In downtown Tokyo, deep neon floods the office walls, but the color hues from the streetlights remain outside. Within, a single screen illuminates the room.
Japanese work culture is at an extreme. As the boundary between work hours and personal lives become murkier, the societal pressure to perform grows. As a result of this kind of workplace culture, a new stress-relieving practice has emerged. Introduced last year by a company named Ikemeso Danshi, women are able to hire men (referred to as Ikemeso’s) to come into their office and help alleviate their worries. Together, they watch a slideshow of touching videos and photos, the Ikemeso encourages the woman to share her feelings and cry, and then he wipes her tears away.
Reading about this concept online, photographer Albert Bonsfills felt an immediate draw to the subject, which he pursued with a trip to Tokyo. It was from there that he started to envision a series of images on the subject.
At first, integrating himself into the culture wasn’t easy, “because they didn’t want to give you permission, or show that they needed to cry,” he says. Eventually over the six months he spent photographing women using this service, it became easier. “I was a bit afraid even after I got their permission, because I didn’t want them to feel shy or too observed by a western guy taking pictures so close.”
In Tokyo Tears: Days to Nothing, Bonsfills offers a glimpse into this new trend. Through his lens we see a dark, murky environment, lit only by a screen filling the room with deep hues of magentas, blues, or greens. “I wanted to show the beauty of the offices and the buildings, and then mix it with the faces of these women to [create] this sense of claustrophobia,” he says. Comparing the aesthetic to films from the 1980s, Bonsfills’ images have an atmospheric sense of suspense to them.
The photographer’s goal is to reveal the darker underbelly caused by the workplace culture in Japan. “People create something that is not real. They have these dark parts and they don’t want others to know or see what’s really happening,” he says, “so with these photographs I wanted to show the balance between the beauty of their society and the effects of the pressure from work to be perfect.”
Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s International Photo Editor.