Shomei Tomatsu, Daido Moriyama, Takuma Nakahira, Araki, Keizo Kitajima… the list of photographers who have worked in Japan’s Okinawa prefecture—a group of sub-tropical islands to the southwest of mainland Japan—is long. Okinawa has become a kind of photographic rite of passage for Japanese photographers over the past fifty years and it is easy to understand why. Stretching out from the island of Kyushu all the way to Taiwan, this chain of islands is known for its extraordinary natural beauty, which attracts many. Others are interested in the vibrant culture and traditions of the region, which are so different from those of mainland Japan. But the biggest draw for photographers has been Okinawa’s relationship with the United States and the significant continued US military presence since the Second World War. However, unlike most of the photographers that have worked in the region, Mao Ishikawa was born and raised in Okinawa and has devoted her photographic career to her native islands.
Born in 1953, Mao Ishikawa began photography while she was still a high school student, and was soon to have her first encounter with the Japanese photography scene. After graduating from high school, she accompanied a group of student activists to Tokyo in 1972. While in the capital she found out about the WORKSHOP photography school where some of the most important names in photography including Masahisa Fukase, Araki, Daido Moriyama and Shomei Tomatsu were teaching and it was with Tomatsu that Ishikawa studied briefly before returning to her native Okinawa.
These were particularly turbulent years for the region. From 1965 to 1972 the US military bases in Okinawa had been of major strategic importance to the operations in North Vietnam and the bases in Okinawa had become a lightning rod for anti-war sentiment. A strong independence movement had also developed in opposition to Okinawa’s reversion to Japan and to the US occupation of the islands. The military bases were also the target of the independence protesters as they were the most visible manifestation of the US occupation. Ishikawa had been involved in the protests and was particularly affected by an incident that occurred in front of her when demonstrators threw a Molotov cocktail that killed a riot policeman. Despite the significance of the protests that took place in both Okinawa and mainland Japan, the Japanese government negotiated the reversion of Okinawa from the United States to Japan in 1972, agreeing to allow the Americans to maintain a significant military presence on the islands which has continued until the present day. Indeed, it is worth pointing out the extent to which these bases still dominate the Okinawan landscape: 18% of the land on the main island is occupied by 14 US military bases, which house two-thirds of the 40,000 American troops still stationed in Japan.
It was in this extremely complicated social and political context that Ishikawa found the subject of her first body of work. She decided to photograph the “Kin-Town girls” who worked in the bars that catered to the GIs from Camp Hansen (the name of the base located in Kin-Town). In order to do this, Ishikawa took the most obvious step possible, but one which few photographers would have taken: she became a Kin-Town girl herself, finding a bar to work in through an acquaintance. The racial tension caused by the civil rights movement in the United States at the time meant that the GI bars tended to cater either for white or black soldiers to avoid any violence breaking out. The bar that became Ishikawa’s home from 1975 to 1977 was frequented by black soldiers. She became very close to many of them during this time and began to admire their struggle for civil rights and its parallels with the fight for Okinawan independence. Over the course of these two years she photographed every aspect of her life—the other girls, the soldiers who frequented the bar, the drinking, the sex, and the simple events of daily life.
Ishikawa explains the work that she did during this time thus, “This is not an infiltration report (…) I am neither a magazine photographer nor a photojournalist. I started taking photos by involving myself in the situation. It is not only a documentary but also my own emotional record.” Although her black and white pictures are reminiscent of the language of photojournalism or of documentary photography, in many ways they could not be further from these practices. Her work was also far less stylized than that of the photographers she would have encountered at the WORKSHOP school such as Fukase or Moriyama. Her images have a rough, raw aesthetic that privileges directness over symbolism or atmosphere. However, while she did not share their visual language, it is in the way that she invested herself so profoundly in her subject that echoes their work and in particular where the influence of Shomei Tomatsu can be felt. In an essay on Ishikawa, Tomatsu writes that she “lives on the polar opposite of the illusion of objectivity.” He clearly had great admiration for the personal commitment that is evident in Ishikawa’s photographs. Rather than a tool for documenting some detached, objective truth about the world around her, Ishikawa used photography as a way of investing herself fully into the world she decided to photograph.
In fact that investment went far beyond the two years during which Ishikawa worked as a bar girl it became a permanent part of her life and led to further projects. Myron Carr, one of the GIs that she became extremely close to—they referred to each other as brother and sister—later invited her to come and stay with him and his twin brother in a difficult black neighborhood in Philadelphia. Over a period of two months Ishikawa, who had never been to America before, took photographs every day resulting in the series Life in Philly (1986). Although she was in a completely alien environment for a relatively short period of time, these images share the same quality as those that she took on her native island: they are the photographs of an insider.
Beyond their subject matter, the most striking aspect of the photographs that Ishikawa took during her time as a bar girl is their honesty and openness. These images deal with difficult subjects: the relationship between the US and Japan, the oppression of the US military presence, the racial tension between black and white soldiers, and of course with sex. While all of these elements are present in Mao Ishikawa’s work, she is clearly driven above all by her love for and interest in people. The overriding feelings that emanate from these images are exuberance, openness and freedom. Although there is an erotic quality to her images of sex and of naked bodies, they are not romanticized, they celebrate it for what it is, warts and all. They are not analytical photographs that aim to deconstruct the complex social forces at play in Okinawa, but rather to celebrate the subjects that they depict. They are photographs taken with the heart and not with the head.
The series of photographs from this period eventually became a book entitled Atsuki Hibi ni Camp Hansen (Hot Days in Camp Hansen) published in 1982. In many ways it is extraordinary that this book was ever produced. This was Ishikawa’s first project and at the time photography in Japan was very much a male-dominated, Tokyo-centric world. Furthermore convincing a publisher to publish a book with such controversial subject matter cannot have been easy. The book is split into two sections: the first consisting of photographs taken by Ishikawa and the second is made up of photographs of her, including images of her having sex with her lovers. This structure gives the book the quality of a personal photo-journal and highlights how deeply committed she was to this project. Unfortunately, the reception that it received was more predictable. Although it attracted a significant amount of media attention, much of it was critical, railing against the sex and debauchery that it portrays so freely. Ishikawa was unprepared for the extent of the fallout. Ishikawa’s husband, whom she married in 1978, had objected to the publication and it resulted in the end of their marriage. Some of the women featured in these photographs had created new lives and objected to this frank portrayal of that time, suing her for violation of their privacy. In an effort to put things right, Ishikawa gave the women the negatives of the images to destroy and then withdrew the book from circulation. For years she effectively buried the project due to all the harm it had caused and the way it had been misrepresented in the media.
On New Year’s Eve of 2010, Ishikawa’s daughter urged her to go through the contents of some cardboard boxes that had remained untouched for years. When she opened them, she found several hundred prints that she had made for the book Hot Days in Camp Hansen, which she had thought must have been lost. The discovery of these prints gave Ishikawa the desire to bring this project to light again and a new edit of the work Hot Days in Okinawa was recently published by Foil in Japan alongside an exhibition of some of the original prints at the Yokohama Civic Art Gallery Azamino. Although thirty years have passed since Hot Days in Camp Hansen was first published, it has lost none of its power and youthful energy, and perhaps today it is finally finding the audience that it deserves.
By Marc Feustel
(Photographs by Mao Ishikawa)