Fanta, Sprite and G.I. Joe: Postwar Japanese Photographers Respond to the American Military Presence in Japan

Since the end of World War II, the American military presence on Japanese soil has been a contentious, yet mandated component of Japan’s postwar political and economic landscape. Initiated and maintained through a series of treaties at the end of the war, large American military installations are concentrated on the islands of Okinawa and Honshu. Their presence is not a simple picture of occupier and occupied, but rather a controversial and complex issue in Japanese politics — one that is complicated by a love-hate relationship in which both partners are responsible for the resulting tensions.  As a layered subject that offers no easy answers, a number of Japanese postwar photographers have sought to unravel their often-conflicted feelings on the American military’s role in their country. Employing very different conceptual and visual approaches, their photographs and accompanying photobooks provide highly personal observations on this controversial topic.

Anpo: Art X War (2010) http://anpomovie.com, a recent documentary film by Linda Hoaglund, currently screening at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, showcases numerous photographs, artworks and film clips depicting the 1960s anti-Anpo resistance movement in Japan. Taking its title from the abbreviated Japanese name for the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which initiated the postwar U.S. military presence, Anpo: Art X War presents both the forgotten history and the intense emotions that surround America’s continued militarization in Japan. In a talk following the September 9th screening of Anpo: Art X War, Hoaglund discussed finding inspiration for her film upon discovering Hiroshi Hamaya’s 1960 protest book Ikari to Kanashimi no Kiroku (translated as either: Record of Anger and Sadness or Days of Rage and Grief) and artist Hiroshi Nakamura’s paintings. She indicated that by using these images as the film’s visual narrative, one of her goals with the film has been to introduce both Japan’s history of resistance as well as its “buried cultural legacy” of rarely seen photographs and artworks.

Given the depth of the Japanese photobook collection within the International Center of Photography (ICP) Library, the opportunity presents itself to explore several distinct and highly personal visual responses to the multifaceted dialogue surrounding the American military presence in Japan by photographers who also appear in Hoaglund’s Anpo: Art X War documentary. Hiroshi Hamaya, Shomei Tomatsu and Miyako Ishiuchi each have a long history with ICP – all three were included in Cornell Capa and Shoji Yamagishi’s 1979 ICP exhibition Japan: A Self-Portrait.

Hiroshi Hamaya, who became the first Japanese photographer to be invited into the prestigious Magnum Agency and also receive the Master of Photography Award from ICP in 1986, is well known for his documentary images of rural Japanese people and landscapes. Less known are his protest photographs, which document the demonstrations that resulted during the ratification of the Anpo Treaty in 1960. Although Hamaya was a well-respected photojournalist in Japan at the time, his photographs were censored and ultimately published independently in a slim inexpensive volume entitled Ikari to Kanashimi no Kiroku. It was only later that his image of left-wing 22-year old Michiko Kanba being beaten to death by police during the student riots was published in Life Magazine, resulting in his invitation to join Magnum.

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As a founding member of the influential Vivo group and mentor to successive generations of Japanese photographers, Shomei Tomatsu is recognized for his post atomic bomb images of Nagasaki, which seek to reframe photojournalism beyond the rigid constraints imposed by older photographers like Yonosuke Natori. By placing a new emphasis on the expressive quality unique to the photographic image, Tomatsu sought to explore image as symbol. His Occupation series, which he would later re-title Chewing Gum and Chocolate, presents American soldiers as they frequent the gaudy bars and lounges that surround the Yokosuka and Kadena military bases. Fascinated by the informality of the American military personnel, his images explore their subjects from a distance as they renounce photojournalism in favor of a more expressive and intuitive approach. Two of Tomatsu’s exhibition catalogues in the ICP Library, Skin of a Nation (2004) and What Now: Japan Through the Eyes of Shomei Tomatsu (1981), include images from his Chewing Gum and Chocolate series.

A bit more subdued as they reflect upon a conflicted identity from both an internal and external perspective, the photographs in Miyako Ishiuchi’s Yokosuka Again: 1980-1990 (1998) explore her hometown Yokosuka, a city southwest of Tokyo, which has hosted two large American naval bases since the late 1940s. Possessing a quiet power, her images of deserted military base buildings and streets act as a container for her highly personal childhood memories of place as they also confront the wider conflicted national sentiment and the complex range of emotions associated with the American military presence in Japan. In a later photobook entitled Club and Courts (2007), Ishiuchi takes her camera indoors to reveal the empty hallways, decrepit stairwells, and shabby decaying public spaces of abandoned U.S. naval bases in Yokohama and Yokosuka. Imbued with a dull throbbing sadness, Ishiuchi’s photos reveal a sense of loss and resentment — reflective of the contradictory emotions many Japanese feel towards the continued American militarization in Japan. It is also through these highly charged images that Linda Hoaglund’s film Anpo: Art X War addresses the complex love-hate relationship of occupier / occupied in which both America and Japan are responsible for the resulting political and social discomfort.

Cornell Capa and Shoji Yamagishi. Japan: A Self-Portrait (1979). TR646.U6 .J36 1979

Hiroshi Hamaya. Ikari to Kanashimi no Kiroku (Record of Anger and Sadness). Tokyo: Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 1960.

Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of the Nation (2004). TR646 .T46 2004

Shomei Tomatsu. What Now? Japan Through the Eyes of Shomei Tomatsu.  (1981). TR820 .T65 1981

Miyako Ishiuchi. Yokosuka Again: 1980-1990 (1998). TR659.Y65 .I84 1998

Miyako Ishiuchi. Clubs & Courts: Yokosuka Yokohama (2007). TR659.4 .M59 2007

About Russet Lederman

Russet Lederman is a media artist, writer and photobook collector who lives in New York City. She teaches art writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York and writes on photobooks for print and online journals, including Foam, The Eyes, IMA, Aperture and the International Center of Photography’s library blog. She is a co-founder of the 10x10 Photobooks project, lectures internationally on photobooks, and has received awards and grants from Prix Ars Electronica and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
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