BY NAMIKO KUNIMOTO
Assistant professor of art history at The Ohio State University
In 1950, Japanese political parties and grassroots organizations began to stand up and fight back against the Reverse Course, the conservative shift in policies of the American Occupation. Art rapidly became an important avenue for protest, and at the forefront of this intersection was the reportage movement. “Reportage painting” (ruporutāju kaiga) referred to a style of politically motivated left-wing art that sought to depict sites of political action, often in a surrealistic style. In Justin Jesty’s words, “Reportage became more than a style: it was a social practice which aimed to realize alternative communities through research and art.” Reportage artists represented events such as the Lucky Dragon Incident, wherein a Japanese tuna-fishing trawler was irradiated by an American hydrogen bomb in the Bikini Atoll, as well as urgent social issues such as impoverishment in rural villages and the Allied Occupation forces’ planned expansion of the Tachikawa airfield into adjacent farmland.
The expansion of the Tachikawa airfield provoked large-scale protests that became known as the Sunagawa Struggle. Popular anger and protest were so vociferous that the plans for the expansion of the base were eventually abandoned, although the governments of the United States and Japan had formally agreed to the development. For Japanese artist Nakamura Hiroshi (born 1932), the expansion of the Tachikawa base resonated deeply. Sunagawa No. 5 (1955) became his most famous artwork, and it helped build momentum for activism in Japan by heightening awareness about political events, by elevating the stakes of the event, and by moving art into the realm of the social – a new and radical turn coming while Japan was still under Allied Occupation.
Nakamura’s painting is a polemical indictment of the pivotal events of the Sunagawa struggle that captivates viewers through the use of montage, the highly animated depiction of bodies, and through its political currency. The title Sunagawa No. 5, for example, rather than referring to a series, ties the work closer to the site of action: “No. 5” makes reference to 5-chome, the fifth block in the district where the protest was taking place. This is where Nakamura himself participated in the demonstrations. At this pivotal time, protests were ongoing from 1955 to 1959. Student activists, residents, and Labor Party members joined forces as never before and clashed with the state police. Sunagawa became a meaningful site in terms of exploring the limits and possibilities of political selfhood in relation to larger issues of political hegemony. The powerful dynamic between art and artists had demonstrated that solidarity could bring about change. This is a dynamic that can be felt in North America today.
Following the election of Donald Trump, activism is similarly growing. The Women’s March of January 21, 2017, has been noted as the biggest march on Washington; but perhaps more importantly, the march brought into the streets millions of people in scores of cities who had never participated in a protest of any kind. The National Humanities Alliance reported that record-breaking calls and letters preserved and even increased funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities. These actions show that the people are practicing — practicing to become active voices against the state.
Participating in one protest might not change the world, but is in an act that encourages the mind and the body to shift the terrain of what is considered politically normative. Indeed, in Nakamura’s case, it was participating in the protests at Tachikawa that motivated him to complete a painting. Similarly, art groups today have rapidly formed in response to Trump’s rhetoric and policies. Indecline, an anonymous anarchist street art collective, produced a series of sculptures depicting Donald Trump nude, with a plaque that reads “the emperor has no balls.” Another artist, Illma Gore, has completed a pastel drawing of Trump nude, entitled “Make America Great Again.” Other artists have become, like Nakamura, organized members of artistic wings of the political movement. Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman created an artist-run super PAC, For Freedoms, which encourages artistic protest. Their collaborations have included billboards that display the words “Make America Great Again” superimposed over photographic reproductions of the Selma to Montgomery marches that took place in 1965.
As Jacques Rancière notes, “Art and politics each define a form of dissensus, a dissensual re-configuration of the common experience of the sensible.” Rancière sees genuine art and politics as capable of creating new relations between the visible and the invisible, potentially liberating bodies from their assigned places and breaking with the “natural” order of the sensible. Under these lights, we can recognize the potential explicit and implicit effects of protest art: it expresses the outrage of the people, documents key political events, and shifts the terrain of acceptability and normativity. Just as in 1950s Japan, anti-state artworks today are at once an expression of solidarity and a call to action, one that contributes to the growing movement for change.
Namiko Kunimoto is author of The Stakes of Exposure: Anxious Bodies in Postwar Japanese Art and assistant professor of art history at The Ohio State University.
“Kunimoto’s manuscript is exactly what the field of Japanese postwar art needs at this time.”
—Alicia Volk, University of Maryland
“Eschewing group-centric approaches, The Stakes of Exposure focuses on four artists whose aesthetic politics figure postwar bodies in struggle, vulnerability, desire, and connection. Namiko Kunimoto’s analysis navigates between history, historical art literature, and theoretical touchstones through her lucid readings.”
—William Marotti, UCLA