Remembering Shomei Tomatsu (1930-2012)

From Aperture 208, Lesley A. Martin discusses the late Shomei Tomatsu’s photographs of Okinawa.

We at Aperture mourn the death of Japanese photographer Shomei Tomatsu, which was announced last week. He was eighty-two years old. Aperture’s relationship with Tomatsu spanned decades, and we were honored to include him in Black Sun: The Eyes of Four: Roots and Innovation in Japanese Photography (1986; also published as Aperture 102), Setting Sun: Writings by Japanese Photographers (2006), and Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ’70s (2009). Reprinted below is an article on Tomatsu’s photographs depicting the American occupation of Japan by Aperture books publisher Lesley A. Martin. It originally ran in Aperture 208 (Fall 2012). Click here for Sean O’Hagan’s obituary in the Guardian. For those who read Japanese, click here for an extensive interview with Tomatsu conducted in August 2011. At the time of Tomatsu’s death, Aperture was in the process of working with editors Leo Rubinfien and John Junkerman on a monograph comprised entirely of his series Chewing Gum and Chocolate, which has never before been gathered in a single volume. The book is slated for release in spring 2014.

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Shomei Tomatsu and John Junkerman, May 2011.

“Shomei Tomatsu: Occupation Okinawa,” by Lesley A. Martin

Shomei Tomatsu’s work served a critical purpose at a transitional moment in Japanese postwar photography: as a catalyst toward the rejection of a classic photojournalistic approach. As members of VIVO, a photographers’ collective formed in 1959, he and his colleagues were inspired, in part, by Magnum and the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa—yet determined to move beyond what they considered to be the reductionist humanism of war-era reportage, finding greater affinity with the work of William Klein and Robert Frank. VIVO, with Tomatsu at its core, defined and defended a “subjective documentary” approach, producing work that hovered between pure description and an expressionistic use of stylized printing techniques, dramatic angles, and carefully embedded symbolism. While the collective was ultimately short-lived (it disbanded in 1961), many of the VIVO photographers produced bodies of work that attempted to narrate their own memories and experiences of war, the dramatic shifts of postwar Japanese society, and the shattering impact of the atomic bombs and defeat on the Japanese landscape and psyche. Among the most powerful of these artistic responses is Tomatsu’s own Nagasaki—11:02 (1966), a meditation on the lingering effects, both psychological and physical, of that city’s bombing.

In the late 1950s Tomatsu initiated a major series focusing on the American occupation in Japan, committing to photograph many of the U.S. bases on Japanese soil. While the U.S. occupation officially came to an end in 1952, the presence of American forces remained a major influence on the social landscape into the 1970s—and indeed, it is still a point of contention today. Tomatsu’s pilgrimage culminated in a 1968 visit to Okinawa, which remained officially off-limits for Japanese nationals until its reversion to Japanese sovereignty in 1972. Published sporadically as series, titled Occupation and Chewing Gum and Chocolate, the work encompasses themes of the friction between American and traditional Japanese mores; the alien-presence of white and black soldiers in an otherwise homogeneous society, with a particular focus on the impact of U.S. soldiers’ presence on traditional Japanese gender roles; and the profoundly changed nature of Japanese society at large—in a word, its Americanization. Or, as Tomatsu identified it in some of his extensive writings at the time, the “Coca-Colonization” of the world, and especially of Japan.

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Untitled (Kadena), 1972 © Shomei Tomatsu

While these issues were pervasive in much of postwar Japan, Okinawa came to hold particularly compelling interest for Tomatsu. A chain of islands off the southernmost tip of “mainland” Japan, Okinawa has a charged history—as a site of epically brutal and intense fighting during the war, and then as a captive territory with a slow and controversial reversion back into Japanese hands. Additionally, its heavy use as a staging area for bombing runs to Vietnam in the late 1960s and early ’70s solidified Okinawa’s role as a symbol for the abuses of American power.

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Untitled (Okinawa City), 1979 © Shomei Tomatsu

Equally critically, however, Okinawa holds a semi-sacred place in many Japanese minds—despite the mainland’s own fraught history of colonization of the islands—thanks to its unique, Polynesian-influenced native culture and history. In this era, many came to see Okinawa as a repository for the native roots of Japanese culture, then under attack from modernization and Westernization—not unlike the American Indian and Hawaiian cultures, which took on similar symbolic value in the United States during that same time.

As such, Okinawa has long been a crucial point of reference for Japanese protest and for photographers—the subject of many politically and sociologically concerned books. Included in this roster are several by Tomatsu, such as the renowned Okinawa, Okinawa, Okinawa (Shaken, 1969), a politically driven book deeply obsessed with the presence of the American air force, which he published after his first extended visit to the islands. In fact, from that very first visit, Tomatsu was enamored with Okinawa—which was paradoxically one of the areas most impacted and defined by the presence of the U.S. military and yet also a refuge of sorts from what he considered the anathematic if inexorable mutations of Japanese society. It is this circulation between critique and celebration of the Okinawan urban landscape, marked by clear signs of both pop Americana and a cheery South Seas palette, that gives Tomatsu’s work tension and form—in particular in his more recent color photographs. (The selection in these pages includes images taken as early as 1971, when he first began to use color film; he continues to shoot primarily in color today.) To a large degree, the photographer credits his switch to color photography as a response to Okinawa’s color- saturated landscape, writing in his 1975 book Taiyo no empitsu (The pencil of the sun): “In Okinawa, it seemed a natural step to switch to color photography . . . but even after returning to Tokyo, I did not go back to monochrome . . . I realized later that this was because my fixation on America had weakened. America flashes into and out of view in black and white. In color, America’s presence is diminished” (translated in his 2004 retrospective survey, Skin of the Nation, from Yale University Press).

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Untitled (Okinawa City), 1972 © Shomei Tomatsu

The images reproduced here and in the original article comprise a selection from Tomatsu’s earlier work alongside some of his more recent photographs. In 2010, after several extended stays interrupted by stints of living on mainland Japan, Tomatsu retired permanently to the main island of Okinawa, where he photographed until his death in December 2012.

Lesley A. Martin is publisher of the Aperture book program and of The PhotoBook Review, a newsprint journal dedicated to the evolving conversation surrounding the photobook.