Radical Objects

Radical Objects: A Photo of Hiro Sumpter


The woman depicted in this photo is Hiroko Sumpter (née Ishii), whom her friends called Hiro. She was born in Japan but was living in England at the time this picture was taken – presumably in 1982 or ’83. The barbed wire fence rising behind her is not just any fence but one that came to symbolise the insanity of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War and, perhaps even more, people’s resistance against this insanity; the fence enclosed the Royal Air Force Greenham Common airbase, located in Berkshire, about 80 km west of London. Following NATO’s 1979 decision to add 572 new U.S. missiles to its nuclear arsenal in Europe, Greenham Common became Britain’s foremost site for the deployment of these weapons. A women-led protest march against this decision ended with four women chaining themselves to the fence of the airbase, in September 1981, and evolved into what became known around Europe and beyond as the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. More background on the politics of the Greenham encampments can be found in studies by Sasha Roseneil, Jill Liddington and Anna Feigenbaum.

Hiro, who had been active for some time in feminist and anti-nuclear power circles in London, started living at the camp in the summer of 1982. At the time, she was about 41 years old and either just divorced or in the process of getting divorced from her English husband. She sometimes took her young son to stay with her at the camp, much to the dismay of her in-laws. The photo above was published in a pamphlet entitled The Greenham Factor, which was put out in 1983 by a support group of the women’s peace camp as a fundraising device and a means to publicise and promote the aims of the movement. Looking at the photograph, our eye may be caught by the lines of exhaustion and the serious and perhaps troubled expression on Hiro’s face, which are underscored by her ruffled hair. We may notice her averted and restrained posture, metaphorically reinforced by the laces on her boots. Furthermore, the plume of smoke half enshrouding Hiro’s figure may evoke in us the image of a supernatural apparition, as if this figure somehow did not belong there but had been summoned from another world.

The impression of strangeness and unbelonging may greatly increase when Hiro’s picture is viewed in the context of the other images in the pamphlet. Not only is she, apparently the only non-white person represented in any of these photos. Unlike her, most of the other women are shown in groups, interacting with each other or acting together, and even those depicted alone are involved in some action of protest or resistance, or in conveying a distinct message, penned on a banner or a bag. In contrast to the women in those photographs, Hiro appears to be extraordinarily static or passive, her sole purpose being to absorb our gaze, making it difficult to see anything else on that page but her intense, exotic presence.

In one sense, however, the distant world that contemporary readers may have associated with Hiro’s ethnicity was also an integral part of the consciousness of European women campaigning against nuclear weapons, at Greenham and beyond. On their 1981 peace march to Greenham Common, the women handed out leaflets depicting a badly deformed ‘Hiroshima-baby’ to illustrate why they were taking action. The nine pages of The Greenham Factor contain nine references to Hiroshima and three to Nagasaki, evoking the deaths, the suffering and the ongoing anxieties of their inhabitants, particularly of women and children, as a result of the U.S. nuclear bombings. There is, however, no mention of women poets or activists from these cities like Hayashi Kyōko and Kurihara Sadako, who were writing and campaigning against the bomb, but only of passive victims.Hiro’s troubled but reserved appearance curiously reflects these representations. Her image in the pamphlet could function as a visual signpost to the quotations and stories about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

My thoughts on possible ways of viewing Hiro’s image may be influenced by the context in which I first came upon this photograph. The woman who showed it to me was an atom-bomb survivor and anti-nuclear activist from Hiroshima by the name of Hatakeyama Hiroko. She encountered this photograph in the summer of 1983 in a copy of The Greenham Factor brought back from Europe by one male Japanese peace activist, which first provoked her desire to visit the Greenham Women’s Peace Camp. Hatakeyama realised her dream against many odds and arrived at the camp, together with three other Japanese women, in late October 1983. They were welcomed and provided with campfire meals by Hiro and other campers, spent a long evening talking around the fire, and were put up for a cold night in one of the tents. However, my informant’s ideal image of the camp was somewhat belied by what she perceived as racial discrimination against Hiro, who was taken advantage of by some of the white women as a cook and a caretaker, or so it seemed to Hatakeyama.

I have not come across any evidence that Hiro herself felt the same way. This may have to do with the fact that my attempts to recapture her voice have depended on material documenting her 1984 visit to Japan, for the purpose of introducing Greenham to Japanese grassroots women’s groups, including pamphlets and articles written by women associated with Hiroshima’s Delta Women’s Group (Deruta onna no kai) and others. In the speeches, talks and interviews transliterated or summarised in these sources, Hiro never said anything that might have tarnished the image of Greenham. She did, however, talk about her experience of racial discrimination in British society and she emphasised, untiringly, that Greenham represented an anti-racist struggle, in addition to being a women’s or feminist movement against nuclear weapons. Hiro’s insistence on anti-racism as part of the project of Greenham was not in any way contrary to a broad consensus among Greenham women about the objectives of the movement, but the issue may have been more important to her than it would have been to members of the camp’s white majority. This is also indicated by her friendship with Wilmette Brown and Selma James, who stood for the infusion of anti-racism into the feminist and peace movements.

Apart from Hatakeyama’s impressions and what the Japanese sources reveal about Hiro’s beliefs, two other factors have confirmed my notion that race or ethnicity are crucial categories for understanding Hiro’s story. One is the discrepancy between how Hiro introduced herself in Japan and how she was remembered by the only former woman of Greenham whom I have so far been able to ask about her. By her own account, Hiro was arrested 18 times during her first two years at Greenham, as a result of which she stood trial, was fined, and even went to prison. In contrast, in her former companion’s remembrance, ‘Hiro tended to avoid [getting arrested] (perhaps for visa reasons), and focused more on keeping the camp running with gardening and wonderful cooking’ – a portrayal that brings to mind the compliance and self-effacement often associated with Asian women. The second circumstance suggesting the inescapable impact of racial or ethnic politics on how Hiro was viewed and represented becomes apparent from the accounts of her visit to Japan, which I have examined more closely. I am referring to a foregrounding, in the Japanese sources, of Hiro’s perceived racial and ethnic ambiguity as a Europeanized Japanese woman, which tied in with an attempt, in these narratives, to define an activist community of ‘Japanese women’. Here, Hiro’s race, or culture served as a focal point in the process by which ‘local’ and ‘global,’ ‘Japan’ and the ‘West,’ or ‘Japanese women’ and ‘European women’ mutually defined and gave meaning to each other.

Apparently, Hiro left Britain for North America some time after her return from Japan, to support indigenous peoples’ movements against uranium mining – thus integrating her anti-nuclear with her anti-racial concerns. She died of cancer in the late 1990s, when she was only in her mid to late fifties.

Racism has been an issue of contention among activists and researchers of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. Hiro’s story as it emerges from the limited collection of sources I have accessed urges us to revisit these debates and to reexamine the history of women’s peace movements, including that of Greenham, with regard to their often implicit and unrecognised politics of ethnicity and race.

I would like to thank Hatakeyama Hiroko for sharing her memories of Hiro and Greenham with me, and Hamamura Masako, Kondō Kazuko, Takemoto Keiko and Tōyama Hiroko for providing me with additional information and historical material. I am also greatly indebted to Lesley McIntyre for allowing me to use her original photograph of Hiro for this essay and to Sarah Ainslie for producing a digital version of this image.

The issue of History Workshop Journal (no. 78) features an article by Christopher Moores on a very different element of the Greenham Encampments – conservative political reactions in British society.

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