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Friday, 20 November 2015

Dear Japanese: A genuine struggle with the past

J. M’s mother was never willing to tell her who her father was. She only knows the name of her Japanese father, who worked at a petro company in Java.

I like Dear Japanese by Miyuki Okuyama for several reasons, Most of all I like it for its earnestness, for its desire to do good, for its attempt to understand the impact Japanese imperialism had on the people of Southeast Asia.

If you don't know it, in East and Southeast Asia, the Japanese have the kind of reputation the Nazis have in Europe. The difference is that Germany has addressed (if not quite coped with) its past, Japan has barely recognised what it did in the name of the emperor.

J. S. as an infant, lived in Japan with her parents. The life together did not last, since her mother could not adopt to the life in Japan.

This attempt to understand one's own national atrocities and failures doesn't happen much in photography (very few British people are willing to address or challenge their own deeply held certainties for example), especially where Japan is concerned. It doesn't happen even when other nationalities are dealing with Japanese photography. In the West at least (and correct me if I'm wrong), there is one Japanese photo-narrative and it goes unchallenged; it runs along the lines of atomic bombs, American bombs, Japanese suffering, American suffering. Which is all true, but (atomic bombs aside), it's even more true of Germany. The traditional photo-narrative misses a few things out.

A massive bugbear of mine this year was the Time, Conflict exhibition at Tate Modern. There were four works (off the top of my head) concerning the aftermath and horrific suffeing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet there was nothing concerning the actions of the Japanese Imperial Army in 'The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere'.

I found this astounding, especially considering 1) Japan has never truly recognised its disgraceful war record and 2) there is great work out there that addresses Japanese rule in Asia, and this work has been shown in Japan; Reminders Stronghold, the documentary hotbed in Tokyo, showed Jan Banning's Comfort Women earlier this year for example.

Okuyama is trying to address this imbalance in other words, and in so doing she has produced a really nice book with the Eriskay Connection. And it's not easy, you can feel how difficult it is for her.

It starts with a sincere introduction in which she describes who she is photographing. These are the descendants of Dutch-Indonesian and Japanese parents, people who returned to the Netherlands after the Japanese occupation ended and Indonesia gained independence. Despite the Japaneseness of the features Okuyama found in the people she photographed, many grew up not realising their Japanese backgrounds. So for Okuyama, the act of photography is a form of personal understanding of her own past (as manifested in the Japanese occupation of Indonesia/The Dutch East Indies) and a reconnection of her subjects to the Japanese culture that she believes in so passionately.

Claudine has been searching for her father since the early 70’s.

The pictures are quite straightforward and they are uncaptioned (go to her website to see the captions - I like the captions. I am not sure why they are not in the book. This is not a poetic story, this is a concrete story. And the captions help fix that.).

Max M. was born in Bandung. He is one of a few fortunate cases to have good contact with his Japanese family.

The pictures are a mix of darkly printed portraits of these descendants, mixed with landscapes from the Dutch countryside. There is a sliding scale of Japaneseness in the portraits. Some look more Japanese, some less so, as though they are gradually becoming part of a new landscape. In addition to these elements there are a few interiors and a page from a map of Indonesia (of the island of Sumba curiously, a very particular place).

In 2007, Max confronted his mother for the truth. For the first time, she confirmed that he has a Japanese father.

But that landscape doesn't look quite as Dutch as you would expect.There are skies, and flowers and snow-covered forest floors. There seems to be something very Japanese about these places, as though the legacy may become diluted in genetic terms, but it stays in other ways, especially through the photographic filter that Okuyama overlays onto the Netherlands.

The book is printed on thin, almost translucent paper. It feels good to handle, and the darkness of the images is accentuated by the mass of blank pages. There is a lot of white in there to temper the blacks and the greys, but also to bring them out. It's a dark history and you get the feeling there are stories beneath the surface that Okuyama is not telling. There's an understated side to it, but the book gives us a feeling of these stories for us. Everything is suggested in a book that was a lot more difficult than it appears on the surface. There is a struggle in here, and that makes a huge difference.

Buy the book here.

And see more of the project here with captions. 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hello Colin,
Thank you very much for writing about my book.
I am happy you had a good look on this book.
I nodded a lot as I read your blog post.
Miyuki Okuyama