The return of Okinawa to Japan in 1972 meant a rethink for photographers. The American bases remained, still spewing drunken soldiers and polluting aircraft, but they no longer seemed quite the revelation they had been for photographers like Tōmatsu Shōmei. Some photographers dug deeper into the bases’ nether regions, while others explored the “other” Ryūkyū Islands, sites of archaic religious tradition and nonmechanized fishing and agriculture, tantalizing to ethnologists and tourists alike.
Kawaguchi Kazuyuki’s photographs of Okinawa are interesting precisely because they are bland. Taken for the most part between 1976 and 1980, the 90 black-and-white images in Okinawa Genshikou (Okinawa Phantasmagoria), the book whose publication this exhibition commemorated, capture the beginning of the end of Okinawa’s role as a foil for mainland Japanese identity. Sure, you can find the stereotypes in these works: the black bullocks cooling themselves in the calm surf, the white sand and endless skies, the hearty scrub, the limestone walls, the old people with dark and craggy faces from the incessant sun, the locals fishing or waiting for ferries on listless “island time.” But there is not a single image of a military base or a soldier. Red light districts are not distinguishable as such. There is only one shaman.
Some of the photographs don’t even read as “Okinawa,” which is presumably the point. There is a group of shots of Naha, the capital city, that are super drab, depicting empty lots with construction rubble, characterless concrete low-rises, extensive Japanese (rather than American) signage, and bar-lined alleys and shopping streets that look like they could be in any C-grade Japanese city.
The island of Miyako-jima is geographically closer to Taiwan than it is to Naha. Yet Kawaguchi’s images from the far-flung locale—one captures teenage boys in Japanese gakuran (black school uniforms) and tight “punch perms,” while a second shows younger boys in high white socks running past a store with signs for Lotte chocolates—attest to just how much even Okinawa’s outlying regions had fallen, culturally and economically, under Tokyo’s sway, not 10 years after the reversion.
In addition to a selection of photos from Okinawa Genshikou, Photographers’ Gallery exhibited archival materials relating to a watershed event in Okinawa art: “Nujun in Okinawa / Yamato” (1979), a collaborative exhibition in Naha between members of Āman, Okinawa’s first artist-run photography gallery, and PUT, an important amateur photography group from Tokyo. Well-known artists like Ishikawa Mao, Ishiuchi Miyako, Kitajima Keizō and Higa Toyomitsu participated in this show, as did novices like Kawaguchi. A side room at Photographers’ Gallery screened rare footage of the show being installed, shot by Osafune Tsunetoshi, another figure in the ’70s “independent photographers” movement.
The story of this movement (which got a surprising amount of coverage in last year’s survey “For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968-1979,” shown in Houston and New York) is usually told from a Tokyo-centric perspective: inspired by the activities of the likes of Provoke magazine (1968-69) and Moriyama Daidō, young photographers took it upon themselves to create their own exhibitions and publications, building networks of like-minded people across Japan. Kawaguchi lived in the city of Himeji, where he founded the collective Photo Street in 1977. He was instrumental in facilitating connections between practitioners in his home region and places like Osaka, Shizuoka and Tokyo.
Okinawa played a key part in this movement, as this exhibition indicated. It was a default destination for visitors in search of Japanese alterity. But as such, Kawaguchi suggests, it was also a “phantasm,” fast losing its power of difference.