Photographing Punks, Dropouts, and Biker Gangs In Okinawa

"Okinawan society is so distorted because of inequality, and we are all affected by that distortion in one way or another."
April 6, 2018, 11:40am

This article originally appeared on VICE Japan.

There's something undeniably intimate about the work of Ryuichi Ishikawa. Maybe that's because he gets along with nearly everyone—a fact that gives his photographs a rare unfiltered look at the lives of people who are just trying to make the most of their life in Japan's remote Okinawan island chain.

It's not that any of Ishikawa's subjects are lost. It's more like they are just comfortable in their own place in society, even when that place is pretty far from the center.

VICE's Tokyo office sat down with Ishikawa as he got ready to release his third photo book, a collection of images taken in Okinawa that offer readers an insider's view on the lives of the fuckups, dropouts, BMX kids, and biker gangs Ishikawa was proud to call his friends.

VICE: Is there a central concept behind your latest work?
Ryuichi Ishikawa: There's no real concept to speak of—I simply love taking snapshots and portraits of people. But it always hits me the most when I manage to capture moments that are beyond my wildest imagination—anything that makes me go "what the hell?"

One thing that stands out to me is how many of your subjects look like delinquents. How do you choose who to photograph?
Actually, with the exception of the bōsōzoku members, most of the people in this series are my friends and relatives. I used to chill and drink with them at a parking lot near my house, and the bōsōzoku were usually hanging out in an adjacent lot. I had my eye on the bōsōzoku for a while because they were really noisy. Then, at one point, I decided that I had enough with the noise, so I spoke to the bōsōzoku about it and ended up photographing them somehow. Most of the black-and-white photographs were taken in 2009, but some of the color photographs were recently taken.

You weren't scared to confront the bōsōzoku?
It was nerve-wracking at first. [Laughs] Maybe it was because they weren't my friends or anything. They just happened to be hanging out nearby. But then when I asked permission to take their photos, some of them started to panic about not having a moped license.

Classic. [Laughs]
I know, right? [Laughs] It turned out that some of them weren’t even in high school. Then, out of nowhere, they told me to meet them at a warehouse the next day. I wondered what was the deal, but when I went to the warehouse the next day they were all polite and offered to exchange contacts with me so that they could give me a heads-up the next time they were out riding.

That must've been a relief. You could've been jumped or kidnapped at that warehouse. [Laughs]
Indeed. [Laughs] And that’s how I ended up taking pictures while riding my scooter side-by-side with the bōsōzoku. I was using my one hand to push the shutter as I ride alongside them. Those pictures comprise the bulk of my past work.

The whole coming-of-age ceremony reminds me of how the news would always freak out about the bōsōzoku.
Yeah, but nowadays it's not as crazy as it used to be. In Okinawa, there is this custom of bringing sake casks to coming-of-age ceremony venues and then doing kagamiwari (the ceremonial opening of the sake casks with wooden hammer) together. The custom escalated after it was covered by the national media—people started wearing increasingly ridiculous outfits while doing the kagamiwari on the street and whatnot. My impression is that the whole thing turned into an extravagant spectacle because of all the media attention.

You also shot a lot of images of other kids of people as well.
I think it is precisely because I was so accustomed to those people that they are such extraordinary photography subjects from a universal standpoint. For some reason, I didn’t feel out of place when I was with the bōsōzoku members or the club kids. In fact, I think I shared their angst, irritation and pent-up feelings toward the world of adults and the society in general—as well as the fact that we were all similarly clueless when it comes to channeling those pent-up feelings. That's how we all felt back in the day. Looking back, I didn’t think much about what I wanted to capture through photography—I simply took pictures of my friends and other things that piqued my interest.

How do you get along well with such a wide-variety of people— bōsōzoku, club kids, punks, skaters, so on.
The thing is, I find them all to be equally charming. Maybe it’s because I always have my camera with me whenever I hang out with my friends—whether it’s with my friends from Nara, or when I go to Okinawa city to hang out with a different group of friends.

I’m just naturally inclined to take pictures of people in their natural state—during moments when they are most free, most liberated. For example, people I go out clubbing with may have an ordinary day job—they might be an office worker, a salesman or whatever. I never thought of photographing them when they were working their day job. I’m much more interested in photographing people when they’re letting their hair down and enjoying life.

Here in Tokyo if feels like our juvenile delinquents are becoming much less conspicuous. Are there still many left in Okinawa?
Well, there are less bōsōzoku these days, but you can easily run into juvenile delinquents once you go past the city limits. In my opinion, there is an undeniable connection between the delinquency of Okinawan youths and the broader Okinawan society. Let’s say that the average starting salary for new graduates is JPY 160,000 ($1,489 USD). I doubt the new grads are going to do their best at work because they know their salary will barely increase even if they work their asses off. On the other hand, there are these land-owners who lease it to the military and people who receive substantial government project grants. All of those are people teeming with cash. Okinawan society is so distorted because of this kind of inequality, and we are all affected by that distortion in one way or another.

Are all the US military bases in Okinawa the source of this distortion?
The bases’ constant presence is an inescapable part of living in Okinawa. I mean, I have relatives who work in the bases, as well as friends who date American soldiers. It is not so much about whether I oppose the bases or not, because I’m honestly used to them. It's just how life goes around here, and its been this way for decades. Sometimes, I do fantasize about life in the pre-occupation days, though. And when I listen to the stories of those who experienced the good ol’ days, I can’t help but feel a sliver of dissatisfaction towards the US bases, which ultimately augmented the distortion of this place, to me. Honestly, I don’t know whether the status quo is good or bad, but it’s difficult not to think about bases no matter how hard I try—especially not when they appear on the news all the time.

So on a personal level, was there anything you felt dissatisfied with at the time?
I was really depressed after graduating from high school, although that is also part of why I took up photography. Before that, I was boxing for quite a long time. I had put my heart and soul into boxing—as an amateur, I was ranked third nationally. There was this gym I trained at since junior high—several pro boxers also trained there. Observing those pros made me realize that the vast majority of pro athletes only have brief careers. It’s not something I could live off for the rest of my life. In the end, I quit boxing after high school. But boxing was all I had, and soon enough I realized I didn’t have anything else that I was particularly good at. Part of me wanted to run away from boxing because the practice was so strenuous.

And that's when you took up photography.
Yes. Quitting boxing was the easy part. I was so into boxing that I didn’t really have many friends to hang out with when I quit, so I mostly spent my post-boxing days just walking around randomly—maybe skateboarding sometimes. Sooner or later, I no longer knew what to do with myself and fell into depression. I didn't really have any working experience to begin with, so I drowned myself in alcohol. At one point I was even vandalizing schools, breaking windows, and all of that. I realized then that I can’t go on like that forever, so I emptied my savings and bought a camera, even though I knew nothing about photography.

So you sort of stumbled into photography when you were trying to break out of your post-boxing depression? And then you won the Kimura Ihei Award in 2015, don't you think your career as a photographer looks pretty set now?
Not really. I mean, I got interviewed more often after I won the award, but I’m still unsure whether I’ll be able to make a full-time living out of photography.

So, are you doing anything else to earn a living?
Not at all. To be honest, I wonder how I managed to scrape by for the past 10 years. I never did any actual work, and photography alone is not enough to maintain a living. It’s a bit of a miracle that I managed to survive this long. [Laughs]

But still, isn't it safe to assume that you saw a brighter future in photography than boxing?
Maybe? [Laughs] Either way, I do know that I don’t want my photography to be bound by places—whether it’s Okinawa or foreign countries. I simply want to take snapshots and portraits of people and environments I encounter, wherever it may be—it would be nice if I can keep doing that for the rest of my life.

But in Okinawa, is there a certain side of place you want to show in your photography?
I am just photographing things that could be found just about anywhere—things that are not really unique to Okinawa. I just happen to live in Okinawa, and my work is merely a collection of pictures I took of my friends. Simply put, my interest lies in the people and occurrences around me—the location doesn’t necessarily have to be Okinawa. I don’t know how to describe this sensation, but it’s not Okinawa that I want to portray. It could be Tokyo or a totally different country, but as long as there are moments that exceed my wildest imagination, I’ll keep pushing that shutter.