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.”

Ishikawa was tempted to give up her pursuit of photography but a scene she witnessed in November 1971 changed her life forever. At the time, the prefecture was due to be returned to Japan after more than two decades of U.S. rule and there were violent protests over plans to keep American military bases on Okinawa Island.

“I went along to one of the demonstrations with my friends. I saw an Okinawan policeman get hit by a bottle filled with gasoline.” Ishikawa brushes imaginary flames from her chest and echoes the gasps of the officer. “Chee. Chee. Chee. The policeman just lay down and died. I ran away crying. I ran and ran. Then I stopped to vomit at the side of the road. ‘Why do Okinawans fight Okinawans?’ I thought. ‘What can I do to teach Okinawans this history?’ That’s when I decided to become a photographer.”

At the age of 20, Ishikawa turned down her mother’s offer to buy her a kimono for her coming-of-age ceremony — and instead asked if she could use the money to study under the tutelage of Shomei Tomatsu, arguably one of Japan’s most influential postwar photographers, at Photographic Workshop Tokyo.

Her mother agreed, but during her time on mainland Japan, Ishikawa’s passion remained firmly rooted in Okinawa. After only three months in Tokyo, Ishikawa returned to her home island and decided to stay — lured back not by its eminently photogenic sea and beaches, but by the futsu no hito, the ordinary people.

“I decided to take pictures of stinky old fishermen and laid-off hotel workers. Traditional actors. Filipino dancers and American soldiers.”

Among the subjects sought out by Mao were those from around the island’s U.S. bases. “I was 22 and I wanted to take photographs of Americans. I realized the best way to do this was to go and work in a bar. So I just walked into one and asked for a job. I couldn’t speak any English but I was young and cute so the owner put me to work right away.”

For the next 2½ years, Ishikawa worked in the bars of the town of Kin and the city of Koza, taking photographs of American service members and the hostesses that poured them drinks. Her pictures from this time display a compassion and sense of fun rarely seen in the po-faced anti-Americanism evinced by many of her contemporaries.

“Other Okinawans make no effort to talk to the soldiers. But for me the soldiers are a part of Okinawa. The bases. The bars. This is all Okinawa. This is Okinawa’s story.”

As well as helping to frame Ishikawa’s all-embracing vision of her island, working in bars also cemented her unique approach to photography.

“I know humans are a very scary animal. At the same time they can be both beautiful and ugly. I like to watch both sides. That’s why first I like to meet them for a while before photographing them. Liking people makes me take photographs.”

This fascination with humanity propelled Ishikawa to Philadelphia in 1986 to visit Myron Carr — a former U.S. soldier she had met at the bars near the bases. During her two-month stay, Ishikawa photographed the daily lives of Carr’s family and friends. Compiled into a 132-photograph collection called “Life in Philly,” the shots capture scenes of sex, drugs and domestic disputes with a warmth made possible only by Ishikawa’s love of the subjects she photographs.

While the collection is perhaps the one best known by foreign fans of Ishikawa, it is a rare exception among her oeuvre, which has primarily focused on the people of Okinawa.

“I love Okinawan people. I know their bad sides and I’m not saying they’re perfect. But I have pride. I am proud to call myself an Okinawan.”

Along with many other Okinawan people, Ishikawa shares a sense of distrust toward Japan — the nation that sacrificed over a quarter of Okinawa’s civilian population in World War II and continues to impose the burden of U.S. bases on the island. Ishikawa’s introduction to her latest exhibition, “Here’s What the Japanese Flag Means to Me,” states, “I’m not Japanese but an Okinawan. I will live proudly as an Okinawan.”

In order to explore such contradictory attitudes toward Japan, between 1993 and 2011, Ishikawa handed out Japanese flags to people across the length and breadth of the nation — as well as in Europe, Taiwan and South Korea — and asked them to show her what they thought of it. The resulting 184 photographs, 42 of which make up the show, are full of the darkness, eroticism and humor so characteristic of all Ishikawa’s photography. Rightwing toughs stand beneath a framed flag in the cramped foyer of their Tokyo office. An expat Japanese woman pins a tiny flag to a map of Japan she’s molded from steamed rice on her kitchen table in London. A young Korean man punts a Hinomaru-wrapped football toward the camera.

Except during New Year’s and sporting events, it used to be rare to see the Japanese flag displayed on the nation’s streets. After the March 11 earthquake, however, the sight became more common — often accompanied by a gutsy slogan such as “Nippon wa hitotsu. Ganbarou!” (“Japan is one. Never give up!”)

Ishikawa finds this use of the flag troubling. “Of course we should all help Tohoku. But the idea that Japan is one people reminds me of wartime propaganda. Japan has so many races. Ainu. Okinawan. Korean-Japanese. There is so much different blood in Japan, but people’s thinking is slow to change.”

With plans to take the exhibition, “Here’s What the Japanese Flag Means to Me,” to Tokyo next spring, Ishikawa will be able to see firsthand whether her collection encourages mainland Japanese to reconsider their own attitudes toward their country.

Despite Ishikawa’s complex feelings toward the flag and the nationalism it often represents, the show ends on a very optimistic image: In the dining room of their home, a young Japanese couple proudly show off their 2-week-old son swaddled in the national flag.

“It was so cold in their house that I had to take that picture really quickly before he started to cry,” recalls Ishikawa with a smile — final proof indeed that this is a photographer who brings a sorely needed human touch, combined with a sense of humor, to even the most divisive of social issues.

Details of Mao Ishikawa’s upcoming exhibitions can be found at: maoishikawa.ti-da.net

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.