Ryuichi Ishikawa. Empathy and Confrontation

Ryuichi Ishikawa is a photographer from Okinawa, Japan. His work aims to shed light on the lives of people who live on the fringes of society. In this conversation, Ishikawa talks about his recent curatorial debut at the Okinawa Prefectural Art Museum and describes how approaches to art production in Okinawa have progressed since the reversion of Okinawa to Japanese rule.

Cotonoha How different is your style today compared to when we last spoke four years ago?

Ryuichi Ishikawa Well, that was around the time I stopped using film. My attitude had changed slightly, so I decided that it was the right time to start using digital cameras. Until then, my approach to photography was introspective. With that approach, my work merely expressed my inborn tendencies; and I wasn't pleased with the results. It was then that I encountered photographers Makoto Arakaki and Tetsushi Yuzaki. Through my association with them, I began to communicate with different people and incorporate new ideas into my photography. Thus, my work became a little more outward focused. I'd say this is the biggest change in my style.

Cotonoha You are curating a group exhibition now. Could you tell us about it?

Ryuichi Ishikawa It’s an exhibition sponsored by NHK with an overarching theme of Okinawa’s reversion to Japanese rule from U.S military administration and the 45 years that since has passed. At first, I wanted to do something different because other exhibitions had already dealt with retracing Okinawa’s history starting from the reversion. I wanted to express the current mood in Okinawa and didn’t think issues like the reversion to Japanese rule and U.S military bases were relevant. After collecting photography from different photographers, it became evident that most of the collection dealt with political issues. Photography in Okinawa is political: a reality very different from what I imagined before curating this exhibition.

Cotonoha Could you talk about your curatorial approach?

Ryuichi Ishikawa My approach is related to the way I photograph. For me, it's not something that I control. It's instantaneous. It's improvisational. When I begin a project, I do not say it will be this, or it will be that. When I used film, my work was more conceptual; now my photographs can convey more than any one concept, more than what any one person could imagine.

Cotonoha Is the artwork you are contributing related to issues concerning U.S bases in Okinawa?

Ryuichi Ishikawa My photography, from the perspective of a local, would appear to be solely concerned with daily life. However, to a different eye, they would surely seem to have political overtones.  

Cotonoha What do you wish to convey with this exhibition?

Ryuichi Ishikawa Empathy — that feeling of mutual understanding which now connects young artists. In fact, this attitude is present in all artists, but to a lesser degree in those of previous generations. Those artists created artwork primarily through acts of confrontation. It was their way of communicating, but that type of communication is infrequent now. Moreover, with regards to photography, empathy is essential in recognizing and capturing the many exciting happenings that occur right before our eyes.

Using empathy in contemporary photography, in communication, and as a tool to connect society in Okinawa is my vision for the direction of this exhibition.

Cotonoha How have post-war influences from Japan affected the creative approach of artists in Okinawa?

Ryuichi Ishikawa There is a cultural battle between Okinawa and Japan. Society in Okinawa, as a whole, is involved in this struggle, and so are local artists. However, each generation of artists deals with this differently.

Years ago, artists who are now in their 40’s distanced themselves from the approach of artists who are now in their 60’s —  an approach that engaged political issues —  and attempted to express something different. Incorporating various influences from Japan and other countries into their work, artists of that generation freely created art that conveyed much more than the Okinawa political experience. Similarly, artists who are now in their 20’s and 30’s reject the approach of artists who are now in their 40’s. They, just as artists who are now around 60 years of age, draw upon the political environment of Okinawa for inspiration.

Furthermore, young artists know little about the Battle of Okinawa and Okinawa’s reversion to Japanese rule. In stark contrast to artists who are now in their 60’s, they don’t share a unifying historical narrative; thus, these artists feel that they are individuals in society, while artists who are now in their 60’s feel they are members of society. This individualization of young artists has freed them to use their intuition to create a body of work that expresses many differing perspectives on the political environment.

The approach of artists is gradually changing. However, the subject matter they engage in cycles between the political and the non-political from generation to generation.

Daryl Mitchell | Naoko Uchima
Daryl Mitchell
Satoru Yoshikawa