“You should not play with the fire or you will get burnt”.
Words by Kaori Homma & artwork by Kaori Homma
I am a Japanese artist living and working in London, and currently developing a series of works using fire and water on paper as a medium. The series is born out of my concern and struggle in dealing with the notion of imminent catastrophe, and invisible threat in the landscape of post-2011 Fukushima Nuclear Fallout Disaster.
“You should not play with the fire or you will get burnt”, my grandmother used to tell me, while she was lighting the incense. It was in early 1970’s at the end of summer in Tokyo; we did not yet have air conditioners, but each household had a TV, washing machine and bright fluorescent lights in every room. The smell of the incense lit to deter the mosquitoes filled the room as an electric fan slowly moved the air. But I was not paying attention to her, toying instead with the matches, lighting one at a time for no particular reason. The fire has a compelling attraction. It is not only beautiful to look at, but also it has the power to destroy. Outside, in the garden, cicadas were making a melancholic noise in the heat of the day, their last song at the end of summer. In the living room next door, Godzilla was blasting fire against Ultra-Man on the TV.
How little I knew then that in post-WWII Japan, in order for us to enjoy this normality, we were literally playing with “fire” of much more sinister nature, by building so many nuclear power plants on our seismically active, volcanic land, Japan.
Humans have always played with fire, from the beginning of History. I would say as a virtue of being human with a curiosity and innate creative drive to investigate, experimenting and using something as fascinating as the fire was a given. But the “fire” started in 1945 as a result of The Manhattan Project has been one of the most problematic “fires” burning and threatening the future of humanity.
On 16th July 1945, in a remote part of New Mexico, under the codename of “Trinity”, the first ever nuclear device was detonated. And, as you all know, Hiroshima and Nagasaki followed shortly. If the story had ended there, we could happily be closing this discussion here and now. But even after witnessing the devastation of two cities where at least 200,000 people’s lives were abruptly taken, somehow not only did we not stop and think before investing more in this suicidal weapon, we have actually managed to ensure the subsequent proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world. As a result, we now have this incredibly dangerous and problematic “fire” 1000 times bigger than Hiroshima bomb. Literally thousands of them (*3).
It is obvious that nobody has listened to my grandmother’s caution.
I have to admit, though, I also did not listen to my grandmother. The problem for me, as a little girl in early 1970’s in Tokyo, was that we had never experienced war, and we enjoyed the flawless supply of electricity for our house, refrigerator, washing machine and TV. The transport was seamlessly run and there was absolutely nothing to suggest that we should not take it for granted. Every possible advancement of technology was there for us to take, including the nuclear technology.
The bad nuclear technology which caused the horrendous effect at the end of WWII was now made “good” through new technology and now it has been harnessed to spread peace and affluence in the world. The new nuclear technology called “nuclear power” was perceived as a hero in a TV series: Ultra-Man or Atom Boy. Or perhaps it might be more like Godzilla; a dangerous and powerful entity not to be made into an enemy. But, on a whole, we just did not think about it at all. It never worried us.
So it went on. Japanese economy was booming, and we all acquired newer technological devices like walkman, computer games, microwaves and vending machines which dispensed ice cold drinks and specially brewed hot coffee in every corner of our city. With the advancement of technology we thought freedom was ours and playing with the “fire’ was not something we worried about. Tokyo was a buzzing city with light irradiating as though each corner of the city was Piccadilly Circus or Time Square. No one ever talked about how many nuclear power stations were operating to supply our endlessly lit beautiful experimental disco nights. We were all too busy – falling in love, falling out of love, making art, and living.
And yet, I knew something was askew. As a young art student in 80’s, I used to question our over-consumption of resources and worried about my artwork adding to the burden on the already-going-out-of-control world ecosystem. I made artworks with great care by choosing recyclable and non-toxic materials, often dealing with subjects relating to these concerns. Tokyo’s endless nights of lights and parties also worried me. But even with my questioning mind, what happened at Fukushima in 2011 was totally beyond imagination. We never thought anything as bad as that was going to happen to us. The bad things belonged to the past, or somewhere far away like those troubled parts of the world – but never us.
On 11th March 2011, the Pacific North East coast of Japan was hit by M.9 – the most powerful earthquake recorded in the world. With this earthquake, it is said that the Earth’s axis shifted by 20 cm, 8 inches – changing the length of a day and tilt of Earth itself. It caused a huge Tsunami and left behind 15,893 deaths, 6,152 injured, and 2,572 people missing. More than 220,000 people evacuated from home, according to the National Police Agency Survey 2012.
If it was just physical damage of earthquake, there might have been a chance to recover some aspect of normalcy, though the loss of lives can never fully be recovered from. There might have been a chance to move on and I might not be talking about this: as you know, Japan has a reputation to carry out highly orchestrated rescue and reconstructions.
But, following the M.9 and Tsunami disaster, one of the worst Nuclear accidents in the world was also triggered. Fukushima nuclear disaster was classified as Level 7, equivalent to Chernobyl disaster. The reactors’ meltdown at Fukushima and the plant containing a highly radioactive core exploded releasing highly radioactive materials into the atmosphere. The wide ranges of contamination had been identified through the Tohoku and Kanto region on midnight of 14th to 15th March. In the afternoon of the 16th, the U.S. government ordered its citizens to evacuate from 80 km radius from the plant based on their own information obtained through U.S. military’s surveillance activities.
Mr. Kan, who was the Japanese prime minister at the time, disclosed later in a BBC interview that, at one point during the crisis, they were thinking of evacuating Tokyo itself. It is completely mad to even contemplate to dislocate a world major capital city with 13.5 million people and all the financial/political headquarters within it. Anyhow, they did not move Tokyo in the end. But nearly 165,000 people were evacuated from Fukushima and nearby regions and still, to this day, 5 years later, nearly 100,000 are living as evacuees.
Residents in the area can become quite defensive when discussing the issue of post-Fukushima Disaster. As the local population faces discrimination and lack of support and compensation, local farmers are left to fend for themselves. So, we are encouraged to eat Fukushima products and support Fukushima farmers. It is a big campaign in Japan to support Fukushima local industry who would, otherwise, go destitute without income as they are not compensated by the nuclear energy company that caused the accident.
Talking about anything negative about the Fukushima situation in Japan is frowned upon, not only by the government but by ordinary people. Many lost their trust in the government as they initially concealed vital information about the effect of the disaster such as bringing up the regulatory threshold radiation levels in food and environment so that some food previously deemed unsuitable for consumption were now considered safe. So even in Tokyo which is more than 200 km away from Fukushima, some people are concerned about the food and drinking water, not to mention environmental radiation levels. This sustained anxiety is leading many families with young children to face increasing social crisis called Gen Patsu Rikon – the nuclear accident induced divorce – where difference in opinion within a family unit about the environmental safety results in a divorce. Tragic cases are the mothers and children fleeing without financial support and falling victim to human trafficking into Japan’s notorious sex industry. In addition, concern for exposure to low dosages of environmental radiation is ever-present and difficult to escape.
Now, looking back, it is almost inconceivable that we were so unconcerned about our own nuclear situation before 2011, even though we have experienced earthquakes, typhoons, landslides and flooding on a regular basis. Even after the Chernobyl accident in 1986, it never occurred to us that we should be concerned about such disaster in Japan. Maybe we were indoctrinated to think that old Soviet technology was not up to scratch and our newer technology was much better. It was unthinkable that such situation like Chernobyl could ever happen to us in Japan where everything is shining clean and everything worked efficiently as clockwork. Maybe when we acquired the singing kettle, automatic room temperature control, automatic doors to every single corner shop and self-cleaning toilets, we started to think we were invincible. But that was all a big stupid dream. And we can never go back to that careless world now.
Not after Fukushima.
In Hikaru Fujii’s documentary art film, “Project Fukushima” from 2012, there is a scene
where Fukushima local primary school children are being given workshops on how to read a Geiger counter. Each child is given a device and taken to different locations. As they go outside their classroom, into beautifully planted gardens and the forest, the Geiger counter starts to make alarming high pitched crackling noises. It is warning them of raised level of radiations in the area. Fujii’s film is matter of fact, and there is no emotional music or commentaries, but I wept when I saw these little boys and girls holding this technological device. I realised that they are forced to see the world in a totally different way, now in the world of post-Fukushima. Every natural beauty for them might conceal dangerous radioactive particles, and they were told not to play outside, especially not around shrubs and flower beds. The point of this workshop was to make sure the children know where the danger might be – the natural environment, the outside world.
Of course, children learn and perhaps they are wiser, much wiser than us who were totally blind to the danger of this “fire”. But what sort of world do our children inhabit?
How can we compensate the generation who must be suspicious of the beauty of the natural environment? Who must consider carefully before they breathe the air deep into their lungs?
They could have been spared if we had woken up to the reality earlier.
But the fact is, we didn’t, not before Fukushima.
Now I am living and working in London, which is not so unlike Tokyo. It is affluent, cultured, brimful of young people’s hopes and dreams. But I see a deja-vu.
Post-Brexit London is not totally unaware, of course. Yes, London may not be so blatantly blind as I was in 70’s, but nonetheless, things are taken for granted as our technology is safe and clean. Some of us might still believe that there is such a thing as “clean” nuclear energy. Those who might still consider that it may be better than burning coal for climate change sake. You might be a little more awake than me back then as you might be more worried about terrorism. But nobody contemplates a possibility of anything going wrong with any of the nuclear power plants in the vicinity of London. People know that Fukushima was really bad, for sure, but it has been perceived to be so far far away. Just like I used to think about all those disasters happening around the world in far off places. I see the same blindness on which this city is built on. It is like watching someone being trapped in a sleep paralysis, and no matter how much I shout, this city cannot hear me. You think you are awake but are actually buried too deep in sleep to be able to do anything (*).
So, now, I play with a different kind of “fire’ in my artworks. Unlike the ‘fire’ of the Trinity experiment, this fire does not have any power let alone power to evaporate cities. And unlike the “fire” of Chernobyl, Windscale or Fukushima, its lifespan is very short, it only burns momentarily and it dies down without much effort, leaving not much more than a charred paper surface. The images seen in my work are not by a pigment sitting on a surface but by a technique normally associated with secret correspondence used in the past called “Aburidashi” in Japanese. Invisible Ink made with lemon juice is used to render the image slightly altering the delicate balance of paper, once exposed to the fire images are burnt into as an integral part of paper. The resulting image contains a level of fragility and notion of death within it by nature.
But my works are not exempt from the weight of corporal guilt, as I played on with the fire ignoring the warning of my grandmother, it etches memories of my thought and visions on paper, like the shadows of evaporated people etched on the wall of Hiroshima. My work is a silent lament. Like the cicada’s cry which has now stopped in Tokyo.
I can only hope that someone might notice that silence, and wake up to the reality that we are facing now – the end of the summer.
* Homma cofounded and coordinates Art Action UK to raise awareness of the issue. http://www.artactionuk.org/
All images © Kaori Homma