Are we pointing at the right guy?

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

Last August, much consternation was caused when an apparent rogue worker at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant appeared on a live-to-air webcam and pointed an accusatory finger directly at the camera. After about 20 minutes, the man, who was clad in a full-body radiation suit that masked his identity, promptly disappeared.

Who was he? What was he trying to say, and to whom? When the story was picked up in the media, even Cabinet Office Parliamentary Secretary Yasuhiro Sonoda was drawn into the debate. “I would like him to tell us what his intentions were,” he said at a press conference on Sept. 8.

Now some light is about to be thrown on the episode — or perhaps more darkness. Tokyo-based artist Kota Takeuchi has announced he will include the video, which is now available for all to see on YouTube, in a solo exhibition he will hold from March 17 at XYZ collective in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward.

The 29-year-old Takeuchi appears to be about the same height and build as the mysterious pointer. He also admits to working at the same nuclear plant at the same time as the video was shot. But he refuses to acknowledge it was he who did the pointing.

“Whether or not you write that it was me is your decision, and one for which you will be responsible,” he said during a recent interview.

Takeuchi graduated from the most exclusive art school in Japan — Tokyo University of the Arts — in 2008, and has since participated in shows at two venues known for high-quality shows by young artists: BANKART studio NYK in Yokohama and 3331 Arts Chiyoda in Tokyo. At the former he held a performance in which he made sketches based on photos of the nation’s most-wanted criminals — the ones that are posted at every police station and police box in the nation.

“By incorporating those images in our urban environment, we are raising the alarm but at the same time we are deadening our own sensibility to the danger,” he wrote of the project. He has recently noted that his warning proved spot-on when last December one of the criminals in question, Makoto Hirata, tried to turn himself in to police but was, at first, turned away when the officer assumed he was joking.

It’s clear that Takeuchi has always been interested in the way that visual imagery in the public domain can sway the communal consciousness. Perhaps he tried to do something similar at Fukushima?

While carefully drawing a line between his own story and his “impressions” of the mystery pointer’s acts, Takeuchi explained that he applied to work at the nuclear plant for a number of reasons.

“Like a lot of art-school graduates I was doing part-time work, and then I quit so that I could go and volunteer in Tohoku after the quake,” he said.

After returning, he went to the job-placement agency Hello Work, and there it was: “Work at the plant and you’ll get three meals a day, you can stay at a ryokan (Japanese inn) — though that turned out to be not true — and you can lend a hand in dealing with this major catastrophe.”

Takeuchi said he also felt a sense of responsibility that compelled him to help out. “I think everyone felt it, that sense of being responsible in a small way for the problem. I had been using electricity like everyone else,” he said.

The work, which paid ¥10,000 per day (with an extra 25 percent on weekends, holidays and nights), involved manning one of the triple sets of doors between the plant itself and the control room, where workers are based, as well as other duties such as changing filters on masks and so on.

Takeuchi’s stint as a plant worker didn’t last long. After a month, the radiation played on his mind. He didn’t get much sleep and the jokes of his seniors became too much to bear: “They’d say with a smile that ‘you’ll be fine, but your kids will be born with hands coming out their noses,’ ” he said.

Takeuchi said he was present at the plant at the time the mysterious pointer video was made, on Aug. 28, but that before the month was over, he had quit. He left having been exposed to a total of two millisieverts of radiation (the government-imposed limit is now 50 millisieverts per year) and was given a whole-body scan for radiation absorption that returned a result of “no problem.”

Judging from his personal blog posts, it is clear he was not happy with the conditions under which workers there labored.

The lack of clear information on workers’ safety and labor issues posted on the notice boards within the plant was one cause of concern: “At the moment, notices are posted randomly here and there, and they are mixed in with messages of encouragement (mailed from around the country and the world), so it is very difficult to understand what is going on,” he wrote.

That same concern is in fact one that the mystery finger-pointer himself mentioned — and documented in photographs — when he semi-emerged from obscurity late last year to create a blog (in which he continued to mask his own identity).

Coincidence? When pushed on his connection to the finger-pointer, Takeuchi answered philosophically.

“Even if I said it was me, it would in fact be very difficult for you to confirm that I was telling the truth,” he said. “The person in the video has gone to a lot of trouble to remove all identifying marks from his suit. Usually everyone has their name written on their suit.”

He explained that it is this nontraceability that attracted him to the video — and prompted him to include it in his exhibition.

“How can you identify a person? How can you verify what people say? That is the theme for me. So, by turning this person into a motif, I will be able to see just how much people are willing to believe. The question is the point,” he said.

And so it becomes clear that if this whole project was masterminded by Takeuchi, then it is very far from over. How will the interviewer describe him? How will the audience interpret his show? Will we jump to the conclusion — even in the absence of proof — that it was he who, on the morning of Aug. 28, stood up in front of the camera and pointed an accusatory finger at TEPCO, the government and all of us?

Takeuchi explained that the same issues plague everything that has occurred at Fukushima since March 11, 2011: How can we really verify for ourselves anything that we are told?

“The technology used in nuclear power generation is complex, we can’t see what is happening in the reactor, and we can’t ‘see’ through the media either, as they are restricted from reporting within the exclusion zone,” he said.

The only thing we can do in the face of such situations is to come together and talk, one on one, to build up trust, the artist said. And that, he continued, is what he will do during his exhibition. In addition to displaying the video of the pointer and various documentation of his own attempts to have working conditions at the plant improved, Takeuchi will attend the exhibition venue every day and conduct a “performance” in which he’ll talk to visitors one-on-one.

“Maybe then,” he said, “something more will become apparent.”

Kota Takeuchi’s exhibition “Open Secret” runs from March 17 through April 1 at XYZ collective in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward. For more information, visit www.officekubota.com/snowcontemporary/exhibition.