I had two images of Okinawa before I visited: One was of a tropical paradise with beautiful beaches; the other, of isolated islands inhabited by strong characters that don’t take any nonsense from the Japanese government or the U.S. military.
Arriving at the airport in Naha sort of reminded me of the moment when I arrived at the airport in Managua. The air outside was humid and wet, but it wasn’t unpleasant; it welcomed me and hugged my skin — I felt good.
This was my first trip to Okinawa and I spent eight days on the islands with my wife. On a five-week trip last summer I photographed Japan from Hokkaido to Kyushu, but didn’t have enough time to visit Okinawa. I wanted to travel to the island chain this year to complete my “Japan” photobook.
But let’s face it; I wasn’t on assignment for Newsweek, photographing the tensions over the U.S. bases, I was on vacation with my wife! Everything was easy and relaxed, and I had a great time taking pictures everywhere we went.
I get a child-like joy when photographing and people tend to forgive me for entering their personal space. I don’t have a concept when I’m shooting. Like the Bob Dylan song “Tangled Up in Blue,” the only thing I know how to do is to “keep on keepin’ on” — I keep on shooting blindly, hoping to hit something by accident.
One photographer I admire who also shot Okinawa is the late Shomei Tomatsu. I think his “Chewing Gum and Chocolate” series is tremendous. The photographs are beautiful but he was also questioning something we would often rather not think about: What kind of democracy can we have under the U.S. Occupation? I don’t dare ask such a question with my photography; asking something like that takes a hell of a lot of courage. And I wasn’t really on the island long enough to work on addressing such big issues.
I was surprised to see so many young couples from Tokyo starting businesses in Okinawa. It reminded me of Hawaii where many young people have moved from the U.S. mainland to start their lives anew. Many of the couples I met in Naha were happy and energetic, but some of them looked tired and disillusioned.
Part of the reason why I also wanted to come here was because my late father loved Okinawa, especially Kume Island where he fished for tuna. We never had a chance to come to Okinawa together, but it was a special moment for me to feel the island’s water on my feet and soak in the sunlight where he enjoyed himself most. I instantly felt an affinity for this isolated, humid version of Japan.
Hiroyuki Ito is a freelance photographer for The New York Times. These images and others are from “Japan,” which is available on Blurb.