Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History


While the surviving photos in the collection indicate that Gail visited Okinawa's historic sites and took in the natural beauty, the majority of his photos are centered on Okinawans themselves. Their daily practices, work and play, have been featured in other sub-pathways in this module, but here, I have selected photos in which the photographer makes clear that people are central subjects. For many of the images, he wrote comments on their clothing (and other accoutrements), expressions, actions, and even racial characteristics ("mongoloid features"). In other words, like most of the American military personnel in Okinawa, Gail probably did not have a deep understanding of Okinawan history and culture and could not, therefore, interact with these spatialities beyond a superficial level.

This is most striking because Okinawa in the early 1950s, when Gail was stationed there, was a place of vociferous political turmoil. Only seven years earlier, Okinawa played the unfortunate host to the bloodiest battle of the entirety of World War II, killing one-third of Okinawan civilians in the fighting and deprivation. It’s fair to assume that nearly all of the people in Gail’s photos, including those born after the war, lost family members during the conflict. Moreover, by the end of the 1950s, the footprint of American bases doubled to occupy nearly twenty percent of the main islands. A deeper interrogation of Okinawa’s political environment would have revealed that the locations in which Gail was taking his photos were deeply political, inhabited by people who were experiencing foreign military occupation and the related land dispossession.

To be sure, the occupying U.S. military brought material wealth to a people who had suffered immense deprivations during the war, much to the relief of the survivors of the battle. In his memoir of anti-base protest during the 1950s, Ahagon Shoko described his initial optimism at the American arrival. A farmer from Iejima, an island that had been leveled during the war, Ahagon had no love lost for the vanquished Japanese military. Quickly, however, his cautious optimism towards the American administration turned to worry and resentment. In his 1970 memoir, U.S. Military and Farmers, he described the initial optimism and eventual disappointment that he felt towards to the new American military government:

During the war we were treated brutally by the Japanese military. As a result of that, we at first saw America as the country of democracy, the country where Lincoln had lived, and we trusted it. At first, even when we couldn't understand the Military's orders and directives, even when we confronted them in meetings, we thought that though the Military was fearsome the US Civil Administration must be on our side.

I myself also thought so. I had blind faith in them. But little by little, as America betrayed us, our eyes were opened.

Anti-base sentiment was rampant throughout those communities who endured the U.S. military’s “bulldozers and bayonets” during the island-wide 1950s base construction and expansion in Okinawa. Japan’s southernmost prefecture remained under U.S. military administration until 1972, leaving Okinawans like Ahagon without recourse in bringing their complaints to the Japanese government, which created a very different bureaucratic and legal environment that was not experienced elsewhere in Japan.

Okinawa was a military colony, and all rights and privileges granted or denied to Okinawans were at the prerogative of the U.S. military, which dictated everything from the direction of traffic flows (on the right-side, akin to the U.S. and unlike Japan) to the issuing of travel visas. The United States Civil Administration of the Ryūkyū Islands (USCAR) was, in some ways, a euphemism for what in actuality was an entirely military government in Okinawa. There was some level of nominal civil sovereignty within Okinawa that allowed for the elections of local officials as well as some level of town and prefectural governance, but the highest laws of the islands were those dictated by the U.S. military, not Okinawan or Japanese administrations. Importantly, this also meant that Okinawans were not able to bring their base-related grievances to a Japanese court.

This difference in legal regimes created conditions that shaped Okinawan anti-base protests. During the 1950s, for example, Ahagon and other farming families were vocal opponents to the military’s appropriation of their farmland for use in the construction of what would become the Marine Corps’ Ie Shima Auxiliary Airfield. Ahagon was a prominent figure in the anti-base movement, which reached its apex during the massive base-building program that overtook the island during the years after the Korean War. His own experience interacting with a deeply adversarial U.S. military in the 1950s is perhaps a useful counterpoint to the smiling faces and benign interactions captured in Gail’s photos.

In 1955, after several years of fruitless efforts to file petitions and bring lawsuits against the U.S. military government over exploitative land appropriations, Ahagon and other farmers embarked on a “beggars’ march (kojiki kōshin)” around much of the island in an attempt to gain support for their cause. During many of the early negotiations [though, this term is not adequate, for it assumes a level of equality in the discussions] with the military, Iejima families made the long and arduous trip from Iejima to the prefectural capital of Naha. The farmers arrived at the military headquarters—many in ragged clothes, some barefoot—only to fail to be treated seriously by the people who sought to evict them from their land. The American officials, rarely inviting the farming families into their offices for a formal meeting, would simply dismiss the group and tell them to come again another day, or file another tedious and legally alien round of paperwork. In an attempt to claim control over their appearance of destitution (that the military both created and reviled), Iejima’s farmers took their protests to the roads around Okinawa, culminating on a march into Naha. The march was an important symbol of resistance, but also a poignant reminder that the undeniably colonial and military-legal structure in Okinawa did not allow for citizens to directly affect policy through democratic processes. Ultimately, the farmers on Iejima could not prevent the construction of the base, but this did not mean that anti-base struggle did not continue. Ahagon remained a vocal advocate for the anti-base movement in Okinawa until his death in 2002.

We might pause here and reflect on the forms of labor that appear more frequently in Gail’s photos. We see fishmongers, fisherwomen and men, as well as shopkeepers and other tradespeople. We don’t see many photos of farmers. Were the places Gail photographed primarily peri-urban? Even if they were, we still might expect to see more farmland in the photos in and around the bases in the southern part of the island, where such land use was still certainly prevalent in areas not bulldozed by the military. We might conclude, therefore, that farmers and farmland (the people and places most directly interrupted by the massive base construction of the 1950s), were purposefully avoided by the photographer.

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