The Sakima Art Museum in Ginowan City Okinawa is a very inspiring place. When you drive up to the museum you might notice that the fence for Futenma Base is almost too close for comfort, right up to the edge of the road. This is because the land was formerly a part of the base, but returned to the family years ago. In 1989, Michio Sakima, an acupuncturist wanted to start an art gallery but didn’t have any land to do so. His family’s property, including their family crypt was right on the edge of Futenma, and so he requested it be returned so that he could start his gallery. He was able to do so successfully and open his museum in 1994. His intent was that the museum be a place of reflection on the pain of war and importance of peace. Today more than 40,000 people visit the museum each year.
One can go there and view the exhibits that change very few months, or one can go there and be taken on a tour of Futenma, which is visible from the roof. In one room they feature the works of Iri and Toshi Maryuki, a couple famous for their painting of terrible human tragedies, most notably the destruction from the atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The “Hiroshima Panels” were painted over 30 years and entail 15 panels and show the sheer inhumanity of suffering from those, Japanese, Korean and even Americans who were killed in the atomic bomb blasts.
In 1945, days after the bomb was dropped in Hiroshima, the two traveled there to help their family living their. They found their family home, far away from the blast center, still standing, but completely blown out. Survivors were crowded on the floor there. For days they searched for food, helped the injured and cremated the dead. The experience of living amongst the ash, the maggots, the constant death and suffering had a clear effect on them, as they began to roam around Hiroshima in the same manner as those who had endured the blast.
They eventually turned to their art in order to try to come to terms with what had happened:
Three years passed before we began to paint what we had seen. We began to paint our own nude bodies to bring back the images of that time, and others come to pose for us because we were painting the Atomic Bomb.
We thought about a 17-year-old girl having had a 17-year life span, and 3-year-old child having had a life of three years.
Nine hundreds sketches were merged together to create the first paintings.
We thought we ha painted a tremendous number of people, but there were 260,000 people who died in Hiroshima.
As we prayed for the blessing of the dead with a fervent hope that it never happen again, we realized that even if we sketched and painted all of our lives, we couldn’t never paint them all.
In 1984 they completed a painting which shook me to the core when I gazed upon it. Titled “The Battle of Okinawa” it occupied an entire wall in the Sakima Museum. It is black and white on paper. with bodies of blue and red representing the violence of both the sea around Okinawa and the war taking place on it. Bodies twist and turn everywhere in the painting. Trying their best to escape, trying their best to survive. Other figures, the already dead are scattered through the composition, some partially covered over by the clumsily painted blue (indicating their drowning), others find peace while scarlet red licks over them, and finally in the bottom right corner a pile of skulls calmly talk stock of everything. The artists added their own faces to the pile of skulls and heads in the corner, an interesting commentary on how they had attempted to recreate the horror of the 82 day long battle where US and Japanese forces clashed in what is known as un pakyo’ lulok, a “typhoon of steel” or “iron rain.”
The artists themselves researched meticulously for years, interviewing hundreds, attending many lectures, reading over 150 books and naturally visiting battlefield and memorial sites in Okinawa. Iri Maryuki sets up the meaning of the painting (in their own artistic context, but also a larger historical context), in the following way:
All of a sudden, war dropped from the sky and came out of the ground. The enemy landed on the main island of Okinawa and on the smaller islands nearby. Everything turned upside down. No matter how much I paint I can’t express it all. We have painted Hiroshima, we have painted Nanking, we have painted Auschwitz, but in painting Okinawa, we are truly painting war.
That idea of somehow in the example of Okinawa, they are truly painting war I found interesting. I thought long and hard after reading that, what the artist could have meant. After painting so many other atrocities in recent human history, what made the Battle of Okinawa a true example of “war?” I have several possible answers, but none of them are satisfactory to me.
One of the things that I found interesting about this painting is the way Toshi wrote about how the artists were influenced throughout their process. She writes:
Putting a tarp down in the yard, spreading out ten blankets on top of that, then laying down four large sheets of Japanese paper — we have a canvas of four meters by eight meters. Sitting down on the paper and beginning to paint, under my knees coral reef stone — the sharp edge of the limestone hurts. Cleaning the area first, I had stopped to pick up an old cartridge. We are in Shuri, a site of fierce fighting.
Could the thoughts which people thought as they love their lives on this spot have seeped down into this stone and now be coming back into my body? I have come from far away; it is only here that I can paint it. The sky, the wind, the water, the soil, the grasses, the birds –silent, they move our brushes for us.
I so want to paint the deep blue or the sea. And the emerald green of the reef, dyed orange as young girls sank below its waters. Crimson, vermillion –is it the flowing blood of the youth? Is it the flames that chased those who ran desperately? Either, both are true.
As I wrote earlier, while conceiving this painting the artists conducted a great deal of research, yet what Toshi is arguing here is that in the actual process of painting, it seemed as if they were constantly influenced by something. Perhaps it was something in the natural world, perhaps it was spirits of those that had died in the battle, perhaps it was a combination of both; the spirits of those who suffered in war, returning through the birds, the surf, the plants.
This passage from Toshi reminds me about the social purpose of artists. Although most people would argue that artists exist to create beautiful things, to make pretty paintings or lovely crafts, there is a deeper and more mystical task that artists fulfill. If you have ever wondered why there is still art in the world even though photographs exist? If art is about representing the world in a faithful way, then why not just take photos of it? The reason is because art is not about representing accurately or faithfully the world around us. It is about portraying the layers of reality that are not immediately obvious or not even visible or perceptible. The artist is therefore a guide to the things you may not be able to see, but things that you may feel or wish that you could feel.
For the Battle of Okinawa, we can see the artists clearly acting as a medium between the living and the dead. The artists are not just trying to show you what the war was like, but trying to convey through imagery, through color, through line and shape, the suffering, the tragedy, the experience of war. Its inhuman dimensions that still persist no matter how many flags, statues or medals you use to try and decorate and obscure the violence. For Toshi to say that she feels as if the spirits are helping her paint or insisting on what she paints is therefore not really a very strange idea. It is after all what her and Iri are hoping to convey, and in a sense they are fortunate to be joined by spirits who are willing to help.
Toshi also writes about one spirit that forces a void that the artists initially want to keep empty, to be filled:
From the sky, the camera crew filmed our painting from all sides. A large empty space on a slant we hadn’t touched was impressive — more painting is not always better.
We must keep this space alive — I struggled to control my impatient hand and left it as it was. For a while. As the painting went with the currents, it became at last impossible.
Upside down, falling. A young woman under suspicion for spying, pushed to madness under torture. Her life taken by the bamboo spear of the Japanese soldier. Painting her on that empty space — the horror of it haunted me.
It is an important thing to remember that just because spirits visit you or talk to you, that they come with their own stories and are not simply an extension of your brush or your words. They have their own purpose and essence, as we can see from this example. The artists had wanted to keep a blank space and not crowd the composition, but were compelled to fill it with not just anything, but something specific, something that they can’t really take credit for, as even after it is done and it makes the image all the more jarring, its completeness is not truly there’s, but part of that collaboration with the world beneath and in-between the world around us.
For Iri Maryuki he sums up the importance of this painting in this way:
From now one when winter comes, we will go to Okinawa and paint. We will never be able to paint it all — our painting of the battle of Okinawa will be never-ending. There is not one photograph of it taken by a Japanese person, there is no choice but to draw and to paint. To record and to leave behind that which exists.
It is a very touching way of taking about the amnesia that can sometimes surround huge events. The Battle of Okinawa, the much discussed, much analyzed, much mentioned and much celebrated battle between US and Japanese forces. It is seen as the last battle in World War II. The battle which brought the US juggernaut temporarily to a standstill, but also helped break the back of the Japanese, paving the wave for their eventual surrender (with the help of two atomic bombs). But for all the discourse that surrounds the battle, it is easy to forget the Okinawans themselves. It is easy to ascribe them an existence like the buildings that were flattened, the land that was gutted, or the plants that were set ablaze in war. It is easy, whether you are Japanese or American to forget they exist and thus pretend that Okinawa is just another part of Japan or that it is just another part of the Empire of US bases that circle the globe. It is easy to imagine that just as those two armies ravaged the island for their own interests, that they might continue to determine the island’s exist for themselves today.
For the US it is in their best interests to keep a photograph of the Battle of Okinawa, since they won it. And after they won it, they built dozens of bases there, taking some of the best agricultural lands in order to do so. For them, remembering that war is important since it is still their victor’s claim to having bases there. But for the Japanese, it is not in their interest to have any memories or any photos of that final last stand of their soldiers. The battle was the final, sorrowful defense of their once vibrant dream of regional domination. In it there was so much hope, but even more dread as all their glorious dreams were nothing but toxic cinders.
But even in addition to this, the treatment of the Okinawans by the Japanese before the war and during the war, is another reason why no one might want a record to exist of that war. During the perceived Japanese ascent to the top of the world, Okinawans were just another inferior, barbarian people to be dominated. They were brutalized in the same way that Koreans and Chinese were. There was nothing unique to this brutality, it was the hallmark of every kingdom which would eventually become an empire. But if the Battle for Okinawa had been the last battle in establishing Japan as the master of Asia and the Pacific, then you can guess there would be billions of pictures of it; it would be so grossly visible, something constantly celebrated and commemorated.
The Battle for Okinawa is meant to be an image of war, in general from the perspective of the people on the ground. Not the soldiers, not the generals, but the folks who are caught in the middle. But in a different sense it was created for the Japanese people as a reminder to who they are. That as much as they might wish to forget it, as much as they might want to pretend that their war for aggression and regional domination was just a youthful period of experimentation, this is their history, this is their war.