One of my former students and her boyfriend have been scanning in old photos, and they happened upon some gems taken by the young man’s grandfather when he was stationed in Japan during the Korean War. I think these are some wonderful pictures, and I offer my thanks to Margaret and James for sharing them, and to James’s grandfather for taking them.
This image, which was hand labeled with the caption “Beggars chased by M.P.s!” seems to show a bunch of people crossing train tracks at a station of some sort. Notice the guy lounging on the parked flatbed in the middle-left of the picture. The photographer really captured the movement of the people across the tracks, though I certainly don’t see any beggars or M.P.s! The caption seems important, though. Can we assume that Japanese people running across train tracks in 1951 pretty much must have been up to something in the imagined visual world of Occupation-era photography?
This image was labeled “Hiroshima R.R. Station 1951” and is filled with all the contrasting forces of the age. Look at the different poses and sartorial styles of the two soldiers, who seem to represent two poles of the American military. Also interesting is the Japanese text visible in the photo, such as the writing on the bus, “Hiroshima Suburban Bus Company,” which in the prewar style reads from right to left; and the sign on the shop to the right of the station, which reads in the traditional style from top to bottom and right to left, “Hiroshima Noted Product (meisan) Raw Oysters.” Yum! The two people who seem to be most interested in the photographer are the little girl on the bus with the red hat and the man who is wearing a suit and walking toward the camera while reaching into his inner pocket. The fact that this is Hiroshima, too, post-atomic bomb and pre-bullet train, lends the photo extra meaning. I see a doubling here: American technology (the camera in the hands of the G.I.) constructing a representation of a city that was destroyed by American technology.
This photo, labeled “Altar Girls, Shinto Grand Shrine of Eise, 1951,” which I assume should be “Ise,” is a nicely shot picture that prefigures a lot of later explicitly exotic imagery of traditional Japan. I’m kind of surprised that a picture that looks so much like tourist and government imagery from the 80s and 90s would have been taken so early. I guess I should have known that G.I.s on furlough from Korea would make the grand pilgrimage like everyone else? It is a very masculine framing of the subject. This makes me wonder when the scopic regime of photography of traditional subjects was established in Japan. It also makes me wonder who the intended viewers were for photos like these?
Lastly, this photo was labeled, in the parlance of the time, “Jap Pearl Diver (Fresh out of the water) 1951,” and positively glows with the unequal sexual politics of the Occupation era. The usual binaries seem to be present here: the male, conquering West; the female, passive East; and the dry, clean professional man and the wet, sexually alluring woman.
These types of visual materials must be fairly common among the old slide collections of veterans, but I would guess that few have been collected together or made public. They seem to me like invaluable records of this fascinating historical moment. Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by that. The gaze of the G.I. photographers is particularly clearly recorded here, making these images not so much records of Japan in 1951 as artifacts of the creation of certain American identities against a newly constituted “Japan.”