Report on the talk ‘The Agony of Okinawa: Mao Ishikawa’s “The Great Photographic Scroll of the Ryūkyū”’

Mao Ishikawa, detail from The Great Photographic Scroll of the Ryūkyū (2014 – ongoing) –An uminchu (fisherman) caught many fish. (Ryūkyū Kingdom Era.)

It was a pleasure to attend Prof. Ayelet Zohar’s Third Thursday talk, “The Agony of Okinawa: Mao Ishikawa’s ‘The Great Photographic Scroll of the Ryūkyū,’” held on April 20th. The work is a series of 1 meter x 30 meter photographic prints, ten thus far, which Ishikawa has produced annually since 2013. Each contains a number of photographic images in which friends and acquaintances of Ishikawa, and other volunteers, enact scenes from Okinawan history, folklife, or current events.

I had the privilege of seeing one of these ten scrolls, and meeting Ishikawa in person, when it was on display at the Naha City Citizens’ Gallery (Naha Shimin Gallery) in 2014. It is a piece that has fascinated and intrigued me ever since, and which I have spoken of numerous times. Learning more about Ishikawa’s life and career, and her attitudes and intentions, as well as learning that this has been an ongoing project, with new scrolls produced every year, dramatically expanded and deepened my appreciation of Ishikawa’s works, and of this series in particular.

The photographs range widely, from images of white-robed priestesses in sacred groves to a recreation of the 1879 promulgation of an imperial edict formally abolishing and annexing the Ryūkyū Kingdom, to non-staged photos of activists protesting the construction of a new military base at Henoko Bay in the north of Okinawa Island. Some show farmers or fishermen in an ahistorical, idyllic imagined past, enjoying the weather, natural beauty, and bounties of the land and sea. One shows samurai and Ryūkyūan warriors facing off against one another in a representation of the 1609 invasion of the independent kingdom by the samurai domain of Satsuma; the fences of an American military base in the background call to mind the intersections between this invasion and its echoes in later and ongoing assertions of Japanese and American authority in the islands. Another shows two figures at a desk, dressed in historical costume, in a parodic recreation of the 1854 signing of the US-Ryūkyū Treaty of Amity. In place of the actual text of the treaty, the paper held up by the figure dressed as Commodore Perry reads in part “we would like to stay here forever because we love Omoiyari … and we need the whole area of Takae and its jungle for our helipads,” referencing the controversial US construction some 150 years later of military helipads within the richly biodiverse jungle of the Takae area in the north of Okinawa Island. Numerous later images reenact scenes from the Battle of Okinawa in a serious and emotionally impactful way, with volunteers playing the roles of bloodied orphans, dead bodies, or comfort women. Others depict more recent events in a more parodic mode, with figures in blatantly false-looking masks of Japanese prime ministers, American presidents, and Okinawan governors, or in wearable human-sized recreations of military aircraft hanging around their midsection like a kid’s Halloween costume of a car or airplane.

Mao Ishikawa, detail from The Great Photographic Scroll of the Ryūkyū (2014 – ongoing) – The family of Chiemi Yonashiro, with the U.S. Futenma Air Station in the background. (Taken in April 2017.)

Ishikawa is known especially for her early works of documentary photography, including images from bars near US military bases, where GIs (many of them Black) intermixed with bar hostesses such as Ishikawa and other Okinawan women. In the 1990s, in a project entitled Hinomaru o miru me (“Here’s What the Japanese Flag Means to Me”), she turned to staged photography, asking people in Japan and overseas to contribute photos of them interacting in various ways with the Japanese flag. She continued this into the Dai Ryūkyū shashin emaki (“The Great Photographic Scroll of the Ryūkyū”) which was the focus of Prof. Zohar’s talk. Though Ishikawa’s earlier documentary photography and more recent staged works may appear rather different at first glance, Prof. Zohar helped us to see that all of these works focus on exploring and expressing the complexities and tensions involved in living in an Okinawa doubly-colonized by Japan and the United States. Further, that in all of these works, Ishikawa acts less as an artist seeking reputation, prestige, or success on her individual merits, than as a member of a community working to give voice to that community and to their experiences, emotions, and stories.

Mao Ishikawa, detail from The Great Photographic Scroll of the Ryūkyū (2014 – ongoing) – (Part 4, 2017.)

In the Ryūkyū photo scrolls, Ishikawa worked with friends, acquaintances, and other volunteers to decide which scenes to include, and to choreograph how to represent them. Asking them which events in Okinawa’s history are of particular importance to them or their families, and giving them a degree of freedom to then depict (reenact) those events as they see fit, she has been able to create a representation of Okinawa’s history that is firmly grounded in the memories and attitudes of the Okinawan community themselves. Not a history dictated from above by a national Board of Education, nor one strictly based only on what is contained in historical documents, but one that is the Okinawa the people themselves know, in their own memories and in the memories they inherited from ancestors and others, something Zohar quotes Marianne Hirsch as calling “postmemory.”

Zohar situates this within a broader battle over memory, in which the Okinawan people seek to highlight the discrimination and wrongs of the past, and to seek reconciliation and healing, while the Japanese government works to smooth over the problems of the past, concealing difficult histories and looking towards the future. The Photo Scroll of Great Ryūkyū relates this long history not in a didactic way, but through episodes, some serious, some parodic, that give a sense of the attitudes, emotions, and historical memory of the Okinawan people themselves; in this piece, we can see not just a chronology of events, but a sense of how people imagine, understand, or remember them, and how they wish these to be remembered and represented to others.

The talk was followed by a dynamic Q&A, but unfortunately there was not time for Dr Zohar to answer all questions posed by the attendees. She therefore kindly gave a follow up session, where she answered further questions. A transcript of her answers can be found here.

Please contact the Sainsbury Institute office team on for all requests relating to the recording of the lecture.

Travis Seifman, PhD, is a scholar of early modern Ryūkyū (Okinawa) and Japan, associate professor at the Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University, and Research Affiliate at the Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts.

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