Photographer Mao Ishikawa on the Japanese flag

Photo by Mao Ishikawa. Image courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery.

Mao Ishikawa has been taking photos of people with the Japanese flag at least since 1993, but her current show of some of those photos at the Zen Foto Gallery is especially timely now.

The Hinomaru flag, a white banner framing a large red circle that represents the sun, and the Kimigayo national anthem, a hymn to the Emperor, are both at the center of some very current but also deep-rooted political disputes.

Last month (January 2012), Japan’s Supreme Court ruled that punishing teachers who refused to stand and sing the Kimigayo during school ceremonies by suspending them or cutting their pay was “too harsh,” although the court also found that such teachers could be reprimanded. This ruling did not sit well with recently elected Osaka city Mayor and former Osaka prefectural Governor Toru Hashimoto. Hashimoto, the firebrand leader of a rising new political party called Osaka Ishin no Kai, wants to fire teachers who refuse to join in singing the Kimigayo more than twice. He has indicated that he still intends to fire such teachers despite the Supreme Court ruling. (News items here and here.)

A few days later, Hashimoto made more waves by ordering local officials to bow to the Hinomaru flag in the municipal assembly whenever the assembly opens or reconvenes, whenever they step onto the assembly’s platform and whenever they respond to a question. (News item here.)

Photo by Mao Ishikawa. Image courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery.

In December 2007, Kim Koon Hee, a traditional Korean artist who lives in Osaka, placed a Hinomaru flag on the ground and stamped on it in a pair of white poson slippers, traditional Korean footwear with pointy, upturned toes. “Many Korean people died under the Rising-Sun flag,” she said. Presumably she is not a Hashimoto supporter. Ishikawa’s photo of her is part of the current show.

Photographer Mao Ishikawa speaks at the Zen Foto gallery in Tokyo on Feb. 5.

Ishikawa was born in Okinawa in 1953 when the islands, which even now host the majority of U.S. military bases in Japan, were still under complete U.S. control. Before Okinawa’s official reversion to Japanese sovereignty in 1972, Ishikawa says, any U.S. military personnel who committed crimes against local people simply disappeared to America without facing local justice. She wondered how the Japanese government could allow this to happen, and this led her to the deeper question of, “Are Okinawans Japanese?”

Photo by Mao Ishikawa. Image courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery.

That question grew into a project in which she photographed a variety of Okinawans – and members of other minority groups, such as Ainu, burakumin and zainichi Koreans – posing with the Hinomaru flag in ways meant to show what the flag means to them. In some cases, such as the artist with the poson slippers or the group of right-wing political activists seen immediately above this paragraph, the answer is relatively clear. In others, it is more ambiguous, such as with Okinawan drama student Wakana Oshiro, seen at the very top of this blog post, who said, “I feel easy and relaxed in the ocean for some unknown reason.”

Photo by Mao Ishikawa. Image courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery.

Some of the photos have a warm and cheerful feel, such as one in which beaming young parents display their newborn baby on a Hinomaru blanket. Others are shocking and harsh, such as one in which a physically disabled performance artist creates a splattery Hinomaru on a sheet with what appears to be blood from a chicken whose head she appears to just have bitten off. In one portrait, of a fashionable teenage girl, I had trouble spotting the flag at all – until I saw that it was painted on her fingernails.

Photo by Mao Ishikawa. Image courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery.

Ishikawa took some of these photos from 1993 to 1999, the latter of which is the year that the Hinomaru and Kimigayo, until then only Japan’s de facto flag and anthem, officially became such through enactment of the National Flag and Anthem Law. From 2007 to 2011 she took more photos with the aim of making them into a book.

The book, which contains 100 of her flag portraits, is available through Amazon’s Japanese site, and it can also be purchased at Zen Foto, where the show of 16 large prints of photos from the book runs through Feb. 26, 2012. The photos are accompanied by brief statements from the subjects, in both Japanese and English. Admission is free.

A red circle on a white background is a simple design, but Ishikawa shows that no two people who gaze at the Hinomaru flag see exactly the same thing.

Links for futher details

Zen Foto site, with access information, here.

Ishikawa’s official blog here.

Ishikawa on Amazon in Japan here.

Ishikawa on Amazon in the U.S. here.

Review of an earlier Ishikawa book here.

Article on an earlier version of this show here.

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