From the banta cliffs of Okinawa, mabui – the spirits of the land, of the deceased – led me into the gama caves below.
These caves are the sacred home of Okinawa’s spirits – its ancestors, its history, its memory.
I enter hesitantly - through the eeriness of the cave’s dark, heavy air, through the remnants of war scattered on the ground.
Enveloped total darkness, what could I possibly see? Yet inside the earth’s womb, deep in this darkness, the conversation continues.
With just a flashlight in hand, I search for anything I might find, unable to entirely illuminate my surroundings.
The shutter wide open, I enter into the image, my flashlight in hand, floating and conversing with mabui as the cave’s interior slowly seeps into the camera.
What am I hearing? What can I express for them? How will these images of darkness speak to others?
These questions continue to resonate in my mind as I return from the blackness of the caves to my studio to draw out the spirits of this place.
—Osamu James Nakagawa
Historically, the islands that now make up the Japanese Prefecture of Okinawa were an independent state known as the Ryūkyū Kingdom (15th to 19th century). The Ryukyu Island chain (Okinawa Prefecture) is geographically scattered along the southern rim of the East China Sea, bridging Japan and Taiwan, and hence mainland China. Okinawa’s geographic location made it an intercultural trading center, and helped it to develop its own unique cultural blend of Oceanic, Chinese, and Japanese cultures. A further hybridization of Okinawan culture occurred through its direct interaction with Japan and the United States after World War II, adding even more layers to the cultural makeup that distinguishes Okinawan culture from that of mainland Japan.
Okinawa has a history of colonization by both Japan and the United States. The Japanese conquered Okinawa and made it a part of their empire in 1879. During World War II, the Okinawa islands became the forefront of the battlefield, which turned it into the only Japanese soil that was landed and defeated by U.S. military forces. After the war, the U.S. occupation was extended in Okinawa until 1972, which had a huge political and economic impact on Okinawans’ lives. This created a complex cultural makeup that differed greatly from that of mainland Japan. Even though the U.S. occupation is officially over, one third of Okinawa’s soil is still occupied by the U.S. military due to a political deal between the governments of Japan and the United States. As a result, the people of Okinawa are painfully situated in between Japan and the United States, politically as well as culturally.
At the Battle of Okinawa a total of 200,000 had died by the end of June of 1945. A significant aspect of the Battle of Okinawa was the great loss of civilian life: At more than 100,000, civilian losses far out numbered the military death toll. Some were blown apart by shells, some finding themselves in a hopeless situation were driven to suicide, some died of starvation, some succumbed to malaria, while others fell victim to the retreating Japanese troops. Under the most desperate and unimaginable circumstances, Okinawans directly experienced the absurdity of war and atrocities it inevitably brings about. (From the Peace Memorial Museum, Naha.)
Thousands of civilians were driven to commit suicide during the battle of Okinawa by jumping from the island’s precipitous banta cliffs. Thousands more died in the inland’s gama caves – either at their own hands, those of their neighbors, or at the hands of either of the military forces fighting over the island.
The Gama images are of caves in Okinawa - there are 100's of caves that exist throughout the main island. Historically, these caves were a sacred sanctuary for animistic and shamanistic worship.
During WWII, the Japanese military used these caves as bases, bunkers, and hospitals where many young female high school students served as nurses to take care wounded soldiers. Okinawans evacuated into these caves during the American bombings (known as “Typhoons of Steel”). However, toward the end of the three-month long battle, the Japanese military, facing their coming loss, ordered civilians to fight to the death and never be captured alive. As the situation grew more desperate, many people took their own lives. In some cases, entire villages of civilians who sought refuge in the caves committed suicide by suffocating each other or blowing themselves up with hand grenades that were distributed by the Japanese military. Many more civilians died when, with no other way of driving them out, U.S. forces shelled and burnt the caves, entombing both the military and civilians inside.