Hotel Okinawa – Greg Girard

Greg Girard, author of Hotel Okinawa, tells us the story behind six of his favourite images from the project.

01 Audrey

Audrey Hepburn retains a special place in the heart of Japan. You see her on billboards and posters in cities and towns all over the country. I’m told the infatuation started with the 1953 film Roman Holiday, where she played a young princess, much-loved by her subjects, yet isolated. After a rebellious but short-lived escape from palace life (which included a chaste whirlwind romance), she ultimately chooses duty over personal fulfilment. A classic Japanese theme. And then there’s the gamine looks, and her poise and charm, all of it aligning with Japanese ideals of character and feminine beauty. The film is also quintessentially American, in the early post-war sense of what that means: Generous, irreverent, oblivious to other cultures yet well-meaning.

I had walked past the hair salon in the daytime and noticed the Audrey poster but didn’t think to make a picture until passing by later at night, with the interior illuminated. The outside of the place, somewhat weatherworn, the carefully placed potted plants, the vegetation growing wildly up the left side of the building, and the almost back-lit Audrey poster, it all seemed to register something particular to Okinawa. A dated American film reference now a Japanese cultural touchstone, a shift from its original place on the grid. But in Okinawa those post-war American cultural references seem to be embedded deeper, living on in a way they no longer do elsewhere.

02 Protest House

I made this picture at dawn, setting my alarm for 4am on the day I was leaving, after an absurdly short 3-day visit. I had driven or walked by this house during the day, and noticed the sign, but thought it might look better at night, or just before dawn, with the yellow of the protest sign standing out against the blue-ish cooler colors of dawn or dusk. The starkness of the message, no words, just a silhouette of an aircraft with an “X” across it: “No Osprey”. Everyone in Okinawa knows this distinctive silhouette. Newly deployed to Okinawa when the picture was made in 2012, the tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft is reputedly accident-prone, and as such considered an increased threat to public safety. I’m not sure the Osprey is any more dangerous than anything else the US military flies in the skies above Okinawa but the larger complaint perhaps is that the new Osprey squadrons arrived without consultation. One more instance of the Japanese and US governments ignoring local sentiment, perpetuating the noise from operations at the controversial Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, in a heavily populated, densely urban part of the island.

Large protests against the US military are a recurring feature of political life in Okinawa, with smaller protests occurring daily, as some protesters are more or less permanently camped out near many of the bases. I made some protest pictures but felt they were too conventionally topical or journalistic looking, and didn’t add anything, or in fact took away from what I was trying to do: to make pictures of the every day, that very specific every day when you live alongside a US military base, and have done so for decades. So, I was glad to come across this scene since it registered an individual’s response to the day to day reality: “this is where I live and this is how I feel”, independent of any larger protest event. The large anti base protests are deeply felt, this is unmistakable, but on one level they are also meant for the camera, so to speak. And I felt I didn’t want anything made for news cameras to have a place in this project. In any case the modest sign (modest in size but not of intent) summed up for me the fact that opposition to the bases is a part of the fabric of life here. In the same way that some visual clue about the US military can suddenly appear anywhere in Okinawa, equally so can signs of opposition to it.

03 Women and Children, Camp Foster

I photographed on 7 or 8 different US bases on Okinawa, and when photographing “on base” I was always accompanied by an escort from the base Public Affairs Office. Usually I would submit a request in advance about what I hoped to see, and for the most part I was simply interested in seeing scenes of daily life, from family life to military training and everything in between. In this instance I had requested to see a typical morning of a family on one of the Marine Corps bases, and the base Public Affairs Office found a volunteer family who agreed to be photographed. The family housing area on most bases often resembles a typical 1950s or 60s American suburb (perhaps one in Hawaii or Florida where the flat roofs are made to withstand typhoons/hurricanes). In this picture the school-age kids have just boarded school buses, leaving the pre-schoolers with the stay-at-home moms. There’s an unmistakable time warp quality to the scene, something that’s not unnoticed by the people living in it. Which was evident when one of the moms greeted me with “Welcome to Mayberry” (the fictional small town in the 1950s US television series, “Andy of Mayberry”).

04 High School Student

For anyone who has spent time in Okinawa, or paid attention to its recent history, the rape of a 12 year old schoolgirl by three US military personnel in 1995 was a turning point, an “enough is enough” moment. Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets in protest. The outrage burned hot for weeks. The suspects were convicted and jailed but the incident remains a scar, one of many.

In 2014 I was walking near a house I was staying in, in Yomitan, where the urbanized south starts to give way to farms and sugar cane fields, and this schoolgirl walked past on her way home from school. The camera went up to my eye without thinking but by the time I pressed the shutter I realized why I had raised the camera and what the scene meant.

05 Ginowan Overview Dusk

As much as the history of the bases and the recent history of Okinawa are intertwined, a lot of the pictures in the book have nothing to do with the bases, because that is also a reality. Jets fly overhead, cars and trucks full of Americans drive by, razor wire base perimeter fences line the highways, but at the same time there’s the Okinawa that’s there indifferent to the reality of the bases.

The town of Ginowan is a densely urbanized agglomeration of residential and commercial buildings, north of the capital, Naha, much of it of squat typhoon-resistant construction. One side faces the ocean, and there are a good number of businesses that cater to the American military community, or used to, along Route 58, which runs most the length of the island. A huge part of the physical area of town is actually taken up by the Marine Corps Futenma Air Station, right in the middle of the town. Ginowan surrounds the base on all sides.

In this picture there’s no sign of the base but what we do see at the bottom of the picture, nearly out of place against the urban sprawl, is a swath of Okinawan flora, untamed jungle almost, presumably of the sort that used to cover the island. During the US invasion of Okinawa in 1945 the forest cover was pulverized, and then soon after, during the Occupation, towns were quickly rebuilt with urbanization spreading all over the southern half of the island. Today you see bits of wildness sprouting up whenever a vacant lot is left vacant for long. The scene here is just after sunset, the sky a pink-purple blush that’s picked up by the surface of the pale buildings, with the lights of the unglamorous city starting to show in the dusk. In a hot place this is a merciful time of day. A time in the tropics when things begin rather than when they end, if compared with more temperate northern climates. There’s not really much happening here but it does remind me of what I like about the place, a kind of messy beauty. And I do think it is actually representative of what the place is like: the unplanned, sun-baked, dense, low-rise urban environment with a scruffy tuft of jungle as a reminder of what’s trying to push up through the built-over surfaces.

06 Bar Customers, Okinawa City

I like photographing in bars though I usually don’t end up making very good pictures in them. Probably my bar pictures without people are better than the ones with people. It’s hard to get good pictures of people in bars and I respect photographers who can do that well. This picture was one of the last pictures I made on my last trip to Okinawa, before the deadline to complete the book. I had met the bar owner the previous night. She was out front smoking a cigarette, getting ready to open for business. I was photographing on a tripod on the street in front of the bar. I said I’d like to come back the next evening and maybe take some pictures of her bar. She said “dozo” and so the next evening I went back. It’s a tiny place, six seats and a counter, and a couple of her regulars were sitting in what I imagine were their regular spots. The gentleman pictured was already well into his evening. I sat down and ordered awamori, the local drink. Most of the pictures in Hotel Okinawa were shot on film, not that it matters, but this is one of the few pictures in the book that was shot on digital. (I used a flash bounced off the ceiling as well, for those further interested in the technical side). Anyway, I guess it’s the look. That “bring it on” look he’s giving me. Photographing strangers is exciting. You just never know how it’s going to go.

Greg Girard is a Canadian photographer whose work has examined the transformations of the social and physical landscape in Asia where he has lived, worked and travelled for more than four decades. He has produced a number of books on cities in Asia, most notably “City of Darkness” and “City of Darkness Revisited”, about Hong Kong’s infamous Kowloon Walled City; and the monographs “Phantom Shanghai” and “Hanoi Calling”.

He is represented in North America by Monte Clark Gallery, and currently lives in Vancouver, Canada.

His latest book, Hotel Okinawa, explores historical strands that are part of the complex fabric of Okinawa today. It will be published by The Velvet Cell in August 2017.

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