Chewing Gum and Chocolate (1)

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 white or black fellow before on their island.

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© 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 The US victors had withdrawn their occupying forces in 1952 but they had kept the military zone in Okinawa as a staging area for bombing runs to Vietnam during the Vietnam war (1955-1975).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“.

As a “pilgrim”, Tomatsu must have been puzzled by the blunt rhetorics of the occupying forces – the victors always have it right – and 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.

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© Shomei Tomatsu

But the images also compassionately document how the cultural transformation of Japan was materialized by the troubled, bewildred and sometimes frenzied souls of lonesome American soldiers, residing in campements which were separated from their homes and families by nothing smaller than the wide Pacific Ocean.

Shomei-Tomatsu

© Shomei Tomatsu

More on Shomei Tomatsu and the theme of Americanization or Coca-Colonization, as he beautifully named it, in a following post.

David Nollet

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reporting on the art of the photobook