Snapped Judgments

The views of the loser do not typically fill prominent chapters in the history books. We know what Julius Caesar thought of the barbarous tribes in Gaul and Britannia, but almost nothing about what they thought of him. His descriptions of savage resistance to his military campaigns suggest just how much the latter wanted to be civilized at the point of the imperial spear. But the word of a Caesar -- and our own guesses -- are no match for a conquered people's own written or visual accounts.

The silence or amnesia of the vanquished isn't always the result of suppression. They can also be caused by trauma -- the inability to acknowledge, much less boast about, defeat. How many New York Yankees are writing confessional books about last season?

There are many reasons to visit the Shomei Tomatsu exhibition of photographs called Skin of the Nation, recently departed from the Japan Society Gallery of New York and coming to Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art in May. But perhaps the most urgent, in light of our adventure in Iraq, is the chance to understand how many kinds of scars a war can leave on a defeated people.

Tomatsu is Japan's most revered photographer. He has earned this status by being his country's keenest interpreter of the American occupation. Like the writer Kenzaburo Oe, who won the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature, he has coolly examined his fellow citizens' varied responses to their crushing loss and has translated his own shame, bewilderment, wonder, and begrudging acquiescence into images.

The 74-year-old Tomatsu may be too jagged and allusive an artist for some Americans to appreciate. He made his living as a photojournalist, but his best pictures are too oblique for news magazines. Long sequences of his images can be dizzying; his work exhibits a chaotic spectrum of emotions -- humiliation; self-hatred; quiet rage; curiosity about the new, bored acceptance of the status quo; joy over freedom from stifling traditions; and a yearning to reconnect with a prewar Japan way of life. But little is spelled out. Americans are not demonized, nor are Japanese rendered as passive victims.

Tomatsu has never visited the United States, and one can read into this fact -- as one can read into his entire oeuvre -- a deep ambivalence toward his nation's conqueror. Too young to have fought in World War II, he was nonetheless conscripted as a teenager to work in an aircraft factory; he was taught to resist the invaders by training with bamboo spears and wooden guns. This indoctrination did not stop him from recalling the high, silvery formations of B-29s that set ablaze his native city of Nagoya in 1945 as a thrilling spectacle -- or, in his words, “a feast of metallic beauty.”

He was 15 years old when atomic bombs incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. According to historian John W. Dower, who contributes one of the three superb essays to the Yale University Press catalog for the show (the others are by curator Sandra S. Phillips and photographer Leo Rubinfien), what wounded Tomatsu most was the reaction of his countrymen to the surrender -- how quickly their attitude shifted from defiance to abject cooperation with their former enemy. Sixty-six Japanese cities had been leveled and millions of people were starving; Tomatsu's mother supported the family by selling charcoal on the black market. Tomatsu was one of the many street urchins who begged for chocolate from GIs, but he soon came to resent their lingering presence.

The American occupation lasted officially until 1952 -- longer than the war itself -- and on the fortified island of Okinawa, it continues, in essence, to this day. What's more, as a mutating force with the power to alter ancient traditions, American pop culture has bonded too deeply by now with Japan's own dna to ever be completely expelled. Tomatsu's photographs from the '50s, pointed reminders of the war, observe this new reality with the furtiveness of a spy.

But the rubble had largely been cleared away by the time Tomatsu matured as an artist in the early '60s. According to Phillips and Rubinfien, he assimilated influences from home (photographic contemporaries like Eikoh Hosoe and Kikuji Kawada) and from abroad (European surrealists like Salvador Dali and René Magritte). And he learned from American street photographers, most notably William Klein, whose harsh, messy images excited many Japanese artists of the day.

Tomatsu's nationalist anger and ennui -- he has described himself as a member of the “beliefless generation” -- was recast in the cauldron of the '60s, and, like so many artists of the time, he came out of the decade with a graphic style that seemed to celebrate randomness and anarchy. The anti-authoritarianism that he picked up ensured that the neofascist response to American dominance by figures like the suicidal Yukio Mishima would not be, for him, an option.

Tomatsu's masterpiece from this period is his series Chewing Gum and Chocolate. In 1959, he had begun to photograph on American military bases, and throughout the '60s he studied the relaxed habits of soldiers and sailors on leave. He was especially fascinated by the black troops, capturing their sidewalk dance moves and easy interactions with women. But he also noted the acres of wire fences that marked off the bases from a local populace that didn't seem to mind the new partitions. The people's impressionable acquiescence to anything imported during these years is documented in a shot of Japanese women with beehive hairdos ambling down a street.

The familiar is continually under assault by the foreign. In one witty transmutation, Tomatsu sees how the taillights of a Chevy Bel Air parked in front of a sushi bar resemble a pair of almond-shaped Asian eyes. Less amusing are the American fighter jets and bombers that patrol the darkened skies as blurry, menacing streaks and shadows -- metallic versions of Rodan, the flying lizard from the 1956 Japanese horror film. An image of a ravenous snake eating a frog inside a glass jar isn't hard to interpret in this context.

In his most renowned photographs, Tomatsu balances anger and grief on the pivot of the camera's objectivity. In 1961 he visited Nagasaki, where a series of objects had recently been unearthed from the 1945 blast. Along with portraits of scarred survivors, he photographed a series of inanimate objects that had suffered even worse damage: a statue of an angel with half its face blown off, an intact wristwatch with its hands frozen at 11:02, and a glass bottle so deformed by heat that its original purpose is unrecognizable -- it might be a severed femur or a butchered animal.

The pictures say nothing about responsibility for the aggression that started the war or guilt over the mass annihilation that ended it. Tomatsu is neither a nostalgist nor a propagandist. In other series, he photographed the people who make their living off the Japanese sea, traveling to the southern islands of Miyako and Yaeyama where the impact of Americanization was less pronounced. And like Oe in his novels and stories, Tomatsu also has a weakness for masks and the grotesque. In his series Eros, Tokyo, he portrays the city's go-go Shinjuku district as a joyless world of pornographic monsters.

The New York installation of Skin of the Nation was too big by about a third -- Tomatsu's color work, which ranges from mediocre to awful, was inordinately prominent. One suspects this was the case because at this point in his life, what Tomatsu wants, Tomatsu gets. And for an artist until now relatively unseen here, this may not be a bad thing. For a proper assessment of a career, to take in too much is better than to have too little.

The photography of postwar Japan has not penetrated our minds and markets with the same success enjoyed by the country's cinema, literature, and graphic arts. Museum shows have been scarce. The upside is that a retrospective like this, like the one given in 1999 to Tomatsu's contemporary Daido Moriyama (both organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), makes their poetic, indirect approach to documentary look startlingly fresh. They now appear to us as exotic as our postwar forces must have appeared to them.

But more importantly, by showing us how the losers perceived the winners of World War II, both photographers offer us a more realistic view of that victory. Japan needed to be beaten back, punished, and transformed. And yet if this “good war” could produce the alienated resentment against the foreigner evident in Tomatsu's and Moriyama's forlorn images, what hope is there with regard to America's war in Iraq today? Along with Gillo Pontecorvo's film The Battle of Algiers, Tomatsu's pictures should be required viewing in the Pentagon. [See J. Hoberman, “Revolution Now (And Then)!” TAP, January 2004.]

Photography helps historians keep score. If the Iraqis are lucky, a photographer will emerge, perhaps a young woman, who is as searching and critical about her own nation's failings and our current floundering efforts there as Tomatsu has been in Japan.

Richard B. Woodward is an arts critic in New York.