Mao Ishikawa 石川真生 – Red Flower, The Women of Okinawa 赤花、沖縄の女

Published in 2017, Red Flower consists of photographs shot between 1975 and 1977 in Kin and Koza, two towns in Okinawa, Japan. Though most of the images are from Ishikawa’s 1982 debut “Hot Days in Camp Hansen”, Red Flower also shows unpublished images from this same period. The reproduction itself really stands out; as with much of Ishikawa’s later work, many shots have a soft, grainy glow to them, complimented both visually and tactilely by the rough texture of the paper and full-bleed printing. Red Flower begins with photographs of Ishikawa’s barmaid friends and follows them preparing for nights out on the town, later forming relationships with black GIs on the base, and ending with the children they had together. In cultural context, it shows women who lived freely and loved against racial standards of the time, starting families with the soldiers who were maligned by their own nation. Their playfulness and intimacy are sustained throughout the book.

Ishikawa really exists as a part of this small community, rather than as an intruder who “poses” those she photographs through waiting for chance moments.

Throughout Red Flower are short sequences of images focused on specific women, who move between spending time with their friends and partners, to addressing Ishikawa – or her lens – directly. They smoke together in the living room, get dressed, wait outside bars for dates, pose naked with one another, and go to the beach, where they strip down and flash a soldier.

Ishikawa originally intended to photograph Okinawa’s soldiers, but, working in a military bar, she came to find her barmaid colleagues and their love lives more interesting. Though it’s difficult to articulate through any one image, her work as a whole demonstrates that she related to these women as a friend. She really exists as a part of this small community, rather than as an intruder who idealises those she photographs and “poses” them by means of chance moments that show them how she wants them in order to complete the project. Rather, it’s a two-way conversation; her photographing them isn’t something that she tries to hide. Throughout the book are moments where her friends laugh or gesture at her, flash their breasts at her, or are captured with a goofy expression, as though in mid-speech — addressing her and her lens directly. That sense of these being pictures of daily life is maintained, and you see the group as an undefined whole move forwards through these short vignettes, rather than strict character studies that would run like threads throughout the book. Though some of her friends would later object to their private/social lives being published in Hot Days in Camp Hansen, in these ways Red Flower itself doesn’t feel voyeuristic or intrusive in the way that many such bodies of work do.

Okinawa now holds over 70% of all US military installations in Japan, a presence which has only exacerbated questions about Okinawan sovereignty in relation to mainland Japan.

That relationship between subject and photographer isn’t unique, but plays an important role in this context. In terms of political representation, both Okinawans and African Americans still experience great inequity. A work that follows this group perspective of someone who became part of them offers a different message to the world we live in to more typical models of pseudo expedition-style “documentary” projects.

Okinawa’s political history is also important to recognize, and Ishikawa’s own political views and motivations were influenced significantly by them. Experiencing Red Flower doesn’t necessitate knowing this context intimately, but it’s a work with many layers beneath it; more than only a product of its time, Ishikawa’s work was direct response to her circumstances. As she writes, these bar-women were often assumed to be prostitutes: “That is a total misconception […] The bar girls were living their lives to the fullest“.

In the late 1800s, the mainland Japanese government officially annexed the Ryukyuan Islands, renaming them Okinawa and instigating a campaign to erase the local culture and languages. In 1945, Japan surrendered to the United States, ending the Second World War. The US subsequently installed military bases in Japan. In 1972, it fully reverted to Japanese hands. Okinawa now holds over 70% of all US military installations in Japan; a presence which has only exacerbated questions about Okinawan sovereignty in relation to mainland Japan. Recognised as a useful deterrent to international powers by the government, the mainland has repeatedly dismissed both Okinawa’s local governor and public opinion, which has held a strong anti-base development stance over the last 50 years. Neither a colony of the US nor Japan, and not treated on equal grounds by mainland Japan, the lives of mixed-race children and of Okinawan women working on military bases have for many been lives caught between and subject to the prejudices of multiple opposing sides.

Five years before Ishikawa set out to photograph GIs in Hansen, a riot broke out in the town of Koza after a drunk-driving officer hit an Okinawan man. Military barracks and offices were destroyed, and subsequent base construction was delayed by an intimidated US government. Okinawans did not, however, attack the segregated African-American US military barracks. Ceramicist Matsushima Chōgi was an activist in Koza in the 1960s. He once jumped an airport fence, throwing a bomb at a military plane only to be shot at with blanks. In light of Okinawa’s lack of state representation and its multi-ethnic context, Chōgi viewed Okinawan-ness in terms of Okinawa’s own inability to form a unified and stable proletarian class. At the end of Alegal: Biopolitics and the Unintelligibility of Okinawan Life, Shimabuku cites a story in which a grandmother raises her often discriminated-against black granddaughter as a ‘common Okinawan child’. She concludes that – against the Japanese state’s monoethnic and patriarchal values – the decision to treat one’s descendant as one of one’s own irrespective of racial difference is what allows Okinawan-ness space to grow. Shimabuku described this as an Okinawa that “does not unify by erasure“.

The ending sequence of Red Flower shows a promise for the future in images of the barmaids’ children. On one hand, it is a future marked by struggle and alienation, and on the other, it is one filled with potential for a better future. Their facial expressions and body language change between spreads — on some pages playing joyfully, and on others reserved and serious. Their parents laugh with them. On the final page, a young girl stares back at the camera.

Session Press

All Rights Reserved: text © Callum Beaney; images © Session Press unless otherwise specified.