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Gutting the Myth of Subservience : Yoshiko Shimada's Volatile Images Explore Japanese Women's Role in World War II


TOKYO — Japanese artist Yoshiko Shimada is brutally honest about the past in a nation that has not completely come to grips with it.

She is a self-declared feminist in a place where many women appear to shun that label. She is blatantly political in a national art tradition that tends to value the quest for beauty.

And she uses jarring, uncompromising imagery in a land where subtlety and harmony are promoted.

Such contradictions between Shimada's national culture and her personal artistic expression are precisely what makes her stand out in Japan's art world today. She has also seized a provocative, and timely, theme: the role Japanese women played in collaborating with the Imperial system that led military forces to subjugate Asia, turn scores of women into sex slaves and eventually bring on a disastrous wartime defeat.

"Japanese women were not entirely voiceless victims of the male-dominant militarism," Shimada said over pizza and beer on a recent evening. "Many of them were enthusiastic fascists and willing to sacrifice themselves and to victimize others in the name of the emperor."

Unless women realize this, "we cannot reach true understanding of ourselves and will be manipulated again and again," she said.

Her call comes in the form of etchings, paintings and installations that link "volatile imagery with consummate craft," as the Australian magazine World Art recently put it. She depicts women firing pistols in Manchuria. She shows them dressed in the white aprons of motherly love--the uniform of the National Women's Defense Organization--even as they serve soldiers tea, keep vigil against spies and produce sons for the national war machine. Shimada also portrays teen-age girls making poison balloon bombs in wartime factories, contrasting the purity of youth with death and destruction.

In one of her more jarring works, she juxtaposes two images: women kneeling for hours before the Imperial Palace after the wartime surrender to beg forgiveness for their inadequate efforts, and a woman bound in a scene of sadomasochistic sex. The title: "Masochists."

In her latest show, "Voices of Women" in a Tokyo gallery, Shimada took up the issue of so-called comfort women. The women, mainly recruited from Korea, were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II.

But Shimada did not merely deplore the practice or depict the women's suffering. In a live performance, she juxtaposed their photos and anguished recollections with readings from Japanese women who defended the war effort.

The result moved many in the audience, mostly Japanese women, to tears.

"As a Japanese, I couldn't just say: I sympathize with you. It's almost hypocritical," she said. "I think all Japanese women have to take responsibility and remind ourselves that we were not victims but on the side of the aggressors."

She also wanted to provoke thought by juxtaposing the twin images of Japanese women as "sacred mothers" and Asian women as sex slaves.

"Even now, many Japanese men see women not as individuals, but only through the images of 'mother' or 'prostitute,' " Shimada said. "Those images . . . are used to manipulate women, making them either domestic slaves or sex slaves."

Shimada, who dresses casually in jeans and T-shirt, her face without makeup and hair pulled back, did not always hold such provocative views. Born in Tokyo in 1959 and educated in fine art at Scripps College in Claremont, she launched her art career with etchings of her dreams after returning to Japan upon graduation.

Her political awakening came in 1988, when then-Emperor Hirohito became gravely ill. As if some national telepathy were at work, people began restricting their behavior--canceling parties and school festivals, for instance. It seemed a rerun of the mass conformity of the 1930s and 1940s--and Shimada began fearing that her nation's unreformed groupthink could lead Japan once more down a path of destruction.

"I don't think we've learned anything from the war. It seems Japanese have the attitude that nothing can be done. No one is responsible. War is bad," said Shimada. Currently a resident of Berlin, where her husband has a professorship, she marvels at the way the Germans have probed their war deeds, taken responsibility and made amends.

Shimada has read voraciously about the war, a period she says schools tend to breeze over. But political expression--especially feminist work--is often shunned in the Japanese art world. So it was not until a 1991 visit to Boston, where artists talked about their "right" to expression and exercised it in works against the Gulf War, that she gained enough confidence to step forward.

In October, 1991, she presented her first political work on women and war in a small, two-week exhibition here that mainly attracted her friends. Although she is still virtually ignored by Japanese art critics, she is attracting growing attention from art galleries here and from the international press.

As the 50th anniversary of World War II's end approaches next year and expectations mount for Japan to more directly confront its war deeds, Shimada may be an artist in the right place at the right time.

"She is just on the brink of really making it," said Japan Times art critic Nancy Shalala. "Without a doubt, she is one of the most important artists here."

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