When I was about 16, around the same time he thought I was ready to inherit his preserved copies of R. Crumb’s Zap comic books, my father, a former member of the U.S. Navy who was stationed in Japan for over a decade, told me the tale of the Cucumber Mama.
It was a usual night out with shipmates, boozing in Yokohama while in port during the Vietnam War. One friend knew a place that got especially special late at night. It was a small bar, too narrow to let anyone pass in or out without everyone exiting or squeezing against the wall. This also meant that everyone had courtside seats when Mama-san, the matronly barkeep, had had enough drinks to get up on the bar and masturbate with a cucumber.
Such was Japan’s American military interzone, that area of sex, drink and music associated mainly with the seedy alleyways just outside base gates but emanating a vibrant spirit of vulgar fraternization that reached much farther. The neighborhood was to post-WWII Japan what the Yoshiwara “pleasure quarters” had been to the Edo period: a morally murky but culturally galvanizing crucible. The idea was simply to make money on a bored and horny foreign military. But by introducing American servicemen’s tastes into the country-jazz, comic books, jeans and Hawaiian shirts, for example—the interzone utterly transformed Japanese culture.
The interzone is usually presented as a sign of national defeat and humiliation, evoking the Allied Occupation and the continuing presence of American military personnel on Japanese soil under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Emblematic are the fences surrounding the bases, the noisy military aircraft in Japanese skies and foreign warships in Japanese harbors. Particularly irksome are images of Japanese women who consort with American servicemen. Their interactions provoke terms like “embracing defeat” and “national prostitution,” which posit sexual submission (and its attendant Japanese emasculation) as a metaphor for compromised sovereignty. In my view, however, a truly judicious postwar artist is one who can see in these “occupied” female bodies something subtler than invasion.
There can be little doubt what side of the moral fence Shomei Tomatsu (1930-2012) stood on. His many photographs of American military bases and servicemen, taken throughout the country between 1952 and 1978, evince little love for their subjects. Granted, images that provoke outright disgust are rare. But whether they depict a burly white sailor standing with his arms crossed amid a group of much smaller Japanese, or a bomber spewing its black exhaust over Okinawa on its way to or from Vietnam, Tomatsu’s shots usually convey a palpable undercurrent of unwelcome.
Over 125 of the artist’s interzone photographs are collected in Chewing Gum and Chocolate, edited by two Americans with extensive experience in Japan: photographer and writer Leo Rubinfien (who also contributes an essay) and documentary filmmaker John Junkerman. The title, which is Tomatsu’s, refers to the sweets handed out by American soldiers to Japanese children after WWII. In his essay, Rubinfien (co-curator of a traveling Tomatsu retrospective in 2001-04) describes the photographer’s personal response to the U.S. presence as ambivalent. Yet the overall message of the images—sailors milling about looking for fun, bars with kitschy names and English signage, men in sunglasses swaggering through Japanese streets—is “thanks for nothing.”
Tomatsu never captured servicemen doing anything really wrong, but he knew how to make them look bad in ambiguous situations. Many of the most famous examples use the compositional techniques of modernist ostranenie (extreme angles, tilting ground planes) to render their subjects doubly disconcerting. In one image, the camera looks up at a group of crew-cut servicemen, all laughing, one raising his foot as if to stomp on Tomatsu’s face. Blacks come across as especially ugly. Two stand in front of a bar, overcome with laughter as a passing Japanese woman flinches away from the camera. The face of a black sailor, captured in close-up turning his head, displays a sneer that is probably accidental but no less grotesque because of it.
In an image of a smirking young man being tugged inside by a female arm, Tomatsu typically stops at the door. This is not done out of politeness. It’s a technique for framing his subjects as already guilty. The artist occasionally crosses the threshold—as he does in two shots of women pulling up their panties—but here, too, he composes in a conniving way. Each woman’s face is masked with a mop of hair—a way of protecting her anonymity but also a trope (the faceless and sexualized female body) that Tomatsu uses so often as to suggest his own uneasiness about what the women’s faces might actually reveal. Something other than oppression perhaps?
The picture chosen for the back cover of Chewing Gum and Chocolate—a Japanese girl, with an Afro and a T-shirt emblazoned with a black male head, looks directly into the camera while clutching money in her lap—has an openness that is unrepresentative of the collection as a whole. Still, one suspects that the real point of the photograph is to reiterate what Tomatsu considers the racial chaos of the interzone.
“When I first went to Okinawa early in 1969,” wrote Tomatsu in 1975, in one of a handful of his translated essays included in Chewing Gum and Chocolate, “I was seized by complex feelings of hatred and awe, mixed with a kind of nostalgia when I saw the bases.” Perusing Tomatsu’s book, I too am struck with a feeling of conflicted homesickness, though of a very different sort.
I was born in 1976 at Camp Zama Hospital, a year after the end of the Vietnam War in one of the main facilities for combat GIs recuperating in the Tokyo region. The bulk of my elementary school years were spent around the military installations in this area. School and dad’s work were situated inside the bases, a region Rubinfien dismisses in his essay as “dull offices and repair shops” but which in fact harbored a surreal Americana stage-set, complete with bowling alleys, backyard barbeques and standard suburban malaise. (One catches only a glimpse of this in Tomatsu’s handful of images of white people in their yards.) Playtime took place beyond the fences, among the video games and toy robots of mainstream Japanese childhood, while my parents’ leisure time was devoted to local festivals, shopping for Oriental knickknacks, and beach parties with Japanese friends. With their sense of simple enjoyment, Mao Ishikawa’s nonjudgmental portraits of marines at play in Okinawa have always seemed to me far truer to the cheery normalcy of the American presence in Japan on a day-to-day basis. (Interestingly, Ishikawa studied at Tokyo’s Workshop Photography School, founded by Tomatsu and other noted photographers in 1974.)
Tomatsu’s images of mixed-race children strike me as particularly unfair. Whether pictured as physically awkward or wandering the streets alone, these youths are made to look like products of bad love. Yes, some were abandoned by their American fathers, but discrimination against them by many Japanese was just as big a problem. The kids themselves remind me of my classmates in portraits from Shirley Lanham Elementary School on Atsugi Base. A handful of students are white, a few black and a couple Hispanic. Just as many are mixed: half-Japanese, but also half-Korean, half-Hawaiian and, most frequently, half-Filipino. One might disagree with the geopolitics that created this melting pot, but it makes a hash of discrimination at the root.
Meanwhile, Tomatsu’s perspective feels more like the one revealed in my high school yearbook from Prince George’s County in Maryland, just north of Washington, D.C. The faces there are starkly segregated between black and white, evoking a world, like Tomatsu’s, in which crossing racial lines was viewed by many as unnatural and taboo.
In Japan, there is little play in notions of national identity. A foreigner can become a citizen after a very long process, but for most people blood still defines what it means to be Japanese. The government, confronted by an aging population, has begun to liberalize immigration, opening the door to a future Japan in which ethnic mixing is so common as to defuse the racial anxiety that pervades Chewing Gum and Chocolate.
Tomatsu is commonly regarded as a photographer concerned about Americanization. But what would he think about the inverse, about foreigners claiming to be fully or partly Japanese? That is an issue I see lurking in his pictures of black kids with almond eyes, and even in one of a sullen white teenage boy in a Hawaiian shirt, in whom I cannot help but catch a glimpse of my younger self.
RYAN HOLMBERG, based in Mumbai, is an academic associate of the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, Norwich, England.