More than two years after the triple reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, hundreds of thousands of residents of the Tohoku region of northeastern Honshu remain displaced, the power station teeters on the brink of further disaster and large swaths of northern Japan are so irradiated they’ll be uninhabitable for generations to come. But today in Tokyo, it is as though March 11, 2011, never happened. The streets are packed with tourists and banners herald the city’s 2020 Olympic bid; the neon lights are back on and all memories of post-meltdown power savings seem long forgotten.
Given this apparent mood of collective amnesia, the large poster on a wall near Shibuya Station comes as a surprise. It shows a little girl wearing a long red dress stenciled with the words “3.11 is not over” — nearby another poster depicts a Rising Sun flag seeping blood and the message “Japan kills Japanese.”
These posters — and dozens of others pasted around Tokyo — are the work of Japanese artist 281_Anti Nuke. While the origins of his chosen name are murky, the way in which his subversively simple images force passersby to stop — and think — has led to comparisons with British street artist Banksy. 281’s designs have also made him a target for Japan’s far right, who have branded him a dangerous criminal and urged the public to help put a stop to his activities.
This degree of controversy has forced 281 to wrap his true identity in a veil of secrecy, but after a convoluted series of negotiations, he finally agreed to his first newspaper interview. Throughout the meeting in a Shibuya coffee shop, 281 wore a cotton face mask and dark glasses; a disguise which helped him blend in seamlessly among the capital’s fashion-conscious hay-fever sufferers.
“On March 11, 2011, I was in Tokyo when the earthquake hit. I’d never experienced anything like that before. It felt like a bad dream,” 281 explained in a soft-spoken voice belying the fury of his designs.
Like the other 13 million residents of Tokyo, he survived the initial quake unharmed, but the following weeks triggered a seismic shift in his political outlook: “Before March 2011, I’d never been involved in activism of any kind. I’d trusted the Japanese government. But then the cracks started appearing,” he said.
First there were the revelations that the government had concealed the meltdowns, followed by news that they had hidden information regarding the dispersal of radiation. 281 came to the conclusion that there was very little natural about this disaster: It had occurred as a result of ties between the Japanese government and the nuclear power station’s operators, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) — both of which were now determined to keep the truth hidden from the public.
Three months after the meltdowns, 281’s anger reached critical mass and he felt compelled to take action. Despite having no background in art, he decided that the best way to spread awareness was to take his message to the streets.
The first design he created was a three-eyed gas mask with two mouth pieces and the word “Pollution” written below it. The image satirized the logo of Tepco, which was as recognizable to most Japanese residents as the golden arches of McDonald’s or the Nike swoosh. 281 printed the gas mask onto 20-cm-tall stickers then stuck them around central Tokyo — on abandoned buildings and construction-site barricades. He avoided private property, but had few qualms targeting the city’s ubiquitous Tepco meter boxes and electric transformer units.
Over the following months, 281 put up hundreds more posters and stickers to remind the public what, he believed, the Japanese government and Tepco were conspiring to make people forget. His best-known image depicts a little girl wearing a poncho and rubber galoshes; beneath her feet is the message, “I hate rain,” punctuated with a triple-triangle radiation mark.
Since he first designed the image in September 2011, it has been spotted the length and breadth of Japan, as well as in the United States and Europe. 281 understood the reason for its viral spread when he started to receive tweets to his account at @281_: “The messages came from parents all over Japan. They told me they could see their own children in those prints.”
The same child in the “I hate rain” sticker features in other 281 designs. In one, she plays on a swing as radiation signs fall like snowflakes around her; in another, dressed in a swimsuit, she hugs an irradiated life-ring. Like all of 281’s work, the power of these designs lies in their simplicity. The radiation expelled by the twin meltdowns has tainted all aspects of children’s lives and cast doubts on the safety of everyday activities that used to be taken for granted.
The repeated image of the young girl raises the question of whether 281 has children of his own. Initially, he declined to answer; but after some gentle persuasion, he conceded he was a father. The girl of the stickers, however, is not based upon his own children.
281’s desire to protect details of his family is understandable. Notwithstanding the questionable legality of posting his designs on public property, the risks were elevated in December 2012 when the tabloid, Tokyo Sports, ran an article condemning his work.
Sparking the outcry was one of 281’s posters depicting politician Shinzo Abe — then the leader of the opposition but today the prime minister — with a radiation-emblazoned bandana over his face and the message, “Don’t Trust.” The image was found by Tokyo Sports during national election season and the paper accused 281 of initiating a smear campaign.
The story set the Internet ablaze. On bulletin boards, Japan’s rightists demanded 281’s immediate arrest for interfering with the election. Such commentators seemed oblivious to 281’s previous designs, which had been equally critical of Abe’s rivals. One of his most scathing posters, for example, depicted then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Tsunehisa Katsumata, the former president of Tepco, locking tongues in a deep French kiss.
Despite the violence intimated by some of the online commentators, 281 was keen to downplay the problem.
“Even if people hated the Abe poster, at least it created public debate. It went beyond just being a poster and made people think about the issue of politicians’ roles in the nuclear disaster.” he said.
Asked whether he worried about his own personal safety, 281 gave a quiet laugh, “The only protection I took was to buy myself a pair of sunglasses. I could begin to understand why Spiderman feels the need to wear a mask.”
281 had meant the comment as a joke but there was more truth to the superhero comparison than this modest man would ever admit. Science fiction is full of stories in which radiation transforms the destinies of normal men. Following the catastrophic disaster at Fukushima, this mild-mannered father was forced to take the law into his own hands to protect the life of his child — and the lives of children all over the nation.
The analogy seemed justified by 281’s next comment. “The meltdowns showed us that the Japanese government might not help us in the future. We need to save ourselves. Even after I die, it’s important to look after the next generation — and the generation beyond that.”
This sense of mission motivated 281’s latest series of works, which target the three key problems he believes Japan currently faces: the ongoing nuclear crisis, the rise in militarization and the planned entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership. One of his new designs depicts three images of Abe wrapped again in bandanas — the first has the same nuclear symbol that sparked last year’s online outrage, the others, military camouflage and the American flag.
Inevitably, works such as these will plunge 281 into the limelight once more. In addition, some of his designs will move from the street to an art space in Tokyo for his first show next month. British filmmaker, Adrian Storey has also just completed a documentary about his work titled “281_Anti Nuke.”
How this growing publicity will affect 281 on an artistic — not to mention personal level — remains to be seen. But before he pulled his hood over his head and slipped back into the anonymity of Shibuya’s night-time bustle, he renewed his promise to help protect his children and his country.
“Japan is at a changing point in its history. I want this country to find a better path. If we don’t give up, then I’m confident we’ll succeed in changing it.”
Very special thanks to Erina Suto, without whom this article would have been impossible. A trailer for Adrian Storey’s documentary can be seen at vimeo.com/65038166. For more of 281_Anti Nuke’s designs and details of his upcoming show, visit: www.281antinuke.com.