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Mao Ishikawa - Red Flower, The Women of Okinawa

Mao Ishikawa - Red Flower, The Women of Okinawa

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Session Press’ Red Flower, The Women of Okinawa, published in 2017, was the first US monograph by Okinawan photographer Mao Ishikawa, a highly revered figure in Japan. The release of the second printing in September of this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan in 1972 since its’ occupation by the US after World War II. Red Flower celebrates the courageous and honest lives of women she met and befriended while working at bars in Koza and Kin that were hang-outs for black soldiers from the local US military bases in Okinawa. The book features several unpublished photographs from artist's first book, ”Hot Days in Camp Hansen" published in 1982. Red Flower is the seminal work of Ishikawa, marking the starting point of her subsequently long career as a photographer. Designed with full-bleed images reproduced in a large format with intense b/w printing which successfully conveys the original lively spirit and tension of Ishikawa’s Camp Hansen work, available once again for wider public appreciation with an essay by the artist

Session Press presents “Red Flower, The Women of Okinawa,” the first United States monograph by Okinawan photographer Mao Ishikawa. “Red Flower” consists of 80 black and white photographs that date from 1975 to 1977 taken in Koza and Kin, Okinawa, primarily from Ishikawa’s first book “Hot Days in Camp Hansen” by A-man Shuppan in 1982, but also includes unpublished work from the same period. “Red Flower” exhibits Ishikawa’s celebration of the courageous and honest lives of women she met and befriended while working at military bars at a time when social and political tensions between the US and Japan were on high alert. It consists of five chapters of pictures, followed by her essay dedicated to the publication: girls gossiping about boys, working at the bar, meeting their boyfriends at home, enjoying themselves at the beach, and their children for the future of Okinawa. “Red Flower” is the pivotal work for Ishikawa, since it marks the starting point of her subsequent long career as a photographer.

Her attendance of Shomei Tomatsu’s class at WORKSHOP photography school in the Spring of 1974 seems to have had a strong influence on her style; their close association as friends and teacher/student continued until his death in 2012. Martin Parr identifies her work as ‘post-Provoke’ in The Photobook: A History Volume III (page 90), observing the strength of her photography is charged by its directness and rawness, in contrast to the stylized symbolism preferred by the previous generation of Provoke photographers. Most importantly, it is crucial to note that her work is often delivered from the result of her pure pursuit of her subject matter. Especially for this particular project, Ishikawa’s engagement to the subject was enormous; she worked as a server at the bars along with the other girls and had relationships with boys she met there for two years. Thus, her personal involvement enables her to capture the actual events and scene without theorizing or romanticizing. In “Red Flower”, Ishikawa reveals her very honest personal documentary in all sincerity, while still maintaining enough detachment from the subject to be able to perfectly capture the scenes with her sharp eyes.

Okinawa has been one of the most popular subjects in the history of Japanese photography, having attracted many renowned Japanese photography masters such as Tomatsu Shomei, Daido Moriyama, Nobuyoshi Araki, and Keizo Kitajima. Born and raised in Okinawa, Ishikawa is still the only female photographer still vigorously making work in Okinawa (and living in Okinawa) in spite of whatever taboos or challenges she came across along the way.

Previously Ishikawa made two publications on the same subject. Her first book, “Camp Hansen” is not, in fact, her monograph since another photographer, Toyomitsu Higa took the photos in the second half of the book. Also, it was regretfully banned due to claims from two girls in the book shortly after it was released, so it is extremely rare and expensive. The other volume of Ishikawa’s Okinawa work was published on the occasion of her exhibition at Yokohama Civic Art Gallery Azamino in 2013. Since it mainly functions as reference to her general work, and it was laid out with large white framing surrounding smaller format photos, it loses the boldness, honesty and urgency which are characteristic of her work. “Red Flower” features full-bleed images in a large format with intense black and white printing, and successfully makes the original lively spirit and tension of Ishikawa’s legendary “Camp Hansen” work available again for wider public appreciation.

Artist Statement
Okinawa, located between mainland Japan and Taiwan, consists of the southernmost islands in Japan. Around the end of the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, the US military began building bases all over Okinawa, one after another. In 1975, I was 22 years old and wanted to take photographs of US soldiers, so I started working at bars catering to black soldiers in Koza city (now Okinawa city) and Kin town. At the time, bars catering to black soldiers and white soldiers were segregated. The two prevailing theories were that they had been segregated by the US military due to endless fights, and that they had segregated themselves naturally.

At the time I was young and rash, and before I gave it any thought I was already doing it. I couldn’t speak English at all but I went and talked to a proprietor of one of the bars and started working there that night. The customers were almost all US soldiers in their 20s. Being around their age I was very popular. I had boyfriend after boyfriend. Sometimes one would rent an apartment and we would live together. At the time even the lowest ranking US soldiers made more than Okinawans and so it was normal to live with a girl you liked at a bar.

Koza started to become more and more run-down. Some of my bar girl friends had moved to Kin and told me that “Kin is the happening place now” and eventually I moved there too. I had originally entered the town to take photographs of US soldiers but gradually I found that taking photographs of my fellow bar girls was more interesting. They expressed their emotions very straightforwardly. When the man they were living with ended his deployment and moved back to America, they would weep. But after awhile they would have already found another boyfriend. How resilient, I would always think in admiration.

I would hear rumors about girls getting in a fight over a guy. Girls would start drinking in the daytime and get wasted. In the middle of some conversations, their faces glimpsed in profile were terribly serious.

One afternoon we all went to the beach. Right behind was a big street with many cars. Without anyone saying, anything we all stripped to our panties. There was an American ship stationed a bit out and one soldier was on guard duty. The other soldiers already went on shore, they probably left to have fun somewhere. The girls all shouted “hey!” at that one soldier and had fun teasing him. They laughed like children and played in the sand innocently.

“What’s wrong with loving a black man! What’s wrong with working at a black bar! What’s wrong with celebrating our freedom! What’s wrong with enjoying sex!” I liked these bar girls who lived open and free in narrow, cramped Okinawa. I had never cared much about what others thought of me but their ethos of “let’s live free, do what we want, and trust ourselves” made me care even less.

There are those who look down on women who work at military bars. They assume that the women are prostitutes. That is a total misconception. The worst position is looking down on others. I want to take down those high horses. The bar girls were living their lives to the fullest. No one has the right to talk down on those lives. I love the women who loved black men. To me, these are the most important photographs that I took in my 20s, in the 1970s.

Mao Ishikawa (Translation: Jun Sato)

Photography: Mao Ishikawa
Text: Mao Ishikawa
English Translation: Jun Sato
Design: Studio Lin, NYC
Printing: Die Keure, Brugge, BE
Color Proofing: Colour & Books, Apeldoorn, NL

33 x 22.9 cm
Soft cover
112 pages
Edition of 600
2022
2nd Printing

© Session Press

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