I’ve been going to quite a few art exhibits recently, especially photography exhibits. Those visits are helping me to think through how Okinawa has been and is being framed and gazed upon through art/photography. Last week I went back to Sakima Art Museum. I haven’t been there in about a decade. It was good to see some new pieces and return to the permanent exhibits–the panels on the Battle. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been talking to a lot of my older family members about their experiences in the Battle or because I’ve been playing tour guide for many visitors on the island recently and hitting up the battle sites but I’m a bit more emotional when seeing these pieces. I’ve been working on my mother’s life story (long-term project that’s running along the fieldwork) and was getting some details from my oldest uncle about exactly what his first memory was when he knew war was around the corner–he was about 13 when the war began–his memories of seeing that first American plane fly overhead was mesmerizing. I’ve been replaying the stories he told me– his memories of the fear running through his body, the bloody fields, the way he can laugh through the pain while telling the story… These have really been ringing through me as I write and reflect. Seeing those large panels of the Battle, even the second time around, still get to me.
On top of the roof of the museum are stairs that lead to a view of the Futenma Marine base fenceline. Looking down to the right is an Okinawan ohaka (grave) inside the fence. It’s a powerful statement.
Just a couple of months ago I also went to the Peace Memorial Museum with my mom. I have been there several times before but going with her was a different experience. Throughout much of it, she would say while pausing at each black and white photo:
This was like us.
That’s exactly what we used to eat.
My god, that could be me.
Yes, that’s how we scrunched together like that, we were so scared. I remember this.
I used to wear those type of clothes. I remember the dead people’s eyes. We walked over them….
Then when we got to the diorama of the cave where the sounds of the tanks and bombs were simulated overhead, she quickly left. ”I have a headache Mitzi. Let’s go home.” She used to hide in those same caves as a child during the war. Her mother had been shot as they were running through the whizzing bullets flying past them on the way to one (she ended up surviving but she didn’t know that until after the war was over because she was taken away). When I told her about the controversy surrounding the representation of the Japanese soldier and how the museum felt forced in moving the soldier’s gun pointing toward the family on the ground and having it pointed upwards, she scoffed angrily. ”But they did point their guns at us! They kicked us out of caves and stole food that we found.” She became very upset. The photos outside that area were very disturbing. They were the raw war photos, mostly if not all taken by occupation soldiers/photographers I’m sure. At the Okinawa conference a few months ago at Waseda I heard Kyle Ikeda give his brilliant paper on war narratives. He mentioned something I hadn’t payed much attention to before–that so many of the photographs of the war have shaped our thinking about the war itself because the perspective of those shots were from the outside looking in: from outside the cave looking in at scared and hungry people, from outside a plane looking down, outside a truck looking at kids running after them, etc. It took the memories of people, the stories of the survivors to create those intricate details of inside looking out because they are not pictured in black and white photos.
Going through the last part of the museum was also emotional. My mother doesn’t talk much about her childhood days the way she did about the battle. She was busy trying to survive the post-war devastation so I think she thought of her stories as mundane. She and her brothers worked hard, had multiple jobs trying to keep the family afloat. Her father had not been accounted for yet so they grew up without him (long story). When the war began, my ojiichan was in the Philippines as were many other poor Okinawans who had to leave the island to find work, as is still the case). When you’re that busy, who has time to voice their opposition about all the injustice? They thought about it for sure, but taking time from work to take action was another thing. The massive land seizures, the massive displacements of people into new areas of the island, the heavy-handed oppression blocking the freedom of speech and organizations voicing their opposition to USCAR authority? No, that was for the enraged elites with time or people who had absolute nothing left but pride to fight. I think this was the first time my mom had a chance to go through the museum and really pay attention to all the policies that were enacted against Okinawans. In the place of resignation (“well, this is what happens when you lose a war”) was anger, (“I didn’t know this was happening! I didn’t know. We were just trying to survive. This is why things were so hard.”) This realization and being able to contextualize her experiences in the events happening all around her has started something new in my mom. I know, I’m diverging with this entire paragraph but I can’t help it. Another post on this later.
Just this past week, I went to another amazing museum–The Haebaru Town Museum/Haebaru Town Culture Center. I encourage all visitors to Okinawa to see this incredible space. My friend and amazing scholar Tsugiko is a museum curator there. She along with several of my good friends and colleagues and also professors at Ryu Dai have translated their fabulous museum guide into English. It’s so good–goes through how Okinawa was militarized before the war (the efforts to make Okinawans push back their ancestral worship and make imperial worship first–ie building shinto torii shrines in front of utakis, etc) to the postwar culture to Okinawan traditions (what Okinawans do when a baby is born to what major Okinawan events are celebrated each month and why). All kenjinkais, people interested in Okinawan history and visitors to the island need to buy this booklet. It’s a great summary of a lot of the major points you’ll want to know as you move about the island. It’ll be around 500 yen (price still being determined) and can be purchased from the museum. I’ve asked if they could add an online option to buy it through their website. You will not see any fluffing of history here to appease visitors from either the mainland or the US. I love this museum for its straight forward approach. In case you are not sure what I mean, check out some of the literature out there on the politics of peace museums in Okinawa. I recommend an excellent essay by Gerald Figal called, “Waging Peace on Okinawa” which is a great book Islands of Discontent and also an essay by Linda Asako Angst “Gendered Nationalism: The Himeyuri Story and Okinawan Identity in Postwar Japan.” I will do a separate post on this museum because it was so fabulous. I just learned Figal has a new book out that I’m excited to read. I just ordered a copy and will post a review here if I have time.
A couple of weeks ago I got to finally meet the great Mao Ishikawa. I’ve been following Mao’s work for a while now because of her particular lens on Okinawa. I read Jon Mitchell’s article on her in the Japan Times a while back and then later a follower of this blog wrote me and suggested I reach out to her agent Naoko who is also way cool (a photographer herself from Okinawa who moved to London and came back to represent Mao to build a greater network of support for Okinawan photography (that are different from the mass produced tourist market). She’s trying to get Mao’s work more internationally recognized. Anyone interested in base issues, colonial spaces, talking back, gritty hybrid frontier zones, need to really look at Mao’s contributions closely. I took a friend down to Naha to see her works in the photography exhibit “Memory of Eyes” which was a collection of photos by all Okinawan photographers. Floored. We looked through the books for sale before heading into the exhibit. I saw Mao’s works there and picked up her book Fences. I told my friend “Mao has done my dissertation through photography.” Seriously. She looks at a lot of the same matters as me-what happens along the fenceline, spaces of blackness, the blurry transnational representations and racializations, the gritty everyday life of Okinawa, the shake it like yo’ mama gave ya sensibilities of women who do what they need to do to survive but also create a culture that gets passed down not just here but also in a diasporic space. I love this woman. Her framing is spectacular. She gets to know a lot of the people she interviews and you can tell because many of them will just let it all hang out in front of the camera. And they know she’s taking pics because there’s an easiness to their stances, her camera is jus an extension of her. The other photographer’s works there that I really loved was Yasuo Higa. His point of view was mesmerizing. His daughter was there at the exhibit. I didn’t get a chance to tell her how moved I was by her late father’s works. But I could see the memory he was trying to capture for the future. I wrote down his name and scribbled in my notes, “look up more of this man’s works.” Mao came around the corner with her charisma and surprised me. I didn’t realize she would be there. We chatted for some time. We have a few friends in common and talked about them, about her work, about her photos of former black soldiers who were in Okinawa and then how she went to live with them in Philly to photograph their lives there. It was so cool. We took photos. She signed my copy of her book. I am easily thrilled by the little things…she made my day.
I also think of the title of that exhibit, “Memory of Eyes.” When my mom came to visit my office at Ryukyu Daigaku and met some of the staff members there, my friend C* said, “Your mom has those eyes. Some battle survivors have those eyes–they have seen so much.” That has really stayed with me. I never thought about my own mother’s eyes, the memories that are still reflecting there. I think that’s why those photographers framings were so powerful. They were trying to capture a series of memories to tell future generations of Okinawans “do not not forget this soul.” Words are not enough to remember. Remember the eyes…
Another completely different exhibit just a few days after going to that one was at the Plaza House Shopping Center. I had the chance to see a collection of what looked like mostly personal photos from former military personnel stationed here. It was also an exhibit of how some Okinawan companies were born in the occupation era to Americans. This picture I snapped at Junkudo much earlier pretty much sums up how a lot of these businesses think of themselves. Funny. I have been talking to quite a few business owners that were once American owned but are now Okinawan and hearing some great stories about their growing pains. They are very interesting sites of cultural production. This is another area that I discuss in one part of my dissertation.
These were interesting photographs. They captured the landscapes of Okinawa differently. Many people seemed to be aware of the photographer in a different way than in the photos at the exhibit I mentioned earlier with Mao’s works. I noticed that most of the subjects of the photos tended to be in a posed position or in larger group shots. At other times, they shots are taken from afar capturing a scene candidly, quietly. In the previous exhibit mentioned, the photos are intimate. People are shot close up, relaxed, aware they are being photographed but without any preoccupation. They are laughing, drunk, in their underwear, dying their hair, telling a story with their eyes– so that the photographer can then make connections to other stories through their photos. An assemblage of photos, an assemblage of memories. The gaze and memoryscapes at the two events were starkly different and interesting because the imaginary being shaped was so different. A large collection of photos at Plaza House were from Blackie-san as he was known here. He was a photographer who took a substantial amount of photos and video of Okinawa in the post-war era. You can find them on several sites by doing a quick google search. I would love to know more about his story and more about the stories of other former US military members who have a particularly strong nostalgia about Okinawan history through photos. I am really fascinated with the formation of nostalgic routes in Okinawa. Want to read more on how/if that has shaped particular framings of Okinawa, especially against Okinawan self-representations.