“Shayo” (“Setting Sun”) is a somber, somewhat ominous photographic image created in 1914 by Hidaka Chotaro (1883-1926). It is a sepia-toned picture of a small hamlet over which loom dark mountains and the oncoming night.
A member of the amateur Nagoya-based Ai-yu Photography Club, Chotaro sought out isolated mountain and coastal landscapes to create pictorial images of traditional life in response to a question that has troubled Japan since the country started on the road of industrialization: Can its rural communities survive, culturally and economically, in the modern world?
Chotaro’s style was part of a worldwide trend of creating photographic prints that resembled Victorian-era oil paintings and, as a result, was commonly used to romanticize nature and oppose modernity with nostalgia for a mythical past. “Shayo,” whose title alludes to a more metaphorical decline, may not be a ground-breaking work of art in itself, but it has historical value as a representation of the anxieties of its time.
More than 100 years later, the issue of rural depopulation is more serious than ever and probably nowhere is this problem more acute than in the area around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The reason for empty houses, shops and businesses may on the surface seem to be obvious — and qualitatively different from what is causing the decline in other parts of Japan — but it’s not just concern about radioactivity.
From April this year, parts of Namie, a region that was heavily contaminated by radiation from the meltdowns at the plant caused by the earthquake and tsunami that struck Tohoku on March 11, 2011, will be open for residents to reoccupy permanently, but far fewer people are taking up the offer than local and central governments would like. In a September 2016 poll, only 17.5 percent of evacuees responded that they intended to return to where they lived before the disaster.
A retired head teacher from the local primary school who is now head of one of the local residents’ committees is fairly sanguine about radioactivity.
“I’m not worried about radiation,” he says as he visits his property in the evacuated zone to till one of his fields, “but a lot of people are afraid to move back. They’re more scared of crime.”
Although he admits he has no justification for it, he presumes that a lot of the burglary has been perpetrated “by foreigners.” Other concerns are the damage to property from vermin and other wildlife, and the dread of being constantly faced with traumatic memories and the thought of lost loved ones.
The government is wasting huge amounts of money decontaminating areas for habitation when no one wants to move back, he says.
Shinichi Kaneyama, head of Namie’s reconstruction effort, shares this point of view. Speaking in an empty town hall located at one end of Namie’s deserted main street in January, Kaneyama expresses doubt that the main objective of reconstruction should be to sanitize areas in the expectation that evacuees would want to return to their homes.
“We don’t have concrete plans on how to revitalize the area. It’s something we’re working on now,” Kaneyama says, somewhat nervously.
“I used to love fishing around here when I was a kid,” he says. “Fishing was important for the area generally and I wish we could revive that … but, with the water carrying radiation down from the mountains, I don’t know if that’s possible.”
Along with the local police, construction workers and radiation screening facility staff who work in the area and live nearby, Kaneyama is confident that he is not at risk from radiation, and that the reason many people don’t want to move back is not knowing how they’d make a living.
A scant 39 businesses, of a pre-3/11 total of around 1,000, are listed as being open in the area, according to the 2017 Namie Reconstruction Report. This dearth of amenities and job opportunities forms part of a vicious circle — there is nothing to return to, because few people are coming back.
There is radiation as well, of course. The Environment Ministry map of Fukushima shows a red smear running northwest from the crippled nuclear plant. The Namie district is divided into three zones: A, B and C. Zone A, closest to the coast, is the one that is scheduled to be fully open from April. Zone B has an annual accumulated radioactivity reading of 20-50 millisieverts. As the safe limit for exposure to radiation was set after 3/11, not without controversy, at 20 mSv by the government, it is open for people to drive through and for property owners to check on their homes and buildings, but not deemed sufficiently decontaminated for re-population.
The area northwest of the plant, Zone C, which lay directly under the plume of radiation from the venting of containment vessels, is described elliptically in the Namie Reconstruction Report as having an annual reading of “50 mSv or more.” Entry into this area, which constitutes 81 percent of the district, is strictly forbidden, and Zone C is considered too large to decontaminate in the foreseeable future.
Differences between how this situation is presented in the local council’s Namie Reconstruction Report and how it is couched by the Environment Ministry and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) are understandable, but telling nonetheless.
Decontamination is a priority for all three organizations, but Namie officials also view health care, education, housing and transport as issues that must be resolved. By comparison, the metrics of success for the Environment Ministry are the number of hectares decontaminated and the volume of radioactive soil put into interim storage.
METI’s goals are defined in terms of returning people to their homes as quickly as possible, monitoring water quality and providing financial compensation to disaster victims. If you have any doubts that the central government may have been lacking in competency or transparency in its handling of the 3/11 nuclear crisis, do not watch their clumsy Orwellian video “Fukushima Today — For a Bright Future.”
Noboru Takano used to run a construction business in Namie and now lives with his wife in temporary housing in Minamisoma. Takano doesn’t see a future in going back. He’s retired but does the odd contract job, as well as being head of a local residents’ committee.
Speaking in a small community center in Minamisoma, Takano says that although people are gradually moving out of the temporary housing, they are not returning to Namie, and are instead choosing to live elsewhere. Like Kaneyama, Takano thinks that Namie is being cleaned up and new housing is being built because people get paid to do it, not because anybody is keen to move back.
“For older people there’s nowhere convenient to shop. … You’d need to drive a long way just to get groceries,” Takano says. “There’s nothing I want to go back to. For younger people, I’m worried that they have no opportunities.
Takano is both jovial and stoic when talking about his hometown and his present situation. He’s reasonably comfortable and doesn’t want to dwell on the past.
Not everyone has fared as well. Out of a total pre-March 2011 disaster population of 21,434, 399 Namie residents have died from “evacuation stress,” as it is called in the Reconstruction Report — more than double the number of people who were killed by the earthquake and tsunami.
Kenji Kubota, a curator who founded Japan Art Donation to raise funds for artists to get involved with disaster relief within days of 3/11, understood very early that mental health would be a major issue and that people, not just structures, would also need rebuilding.
Kubota later worked with the University of Tsukuba on the Creative Reconstruction Project, in which a number of different art and design schemes were developed to provide emotional support for evacuees living in temporary housing.
A particularly acute problem, he noticed, was the uncertainty of not knowing how long the limbo of being displaced would last. He also wanted to show how disaster victims felt that they were being forgotten and that their concerns were not being heard.
One of the main outcomes from the array of art and design workshops and community activities that resulted from the project was the creation of a documentary film titled “Iwaki Note: Fukushima Voice.”
Essentially a student project, the documentary is a little rough around the edges and doesn’t have a strongly constructed central narrative, something that professional filmmakers might have worked harder to create. It is, however, a more subtle and powerful piece of work as a result. Rather than providing viewers with an emotionally cathartic story of human triumph over adversity, it portrays people who have individual and complex identities, over and above being victims of a disaster, struggling together to find solutions to their problems.
How useful can art and design projects be in helping to alleviate the effects of natural — and not-so-natural — disasters? Where large projects funded by public money are concerned, there will always be questions about cost-effectiveness, especially since it’s hard — and perhaps counterproductive — to measure success when it comes to matters of creative practice.
Chiba-based freelance designer Seiji Tarumi does have two stories that are fairly convincing, however. Working with independent collective Tsumugiya, he designed fashion accessories with the surplus materials of deer horn and fishing line. The aim was to provide an occupation for oyster farmers’ wives in Makinohama near Ishinomaki after the tsunami destroyed the local oyster beds.
One woman, who had lost everything in the disaster and was suicidal with depression, wrote to Tsumugiya after joining the jewelry workshop to say that the opportunity to get together with other oyster farmers’ wives and do something productive gave her a reason to smile and laugh for the first time since 3/11.
More recently Tarumi has been working with the Door to Asia designer-in-residence program, and designed packaging for an apple grower and winemaker based in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture.
The client had moved back to his hometown in the wake of 3/11 after living for a time in Tokyo. He had wanted to start a business that could revitalize the area but was having trouble promoting his brand.
Tarumi put his client’s story in the packaging and gave the brand a fresh new look, which has helped it become a premium product in department stores and lifestyle shops nationwide.
One of the clearest examples of clever design being of direct practical use can be found in the city of Kamaishi, located a few kilometers up the coast from Ofunato.
Robin Jenkins, a senior lecturer in interior and spatial design at Chelsea College of Arts in London, worked in collaboration with nonprofit organization Future Lab Tohoku to devise the Lifeboat in a Box project. To keep costs and red tape to a minimum, a “lifeboat station” was designed to go in the container in which the U.K.-built rescue boat was shipped to Japan.
Annual training workshops are held to ensure that the lifeboat is maintained as a practical asset for the local community, and as an excuse for students of Jenkins’ old school, UWC Atlantic College, to meet and work with the people of Kamaishi.
Art and design may not be the first things that come to mind when thinking of post-tsunami reconstruction. However, if the northeastern coastline of Japan is going to recover after the debris and irradiated soil are cleared away, it faces the same economic and social problems that threaten all rural areas of Japan.
In 1987, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry attempted to combat rural decline with the introduction of a Resort Law that parachuted theme parks such as Huis Ten Bosch into outlying areas. After the bubble burst, most of those theme parks had to close or restructure. No more bread for the circuses, as it were.
Can art and design succeed where leisure resorts failed? METI’s Cool Japan/Creative Industries Policy was launched two months after the 2011 disaster, and the proliferation of regional art festivals and biennales around Japan ever since is evidence that they are taken seriously as tools of economic policy.
The notion of anything “cool” coming out of a central bureaucracy is lamentable but, at the very least, creative practice is seen as having value in the abstract. From this there is a space to think about what is possible, and that is better than being left to lament what is lost, or trying to return a status quo that already had inherent problems.
Seiji Tarumi: sjtrm.com
OCICA dreamcatcher project: www.ocica.jp
Creative Reconstruction Project: www.geijutsu.tsukuba.ac.jp/~cr/index-cat=46& lang=en.html
Lifeboat in a Box project: www.atlanticcollege.org/news/2016/07/25/lifeboat-in-a-box