Osamu James Nakagawa, Banta Cliffs + Gama Caves

by Natalie Zelt

Poissant Gallery during FotoFest 2012

I was first introduced to the cliffs and caves of Okinawa on the floor. In 2010 Osamu James Nakagawa brought prints ofBanta Cliffs and Gama Caves to the MFAH. As he unrolled what appeared to me to be massive textured abstractions he started to tell the story of the cliffs, his experiences photographing and the palpable weight the Island’s history. It was jarring to look down on these prints, knowing that among other things, this was the site where a large number of Okinawans committed suicide amidst the Battle of Okinawa in WWII. Nakagawa’s images deliberately tilt his viewer’s perspective, instilling each image a radical composition combined with a lush detail that cause the viewer to second guess their position in relation to the rock. In one image the viewer is gazing down a precipice, a slice of roaring sea just visible. Another pulls the viewer face to face with the sharp crags and pocks of the rock, as if standing above the ocean floor. In his newer series Gama Caves, Nakagawa draws his viewers into the earth, illuminating dark caverns that are both sacred sites for the island’s shamans and sites of violence and death during the World War II.

Visitors to Poissant Gallery during Fotofest 2012 had the opportunity to encounter Nakagawa’s photographic renderings of both Banta Cliffs and Gama Caves along with a video installation. Through this exhibition, Nakagawa delivered an experiential excavation of the Okinawa and its history. This interview addresses the work made in the caves.

NZ: Was there a clean transition between Banta Cliffs and Gama Caves or was there a period where you were thinking about caves and cliffs at the same time?

OJN: Um, I think there was a small overlap. When I was making Banta Cliffs the New York Times published an article about how the Japanese government, in editing new textbooks, was cutting out the fact that the Japanese military forced thousands of innocent Okinawans to commit suicide in these caves at the end of the war. And all of a sudden I realized “I must do this.” What happened in these caves was important. So I wrote up the proposal to Indiana University and applied for Guggenheim Fellowship to do Gama Caves and luckily, I received both of them to explore my project. I was scared shitless to go into those caves for the first time because so many people died there in gruesome ways. And then all the books I read about the caves – it’s a mad house. Plus technically I needed to figure out how I was going to photograph in the dark. I needed the highest resolution medium format digital camera with long exposure capabilities. I researched and got the most powerful car headlight flashlight I could find so I could create an image with the greatest depth of field possible inside the cave.

NZ: How did you get in the caves then?

OJN: I went to Okinawa during Christmas break just to see if all this was possible or not. My wife’s family (she’s from Okinawa) told me not to go into the caves. Historically the caves are considered sacred places, but their more recent history is very loaded and dark for Okinawans. My wife’s cousin eventually arranged for me to meet this high-ranking shaman, Ms. Miyagi. Okinawan shamans like Ms. Miyagi have long used the caves for sacred rituals.

NZ: What did she do?

OJN: She took one look at me and said, “You’re not from Okinawa!” and then followed up with, “…but you’re not from Japan either.” I was shocked because I was speaking fluent Japanese. “No, no my wife is from Okinawa.” I explained. My cousin added, “He lives in US, he’s a photographer.” She asked, “When were you born?” I said “1962,” and she responded, “the Year of Tiger. Tiger people are destined to release spirits. You know why you’re coming to Okinawa? Those spirits are calling you.”

NZ: Well that’s another reason to be frightened to go into those caves.

OJN: She asked if I planned to exhibit my photographs and I said yes - in the US and Paris, and she said “See, t