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Report on the talk ‘Kuwabara Shisei: Documenting the US Military Base in Cold War Korea’

Left: Kuwabara Shisei, Untitled (at Tongduch’ŏn), from Kankoku gen’ei, 19 x 29.7 cm 1964; Right: Kuwabara Shisei, Untitled (at P’aju), from Kankoku gen’ei, 19 x 29.7 cm, 1964.

Nearly 60 years after the historic 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, Dr. Ji Hye Han presented a comprehensive analysis of Cold War conflicts on the Korean peninsula during the Third Thursday lecture at the Sainsbury Institute on April 18th. The lecture, titled “Kuwabara Shisei: Documenting the US Military Base in Cold War Korea,” highlighted Dr. Han’s study of Kuwabara Shisei, a distinguished Japanese photojournalist active in Korea since 1964. Focusing on the 1986 photobook, Kankoku gen’ei (Korea 1964-86), Dr. Han explored Kuwabara’s vivid capture of the profound impact of the United States Forces Korea (USFK). Through meticulous visual critique, she argues that Kuwabara’s imagery serves not only as historical documentation but also contests the dominant Cold War narratives perpetuated by mainstream media in Korea.

Kuwabara embarked on his documentary photography career by addressing Minamata disease in Japan, later shifting to the complexities of life in Korea. Overcoming early struggles with identity and quality, his recognition came through a solo exhibition and awards in Tokyo. These achievements set the stage for his ambitious project in Korea during the mid-1960s—a period marked by strained diplomatic ties and prevalent anti-Japanese sentiment. Inspired by Korean culture and history, Kuwabara chronicled key events such as student protests and military ceremonies, culminating in the photobook Kankoku gen’ei, which scrutinises the transformation of Korea in the postwar period and highlights the significant U.S. military presence.

Kuwabara Shisei, Untitled (at Munsan), from Kankoku gen’ei, 42 x 29.5 cm, 1965.

In the chapter “Far East Strategy, USFK” from Kankoku gen’ei, Kuwabara presents ten monochrome photographs that illustrate interactions between American soldiers and Korean women, introducing the strategic role of the US Forces Korea (USFK) during the Cold War to Japanese audiences. The initial photographs show American soldiers at the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), the solemn expressions and uniform attire symbolising unity and dedication to their roles as protectors, aligning with their historical image as defenders and modernisers of Korea. Subsequent images introduce greater complexity, depicting a GI and a Korean woman in a poignant yet restricted encounter, with her traditional hanbok adorned with rose patterns subtly hinting at romance within limits. These photographs uncover their nuanced interactions that deviate from the stereotypical images of oppressive occupiers prevalent in Korean nationalist discourse and the idealised ally found in official American narratives. Dr. Han notes that Kuwabara’s work encapsulates the Cold War’s cultural tensions, revealing themes of imperialism, local impact, and cross-cultural dynamics.

Kuwabara’s photography also reimagines the dichotomous depictions of American GIs and Korean camptown sex workers. These traditional representations fluctuate, casting the GI as either a benevolent protector or a hostile invader—while capturing the camptown woman either as a moral threat to national purity or a symbolic victim of foreign dominance. Kuwabara exposes the inconsistencies and simplifications in these narratives, uncovering a spectrum of individual experiences and relationships. By presenting scenes like camptown women and GIs amicably returning from a picnic, smiling and relaxed, Kuwabara contests the entrenched views of these women as mere passive subjects. Instead, he portrays them as individuals with agency, actively engaging in and sometimes enjoying their interactions with GIs. Such images propose an alternative narrative where camptown women neither simply as victims nor as symbols of national degradation but as figures capable of resistance and self-determination. By showcasing them in varied scenarios that emphasise their autonomy and individuality, Kuwabara’s images disrupt and expand the reductive stereotypes, infusing them with dignity and a more authentic insight into the lived experiences of these women.

Kuwabara Shisei, Untitled (at P’aju). Kankoku gen’ei, 16 x 10 cm, 1965.

In another image, Kuwabara captures the American 8th Army show at a club, where Korean dancers adorned in bikini tops and feathered skirts wield flowery castanet-like instruments. This scene, as Dr. Han situates, is steeped in “militouristic” imaginaries—a concept by Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez—which reflects the historical U.S. military influence in tropical regions. The tropical-themed costumes and accessories evoke imagery of leisure destinations in these areas, historically significant within U.S. military strategy and popularised through colonial narratives. This visual representation not only taps into the feminisation of such regions, akin to colonial perspectives on places like the Philippines and Hawaii but also highlights the enduring colonial, gendered, and racialised perceptions from the Cold War era. Kuwabara’s broader narrative links these local interactions to the expansive global network of U.S. military bases, illustrating how the overseas bases in Korea and beyond, integrate into a larger geopolitical framework of the Cold War. Through visual and textual elements in “Far East Strategy, USFK”, Kuwabara encapsulates the omnipresent effects of this global network, providing a critical view of its role in shaping international relations.

Dr. Han concludes that Kuwabara’s photographs primarily explore U.S. military representations in Korea through his perspective as an Asian male from a previously occupied nation, showcasing neo-colonial dynamics. Kuwabara’s work, known for images of American GIs and local camptown sex workers, often overlooks other female figures involved in military base operations. His selective representation reveals an Asian male-centric view that both eroticises camptown women and disdains their ties to foreigners. This portrayal suggests a struggle with masculinity and the internalisation of imperialist ideologies. Moreover, the omission of Korean men accentuates their metaphorical invisibility within the camptown ecosystem, suggesting societal impotence as they are relegated to passive, voyeuristic positions. In summary, while ostensibly centred on the U.S. military, Kuwabara’s images predominantly convey the desires and perspectives of Asian men towards the American ‘other’—a reflection of their societal status and internal conflicts during the Cold War era. Thus, Kuwabara’s work, while documenting military presence, also serves as a self-reflective exploration of Asian male identity in the geopolitical and cultural contexts of the time.

Shih-cheng Huang
PhD candidate in the Department of History of Art and Archaeology at SOAS University of London. His research primarily explores Japanese photography and visual culture between the 1920s and the 1970s.

All images taken from the article: Photographs of the US Military Base in Cold War Korea: through the Photographic Gaze Of Kuwabara Shisei – The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus (apjjf.org)