Chewing Gum and Chocolate by Shomei Tomatsu

Much like Japanese Buddhists made pilgrimages along the famous 88 temples on the Japanese island of Shikoku, Shomei Tomatsu claimed he had made a pilgrimage along all the US military bases across Japan. His aim was to photograph the interaction between the American soldiers and the Japanese locals, who had hardly ever seen a foreigner on their island before.


© Shomei Tomatsu

 His “pilgrimage” lasted 20 years, from the 1950’ies till the 1970’ies and resulted in numerous publications in (now forgotten) Japanese photography magazines and literary journals. But Tomatsu has also re-edited, re-sequenced or re-titled parts of this work in a number of photobooks,  published by his own publishing company Shaken.

Now, Aperture has published a magnificent overview of the whole body of work on the US Army presence in Japan and titled it Chewing Gum and Chocolate, after the very same title Tomatsu had given to an exhibition of his work at the end of the 1960’ies.

The book especially focusses on Tomatsu’s photographs of the US bases in Okinawa, a sacred region in many Japanese (traditional) minds. The US victors had withdrawn their occupying forces in 1952 but they had kept the military zone in Okinawa as a staging area for bombing runs to Vietnam during the Vietnam war (1955-1975). Exhausted Vietnam troopers also would be flewn in to Okinawa every six months for a one week “rest”.

The comparison between Tomatsu’s work and the religious entreprise of a pilgrimage is not totally unfounded. While photographing the presence of US soldiers over not less than two decades, he must have had to summon the same zeal and perseverance of a pious pilgrim. Like Leo Rubinfein puts it in his essay in the Aperture edition: “Tomatsu’s aim in exploring the bases, to discover what had become of his country, was no less important or deeply felt than that of any queester of the spirit“.

We see how the soldiers in Chewing Gum and Chocolate installed their power in a curious athmosphere of individual freedom and limitless capacities of leasure and pleasure, that was welcomed by many of Tomatsu’s fellow country men.

As a “pilgrim”, Tomatsu must have been puzzled by the magnetizing effects of American pop and advertising culture that were totally destroying, wiping out all forms of traditional Japanese culture, most painfully the traditional gender roles in Japan.


© Shomei Tomatsu

In the Aperture edition Chewing Gum and Chocolate, an excerpt is added from an essay by Shomei Tomatsu on the effects of the rapid Americanization of Japan. The essay was published by Camera Mainichi (Japanese photography magazine) in November 1964.

Americanization is a cultural phenomenon common to all of the countries of the West. In Western Europe it is called, with a kind of mixed dread and disdain, “coca-colonization.” This is because Coca-Cola is a symbol of the American civilization that stands for mass production, mass commodities, and mass communications. Americanization is now becoming the common pattern of world civilization.


© Shomei Tomatsu

What about the Americanization of Japan? It goes without saying. A new star could be added to the fifty in white reverse on the blue field of the Stars and Stripes, and that would be Japan. In other words, it would not be strange to call it the State of Japan in the United States of America. That’s how far America has penetrated inside Japan, how deeply it has plumbed our daily lives. In any case, that is today’s Japan.” (Tomatsu, 1964).

At the same time, the images also disclose Tomatsu’s revulsion about what was going on, about the blunt rhetorics of the occupying forces. They disclose his “dread and disdain” for the culture of the liberators “who deeply plumbed his daily life“.

shomei tomatsu prostitute

© Shomei Tomatsu

The strong and  well-armed soldiers who assume supreme power over the local culture and over the local ladies, appear as demiurgs of a crazy world in which everything and everyone is for sale.  But,  they also seemed to bring along with them feelings of alienation, frustration, neuroses that quickly spread in the country of the rising sun.

Interestingly, Tomatsu subtly showed that the soldiers themselves suffered from these feelings in the first place. These young men were residing in campements which were separated from their homes and families by nothing smaller than the wide Pacific Ocean.

Throughout the work, we see how the cultural transformation of Japan was materialized by the troubled, bewildred and sometimes frenzied souls of lonesome American soldiers.


© Shomei Tomatsu

But many other issues were playing as well. Black soldiers on Okinawa, extremely unfree at home, clearly seem to feel the stupidity of fighting a war “for the sake of freedom”.

shomei tomatsu

© Shomei Tomatsu

For sure, Tomatsu also enjoyed being freed from the Japanese military state; from the traditional modes of life; from the closed Japanese society which used to smother all the individual’s private aspirations. But enjoying this freedom did not refrain him from attending the violent student protests against the coca-colonisation in Shinjuku, Tokyo…

shomei tomatsu student.

© Shomei Tomatsu

The Aperture Edition is a poetic ode to the paradoxes of the “free world”.