Shomei Tomatsu & the Post-War Japanese Psyche
Jeremy Chang, Swarthmore College, Class of 2016
In late summer of 1945 atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus bringing the Second World War to an end. With the surrender also came the task of healing a wounded Japan, political disarray, and the Americans. The arrival of this new, peculiar foreign entity irreversibly changed Japan's culture. The Japanese psyche was reevaluated during the metamorphosis of the country. Traditional values were forced to compete with the Western impositions of economic, societal, and mental nostrums. The nation, the culture, embraced the vicissitude of Americanization and, despite aberrations, remodeled itself in the decades following the "effective ground zero" (Rubinfien, Phillips, Dower, 2004) of its identity as a people. It was this Japan, in the flux of postwar turmoil, that Shomei Tomatsu (1930-2012) captured.
Only a new word could be used to describe the unprecedented disaster and destruction that now enveloped Japan - yakinohara, burnt plains (Rubinfien, Phillips, Dower, 2004). Tomatsu's photos capture an immediate and a personal reaction to this change, in particular "Untitled" [Yokosuka], 1959. Throughout the late 1950s and towards the end of the 1960s Tomatsu traveled to and around the prominent naval bases and the seedy hubs of evening entertainment that surrounded them - bars, bordellos, clubs, drug and liquor stores - and saw off-duty US soldiers "ramble, drink, haggle, hunt for women, and sometimes brawl" (Rubinfien, Phillips, Dower, 2004). As one might expect from a photographer who described the air raids on Nagoya, his hometown, as a "pageant of light...a feast of metallic beauty" (Rubinfien, Phillips, Dower, 2004), there exists a peculiar romanticism in the way he documented these curious encounters with a distinctly foreign presence. He described the occupation of Japan by the Americans as "a strange reality that was thrust upon us" (Szarkowski, Yamagishi 1974). The process of westernization and democratization of Japan at the expense of more traditional ideals elicited a complex, undefinable emotion in the Japanese people. Though the Americans may have exploited the post-war agreements by establishing multitudes of military bases around the country, what came with their occupation was not entirely unwelcome. As Jiro Osaragi wrote, "everyone who'd rushed into uniforms in 1940 rushed into aloha shirts after 1945" (Osaragi, Homecoming, 1955). Japan was thrust into a dizzying period after the war in which astonishing economic wealth was gained, but in which the validity of Japanese mentality was being questioned and altered. So Japan had come to a cultural crossroads. The question was, then, whether to move forward along with the economic machine, or to refute the Americans, its "conqueror-benefactors" (Rubinfien, Phillips, Dower, 2004). On the one hand there were Hiroshima and Nagasaki, attestation to America's elimination of hundreds of thousands of civilians. There were also the hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombings and living testimony to the evils of war. On the other were American goods, beliefs, and legislation. And at the intersection of this conflict lay the actual American bases, their people, and the blurring of cultural boundaries that resulted.
Tomatsu's series "Chewing Gum and Chocolate" captures the eccentricity of the American presence in Japan. The very title of the series references them, as GIs were known to hand out their chewing gum and chocolates to the children around the military bases (Rubinfien, Phillips, Dower, 2004). At once an act of kindness that helped dispel wartime propaganda portraying the Americans as the enemy, it also evokes suggestions about obsequiousness, the sentiment being the rich Americans pitied the Japanese. They were at once hated as the invaders, but the right-wing nationalistic narcissism of the wartime establishment was hated more, so with the occupation came a confusion rather than outright aversion. The series is about that complex emotion which represented the Japanese psyche post-war, and perhaps most representative of this is the photograph "Untitled" [Yokosuka] 1959. Here, Tomatsu creates visual dialogue between the implied anti-American wartime syllogism with latent tones of rebuilding and hope. The photograph depicts a mixed-race child (Rubinfien, Phillips, Dower, 2004) blowing a transparent bubble in the segregated "Harlem" section of Yokosuka (Rubinfien, Phillips, Dower, 2004). In the background stands a black naval soldier framed by a backdrop of English signs advertising bars, clubs, jazz, and other forms of entertainment. As art historian Ian Jeffrey writes, "Americanization meant a new style, not only characterized by gigantic, ill-shaped letters haphazardly displayed, but also indicating a new mode of being. The Americans, it seems, had no hesitation in confronting the camera, giving themselves to its gaze, in contrast to the diffidence that characterized Japanese attitudes" (Jeffrey, 2001). In "Untitled" [Yokosuka] 1959, Japan is juxtaposed as the victim of the imposition of American culture and subsequent discarding of Japanese values, like restraint, against a more sympathetic view of a possible future. The gritty novelty of military base life is emphasised with large signs that encroach in upon alley space and shout at the viewer. They demand attention. Furthermore, though nothing overtly sexual is implied, the meaning of "Bar Oasis" can be eroticized. Indeed, with the sailor in the background looking away down the street towards the institutions of such debauchery, the photograph carries subtle, discomforting sexual implication.
This is in stark contrast to the young girl, who may be an emblem of a possible compromise for the future. Of paramount importance is her heritage as a mixed-blood child born out of post-war change, perhaps alluding to the intermixing of American and Japanese cultures to produce something new. The bubble, too, lyrically encapsulates the sole Japanese sign in the composition with the characters for peace written upon it. Perhaps this could imply that peace, both nationally and mentally, can be achieved by embracing and integrating the American influence into Japan. However, this could also be read as the eager subordination of Japan (recall that chewing gum was handed out by GIs to children) with America as the ostensible superior. Again, this implication of a double-meaning likely refers to the intangible, undefinable emotion Japan was feeling throughout the process of Americanization. One could look for meaning in the spatial relationship between Tomatsu and the girl as well. The girl, whose bubble and self combines both the American and the Japanese, is photographed very intimately, which could suggest Tomatsu's leanings towards a peaceful coexistence or amalgam of the two cultures. By manifesting tawdry Americanism, Japanese signage, and humanizing the collision between two cultures in the form of the purity of a young girl, in this photograph Tomatsu has framed the essential expression of the confusion and conflict within the Japanese post-war psyche.