18 November 2021

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Makoto Takahashi (2010, Geography) is now a Lecturer in Science & Technology Studies at TU Munich, and an incoming Fulbright–Lloyd’s Fellow at Harvard. He tells us about his exhibition 'Picturing the Invisible' at the Royal Geographical Society, to mark the 10–year anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster.

An image of two Japanese people holding the roots of a nuclear-damaged treeOn 11 March 2011, North East Japan was struck by a triple disaster in the form of an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. This seismic event—memorialised as '3.11' in Japan—moved the very Earth more than ten centimetres on its axis and shook the nation to its core. The then–Prime Minister of Japan, Naoto Kan, was surely right to describe it as “the most severe crisis that Japan has faced since World War Two.”

Ten years later, many would argue that it retains this dubious distinction. Like all nations, Japan now faces the challenge of a global pandemic. Yet it has taken the virus more than 18 months to claim as many Japanese lives as 3.11 took in days. And even as Japan grapples with COVID–19, the struggle to rebuild the Tohoku region continues. Thousands of workers toil at Fukushima Daiichi in the hope of decommissioning the stricken nuclear power plant—a task expected to take until at least 2050. Many more labour to decontaminate the surrounding countryside.

But even today, vast swathes of land remain uninhabitable. More than 35,000 people are unable to return to their homes and many more choose not to, concerned that life in Fukushima may not be as safe as the government claims. For even today, public trust in the Japanese state and its experts remains bruised. The confusion caused by poor crisis communication is still fresh in Japan’s collective memory. So, too, are the findings of independent investigations into the causes of the nuclear disaster, which concluded that it was a crisis 'made in Japan': one which had its roots in a culture of cosy collusion among the government, industry, and regulators, often imagined as forming a 'nuclear village'. The 3.11 crisis is long since over, but the effects of the triple disaster are still with us today.

Picturing the Invisible brings together seven internationally–acclaimed artists, working in the affected territories. Their art makes visible the legacies of 3.11: the ghostly touch of radiation, lingering traumas, and the resilience of those communities rebuilding their lives in its wake. To help visitors place these works in their social and political context, I have chosen to pair these artworks with 14 essays, provided by authors, activists, policymakers, and academics. Essayists range from Emmanuel College’s very-own Professor Robert Macfarlane to former–British Ambassador to Japan Sir David Warren; renowned citizen scientist Hisako Sakiyama to ICRP Vice-Chair Jacques Lochard; Cambridge’s Brigitte Steger, to acclaimed activist Aileen Mioko Smith (whose early professional life was recently dramatized in Andrew Levitas’ Minamata). This project has been made possible through the generous support of TU Munich, and integrated into my teaching at the new Department for Science & Technology Studies. Graduate Students on one of my science communication courses were invited to help curate the exhibition and have been involved at every stage of its organisation.

Yet this project also owes a deep debt to my time at Emmanuel—drawing heavily on my PhD studies into the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. In bringing this project to fruition, I have continued to count on the support and generosity of my PhD supervisor Professor Alex Jeffrey, Professor Robert Macfarlane, our former Master Dame Fiona Reynolds, as well as the many college friends who have chosen to visit the exhibition. (A special mention to Bobby Seagull for helping to promote the exhibition!) I hope to welcome more members of the Emmanuel community to the RGS on future tours.

(Image above © Lieko Shiga, Spiral Shore)

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