need the real be basis for delusions? Or impressions? Like ball-point lines. Or bad polaroids, fading in the street, matching road shade, road texture. Yet, sitting in this pit any room you climb up into seems infinite, no matter its size.

Here, cigarettes burn down, strand by strand, their flames scorching lengths of RNA. I could be other places, to be warm and alone; perhaps the street.

I am cold, reading utopian literature, in a long, cylindrical chamber A cold chamber, heating slowly. I think it is the barrel of a gun. Once more, I sip brandy.



Sanya—July, 1988

The grade-Z cast of thousands

Pride, diplomacy; they are not wasted in empty wheat fields. Out there. It’s where the bearded winds sing the slalom music, the careening scherzo of life. Upon such music: a spirit.

The Melancholy Marabou Stork. He airlifts sadness so sweet, it leaves sugar burns with the tongue. From the tongue it takes words, leaving them scattered at the toes to dry with other empty wheat husks.

With each monolog a husk pyre forms, until the night. Then, a match applied warms the cool, hard soul ‘til next morning.



Sanya—August, 1988

On an Alabama road in the dead of 10 a.m.

The sun bakes the wetness in my eyes into a sugary dome that I saw Julia Child put upon a dessert once. It is a natural contact lens I peel off with a paring knife when I am not dodging meteors.

I look at the backs of my hands; they contain charred fleshy nexuses, like I was Christ-vampire-incarnate crucified with spikes of sunlight. At the tip of my tongue, some Velcro, which I use to strip the petals from a bluebonnet.

It is the free slope of the morning; the point from which the day’s time curves down Einstein’s extended index. The point from which discreet time quanta will add up to the point of the next morning on a hill several miles from here.

Far. In a county named after a dog, where each blade of grass is registered in the county seat, as the officials have precious little else to do.



Sanya shōtengai—July, 1988

The Unpublished Poets of Tokyo

The unpublished poets bend in the breeze; reeds in a pond. Ducks eat them. Bigger things eat the ducks. The poets mildew in the canyons of Tokyo, where crows bleached in soot whitewash dying brambles.

Is brambles the correct word? The unpublished poets take the dictionaries from beneath their oily heads, street pillows, and page … xenophobia, autodidact, ah, here … yes. The poets eat the bones of their procrustean kin.

Others, too, have stopped by. Poets toothpick their pens, flicking bones, and write sloppy words to Japan’s shoe leather orchestra. It is no symphony; it’s a water ballet.

The unpublished poets tread water all day.



Drunk in Sanya—August, 1988

Alleys are homes to our greatest unknowns

My flesh is parched and broken from the cigarette I put out in my palm. It was curious to’ve done such a thing, I know; but for agony, alleys are best. To scream in, to sit in, and chew the bubble-gum bits before gangrene sets in.

This, then, is concrete, polished with dust. A banquet of oil and rubber beneath my shoes. Fitting food for my king of the feast, who can afford to die slowly as cancer’s camp ground yet cannot afford an ashtray.

A creamy socket of lymph stares at me like an eyeball in the bishop’s stigmata. Twenty meters from the curb. There, walk-and-pass women walk and pass, themselves nude in the eyes of the men with the rabbit-skull cuff links

There, sun. Rising, spreading Sunday’s hungover glow. From school, I remember the plane preposition test as a jet passes above. flying from that cloud to another. Planes jot the sky’s water vapor island.

Day #8576. Wakeup. I wonder if I can step on every crack when I walk downtown home.



Shinjuku—September, 1988

A strange, provocative solution (excerpt from a diary)

If more people lived in the street, there would be fewer street people; because an increased number of persons inhabiting the street would create a climate in which street residence would be more acceptable, by virtue of its prevalence.

Therefore, there would be less of a stigma attached to being a street person. Gradually, it would become acceptable; gradually, there would be fewer ‘street people’ in the negative, social commentary sense because living in the street would be no more objectionable than living in the suburbs.

People will always be a mélange of jerks, geniuses and slick pederasts; but if more of us live in the street, we can, by virtue of making an unacceptable situation acceptable, solve a great social malaise.



Shinjuku sidewalk—September, 1988

The discreet rainbow lady

Teeth, and beige silk, molded into fine oriental dentures. Such things are worn by women who snore. She’s one; my Bencliffia. A saltpeter heiress. Controller, mixer of disconcerted realities, she’ll say “The beginning and end product’re cheap; it’s their transition that’s expensive.”

Silver eyed; onyx irised. She moves the way liquid in a shaking bottle sounds. “They are a noise, they are one life,” She says, as she moves. She says and she moves a lot.

Almost never in unison, though.



Sanya—October, 1988


Edgar Allen Poe is dead and I don’t have the energy to danse like the bones of Christ along the power lines at dawn. Not like I used to.

No one could plant a bullet, as I have, only to see roots of red attack squirrels as the plant matured. Seems Mars is for rent. I’m going. I’d like a room with a view for once. All that …. red soil.

No need to cover the wounds of the dead. So, there are no cheaper imitations of plastic, are there? Let it speak for itself. I can’t; I have splinters on my tongue from talking to trees too long.

This breeze is good. So good. It penetrates every molecule, for there is no blood to block it.



Ueno Park—October, 1988

Wino Christmas

We can chew on the bread of a Yakuza wife and become parodies of our own physiognomy. Like prisoners at Corsica we may spend our leisure converting rural tools for urban wilderness.

Perhaps you’ve found waters of coveted rivers refreshing. Such liquids make us ill. We prefer whiskey, for a spinal block. We are the phantoms of language who spurn the dance of the affected poseurs in subway clothing ads.

To wit, we are greasy freedom in tune with the beagle years. We spew walrus, and we use you and that makes us feel ok.



Sanya—October, 1988

Blade Runner Tuesday

The sweet fibers of the beer that ails me. The mask of the face that kills me. At war with god, the tequila oak leaves kiss me. Biting a macaroon, the tight fangs who know I goad next week’s hounds smile in the weeds with the intelligence of those who don’t comprehend stupidity. I grip the hands of the Sanskrit poets who wrote me.

To ask god for greatness is to blame another for failure. The woof of the flame, it taunts me. I smile there, through the library of the dead. Mozart’s skull, I…. a brouhaha and a homily.

The cold cotton pits that jail me. I attend the three-fold mass for the gods of the rainy bus-stop. I wear those cellophane clothes; they never fit me. On these frequent days, I sip bombast cocktails and elude great ideas.



Asakusa (near Kamiya Bar)—September, 1988

Greta Garbo

There is a ring on my hand. It is made of Strontium 90 because I am anti-social.

Most people do not interest me, most contacts do not arouse me. But, for you, the ring is tragic; it dissolves my hands, the ones I once did, and still long to, touch you with.

It is a price, the glow, that is too high for me to stop paying now.



King Subway (Tokyo Station)—October, 1988


Walk. Walk amongst the people. Make no sound as you walk.

Walk light, step bright and ghostly kiss the passers-by. Here. Hear the sounds of their step. Pound their hearts with the aura of your love. Watch the waves of ochre sound.

They love you and they need you and they don’t know you exist.

You walk through them. Your blood cells and theirs shake hands. You kiss every forehead. You own ever fiber of their suits and their jewelry. You own every crowd. You are a harvester of chaste souls, of buttery blood vessels.

You are what you need them to think you to be. You are something I see without you seeing me.



Ueno Park Son—October, 1988

Urban poem

Rudy went to the gas station

bought three gallons

went home

lit a match

and burned.


Author’s note: These poems and photographs were originally exhibited at Lehigh University in the Spring of 1989. In 2008 the photographs only were published in issue 57 of the now defunct Giant Robot magazine. Scholars and Rogues published this work in 2011, before I was made a regular contributor. And few years ago “Tokyo in the Underbrush” was available as an Amazon Kindle book, and it may be again. In the meantime, if you’d like a PDF copy of it send me a note using the email link on my bio page.

3 replies »

  1. I’m still not entirely sure how to categorize this piece, but as I said in my preview note the other day, the nice thing about being us is that we don’t have to worry about labels.

    Fantastic work. Thanks for sharing it with our readers.

  2. Deeply moving; had no idea this phenomenon exists. Not so different from U.S. homeless actually. I’m old enough to remember when there were almost none in the U.S., or New York City, anyway.

  3. I’m very pleased that Mr. Smith has seen fit not only to publish my work, but to lavish such praise upon it. I’m going through one of those phases in middle age where I am attempting to break away from the habits of my old professions and invent myself anew. Getting such exposure and praise for my old work is personally inspiring, and is giving me the confidence to proceed with my vision of a more creatively satisfying and rewarding second half of my life.

    And to all of you who have looked at my work and enjoyed it, and perhaps even told others about it, I can’t thank you enough for your time and attention.