A tribute to the women of ’70s Okinawa

Kyodo

Photographer Mao Ishikawa, whose work frequently depicts personal, political and racial intersections in her native Okinawa, has published a new volume revisiting her 1970s portraits of Japanese bar hostesses and U.S. servicemen near the Kadena Air Base.

“Red Flower: The Women of Okinawa” (“Akabana: Okinawa no Onna”), Ishikawa’s first book with a U.S. publisher, is a collection of 80 black-and-white photos taken from 1975 to 1977 when the photographer worked in bars frequented by African-American soldiers in the entertainment districts of Koza, now the city of Okinawa, and Kin.

“The original idea was taking photos of GIs (at the bars), but when I started I grew interested in the girls working there, and so this series includes more photos of them,” Ishikawa said at one of her New York events this spring marking the book’s launch.

Many of the collection’s images, described by Ishikawa in an artist statement as the most important photographs she took in her 20s, first appeared in the 1982 collaboration with Toyomitsu Higa, “Hot Days in Camp Hansen,” while others come from a trove of previously unpublished prints only recently discovered by Ishikawa’s daughter.

The photos are organized into five chapters in the new collection, which includes candid portraits of the Okinawan hostesses on the beach, in their homes and working at the bar, as well as images with their African-American boyfriends and the children of the relationships.

Ishikawa said she wanted to publish these photos in the United States at this time to help acknowledge the connection between the country and Okinawa, adding that she is “troubled” by the assumption or insinuation that her subjects were prostitutes.

“I became very angry because there was a line which somebody had written about my work (saying) that these were photos taken by a prostitute who had worked in Taira,” Ishikawa said, referring to the district within Koza where she started the project. “But it cannot be compartmentalized or represented in that way.”

“What is wrong with experiencing these relationships? What is wrong with loving African-Americans?” she said, echoing assertions from her artist statement that the hostesses were “living their lives to the fullest” and that “no one has the right to talk down” to them for working in military bars.

In discussing Ishikawa’s career at a launch event held at New York University, scholar and author Annmaria Shimabuku pointed out the “dissonance between the way Okinawan women articulate their lived reality and the totalizing nature of the categories” used to depict them as either sexually promiscuous or the victims of U.S. military personnel.

“Her photography is not a simplistic reproduction of reality that assumes the image can be captured in a static time and space,” Shimabuku said of the photographer, whose work reflects her own closeness to her subjects and a grasp of the political and psychological complexity of representing them in portraits.

Ishikawa, 64, first took up a camera in response to her experiences growing up between the end of the U.S. postwar occupation of Japan’s main islands in 1952 and the return of Okinawa to Japanese control in 1972, an interval when she says the prefecture felt like a “no man’s land” between its indigenous roots and the two former combatants.

“For the first 20 (or so) years of my life I continually asked myself, ‘Are we really Japanese? Are we really a part of the Japanese state? Why is it that we have so many U.S. military bases here in Okinawa?'” Ishikawa said. “I’m sure many in my generation asked the same questions.”

At age 22, she approached the military question by taking a job in a part of the entertainment district in Koza.

Ishikawa, who has previously noted her sympathy for African-Americans in light of the historically fraught relationship between native Okinawan or Ryukyuan people and the Japanese majority, challenged prevailing attitudes by dating black U.S. soldiers during her two years working in the area.

“The prejudice was mutual in a way,” Ishikawa said of relations between Okinawans — including her father, who disapproved of her relationships — and African-Americans, who sometimes regarded the island’s natives as unsophisticated compared to mainland Japanese.

Her intimate portraits of the hostesses and their boyfriends — some which might be considered risque — met with controversy upon publication for her 1982 debut collection in Japan, with the fallout resulting in many of Ishikawa’s photos from the time remaining unpublished until decades later.

“If I don’t put these photos out there, they will be lost forever and the memories and history behind them will also be lost,” she said.