from You Saw Nothing: Sight, Digital Video, Post-3.11 Japan
When the horrifying sequence of the 3.11 disasters in Japan reached the international media I had already been based in Singapore for some years. I was in my early twenties. I had started a master’s course and been away from my family. I only came to know of the tragedy through a text message from a man I was dating at the time. It was a very short message informing me of what he had seen on the news media at his office. I was on the train heading to college. It had been a banal afternoon until I found this unreal, foreign mail in my inbox.
On the next day, Saturday, I was on a boat sailing with him and some other people. At the sailing club, its members, most of whom had multinational backgrounds and came from different parts of the world, were engaged in a conversation about whether their Tokyo offices were safe and how the disasters would affect their businesses. I wondered if my dad would sound like them as he was in his Tokyo office when the earthquake happened. I listened to them chatter under the familiar tropical sunshine, free from the savageness of winter that still held northeast Japan in its grip. Many of the disaster victims had spent the night without heating systems.
It was on one of the TV monitors at the gym that I first saw the video footage of the explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The sequence of the footage was repeated over and over mechanically. The female presenter repeated “evacuation” over and over again. The merciless mechanical repetitions seared into the bland daily landscape of Singapore and created a different texture in my memory. The still images and videos of the disasters I saw were all on those monitors inserted between news headlines. It was a weird experience to look into a monitor displayed in a public space to find my own country facing a hydrogen explosion, narrated by a serious foreign voice.
I spent the week of the unfolding triple disasters in a hotel room in downtown Singapore. At night on the balcony with the man, looking down, the upper floor of the hotel gifted a bird’s-eye view of the cityscape; between the hills of skyscrapers of the central business district on the left, and the inexhaustible fluorescent canal of Orchard Road on the right, I recognised myself increasingly being split and torn apart.
It was only in July 2011 that I returned to Japan for the first time after the disasters. It was the first time to be surrounded by Japanese people again and physically in a Japanese community and society. I came to realise that my experience of March 11, 2011 as a Japanese national was very different from the experiences told, shared, and known nationally in Japan.
It took me some time to understand that this was a time during which I faced a critical point in the identification of myself with Japaneseness. The fissure questioned my identification as Japanese. The mass-produced imaginaries of the bonded nation (bond: kizuna) excluded me by virtue of the fact that I did not witness or experience the 3.11 disasters, or simply was not in Japan on that day and those that followed. It was alienating. This feeling was old; something I had not recognised until now but felt all the time growing up. I fell into a dark hole with the feeling of alienation that had lain dormant in my mind. There were several triggers that led to and evoked these feelings.
This diasporic cultural experience and autobiographical reflection on the 3.11 disasters in 2011 characterises an experience central to this auto-ethnographic PhD research. It formulates the voice as a researcher and frames the context from which my research questions emerge. With Singapore remaining as my place of residence and home, and the location of the mediated experience of the 3.11 disasters in the autobiographical reflection, the research discloses my history of displacements. I was born to a Japanese family in Niigata in the central northwest region of the largest Japanese island of Honshu, in the mid 1980s, and was raised and educated between Japan and Singapore. I grew up in these two countries with a father who worked for a multinational Japanese corporation and travelled across the world as his business globalised. I then resided in Hong Kong, a financial centre in Asia. I returned in 2015 for the first time to post-3.11 Japan. Subsequently I relocated to Okinawa in the south of Japan for three years. This research focuses on these three Japanese peripheries – namely Fukushima, Niigata, and Okinawa – which I visited after 2011 from the contemporary Asian centres of Tokyo, Singapore, and Hong Kong. These peripheries are viewed through a lens coloured by the experiences of this multicultural background and displacement since my childhood in the 1980s.
The 3.11 triple disaster, officially known as the Great East Japan Earthquake (Higashi-nihon Daishinsai), was not only a significant event in my life as a Japanese national on a personal level but also lies at the centre of this research. The Earthquake induced the natural disaster of a tsunami afflicting the coastal areas of northeast Japan and the technological disaster of nuclear accidents at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. This research focuses on the nuclear accident from a sociological perspective.
Sociologist Hiroshi Kainuma explains the topology of nuclear energy in his Theory of ‘Fukushima’: Why the Nuclear Power Village Was Created (2011):
Nuclear energy is not merely advanced science and technology for power production and weaponry. At the global level, it is a significant factor of the geopolitical order. At the national level, it is significant for the stability of the electricity supply. At the local level, it is significant for regional development and for the environmental movement. It should have been addressed in the field of social science, not only in that of science and technology, even before the post-3.11 disasters occurred.*
As Kainuma notes from a sociological perspective, nuclear energy, ever since the inauguration of its civil use in post-war Japan, has been an index for economic growth as a stabiliser of the electricity supply for the resource-starved nation. Growth was the doctrine for the post-war nation left in the ashes and rubble of World War II and it was inevitably positioned at the core of the grand narrative of the nation.
As photojournalist Kenji Higuchi writes, upon the republication of his 1979 original version of Nuclear Power Plant in 2011 as Nuclear Disintegration: Kenji Higuchi Photo Collection in the midst of the 3.11 disasters:
The real face of the civil use of the nuclear energy is the imposition of sacrifice (radiation exposure) on the weak (subcontractors). ‘Absolutely safe’, ‘nuclear energy for peace’, ‘clean energy that does not emit CO2’, ‘low cost’, ‘the dream energy for the resourceless country’ – these safety myths brainwashed the nation. This is 40 years of true history of civil use, called atoms for peace. It is natural for me as a photojournalist to focus my lens on this. This publication is a requiem for the nuclear exposed who were erased in the darkness.**
The eyes of the photographer, who witnessed the respiratory diseases induced by industrial pollution in the western city of Yokkaichi in the midst of the high-growth period, and received an award for his work documenting this issue in 1974, observe the horrifying and exploitative position imposed on the nuclear labourers as the shadow of the growth and material wealth attained in post-war Japan. Through his camera lens, Higuchi’s eyes focus both on the light of the growth and wealth achieved nationally and exploitatively in post- war Japan by the powerful and on the shadow of the sacrifice imposed on the nuclear labourers.
Thinker Tetsuya Takahashi in his The System of Sacrifice: Fukushima and Okinawa (2012) also contemplates the light and the shadow, through which he defines sacrifice. This theory constitutes a framework of this post-colonial PhD enquiry into the attainment of growth in post-war Japan, through which the light and the shadow of the centre and the periphery, a power relation, are investigated from a post-3.11 perspective.
Just as the three publications in the spheres of sociology, photojournalism, and philosophy by Kainuma, Higuchi, and Takahashi in post-3.11 Japan expose the shadow of growth and the assignation of power to the centre, I engage myself as the artist-researcher of auto- ethnography in the three peripheries of Fukushima, Niigata, and Okinawa and produce a studio-practice of digital photography and video, through which the light and the shadow are investigated in the realm of sight. Light and shadow represent a power relation in this research. The analysis of power is a large and well-established field of research. Grounded in the discourses by Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci, this practice-based research examines the complex notion of power that emerges in and through the production of the realm of sight.***
This thesis employs Takahashi’s theory of the system of sacrifice as a determination of power relations. Within his theoretical framework of sacrifice, the power relation between the centre and the periphery regarding growth is defined as follows:
Growth is produced and maintained by the periphery’s sacrifice of life, health, everyday living, assets, dignity, and hope etc. The benefit accrued to the centre is never produced or maintained without the sacrifice imposed on the periphery. The sacrifice is normally either concealed or glorified as a holy sacrifice by the community, such as the nation state, nation, society, and corporations etc.
Grounded in his theory, the three peripheries of Fukushima, Niigata, and Okinawa fall into the position of the sacrificed and comprise the three main chapters of this thesis that focus on the studio-practice works produced at each periphery. In total, there are 3 digital video works and 1 digital photography work produced.