Situated alongside a rundown strip club and a tailor's store that sews screaming eagles onto the backs of military jackets, Gallery Rougheryet in the city of Okinawa might well scare away potential artists — but not Mao Ishikawa. Dressed in a bright red Spiderman T-shirt and gold sandals, the 58-year-old greets guests to the gallery with a big smile and a bawdy "Welcome to my cabaret!"

Ishikawa has every reason to be happy. This is the opening day of her photography exhibition, "Here's What the Japanese Flag Means to Me," and guests have come from as far afield as Tokyo and Sapporo to meet Ishikawa — one of Okinawa's most celebrated photographers. With 13 books to her name and photography sales to some of Japan's top galleries, her works have been displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Kunsthaus Graz in Austria.

However, Ishikawa is quick to admit that her initial forays into photography were less than promising. "I first picked up a camera when I was 16 years old at a school photography club meeting. My shots were dark and shaky. Not good at all."