Naoya Kudo has always had a zest for fashion. His closets burgeon with brand items bought across Tokyo or online and his clothing rods regularly buckle under the weight, spilling countless items to the floor. To solve this issue, he gathers pieces he doesn’t need any more to sell them onwards and make more space at home.

Just before Golden Week this year, he was faced with another uncontrollable closet situation, and decided, on a whim, that he would send some clothes up north to his hometown in Akita before selling them. There, he would ask his 85-year-old grandfather Tetsuya to wear a few items while he took some photos. Little did he know that his “silly whim” would end up a viral sensation in the form of Silver Tetsuya (stylized SLVR. TETSUYA), the fashion-savvy grandpa.

“Since Golden Week this year was especially long, I decided to head up to my hometown in Akita for the first time in a long while. It was just a fun project to do with my grandpa while I was there. I didn’t put any more thought into it than that. I gave my granddad a call to let him know I was sending up a big box of clothes and asked him if he didn’t mind playing along. At first he was really surprised and asked, ‘What? Why?’ but as soon as I was there taking photos and he got changed, he was surprisingly into it. We had a lot of fun together,” Kudo says.

“I gave my granddad a call to let him know I was sending up a big box of clothes and asked him if he didn’t mind playing along”

“Before we started shooting, I expected the photos to be comical. I figured that the disconnect between an old man in the countryside and high fashion you’d normally see in magazines would be interesting in a silly way. But as soon as my granddad put on the first set of clothes, I saw they really suited him. So instead of having him smiling in the photos I had him look a bit serious.”

Apparently, that was the only direction Grandpa – who would soon be called Silver by his neighbors once the project went viral – needed. He took the lead, guiding his grandson around the garden and asking him to take a picture with a camellia tree: “Because it was planted when I was born.” Together they explored the area near the family home, where Kudo grew up and lived up until he was 18 when he moved to Tokyo for university. Within the space of just two days they took photos by the Japan Sea – a stone’s throw away from the house – and a local shrine that they visited together when Kudo was younger, all while talking about old memories and stories from the region.

Their short collaborative project caught the attention of people worldwide. Kudo, whose day job is an advertising planner, is no stranger to having his work seen by large audiences, but this was the first time a personal project of his gained such traction.

He started the SLVR. TETSUYA Instagram account in early May 2019. Less than six months later, he has more than 135,000 followers – more than half of them based abroad.

“In Japan, the word silver is often used to mean the elderly, like ‘silver seats’”

The name came to Kudo easily. He explains: “In Japan, the word silver is often used to mean the elderly, like ‘silver seats’ [designated seats on buses and trains for elderly passengers] or silver discounts at movies and so on. Also, I thought the combination of silver and my granddad’s first name, Tetsuya, had a cool ring to it. As it goes on, I want it to be a friend or ally for the elderly.”

As for referring to the account’s followers as students, this was a direct connection to Kudo’s family roots. His grandfather, retired for many years now, was a schoolteacher, principal and even an official of the board of education. In fact, Kudo’s whole family consists of teachers. He even went to the same junior high school where his grandfather was principal at one point.

But what does the “real” Tetsuya, who spends his days gardening and tending to his field, think of the whole “internet fame” thing? Kudo says, “My grandad doesn’t really know how to use the internet so he didn’t have any idea of what was going on at first. But as soon as the photos started gaining attention online, our local newspaper in Akita covered the story. That’s how my grandpa found out about it, as well as his neighbors. They started calling him Silver instead of Tetsuya because of it.”

“My grandad doesn’t really know how to use the internet so he didn’t have any idea of what was going on at first”

Kudo says that as far as he’s concerned, his goals for the project have been reached. It was a personal endeavor to create memories with a family member he cherishes dearly. In September, Kudo hosted an exhibition of his photos in Tokyo and invited his grandfather to see it. It was held to coincide with Respect for the Aged Day and was, in part, a surprise gift for Tetsuya. A video of the former teacher gazing at blown-up images of himself and chatting happily in indecipherable Akita dialect is heartwarming and available to see online via the Slvr Tetsuya website. Many of Tetsuya’s old students make an appearance as well. (Warning: have tissues at the ready.)

Kudo is playing with the idea of conducting similar projects in Japan or even abroad, though he can’t share specifics just yet. He’d also like to explore his Akita roots further.

“I’ve begun to realize there is more meaning behind it all”

“I didn’t really have a bigger purpose when I first started this project but as more people react to it, I’ve begun to realize there is more meaning behind it all. Especially in Japan, younger people may view the elderly with concern, as elderly care becomes more of an issue. It feels a little condescending and there’s an excessive focus on ‘othering.’ When I decided to take these photos, it wasn’t something I was doing for my granddad. It was something fun I wanted to do with him. We were on an equal footing, with neither of us looking down on or looking up to each other. It would be great if more young people could look elderly people in the eye and find something they enjoy doing together.”

As for the status of Kudo’s closet, the original inspiration for the project, it seems to have taken a backseat. “It’s gotten even worse than before. After ordering sample T-shirts for the web store I have even more piles of clothing at home. One of my closet rods collapsed just this morning again.”