Picturing Okinawa: The black and white of cultural identity

by Stephen Mansfield

Contributing Writer

Tracing the history of Okinawa as it is represented in the differing genres of experimental, documentary and portrait photography, inevitably leads to the abiding themes of identity, ethnicity and political posture.

Located on the outer periphery of the nation, Okinawa, a garrison island where people come to take their holidays, is not — and never has been — Japan proper. The late Masahide Ota (1925-2017), a former governor of Okinawa, insisted that its history was essentially “that of a poor ethnic group at the southernmost tip of the Japanese archipelago, expendable whenever national powers felt it necessary for their larger purposes.” Others put it more bluntly. The women’s activist and anti-base organizer, Suzuyo Takazato, characterized Okinawa as Japan’s “prostituted daughter.”

Such critical interpretations were far from the minds of Japanese painters who traveled to Okinawa in search of an island idyll, an innocence putatively lost in the mainland’s frenzy for advancement. European-style oil painting techniques were often applied to subjects deemed exotic. Even Okinawan artists such as Aijun Nadoyama (1906-1970) and Seikan Omine (1910-1987), drew from traditional subjects rendered in a style that recalls the work of Meiji Era (1868-1912), Paris-influenced painters.

Nadoyama’s portrait of a young woman in a white robe decorated with colorful local bingata (resist dye) motifs, her hair in the chignon associated with Okinawa, transforms an ordinary subject into an imagined model of primitive, nativist beauty: The racial and cultural rifts separating Okinawa and mainland Japan are represented but not examined.

If painters sought out the more luminous tones of the islands, photographers chose, in many instances, to convert its primary colors into inky, high-contrast studies. The images of Ihei Kimura (1901-74), many taken in Naha in 1935, may lack the compositional brilliance and formal correctness of his idol, Henri Cartier-Bresson, but they have a raw, first-encounter intensity.

Realistic depictions of Okinawa can be found in the photo archives of The Asahi Shimbun and The Okinawa Times newspapers. Seen primarily as transmitters of visual information, they are now valued as historical documents, a particularly precious resource as most photographic records were lost in the protracted Battle of Okinawa in 1945.

More recently, Okinawan press photographers continue to amass visual testimony to the unfolding events of their homeland. One such photographer is Hiroaki Yamashiro, a native of the island of Miyako, who was a member of the press team for the Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper. Among the images in his tellingly entitled 2013 exhibition, “42 Years of Turbulent Okinawa Captured by a Press Photographer,” are shots covering Okinawan resistance to American bases on the island and the Koza Riot in Dec. 1970, in which Okinawans attacked U.S. vehicles and personnel in an eruption of violence and frustration.

If photographs authenticate reality to an extent that text is unable to fully articulate, images taken by Shomei Tomatsu (1930-2012), depicting Okinawans going about their daily lives and dedicating themselves to sacred rituals, validate the view that aspects of the pre-modern world have survived in the islands. Tomatsu’s empathy for Okinawans, and his celebration of their distinct cultural identity is tempered by a critique of the Americanization and Japanese commercialism of the islands.

Photographers continue to be drawn to themes of identity, ethnicity and occupation. One of the most interesting photographers working today is Mao Ishikawa, an Okinawa native whose images have appeared in such prestigious venues as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Kunsthaus Graz in Austria. Rather than portray the captivating beauty of the islands, Ishikawa has been quoted as saying she decided to take pictures of “stinky old fishermen and laid-off hotel workers. Traditional actors. Filipino dancers and American soldiers.”

Working in segregated bars in U.S. base townships, she was able to interact with American servicemen and Okinawan hostesses, engaging with them as humans rather than merely photographic subjects. Despite her opposition to the base camps and resentment toward Tokyo’s sense of entitlement over her ancestral land, she recognizes the occupation as an inseparable part of the fabric of contemporary Okinawan life.

Her most recent book, “Red Flower: The Women of Okinawa,” focuses primarily on interracial relations between bar hostesses and African-American military personnel in the entertainment areas of Kin and Koza (the city of Okinawa) in the mid 1970s. Ishikawa has described the women in this book as, “flashy, free and strong at the core,” a view corroborated by images in which the subjects peer directly, without inhibition, at the camera. Ishikawa has expressed the view that the historical relations between Okinawans and the Japanese are very similar to those between black people and white people. On the subject of her own ethnicity, she affirms that she is “not Japanese but an Okinawan,” and it is from this firm cultural grounding that her photography draws strength and conviction.

My own trips to Okinawa have provided me with the opportunity to turn an artistic wheel full circle. An interest in photography began in the mid-’80s, when my exhibition on the City of the Dead, a massive cemetery in Cairo, where entire squatter families live, led to an interest in the Middle East, which took me to Lebanon to cover the civil war. All those images were conceived in monochrome. A later switch to color seemed irreversible, but Okinawa represents, more perhaps than any other region of Japan, stark social, political and visual dualities that lend themselves to monochromatic depiction.

Part of Japan but peripheral to it, Okinawa reminds photographers that it is now and in this world, for all its imperfections and fallibilities, that we must live and draw our imagery.