Feminist charts no-woman's-land between peaceniks and the SDF

by Monty Dipietro

On Sept. 3 and 4 this year, soldiers at a Ground Self-Defense Force base in Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu were joined by an improbable guest: Japan’s premier feminist and antiwar artist, Yoshiko Shimada.

Maybe the GSDF didn’t realize what they were getting into, as the visit was arranged through the auspices of the new Kumamoto City Museum of Contemporary Art. In any case, Shimada was allowed to tour and videotape the base. She focused on the women who serve in the GSDF — a cheery, robust group in battle fatigues whose days are spent marching, driving military vehicles and firing big anti-aircraft guns.

“Women in Camouflage,” a 15-minute video document of Shimada’s stay at the base, forms part of her new exhibition of the same name, now showing at the Ota Fine Arts gallery in Shibuya.

The video was first screened at the Oct. 12 opening of the Kumamoto museum, but when GSDF officials (by this time aware of Shimada’s slant on things militaristic) found out that she intended to show it at Ota, the red tape came out. If she wanted to show the piece in a different prefecture, said the GSDF, then new approval would have to be given. Shimada, confident that she owns the rights to the work, has gone ahead and included it in her current exhibition without that approval.

“So, as I don’t really have proper permission to be screening this,” the artist said (smirking) at her opening last weekend, “the GSDF just might come storming into the gallery at any moment.”

A laughable proposition, perhaps, especially since “Women in Camouflage” does not portray the female soldiers in a negative light. But up on the Ota’s opposite wall, Shimada is showing a second 15-minute video, “Girls Against War,” which comprises archival battle footage; a performance Shimada did at the Kumamoto museum, in which she stands before images of the atom-bomb cloud, her head covered by a thick black veil, and interviews members of a Kyoto University-based female students’ and antiwar alumni group.

The juxtaposition of these two videos addresses not only the participation of women in the military, but also the popular portrayal by women’s peace groups of war as an exercise in macho head-butting.

Shimada points out that almost anything that might be regarded as public protest in Japan requires official approval, and when the thrust of the protest comes up against the very officials responsible for issuing this approval — in this case the GSDF — permission can be difficult to obtain. So the video in question remains, well, “semi-pirated.”

Shimada, 43, is all too familiar with the protocols of dissent in Japan. While the vast majority of contemporary artists here eschew controversy in favor of a phantasmagoric aesthetic of cuteness, she has built an oeuvre based on issues such as the plight of Koreans abducted by the Japanese military during the 1920s and ’30s, wartime sex slaves (euphemistically referred to in Japan as “comfort women”), the Japanese Imperial system and the emancipation of women.

What I find particularly interesting about this new work is the openmindedness of the treatment. Rather than advancing a hard-and-fast feminist antiwar doctrine, “Women in Camouflage” forces the viewer into the gray area between the military and antiwar women who appear on either side of the gallery. Shimada notes that while many in the Kyoto peace group are well-educated, a persisting bias against females in the workplace, combined with the current economic woes, has made it difficult for them to find meaningful work in the private sector. Hence she is reluctant to criticize the women who have made the choice to serve in the SDF.

“Is it possible,” she asks, “to change the male-dominated military culture from within?”

Born in western Tokyo near what was then the Tachikawa military base (since relocated to Yokota), Shimada earned her B.A. in art from Scripps Women’s College in California. She then spent several years living and working in Germany before returning to Japan determined to make socially-relevant art that transcended what she terms “the cliche that work is an expression of the artist’s inner self.”

Initially shunned by the Japanese art establishment, Shimada got a break five years ago when the New York Public Library bought two of her 1993 etchings, “Balloon Bomb, Rising Sun” and “House of Comfort.” With the support of the intrepid Ota, one of Tokyo’s best contemporary art spaces, Shimada has seen her stock rise in recent years to the point where she is now one of the most important artists in Japan. If the authorities do come in and close “Women in Camouflage,” she will only become more important.