Local photographer captures 42 years of Okinawa

by Toshiki Makino

Kyodo

Okinawan photographer Hiroaki Yamashiro has captured his prefecture’s culture, nature and the struggle of its people against the U.S. military presence for more than four decades.

The culmination of those years is now on view at the Japan Newspaper Museum in Yokohama.

The 64-year-old former lensman for the Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper is holding an exhibition of his work through Aug. 18.

The show is titled “Hodo Cameraman ga Mita Gekido no Okinawa 42 Nen” (“42 Years of Turbulent Okinawa Captured by a Press Photographer”).

Yamashiro said that while growing up on Miyako Island, where he was born and lived through high school, he never had to experience the hardships endured by people on the main island of Okinawa, where the U.S. military presence has been concentrated.

“Miyako Island was replete with nature and I was never disturbed by the U.S. base issue, unlike people on the main island,” he said.

But in 1970, a year after Yamashiro entered Okinawa University and took up photography, Okinawans protested violently over the presence of U.S. military installations in what used to be Koza and is now the city of Okinawa.

He said that while taking photos of the incident he was exposed for the first time to the resentment and struggle of “Uchina” (as Okinawans call themselves) against the U.S. military.

Yamashiro then decided to become a photographer for the local newspaper.

In the more than four decades since, Okinawa has seen dramatic developments, including the construction of highways and a monorail.

“If you look at the surface, Okinawa may seem to have become richer,” Yamashiro said. “But these things are already the case in (mainland Japan), while vast U.S. military facilities remain in Okinawa. Nothing has changed.”

Citing the deployment, despite Okinawan opposition, of MV-22 Osprey aircraft at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Yamashiro said that the central government has little understanding of what Okinawans really hope for. The controversial aircraft, as well as the base itself, have long been the source of opposition.

Despite the exhibit’s title, however, many of the photos show Okinawa’s traditional culture, nature and animals, such as hand tattoos called “Hajichi” once worn by local women, and the dugong, a large marine mammal surviving in seas around Okinawa.

“I’m not sure how great an effect such photos of nature will have, but it would be my pleasure if people (in mainland Japan) appreciate our unique culture and understand the heart of Okinawa,” he said.

“The natural environment of the islands is the origin of my photography, and it will be my life’s work to continue taking photos of it,” he said.