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Literary Journeys: Living Through Art in the Wake of Disaster

By Alison Watts

Alison Watts reflects on her personal experience with the March 11, 2011 disaster in Japan; the literary journey of Japanese writer Durian Sukegawa, whose work Watts translates, in the wake of the disaster; and the power of artists to reflect and shape collective memory.                                                              


Journeys don’t always turn out as one expects. When I set out from my native Australia for Japan on December 31, 1987, supposedly for a year, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would still be living there thirty years later, with an aging nuclear reactor in my neighborhood threatening my safety and peace of mind. And when I set out in 2016 on a drive to meet a writer whose novel I was to translate, I never thought that day would spur me into becoming a campaigner against this reactor—stopped since 2011—resuming operation. Now, at the start of 2019, I am waiting to learn whether the local government will give the go-ahead to restart it.

Retracing famous journeys is a common device in travel literature, but carrying a dosimeter to take radiation readings along the way has to be a unique variation. This is what writer Durian Sukegawa did in 2012 when he followed in the footsteps of the great Japanese haiku poet Matsuo Basho. Sukegawa would later write about his journey in a book published in 2018, more than three centuries after Basho’s original, that reveals much about life in the shadow of the powerful March 2011 earthquake that triggered a massive tsunami and the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. Casualties from the triple disaster stand officially at about 18,500 but it’s believed thousands more died indirectly as a result. Though I didn’t know Durian Sukegawa before he set off in 2012, our paths would soon cross as another journey of my own began to unfold, almost in parallel.

It is impossible to pick just one of Sukegawa’s many talents and say “this is who he is.” He is a cult radio personality, poet, novelist, singer, spoken word performer, public speaker, agony uncle, and television presenter. But, above all, Sukegawa is a wordsmith, wielding language with precision and great purpose in every possible medium to express the world as he sees it. When I first met him in 2016, it was in his capacity as novelist, and I was about to become his translator. At the time I had already fallen in love with his novel An (or Sweet Bean Paste) in its original Japanese, and I was thrilled to be hired to translate it into English. This was an enormous boost to my own recent decision to become a full-time literary translator after a long career in commercial translation. Armed with his email address and instructions from the UK publisher to get in touch, the next step should have been straightforward, but I hesitated. I was in awe of his talent as a writer and cringed at the thought of using a klutzy phrase or misplaced honorific, or of committing some other faux pas lurking to trip up even native speakers in the minefield of potential embarrassment that is formal written Japanese. Almost as bad would be sending an email so safe and dry I might as well copy one of the templates that exist to guide correspondents in their mission to communicate without blundering.

Then I looked at Sukegawa’s blog and saw he would be giving a performance in a few days’ time in Nasu. Located in the landlocked prefecture of Tochigi, just over an hour north of Tokyo on the Bullet Train, Nasu is a leafy, highland resort town where the Imperial Family has a holiday home. It also happens to be situated at the base of an active volcano and mountain range that is a favorite hiking place of mine, so it didn’t take long to decide I would much rather make the two-hour drive there from my home on the Pacific coast to initiate this important relationship in person.

It was an early summer day in June when I set off and the temperature was perfect. More often than not, Japanese weather is either too hot, too cold, too windy, too wet, or too humid, but that day was blue-sky, window-down, loud-music driving kind of weather. The annual rice crop—such an important marker of seasons—was well-established and lush summer greenery already covered every corner of the land. In high spirits and singing along to my favorite songs, I drove my usual back-roads route to Nasu, soaking up the scenery along the way: low mountains, rice fields and hamlets, and past a tiny store famous for its ichigo daifuku, where of course I had to stop. Ichigo daifuku—what a concept! A single strawberry lightly coated in thin layers of sweet adzuki bean paste and cream, rolled in slightly sweetened, pounded glutinous rice, and finished with a light dusting of corn flour. The complex burst of textures that reward at first bite is to die for: moist, crisp, creamy, sweet, floury, sticky, and chewy all at once—I cannot deny the part ichigo daifuku played in my decision to drive to Nasu that day.

Just as Basho had paused in 1689 to record his journey in haiku, Sukegawa resolved to pause to record with his dosimeter contamination levels along the way. 

The venue for the performance Durian Sukegawa was to give was an old temple on a hemp farm just off Route 4. Five years earlier the farm’s owners had bred cattle, but when the radioactive fallout from the explosion at a reactor in Fukushima drifted some sixty miles to contaminate their land, they had no choice but to stop. Years of heartbreak followed the abrupt loss of not only their beloved livestock but also their livelihood until they finally settled on hemp production as an alternative source of farm income. To this day, the huge black polythene bales of contaminated topsoil scraped from their fields remain as a bitter reminder of their loss.

Little did I know on arrival that sunny day that their farm, set in a tiny valley surrounded by densely-thicketed slopes, had been one of the many places Sukegawa had visited on his 2012 journey. At the time I was simply charmed by the quirky setting for the performance as I made my way along a tree-lined track that meandered past farm buildings and pocket-sized vegetable fields, until I reached a snug, weathered temple the size of a house. What kind of performance would take place here? I wondered as I removed my shoes, stepped up into the open space of the temple hall, and found a seat on the straw tatami-covered floor in front of a white screen and two microphone stands. Before long, an audience of about fifty filled the hall to capacity. Soon after, Sukegawa and his guitarist, Pickles Tamura, emerged from a side door. The show had begun.

Tall with long shoulder-length hair, Sukegawa has the solid physique of the American football player he in fact was during his student days. On that day he looked ready for business, dressed in baggy pants and suspenders, rolled-up shirtsleeves, and a cap. Pickles, much shorter beside him, wore black leather pants and a purple velour jacket, black work boots, and a jaunty top hat, a mischievous Japanesque Johnny Depp, straight out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Though they resembled a pair of vagabond entertainers, their delivery was anything but rough.

From the moment Sukegawa began to speak in deep measured tones, we were in the presence of a master showman. Every movement deliberate, no single effort wasted, this was a performance that radiated concentrated stillness and a tightly coiled energy. It was soon clear we were watching rodoku, a form of Japanese spoken word prose or poetry that, in Sukegawa’s hands, combined narrative with song, images, and music. First came a bittersweet children’s story about a lonely crocodile who falls in love with a dolphin before going off to die. Though captivated, I was nevertheless puzzled about its place in the program.

Not until the second half did I begin to understand where Sukegawa’s performance was taking his audience and why we were there. Now we were being led along a new version of The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This classic of Japanese literature is required reading at school and every adult can quote a half-remembered phrase. It’s the journal of poet Matsuo Basho’s epic five-month journey in 1689, that would take him from Tokyo up the Pacific coast, cross country over mountainous interiors, and back down along the Japan Sea coastline, writing haiku along the way. As he and his companion Sora visited friends and followers and toured sites of scenic and literary note, Basho, too, was walking in the footsteps of the poets that had preceded him, just as Sukegawa would follow in his more than three hundred years later.

Image: The Bandai area in Fukushima 

When Sukegawa set off to retrace Basho’s iconic journey in 2012, he took with him two notable additions: the first, a fold-up bicycle he named Meg in memory of the family’s dog from his youth, a loss that resurfaced on the journey; and the second, a dosimeter, a device used to measure exposure to radiation. Who could have guessed such an instrument would ever be of use on Basho’s Narrow Road?

The idea to tread this historical path had first come to Sukegawa while he was translating Basho’s classic into modern Japanese after witnessing his own daughter’s struggles to study and comprehend the arcane language. He soon realized, however, he couldn’t translate the work with any authenticity unless he, too, went to the places Basho had visited before him. It also became clear that much of the route Basho had taken in 1689 would now coincide with areas that had suffered damage from the impact of the earthquake, tsunami, and/or radiation contamination that followed the 2011 earthquake. And retracing Basho’s earlier course would inevitably lead him close by the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, the largest in Japan, and indeed the largest nuclear power generating station in the world. After the 2011 earthquake, all of Japan’s fifty-four reactors then in operation were shut down as a safety measure, and a new regulatory body, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), was established along with revised safety standards and regulations. Now all reactors are required to pass inspection before permission to restart is given.

Contamination, disaster recovery, and energy supply: the burning issues of the day in Japan would be more than represented on Sukegawa’s route. Therefore his purpose, he decided, would be to not only reinterpret Basho’s great work, but also to discover for himself how people were coping after the disasters in the areas outside of Tokyo, away from the media. What were peoples’ lives really like? What wasn’t being reported? What were the real levels of radiation? Just as Basho had paused in 1689 to record his journey in haiku, Sukegawa resolved to pause to record with his dosimeter contamination levels along the way. He devised what he called a “peace of mind” scale, based on the Japanese government’s stipulated threshold of “acceptable” exposure to non-naturally occurring radiation, which was one millisievert per year. Calculating that this would translate into a daily exposure of 0.11 microsieverts per hour, and assuming that most people are indoors for half the day, Sukegawa figured that being in an outdoor environment with readings above 0.22 microsieverts per hour would be an anxiety-inducing level.

On August 15, 2012, at the height of summer, he set off from Tokyo, one year and five months following the disasters of 2011. The journey was undertaken in four separate legs over three months. He traveled by bicycle as much as possible, but at times used trains and accepted lifts by car when the terrain was tough. It took until autumn for Sukegawa to finish what would prove a physically demanding and arduous journey through extreme weather conditions, up and down mountains, and along roads that were rarely bicycle friendly. He was warned his fold-up bicycle had not been built to withstand such rigors or terrain. Sukegawa nevertheless rode Meg up to the very last day, when a tire puncture forced him to walk the last six miles to his final destination of Ogaki, in Gifu Prefecture.

Here were the growers whose livelihoods had been destroyed; the bleak regional townscapes and abandoned farmlands; the young people whose futures had been blighted by the stigma of radiation.

As I sat in the temple that sunny day, Sukegawa took the audience along the Pacific coast section of his journey, the route that had taken him through lands devastated by the disasters. In contrast to the meticulous observation, cool analysis, and philosophical reflection I would later digest at length in Sukegawa’s book, the rodoku performance carried great emotional force as his mellifluous voice and Pickle’s plaintive guitar combined to paint a heartrending picture of the forgotten and voiceless victims of 2011 while a rolling tableau of images was projected onto the white screen behind them. Here were the growers whose livelihoods had been destroyed; the bleak regional townscapes and abandoned farmlands; the young people whose futures had been blighted by the stigma of radiation; the neglected schools, and the disabled children who now must play next to piles of contaminated soil in their playground. I learned of lands affected in Nasu, the beautiful town I was so fond of, that Basho, too, had visited before me; of the land prices that plummeted and of the livelihoods lost to its people. But along with the bleakness projected across the screen that day, there was also beauty: fields of flowers, giant old trees, waterfalls, ever-present mountains, graceful-roofed temples; all the heart-soaring beauty of the Japanese countryside and the people whose lives it enfolds.

As I watched and listened, I felt myself sucked down a rabbit hole. Memories of the aftermath of the disasters came flooding back in visceral sensations: disbelief, fear, stomach-churning anxiety, and the heavy, leaden flow of blood through my veins. I wanted to cry as I began to realize how much time had blunted my memory and emotions. How could I have forgotten?

*          *          *

Let me be clear: I was not in Japan on March 11, 2011. I was in Australia with my ten-year-old daughter for our annual visit and could only watch in horror as televised footage of the tsunami and earthquake damage played in an endless loop like a Hollywood apocalyptic movie. I received a brief text from my Japanese husband just after the first quake to say he was okay but couldn’t contact our son. All communications were subsequently cut and for the next two days, until I received word they were both safe, I was sick with worry.

Then we started to hear about damage to the reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, located on the coast just seventy miles north of our home in Tokai-mura, Ibaraki prefecture. Not long after, I heard the word “meltdown” from my husband, a nuclear engineer and researcher, a fact not yet included in official news reporting at the time. Another round of agonizing waiting began. Glued to the television, I gulped gin in the middle of the day to blunt my rising hysteria as I watched the unthinkable sight of helicopters dumping seawater on the reactors to try and cool them. These were desperate measures and it was impossible not to imagine the worst: Would we ever be able to return home? Would I ever see my husband and son again?

Somehow Armageddon was avoided, but contamination from the explosion of one reactor had spread far and wide. I stayed on in Australia with my daughter, not wanting to return until the situation in Fukushima had stabilized. But as the weeks went by and that seemed unlikely, I decided to go back. We have a house in Australia, a place where I could live if I really wanted to. I wanted to stay there and keep my daughter safe, for her to grow up in a clean, healthy environment far from any nuclear reactors. But Japan is home, too; it is the country where my husband and children were born and raised. The cost of not going back would have broken up our family. That I did not want. So, at the end of April, six weeks after the disasters, my daughter and I took a plane home.

We returned to a changed world. Though there had been significant earthquake and tsunami damage in our hometown of Tokai-mura, its scale was not catastrophic and thus barely rated mention in the media. Most shocking was the silence. The trains on the line behind our house had stopped, period. In a country where the trains run like clockwork with barely an interruption, this alone bore silent testimony to the gravity of the situation around us.

Image: The Tokai nuclear reactor

There had been one other significant event in Tokai-mura in March, 2011, which I didn’t learn of until much later. The tsunami had also reached the Tokai No. 2 reactor, and had it climbed another twenty-eight inches, the seawall protecting the reactor would have been breached. Fortunately, the seawall had been reinforced only the year before, though the work had not been completed. On March 11, though the reactor had shut down automatically, the earthquake cut power to the cooling system and damaged one of three seawater pumps powered by emergency diesel generators. Thankfully the remaining two emergency diesel generators worked and another Fukushima-like disaster was averted. It could have been so much worse; 80,000 people (including me) live within three miles of the reactor, 960,000 within eighteen miles, and Tokyo is a mere sixty-two miles south.

Fear of radiation is a wearing, mental stress; it eats away invisibly at your core. Unlike other disaster conditions, you cannot see or sense it. 

In the year following my return to Japan, life was gray. Though I was glad we were all together, I was constantly worried about contamination in the ground and in our food, and deeply depressed. Fear of radiation is a wearing, mental stress; it eats away invisibly at your core. Unlike other disaster conditions, you cannot see or sense it, and in the face of that you are unable to make judgments about personal safety. Unfortunately, my experience of a criticality accident in Tokai-mura in 1999—which before Fukushima was the worst nuclear incident in the world since Chernobyl in 1986—had already caused me to lose faith in the system and in the authorities’ ability to safely administer nuclear facilities. And so I wanted to be anywhere else but where I was. In the circumstances, however, all I could do was to try to ensure that the food my family ate was safe. I shopped for food from sources I trusted to conduct rigorous contamination checks, and regretfully threw away all the little gifts of vegetables and fruit from people’s fields and gardens that are the currency of community life in the country. I am ordinarily an energetic person, but during that time, my mood was always bleak and I had little zest for life.

There came a point, though, when I changed. The exact moment of epiphany is seared in my mind: I was out running when I saw a billboard for a hospital, and I think it was the association with fear of illness that for some reason prompted me to make a list in my head of everything I lived for, apart from the obvious—family and friends. At the top of my list was literature, then music, art, mountains, wine, and food. None depended on my living elsewhere and I was still healthy, so I decided to get on with enjoying life and everything that I lived for. Damned if I was going to let the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco)—operator of the Fukushima plant—ruin the rest of my life! I don’t know why I made that decision just then. Perhaps enough time had passed. But I do know that it is impossible to live in a constant state of high alert, without any peace of mind. Mentally, it cannot be sustained. And if you cannot change your environment, the easiest way to escape is to ignore it. Simply erase the fear by pretending whatever is causing it doesn’t exist and stop thinking about it. So that’s what I did. I stopped constantly checking food labels, I buried my fears, and I threw myself back into my favorite pursuits.  

*          *          *

It would take until July 2018 for Sukegawa to publish his account of his journey, A Dosimeter and the Narrow Road to the Deep North (pictured left), which he began with the line, “Memory and oblivion: where is the dividing line?” One reason for Sukegawa’s delay was his concern about the negative effect the work might have for the people who had worked so hard to reconstruct their lives in the face of not only actual radiation contamination but also the reputational and economic damage that fear of contamination carried in its wake. At the same time, he recognized the injustice in the fact that these people had been given no alternative but to accept the consequences of contamination without ever having their voices heard—an injustice felt ever more keenly as the country moved toward restarting the reactors. Sukegawa was encouraged by the words of a Fukushima farmer he had met on his journey who later wrote to him to point out that although a clear distinction should be made between actual damage and the damage resulting from reputational loss, to remain silent would not help to distinguish between them.

The stigma of contamination is insidious. It’s unfortunate that the nuclear power plant that was wrecked bears the same name as both the prefecture and the capital city of that prefecture. Fukushima has become a byword for nuclear disaster and catastrophe and that has created a secondary tragedy for the vast part of the prefecture not contaminated or devastated by the tsunami and earthquake. Fukushima is the third largest prefecture in Japan, at just over 5,300 square miles. It’s a place of great natural beauty with many mountainous areas and national parks. In the past thirty years, I’ve been there more times than I can count for study tours, visiting in-laws, family holidays, skiing, and mountain-climbing. I continue to visit to this day. It was heartbreaking to see the devastation to Fukushima, but it also pains me to see the prejudice that word now evokes.

Sukegawa’s book is far from simply a catalogue of disaster. The economical writing with its flashes of poetic prose that had attracted me to his work in the first place only adds to the pleasure of seeing anew, and through his eyes, Fukushima, Tochigi, Miyagi, and other prefectures in Japan’s north that I have come to know and love through my own travels, interests, and family connections. I also found within his book a renewed acquaintance with Basho, of course, whom I had only ever read in English translation.

As I sat in the temple that day in Nasu I was so moved by the performance that I decided to bring it to Tokai-mura. I wanted people there to see it too and to remember what it was like in those first few years after the disasters, how on edge we all were, not knowing which parks were safe for our children to play in, or if the water was safe, or where the radioactive hot spots were, or if the sweet potatoes and grapes that grow in our town were okay to eat. And very soon we, too, were going to have to face the issue of whether or not we wanted the nuclear reactor in Tokai-mura to start up again.

Tokai-mura is where it all began for nuclear power in Japan. The first research reactor started there in 1957, the first commercial reactor operated from 1966 until 1998, and the Tokai No. 2 reactor started up alongside it in 1978. This reactor was licensed to operate until November 2018 but shut down automatically in 2011 while new post-Fukushima safety standards were hammered out. Tokai No. 2 may be a reactor, but it’s also quite the community center in town. Inside the grounds, only a few hundred yards from the reactor itself, is a facility with an educational display about nuclear power, rooms to hold meetings, and exhibitions, as well as an outdoor grassy area with playing equipment and a children’s wading pond. As young mothers, my friends and I used to meet there for playdates with our babies and toddlers. Playdates at the local nuclear reactor—what were we thinking? Is that normal anywhere else in the developed world? It didn’t strike us as strange or dangerous at the time. But back then, we lived in an innocent pre-Fukushima age and we accepted the reactors as part of our neighborhood. It was our not thinking too deeply about the risks if something went wrong that made it possible for us to live there and, besides, we believed implicitly in the myth of their safety.

Everybody is somehow connected to the nuclear industry . . . People’s livelihoods depend on it and venturing a casual opinion about the pros and cons of nuclear energy is not something one does.

The nuclear industry is the raison d’être for Tokai-mura—the town’s symbol is a stylized design of a gamma ray and a Pacific Ocean wave, a symbol that seems ironic now, given that it was a tsunami wave from the Pacific that nearly swamped the Tokai reactor and undermined the whole nuclear industry. Created in 1955 from the amalgamation of two villages, Tokai-mura is home to the Japan Nuclear Research Institute, established there in 1957, and the town’s administration and local economy have grown in tandem with the many related nuclear businesses and facilities that have surrounded it ever since. Today the town is still officially designated a mura, which means village, even though the population is 37,000 or so. It is, in every sense, the quintessential “nuclear village,” a term the Japanese use to describe the cross-section of bureaucracy, media, academia, business, industry, and finance that sustain the vested interests of the nuclear industry. When you live in a place like this, that means everybody is somehow connected to the nuclear industry: friends, neighbors, workmates, sporting teammates, children’s classmate’s families, etc. People’s livelihoods depend on it and venturing a casual opinion about the pros and cons of nuclear energy is not something one does.

I knew a lot of people, like me, were shaken by the Fukushima disaster, especially women with children. But how could any one of us say openly we were against the Tokai reactor restarting when its very existence also put bread on our tables? When our husbands, who work directly or indirectly to support its operation, are good men who love their families, who do their jobs sincerely and in good faith? How could we deny the validity of what family and friends had devoted their lives to? Every single person living in Tokai-mura has a deep conflict of personal and public interest that makes it near impossible to express openly what he or she really thinks. That’s why you have situations like the town council election in 2012, when the majority of candidates would not speak publicly about the reactor. It’s the elephant in the room.   

I hoped a concert might be a way to change that, even just a little, by creating an opportunity to talk naturally and indirectly. Sukegawa and Pickles agreed to come and many people helped me to organize it. The concert took place in February 2017. I like to think it was a success. Close to 150 people came, it generated quite a bit of radio and press coverage from interviews I gave before and after the performance, both the mayor and deputy mayor put in an appearance, and I made a short, carefully-edited speech to say we should be able to talk about things and express opinions openly. I wanted to show that “normal” members of society could talk about this (though, admittedly, as a Western woman in Japan, I might not be my fellow town residents’ idea of “normal”) without being tarred as troublemaking, anti-establishment activists. It’s hard to gauge the effect, but I think my efforts got some conversations started. If nothing else, the experience rid me of any qualms that in the past may have prevented me from saying publicly that I do not agree with restarting the reactor. I hope it’s not vanity to wish that others might be inspired to think and say so too.

Image: Pickles Tamura, Alison Watts, and Durian Sukegawa at the temple entrance for the Nasu performance

The nationwide public backlash against nuclear energy, so heated in the years immediately after the Fukushima disaster, has inevitably waned. Meanwhile, the process of restarting reactors grinds inexorably on. The fading public furor is clearly very convenient for a government that would prefer people to forget about the dangers nuclear reactors present in a seismically unstable country, and instead concentrate on more exciting things, such as all the foreign tourists streaming into Japan nowadays or the 2020 Tokyo Olympics—which diverts enormous resources while people in the disaster-affected areas still live in temporary housing.

So far, nine reactors in Japan are back in operation. The Tokai reactor passed inspection by the NRA in September 2018 and soon after was granted permission to operate for another twenty years following the expiry of its original forty-year license in November 2018. Further safety upgrades must first be completed, but all that remains in the administrative process is for local governments to approve the restart. Specifically, that means first the prefectural government, then the Tokai-mura government, and five other municipalities whose residents live in close proximity to the reactor.

Giving non-host towns a say in the approval process for a reactor located outside their boundaries is a first in Japan and the outcome of a landmark agreement reached between Japan Atomic Power Co (Japco), owner of the Tokai reactor, and a coalition of mayors from Tokai-mura and the five other municipalities in 2018. The agreement has yet to be put to the ultimate legal test, but the fact that the mayors managed to forge it at all, fighting tooth and nail for it through discussion and democratic process, is the only thing I find hopeful in the face of the enormous influence of the nuclear village at every level of government.  

It makes no sense to me, for example, that until now a city with 20,000 of its residents living within three miles of a reactor should have had to bear all the risks of being so close while gaining no financial benefits or right of veto over its operation. It makes no sense to me either that Japan’s government does not see fit to assess the risks of living in the neighborhood of a nuclear reactor and give all citizens equal protection. Instead, under the current system, once the NRA has completed its technical inspection, the decision on whether to let residents shoulder the danger is left to local governments to decide through a political process. And in Japan, local governments are stacked with politicians elected with the backing of political parties and big companies who provide financial and organizational resources for campaigns in the expectation that their interests will be protected in return. The interests of residents are not necessarily the main priority.

What will happen, I wonder? The stakes are high and the power of the nuclear village cannot be underestimated. Japco has no other potential source of income if the Tokai reactor doesn’t restart, and bankruptcy would inevitably follow. Japco doesn’t have the $2.7 billion required for the safety upgrades that would enable it to resume operation—or at least it didn’t until majority shareholder Tepco came to the rescue with an offer of $1.7 billion to help cover their expenses. This is the same Tepco that owns the Fukushima plant, that is still paying compensation for all the damage its reactors caused in 2011, and it will have to foot a massive cleanup bill as a consequence for decades to come.

And so it goes . . . I wait with baited breath to see what the decision will be on this aging reactor that is a couple of miles from my doorstep, a mere sixty-two miles from central Tokyo, and in whose eighteen-mile radius close to one million people live. Will the powers that be decide it’s okay to restart a reactor of the same type as the Fukushima reactors that went into meltdown, in a location predicted to have an 80% chance of experiencing a magnitude-seven earthquake in the next thirty years? How far are they prepared to go in gambling with our lives?

This is why we need writers and artists . . . They mirror the times and remind us of the past. Through them we can tap into shared experiences and reconnect with memories.

A humane society cannot, and should not, forget its people living far from the nation’s capital, or the daily struggle of those who continue to live with the repercussions of 2011. Nor should it forget about the consequences of the Fukushima meltdown. That was the message of Sukegawa’s performance that day in the temple. Now the publication of his book has lifted that message to another level as it pushes against the line that divides memory and oblivion in the public consciousness.

It is inevitable that personal memories fade, lives change, and time marches on. This is why we need writers and artists. The Japanese writers, poets, musicians, artists, and filmmakers who have continued to wrestle with how Japan was changed by the events of 2011 and express what they see beyond the veneer of daily life are society’s collective memory. They mirror the times and remind us of the past. Through them we can tap into shared experiences and reconnect with memories, as I did that day in Nasu. It is in writing and art that I find hope in the face of the political machine.

More than 300 years after Basho’s epic journey, people still read his words and visit the places that inspired them. Basho’s success was to connect that past with our present, just as in years to come I feel sure that people will continue to read Durian Sukegawa’s words and remember what happened in Japan in 2011. It remains to be seen what the decision on the reactor in Tokai-mura will be. My only prayer is that we will never see anything like what happened in Fukushima again.


Read Roland Kelts’s “After Disaster: Embracing a Living Past through Ghosts of the Tsunami



Published Mar 11, 2019   Copyright 2019 Alison Watts

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