Aug 17 2018

Okinawa Soul: Profile of Mao Ishikawa

by Emily Wakeling

Portrait of MAO ISHIKAWA. All images courtesy Nap Gallery, Tokyo.

Okinawa native Mao Ishikawa was raised during the post-war United States occupation of the archipelago. Since the mid-1970s, she has been scrutinizing the power structures that have shaped her birthplace. Through her extensive photography-based practice, she tackles the ongoing presence of US military bases on Okinawa and the islands’ sovereignty—issues that continue to affect inhabitants. 

Okinawa has a complex history, which figures in Ishikawa’s works. For centuries, it was the autonomous Ryukyu Kingdom, and had a contested relationship with the Japanese mainland, which persisted after it
was officially subsumed under Japanese jurisdiction in the late-19th century.
In the Second World War, Okinawa served as the battleground between US troops and the Imperial Japanese Army, and suffered devastating land-based attacks during which almost one third of its civilian population died. After the Japanese surrendered, the islands were occupied by the US until 1972, when they were handed to the Japanese government under the agreement that US military bases would remain. Ishikawa was 19 at the time. 

A mentorship with Shōmei Tōmatsu (1930–2012)—who also inspired the creation of the influential photography magazine Provoke—preceded Ishikawa’s first series, shot between 1975 and 1977. The photographs are focused on the African-American servicemen who frequented a bar near Camp Hansen, where Ishikawa worked as a bartender, as well as her friends and the other local women who dated them. They are captured at parties, in bedrooms and bathing naked. In 1977, the images were shown at Tokyo’s Minolta Photo Space under the title “Kin-Town Women” and with the support of Tōmatsu and fellow photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. The photos were then included in the photobooks Hot Days in Camp Hansen, published in 1982; Hot Days in Okinawa (2013); and most recently, Red Flower: The Women of Okinawa (2017). The joyful, slightly racy but also humble tone of the series is perhaps best encapsulated by the cover of Hot Days in Okinawa: a mixed group of Okinawan women and African-American men lounge around, drinking and smoking on a small bed illuminated by afternoon light, revealing Ishikawa’s bold level of intimacy with her subjects, which she established early on in her career. 

MAO ISHIKAWA, untitled work from the series “Philippines,” 1989, gelatin silver print, 35 × 28 cm. 

Only African-American soldiers are seen in that cover image because in the 1970s, the GIs posted in Okinawa were unofficially segregated, as was the practice back in the US. Accordingly, the entertainment districts surrounding the Okinawa bases catered to either white or African-American clientele. Prejudice was also prevalent between the soldiers and locals, however. In a 2017 interview with Japan Times, Ishikawa describes how her father disapproved of her relationships with African-Americans, while the men brought their own perceptions of islanders as being unsophisticated compared to women on mainland Japan. The ongoing incidents of rape committed by US personnel
in general against local women, often reported in the media but without martial or legal consequences, adds to and is symptomatic of the complex gender and race dynamics of US-Okinawan interactions. Throughout the ’70s, Ishikawa continued to delve into such dynamics, training her camera lens on those who are sidelined or fall through the cracks. For example, as part of the “Hot Days” or “Red Flower” series, she documented the biracial families of her neighborhood. In “Philippines” (1989), Ishikawa is drawn to another marginalized group; the photos were produced by following the lives of Filipino women who joined the Okinawan entertainment industries in military base-adjacent towns. The series negotiates another set of imbalanced relations, in this case between locals, US servicemen and migrant workers. It is evident in her works how Ishikawa gets to the core of human relations that impact everyday life. Photographer and collector Martin Parr identifies her practice as post-Provoke, as her images maintain the grittiness and improvisational are, bure, boke (rough, blurry, out-of-focus) approach associated with the experimental magazine, but differ in how clearly her personal connections to her subjects shine through.

The friendships Ishikawa made while working as a bartender also directly impacted her series “Life in Philly” (1986), which transpired when Ishikawa traveled to the US at the invitation of a GI formerly stationed in Okinawa, his family and their community in Philadelphia. Additionally, the 1980s had her working on two other bodies of work about Okinawa. By 1983, Ishikawa had established her own bar in
the port of Naha, Okinawa’s capital, which was frequented by local fishermen and precariously employed dockworkers. Their drunken gatherings and fights were captured and later published in A Port Town Elegy (1990). Her interest in and identification with Okinawan culture extended to another book, Sachiko Nakada’s Theatre Company (1991), for which Ishikawa photographed an Okinawan-language travelling theater troupe and its leading actor for many years as they toured around Japan. 

MAO ISHIKAWAMr.Yasuo Takahashi (31) A proprietor of a bar December 8, 2007, in Osaka City, Osaka “When a vocalist of a rock music group made a debut, he appeared on stage with the Japan’s naval ensign rolled around his leg. He was very cool. That’s why I chose the naval ensign. It is more gorgeous than the Rising-Sun flag, isn’t it? (with laughter) I want to keep on ‘attacking.’ It is true of my bar management.”, 1992– , chromogenic print, 43 × 35 cm, from the series “Here’s What the Japanese Flag Means to Me.” 

In the ’90s, Ishikawa’s reflections on her relationship with her
own home country became increasingly nuanced. Her ongoing conceptual series, “Here’s What the Japanese Flag Means to Me” (1992– ) began with her personal struggle with the question, “Are Okinawans Japanese?” Portraying the diverse peoples supposedly represented by the Japanese flag, or hinomaru, is the primary motivation behind the project. The series contains more than 180 images and texts depicting subjects from across a wide spectrum
of political affiliations and social status. Among them are the indigenous Ainu tribe, the historical buraku underclass, atomic bomb survivors, and those of Korean descent. In one image, an activist carries the flag on a pole and stands in front of the US Embassy in Tokyo. His accompanying statement explains that he visits the place twice a month to demand the US apologize for the atomic bombings. Other photographs don’t need as much textual support—a Buddhist nun is caught mid-gymnastics maneuver, smiling, with the flag torn in half. 

Ishikawa included a self-portrait in the series. At age 58, she stands naked behind a large red-and-white Japanese flag. She looks aggressively at the viewer. Her gaze momentarily distracts from an odd protrusion behind the red section of the flag, at the subject’s abdomen. In the image’s accompanying text, Ishikawa describes how her cancer forced doctors to create what she calls an “artificial
anus” on her torso, which, due to its roundness and bright red color, resembles a Japanese flag.  

MAO ISHIKAWA, Red Flower: The Women of Okinawa, 1975–1977, gelatin silver print, 25.4 x 20.2 cm. 

Ishikawa’s career has recently begun to gain worldwide recognition due in no small part to her first international monograph, Red Flower: The Women of Okinawa. The book was featured at a range of international photography events including the Kassel Photobook Awards 2017. In 2018, the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art will feature a suite of her photographs selected from various series from the past five decades. She will also hold two exhibitions of what she describes as her life’s work, the Great Ryukyu Photographic Picture Scrolls (2014– ). The four cloth-printed photographs are as large as they are ambitious: spanning 120 meters in length, the work aims to revive and re-imagine Okinawa’s past. Ishikawa’s friends volunteered to re-enact scenes from Okinawan history, beginning with the idyllic island life of the Ryukyu Kingdom, followed by the 17th-century Satsuma Invasion launched from mainland Japan, colonization by the Meiji (1868–1912) government, the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, post-war US military occupation, and the 1972 Reversion to JapanMost recently, she has shot allegorical interactions between actors playing the current Japanese prime minister and US president, set in front of a notorious military perimeter fence on Henoko beach. 

MAO ISHIKAWARyukyu Shobun (The Deposition of Ryukyu). On March 27, 1879, Shobun-kan Michiyuki Matsuda, a “Disposition Officer” from the Meiji government, arrived in the Ryukyu Kingdom with 600 military police and soldiers. In the Shuri castle, he declared the abolition of “Ryukyu han" (domain) and renamed it “Okinawa Prefecture”. The Ryukyu Kingdom, after a 500-year history, was abolished and annexed to Japan as one of its prefectures. The King Sho Tai was forced to relocate to Tokyo. 2014– , chromogenic print, 120 × 100 cm, from the work Great Ryukyu Photographic Picture Scrolls, 2014– , four cloth-printed photographs. 

Over her four-decade-long career, Mao Ishikawa has developed a strong Ryukyuan voice. In shedding light on the stories and perspectives of people on the margins—be they women, Okinawans, people of color, or victims of nationalist agendas—she continues to devote herself to producing images of Okinawa rooted in the truth of multiple experiences. 

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