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New life and old ghosts in Okinawa

by

Special To The Japan Times

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.

Left: Kokusai Dori in Naha is like Broadway in New York. You can find restaurants, shops, bars, music venues and boutiques. When I walk on busy streets like this, I shoot whoever is coming into my line of sight. The developed negatives are a virtual catwalk of anonymous people — I don
Left: Kokusai Dori in Naha is like Broadway in New York. You can find restaurants, shops, bars, music venues and boutiques. When I walk on busy streets like this, I shoot whoever is coming into my line of sight. The developed negatives are a virtual catwalk of anonymous people — I don’t know who they are, but I am still fascinated by them. Right: Looking outside the window on the flight from Naha to Ishigaki Island. The airplane was so tiny that I could see the propellers rotating shakily from my seat. This image was shot at the mid-point of the trip, so I don’t think that the island in the image is Ishigaki — perhaps it’s part of the Miyako island chain? | HIROYUKI ITO

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.

An old version of the future: Inside the ANA resort hotel near Manza Beach, where I stayed on Okinawa. The atmosphere at the hotel was very 1980s — futuristic in a Japanese way, like
An old version of the future: Inside the ANA resort hotel near Manza Beach, where I stayed on Okinawa. The atmosphere at the hotel was very 1980s — futuristic in a Japanese way, like ‘Blade Runner’ meets ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ | HIROYUKI ITO

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.

Left: A boy walks along Manza Beach, halfway up the main island of Okinawa. There was a vacationing Chinese family on the beach, but the boy isolated himself from the others, as if he was trying to listen to the ocean. Right: This guy pumped our gas on the drive south from Koza to Naha.
Left: A boy walks along Manza Beach, halfway up the main island of Okinawa. There was a vacationing Chinese family on the beach, but the boy isolated himself from the others, as if he was trying to listen to the ocean. Right: This guy pumped our gas on the drive south from Koza to Naha. | HIROYUKI ITO
Above left: A man stands outside Shuri Castle, the old palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The castle was shelled by Allied forces for three days during World War II. Above right: A flight attendant tries to shut an overhead compartment before takeoff on the plane from Ishigaki to Naha.
Above left: A man stands outside Shuri Castle, the old palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The castle was shelled by Allied forces for three days during World War II. Above right: A flight attendant tries to shut an overhead compartment before takeoff on the plane from Ishigaki to Naha. | HIROYUKI ITO
Farming on the coast: This wasn
Farming on the coast: This wasn’t actually a beach, it was near a cattle farm on Ishigaki. The farm has a tiny shop from which they sell hamburgers and ice creams, and people sit and eat them on a bench outside, enjoying the magnificent view. | HIROYUKI ITO

Hiroyuki Ito is a freelance photographer for The New York Times. These images and others are from “Japan,” which is available on Blurb.