Struth had met Hideo and Keiko Shimada whilst Hideo was a student of Gotthard Graubner at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Shimada had an agreement with his father that when he was thirty years old he would return to Yamaguchi to work in the family company. Following their return to Japan, they decided to keep in touch with contemporary art by opening a gallery. At their suggestion, Struth sent them some contact sheets of his street photographs. They immediately sent back a postcard inviting him to make an exhibition—already proposing the date for the opening on April 14, 1986!
Struth spent three weeks in Yamaguchi, where the exhibition at the Shimada Gallery took place, then one week in Kyoto and one week in Tokyo. Japan offered an opportunity for Struth to extend further his project to photograph urban structures and space. He made a first group of work in Japan that he considered to be of interest, in the district of Shinjuku in Tokyo in 1986, picking up on some of the pictorial devices he had used in New York and in Europe. At the same time, he recognised that working in Japan necessitated a further loosening of a systematic approach to picture making.
Struth’s 1986 visit to Japan made a profound impact. It was his first experience of a culture based on a belief system other than Christianity. “I’ve always been very conscious of the formative forces at work on my own personal development. I was brought up as a Catholic and was a regular churchgoer until around the age of fourteen, when I began to question the structure of the Church. The social aspect of the religious ritual was interesting, but the experience of going to confession made me aware of how the experience was organised to produce anxiety and control. (…)
“For a visual artist, the gaze is critical. And the gaze has to do with the distance between your own entity and what is in front of you. The pronounced cultural distance of Japan from Europe, the unfamiliarity of my experience there, helped me to arrive at a more precise observation and understanding of my own culture.”