Shomei Tomatsu was fifteen when Japan was defeated and the US troops arrived, casually tossing sticks of gum and chocolates at the children running after their jeeps. Occupation was the title he chose for the pictures he took around the US base towns in Japan and Okinawa.
Shomei Tomatsu has been called Japan’s pre-eminent photographer of the postwar era. In the Review’s November 6 issue, Ian Buruma reviews Chewing Gum and Chocolate, a compilation of Tomatsu’s photographs edited by Leo Rubinfien and John Junkerman. “Tomatsu’s pictures,” Buruma writes,
were taken after the Allied occupation of Japan (though not yet Okinawa) was long over. Japan became independent again after signing the Peace Treaty of San Francisco in 1951. But for many men of Tomatsu’s generation the occupation was never really over; it continued inside their heads. Occupation was the title he chose for the pictures he took around the US base towns in Japan and Okinawa. Tomatsu was fifteen when Japan was defeated and the US troops arrived, casually tossing sticks of gum and chocolates at the children running after their jeeps. The rampant conquerors, who could often buy the favors of local women with a pair of silk stockings or a Hershey bar, were for young Japanese men a source of deep humiliation. But they also came with jazz music, easy manners, cool clothes, a promise of democracy, and what seemed then like vast wealth.
Here Buruma presents a selection of Tomatsu’s photographs with commentary.
Location unknown, ca. 1960s: Japanese Imperial Army troops rampaged through Asia drunk with the dry taste of fermented rice. The US invasion of Japan came with a cloying soft drink that became as universally loved as Mickey Mouse.
Iwakuni, 1960: The boot of a US marine is about to stomp on the photographer, showing who is boss in Japan. The gesture is full of malice. But the smiles show that the men, including the photographer, are just kidding. Or are they…?
Koza, Okinawa, 1978: The girl in her Okinawan kimono and traditional hairstyle is pretty. Her gleaming car even has a certain air of modern glamor. But everything else in this photograph taken on the periphery of a huge US Air Force base shows the debasement of Japanese culture, reduced to a bunch of shows for foreigners advertised on a Coca Cola sign.
Kadena, Okinawa, 1969: The bombed out ruins of Japanese cities immediately after the war were often called yakinohara, literally burned lands. Tomatsu preferred to call the desolation of Japan genkokei, primal landscape, a geographical Year Zero. This rubbish dump in Okinawa, with the B-52 swooping over like a vulture searching for carrion, could stand for Japan in 1945, even though the picture was taken in 1969.
Okinawa, ca. 1970: The gestures of Black Power have reached Okinawa. The men don’t look so tough, really, but almost touching in their vulnerability, which shows the compassion that tempered Tomatsu’s rage.
Yokosuka, 1959: Yokosuka again, tawdry, but in 1959, when the photograph was taken, still with a spark of seedy allure. The Japanese girl of the night looks knowing, yet a little lost in the reflection of neon-lit Western script.
Kin, Okinawa, ca. 1969-78: At first it is the suspicious eyes of the American, as though caught in a shameful act, that strikes the viewer of this photograph. But to me, it is the tinselly party hat, silver or gold, stuck on the long black hair of the Japanese girl, that makes the picture: meant to be festive, it seems deeply sad.
Yokosuka, 1959: Yokosuka, a rather seedy town at the entrance of Tokyo Bay, has been a Japanese naval base since the middle of the 19th century. Now the home of the US 7th Fleet, Yokosuka has seen better days. This photograph was taken in 1959, when the Americans were still kings. Apart from the bar signs in English, we see in the bottom right hand corner the Chinese characters for “peace,” heiwa in Japanese.