The Fukushima disaster exposed fissures in Japanese society that its familial politics tries to paper over.
By Mari Matsumoto (left) and Sabu Kohso (right) / 09.15.2017
In the history of nuclear disaster, Fukushima stands out in its singularity. There, two kinds of disasters were intermixed: the earthquake/tsunami, and the nuclear explosion. On March 11, 2011, nature and civilization collapsed in the worst imaginable manner. The first catastrophe was tragic enough—with 15,894 deaths, 6,152 heavy injuries, and 2,561 missing persons (as of March 2016). Then came the radioactive contamination. If it had been just the so-called natural disaster, it might have been possible for us to materialize a paradise built in hell or mutual aid society amid the zone of devastation, hand in hand with its natural resilience. But the second disaster instantaneously deprived us of all power to intervene in the radioactive terrain.
This is a new challenge not only for anti-nuke discourses and movements but also anarchism or anti-authoritarian politics in a broad sense. Interviews with Mari, a Japanese feminist, anti-capitalist activist, and writer, can attest to that. When I first interviewed her, on June 12, 2011, three months after the disaster, an anarchic sensibility was dramatically in evidence. The complexity of people’s emotions—grief (over the losses), fear (of the coming devastation), panic (due to uninformed dread), rage (against nuclear capitalism and the state), and even joy (tied to the possibility of a regime change)—generated an affective power that fueled a wide range of grassroots organizing, from everyday struggles such as do-it-ourselves radiation monitoring and voluntary evacuation, to all sorts of anti-nuke actions, including legal actions against Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and the Japanese government.
In the second interview, which took place on July 1, 2016, Mari explains what happened to the affective climate during the time in between. The complexity of the emotions, once collectivized in an ensemble, could have been the strongest weapon for organizing a resistance movement, but by the time of our second interview, they had been overshadowed by the nationalist empathy for the industrial and commercial reconstruction of Fukushima. This is largely due to the conformism that has long dominated Japanese society, wherein the nation is assumed to be a big family ruled by the emperor, to which family, township, municipality, and civil society are deemed subunits. Even the annual Hiroshima commemoration is not totally free from nationalism.
Yet Mari believes that the magnitude of people’s sufferings post-Fukushima sustains the potential of affective politics to decompose this nationalist empathy. To achieve that, however, the struggles must shift their perspective: from shortsighted political goals to aims related to the enduring quality of radiation contamination, both temporally and spatially.
It has been five years since the disaster. How has the situation changed?
It has taken five years for the public to know how criminal the responses of the government have been. In part this has to do with the temporality of the nuclear disaster, which necessitates time for the victims and evacuees to settle in and reflect on their situations. Around 2013, the nuclear disaster was finally acknowledged as a “man-made disaster” by the government. Meanwhile, thanks to journalists’ tireless investigations, the fact was clarified that TEPCO had totally neglected measures to protect against the effects of a tsunami for over 10 to 12 years.
After the earthquake, a tsunami with a 15-meter wave hit the reactors. TEPCO was not unaware of such a possibility. It repeatedly ignored warnings by specialists. In fact, up until four days before the accident, the discussion concerning the need to take measures had gone back and forth between TEPCO and government agencies. The international code for nuclear policy states that it must be prepared for even a situation that may arise once in 10,000 years. TEPCO not only ignored it but also made special efforts to do away with it. Even after the accident, the government has subtly covered up the evasion. All in all, the people realize they have been consistently tricked and deceived by the authorities. It was some independent bloggers, journalists, lawyers, and reporters who strived to reveal all this. With the retrospective revelations, the victims were naturally infuriated. In this sense, the five years have been spent preparing evidence for lawsuits—about 40 cases with over 10,000 plaintiffs. So criminal actions, too, will follow. Although the legal fight has its limitations, this development requires attention.
All in all, the government has done nothing for or even harmed the disaster victims.
In the first place, the government refuses to count the number of—if I may use this term—the refugees. It has to do with its intention not to define who are refugees. The problem is that the category of those who are desperately migrating in fact and the legal category of refugees are not in sync. This is because the Japanese government, if it grasped the actual number, would not be able to deal with it unless it gave up “business as usual.” Therefore, it would rather underestimate the number by refusing to accept the reality. By paying attention only to the forced evacuees, it chooses to ignore the voluntary evacuees from Fukushima, not to mention those from Tokyo, and even treats them like “illegal immigrants.”
Meanwhile, radiation-related illnesses have been increasing, haven’t they?
Yes. Children’s thyroid cancer has evidently increased. Even the government acknowledges it, although adding a strange proviso that more cases may be discovered because of its obsession to nitpick. But we all know that at some point in the future, the government will be forced to admit the reality. So far, it has looked into the situation only in Fukushima but not in adjoining prefectures. So the people have been investigating the cases by themselves; for instance, in Kashiwa City in Chiba Prefecture, there are as many as 173 cases. In addition, leukemia among the nuclear workers has drastically increased. As someone has said, radiation is an ideal poison, because of the difficulty of proving causality in court.
My friends and I, both in and outside Japan, imagined that a radical change would come inevitably. But in five years, the situation is going in the opposite direction, toward the reinforcement of pronuclear and pro-rearmament nationalism. And yet the disaster continues—since March 11, the majority of people have become disaster victims in different ways and degrees. Not only in Fukushima but also Tokyo, an unprecedented number of residents have been and will be affected by radiation. The fact is made more and more invisible, however, buried by inattention. What do you think is creating this situation?
There are many factors on both personal and social levels. Those who live with dangerous contamination don’t want to think about, admit, and confront the fact, though they know it in their subconscious, because acknowledging it would force them to join along with a radical change in all existential dimensions. Reinforcing the denial is the sense of equilibrium that has been socially shared in the postwar period. Among the many things that have been said about catastrophe in the contemporary history of disaster, the most dreadful is the revelation that the seeds of the catastrophe had been embedded in the midst of the everyday life of the highly consumerist society; the possibilities of planetary catastrophe have been so deeply internalized in the high-consumerist and controlled society called Japan. And to say it in reverse, even a catastrophe of this magnitude is quickly absorbed into the everyday process of social reproduction.
When I visit Japan, walk around the city, and watch television, I am shocked by the normalness of consumer life as well as the images of joy in embracing it—of food, technology, culture, and tourism—co-existing with the radioactive contamination. That is to say, tragedy certainly co-exists in various respects. What is the status as well as the features of people’s emotional responses—rage, sorrow, dread, anxiety, and so on?
One thing I can say is this: There are certainly physical losses, such as health, home, family, subsistence, and so forth, but public discourses often emphasize the “loss of home” or “deprived community”—namely, the loss of what cannot be reduced to a monetary value. All in all, these expressions are saying that invisible things that are indispensable for constituting individuals—a place to live and act, mutual relations, and the ways and means of life—are largely destroyed.
What can one do when this happens? There are no formulas to deal with such situations. So people must continue to record what happens, how the situation changes, and how they feel about it. For instance, it took about 20 years for Michiko Ishimure to begin writing her magnum opus Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow, after her engagement with the Minamata mercury poisoning. The power of the novel, which involves real enunciations and events of the victims along with their movement, exists in her persistent documentation and commemoration of the everyday endless purgatory for oceanic lives, animals, children, farmers, fishers, and so on. Only by this strategy of persisting in the unbearable temporality can the events of even an absurdity that refuses interpretation spark resistance from time to time. The Fukushima nuclear disaster, too, is very much an event of temporality and feeling. And our strategy to confront it must be based on collective, persistent recording and memorializing.
In the entirety of social apparatuses, forces are in full gear to make us forget about and nullify all the events around the accident. The coming Tokyo Olympics 2020 is the symbolic machine for a nationwide obliviousness, but in the larger picture, the civilian use of nuclear power has always involved such effects from the outset. Nuclear accidents and the resulting illnesses involve a time lag that does not follow clean-cut regularity, from which oblivion effects are made to develop.
The nuclear disaster doesn’t have an end, and therefore healing by mourning is out of the question at this point. What unites us is rage, which is the basic weapon to organize ourselves to fight against nuclear capitalism and the state. But in the five years after, rage seems to have been replaced by counterparts—apathy and resignation—leading to passive onlooking rather than engagement. Mourning is solidly shared among the earthquake and tsunami victims, who have physically lost homes, families, and means of subsistence. Still, in this case, where the nuclear disaster immediately followed, another spatiotemporal dimension that is unthinkable for us was imposed, spreading like a social cancer and depriving us of any cathartic solution. In the second dimension, mourning is bracketed, because the effects of radioactive pollution are hard to prove as causes. We need time—until an undeniable number of clinical cases appear, probably after 10, 15, or 20 years, and nobody can then deny the effects as data—or the cathartic phase, which involves a full and massive attack against the nuclear regime, won’t come.
At this moment, the cancer patients along with their families focus more on cure than political action—that which can be organized based on a solid causal recognition. For that matter, the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still fighting for recognition even today, more than 70 years after the bombs. They are still suspended in devastation. All in all, for the struggles against nuclear power, the crux is how we manage to confront the unbearably long temporality, based on observations and recordings of the situational and sensual mutation. Therefore, at this moment in the struggle against radioactive pollution, sorrow and mourning seem to be futile.
What are you going to do from now on?
There are many things to be done. But I believe the basis for all projects is to patiently observe what is going on and listen to people’s voices. It seems to me that what is lacking is the will to see through the event: what it involves, where it leads, what are the effects to whom and what … Generally speaking, perspectives of social and political movements are too shortsighted.
After Fukushima, we saw a dramatic upsurge of the anti-nuke movement for two years. But after the Oi nuclear plant was restarted in spite of the mass direct action to blockade it, the movement quickly stagnated. The ultraconservative Abe administration came into power, realizing the reform of the U.S.– Japan security treaty toward Japan’s militarization. Thereafter it has been doing almost whatever it wants to do. No protest movements and no progressive politics have been able to stop it. Its policies are centered on a kind of shock doctrine and the politics of spectacle that constantly shift its ostensible focus in order to fade from our attention. To fight against this, we should not just respond to its moves but also construct multilayered strategies based on the non-spectacular developments of events—such as the increasing number of people getting sick or refugees having lives like fugitives—that are invisible in the media and incalculable in statistics.
Even before Fukushima, nuclear problems were always made to be obscure, as exemplified by the issues of nuclear workers and radioactive contamination. As analyzed in the inspiring book by Olga Kuchinskaya, The Politics of Invisibility, on the political situation after Chernobyl, nuclear politics is based on invisibility instead of open debate on scientific truth. In Japan, various safety standards have been set and reset after Fukushima, which have nothing to do with scientific consideration but are pure political decisions made tacitly for the benefit of nuclear industries.
How would you describe the situation people face in Japan after Fukushima?
A phrase from the book Voices From Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich speaks to it well:
Something occurred for which we do not yet have a conceptualization, or analogies or experience, something to which our vision and hearing, even our vocabulary, is not adapted. Our entire inner instrument is tuned to see, hear or touch. But none of that is possible. In order to comprehend this, humanity must go outside its own limits.
A new history of feeling has begun.
Ungraspability or spatiotemporal indeterminacy exists at the core of nuclear accidents and radioactive contamination. Radioactivity, which is invisible, omnipresent, and everlasting, has come to determine our future. In my adolescence, the so-called no-future thing was in fashion, yet it has now become reality. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, during Japan’s postwar period, an obsession with apocalyptic imagery—such as in Godzilla, Japan Sinks, and Akira—flourished in mass representation. But I think that to confront the post–Fukushima disaster situation, we need a much longer view: a planetary history. In this sense, I am interested in the recent debates on the Anthropocene.
Political discourses circulating around today’s Japan, including those of the sociopolitical movements, even feminism and anarchism, avoid dealing with the crux of the event. I would see an ultimate potency for emancipation if not healing not in these discourses but instead in the rumors and panics—the fundamental power to awe deriving from people’s dread and rage. This is to initiate our thoughts about what is really troubling or unsound. This is the only basis for resisting the status quo, which is constantly seeking to absorb the endlessly expanding accident. As Yu-Fu Tuan stresses in his Landscape of Fear, a community that has lost the power to fear will perish.
Meanwhile, as evident with the so-called anarchists in today’s Japan, claiming to be an anarchist and confronting a life in anarchy are two different things. Those who grasp people’s autonomous actions after the disaster as anarchy and go along with them anarchistically are limited. According to my observation, I can see anarchist practice in those who have been actively engaged in people’s autonomous projects to deal with irradiation rather than those who have organized a large-scale anti-nuke movement.
I myself am a feminist, but when I see those who take care of the health of their families—or more straightforwardly, “mothers”—struggling so radically, I feel embarrassed to think in the name of feminism. Those people who live the anarchic situation don’t know the -isms such as anarchism, Marxism, and feminism.
I see that in the exploitation of these existences, there exists the political core of the Fukushima dilemma. If so, it is necessary to discover the moment in which to transversally connect these modes and practices of existence. Would that be possible? Is patiently recording and observing radiation and illnesses—or a certain strategy of information and collective intelligence—helpful for that?
That has to be done, but we don’t know how to do that precisely yet. But the problem is that the discursive realm on the Fukushima disaster, including journalism, media, and academia, has proved futile in terms of dealing with the invisible exploitation of these existences. It is a sine qua non to break out of the form of conventional method and thought to tackle the problematic and then share the results widely. This incapacity has revealed the institutional limit of discourses. People point out the power of what’s commonly called the “nuclear village,” the network of pronuclear authorities, stretching out in the central and local governments, bureaucracy, companies, industries, academia, and media, which constantly discredits and incapacitates the spreading and exchange of critical information. But according to my observation, a village-like network where all anomalies are immediately silenced or ejected entraps all realms of political and intellectual practice in Japan even before the conspiratorial operations of the nuclear village.
I value the work of some independent bloggers, researchers, and journalists who dedicate themselves to analyzing what is happening. But I feel the need of more collaborative efforts toward building a collective intelligence and information-sharing network to fight against the pronuclear status quo. It is necessary to analyze the present situation, involving the incapacitated sociopolitical movements and the complexity of sovereign power. We need, to repeat, patient observation and sharp analysis. If we can share them, we can rise up for rebellion, together with nuclear workers and care workers. Trusting the potency of the people and sharing information and analysis would be the best means of organizing. It goes without saying that demonstrating and campaigning for election are far from enough. What’s necessary is less about stronger protests than a rebellion on wider, existential dimensions.
For a year or two after 3/11, the majority experienced the state of anarchy with fissures running across the social space and everyday life. People were enraged, feeling ferocious, with a desperate need to exert justice. The defeat of the movement was due to the organizers who could not tolerate the state of anarchy beyond their control. They could not deal with people’s power to live, grudge, rage, and panic. They sought to direct the mass impetus toward a well-mannered organization, a civil institution, with enlightened attitudes on politics and science. This was responsible for the stagnation today.
Now it is evident that the waste from the melted core of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors cannot be removed. This has long been known, but now it is being revealed bit by bit by the authority. But the people don’t seem to be infuriated any longer. “Oh, we had known it”—this sense of déjà connuseems to prevail among the public. This is the scariest thing. This is precisely the extension of the mechanism inherent in nuclear power that Günther Anders (1902–92), a German philosopher and antinuke activist, pointed out in terms of “apocalyptic blindness” [Apocalypse-Blindheit]. So it is necessary for us to be shocked, to fear anew. My hope is then to be enraged together—more than ever.