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Shomei Tomatsu: Chewing Gum and Chocolate

Edited by Leo Rubinfien, John Junkerman. Text by Leo Rubinfien, Shomei Tomatsu.

Shomei Tomatsu: Chewing Gum and ChocolateOne of Japan’s foremost twentieth-century photographers, Shomei Tomatsu has created a defining portrait of postwar Japan. Beginning with his meditation on the devastation caused by the atomic bombs in 11:02 Nagasaki, Tomatsu focused on the tensions between traditional Japanese culture and the nation’s growing Westernization, most notably in his seminal book Nihon. Beginning in the late 1950s, Tomatsu photographed as many of the American military bases as possible--beginning with those on the main island of Japan and ending in Okinawa, a much-contested archipelago off the southernmost tip of the country. Tomatsu’s photographs focused on the seismic impact of the American victory and occupation: uniformed American soldiers carousing in red-light districts with Japanese women; foreign children at play in the seedy landscape of cities like Yokosuka and Atsugi; and the emerging protest- and counter-culture formed in response to the ongoing American military presence. He originally named this series Occupation, but later retitled it Chewing Gum and Chocolate to reflect the handouts given to Japanese kids by the soldiers--sugary and addictive, but lacking in nutritional value. And although many of his most iconic images are from this series, the best of this work has never before been gathered together in a single volume. Leo Rubinfien, co-curator of the photographer’s survey Skin of the Nation, contributes an essay that engages with Tomatsu’s ambivalence toward the American occupation and the shifting national identity of Japan. Also included in this volume are never-before-translated writings by Tomatsu from the 1960s and 70s, providing context for both the artist’s original intentions and the sociopolitical thinking of the time.
Shomei Tomatsu (1930–2012) played a central role in Vivo, a self-managed photography agency, and founded the publishing house Shaken and the quarterly journal Ken. He participated in the groundbreaking New Japanese Photography exhibition in 1974 at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and, in 2011, the Nagoya City Art Museum featured Tomatsu Shomei: Photographs, a comprehensive survey of his work.

Featured photograph is reproduced from Shomei Tomatsu: Chewing Gum and Chocolate.


TIME LightBox

A sardonic homage to America's influence on post-war Japan, Aperture's definitive collection of Tomatsu's defining work is filled with biting irony and subtle sweetness.

The Wall Street Journal

Mary Kate McDevitt

Shomei Tomatsu (1930-2012) was terrified as a youngster during the fire-bombing of Tokyo in 1944-45, but he also found the explosions beautiful. The postwar occupation produced a similar ambiguity, and these mixed feelings are explored in “Chewing Gum and Chocolate”. His black and white photographs show a despair at the occupation’s impact on Japan and its people. Many were taken in the red-light districts adjacent to U.S. bases, recording the dives, the prostitutes and their customers. Images of B-52 bombers and other aircraft present them as mythological demons, both magnificent and malevolent, set in turbulent skies. Tomatsu’s photographs have the spontaneity of Zen drawings; many are dark, grainy, blurred, out of focus or taken at radical angles.

The New York Times

Luc Sante

Ambivalence is the keynote struck by Shomei Tomatsu's Chewing Gum and Chocolate, edited by Leo Rubinfien and john Junkerman, an artfully sequenced collectin of his photographs of the American military presence in Japan, 1959-80. Tomatsu, whose grainy, smeared, often wide-anle black-and-white images evoke a spectrum of feelings, from nostalgic reverie to smoldering anger, sometimes within the same photograph, influenced an entire generation of Japanese photographers, most notably Daido Moriyama. The pictures here, never before collected into a single volume, do not invite facile responses as they chronicle military bases and their effluvia in a period that has the Vietnam War at its center: bars, prostitution, mixed-race children, outsize cars, Japanese hepcats in pimp suits, American children wielding toy guns, dish antennas, graffiti, demonstrations, military aircraft coming in low over a junkyard, random shards of tradition and ritual, African-American G.I.s giving the black-power salute, a narrow street of old single-story frame dwellings that is lined with pawnshop signs in English. Almost every picture could be the begining of a long, densely packed personal narrative.


Joerg Colberg

Shomei Tomatsu‘s Chewing Gum and Chocolate (Aperture 2014) turned out to be a bit of a surprise for me. Expecting a fairly obvious compilation and/or re-release of older, known work, the book instead presents what could or maybe should or maybe just might have been the eponymous book the artist had been planning to make for a while. Included are a few very good essays, which make it a must buy for anyone interested in photography from Japan.

Art in America

Ryan Holmberg

Over 125 of the artist’s interzone photographs are collected in Chewing Gum and Chocolate, edited by two Americans with extensive experience in Japan: photographer and writer Leo Rubinfien (who also contributes an essay) and documentary filmmaker John Junkerman. The title, which is Tomatsu’s, refers to the sweets handed out by American soldiers to Japanese children after WWII. In his essay, Rubinfien (co-curator of a traveling Tomatsu retrospective in 2001-04) describes the photographer’s personal response to the U.S. presence as ambivalent. Yet the overall message of the images–sailors milling about looking for fun, bars with kitschy names and English signage, men in sunglasses swaggering through Japanese streets–is “thanks for nothing.”

Tomatsu never captured servicemen doing anything really wrong, but he knew how to make them look bad in ambiguous situations. Many of the most famous examples use the compositional techniques of modernist ostranenie (extreme angles, tilting ground planes to render their subjects doubly disconcerting.

Shomei Tomatsu: Chewing Gum and Chocolate



Shomei Tomatsu: Chewing Gum and Chocolate

Shomei Tomatsu: Chewing Gum and Chocolate

"In the area outside the gates of American bases, there are usually entertainment districts that cater to the soldiers. They are garish, heavily made-up neighborhoods. In Okinawa, Koza is the biggest base town, followed by Kin. When I go to Okinawa, I always visit Koza and Kin. Whenever I’d go into one of those base towns, I’d always feel slightly dizzy. Why? For the longest time, it was a mystery to me. But now that mystery is finally beginning to unravel. In my mind, I completely reject the American bases and the towns around them. But in some corner of my mind, there’s a part of me that feels nostalgic for the heavy makeup of the theater district, which is called forth by the heavy makeup of the base towns." Koza, Okinawa (1977) and this excerpt from Shomei Tomatsu's 1973 text for a Japanese literary magazine are reproduced from Aperture's extraordinary new monograph, Chewing Gum and Chocolate, releasing this week. continue to blog