Fatal Exposure: Recalling Fukushima

Activists and sympathizers of of environmental organisation Greenpeace Hungary light candles to form a radiation symbol in Deak Square, Budapest, on March 11, 2012 during a ceremony marking the anniversary of the Fukushima disaster | Photo: ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images)

How do we remember the things we'd like to forget? What triggers our memory of war-time horrors -- Dachau, Vietnam, or Libya? What's the pit in the stomach that evokes devastating famine in Biafra or Sudan? What jolt kicks up past earthquakes in Haiti or Chile?

What reminded you on March 11 of that same day one year ago when Fukushima entered our vocabulary?

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The wave: although it has been 14 months since video of its roiling, grinding, churning presence streamed across our computer monitors and television screens, I cannot get it out of my mind. Even before I saw its pulverizing force, I knew I didn't want to: my cue was my wife's shocked voice, calling me to get out of bed to see what was happening on the other side of the Pacific.

Even when I began writing about what had taken place along the northeastern coast of Japan I hoped it would prove to be a form of distancing; a verbal ploy to keep the emotional tides at bay.

Front cover of the April 2012 issue of Environmental History | Image: Courtesy Environmental History
Front cover of the April 2012 issue of Environmental History | Image: Courtesy Environmental History

Little has changed in the ensuing 12 months; the images remain stunning, my hesitation in writing about them is every bit as palpable.

One particularly haunting shot, which serves as the cover illustration for a special issue of Environmental History that's devoted to historians' reflections on the tsunami disaster, is that which Japanese photographer Tomohiko Kano snapped at the precise moment when the tsunami slammed into the port city of Miyako, located in Iwake Prefecture.

Powered by the violent 9.0 Tohoku temblor, the fetid mass of coal-black water roars up the Hei River, then crashes over the seawall, flipping vans and cars whose occupants will be its first victims, with so many more to come.

In the background, fishing vessels are being pulled toward the crushing cataract, to become battering rams that within minutes of the camera's first click will savage the city's built landscape. Kano's digital evidence was instantly beamed around the world, canonical in a split second.

But was his the best (or only) angle from which to capture the unfolding devastation? That's the question that animates Christine Marran's essay in the special issue of Environmental History.

Focusing in on the tsunami's pulsing currents, Marran, a Japanese literature scholar at the University of Minnesota, notes that the wave was "littered with propane and gasoline, asbestos, household cleaners, pesticides, and other agrochemicals -- many of these produced by the thousands of factories that line the northeastern coastline."

More worrisome, the tsunami carried "sludge and sediment laced with heavy metals and PCBs that had settled in bays before antidumping laws were passed in the 1960s and 1970s." The earthquake-driven waters carried a double dose of lethality.

While Marran appreciates Kano's skill in creating "visual drama through the displacement of everyday objects and a striking sense of scale," she also wonders about the long-term significance of his "dramatic, if relatively conventional photographic approach" that captures in "freeze frame the destruction of large-scale human objects by a singular overwhelming force."

She suspects that that moment's punishing chaos may not be expansive enough of a structure -- or idea -- to express what happened in the fatal aftermath of the Tohoku quake. Kano's photo may not be able to make enough of those poisonous waters as a reflection of industrialization's deeply disturbing toxicity -- especially that embodied in the smoky ruins of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Back cover of the April 2012 issue of Environmental History | Image: Courtesy Environmental History
Back cover of the April 2012 issue of Environmental History | Image: Courtesy Environmental History

To probe these possibilities, Marran sought out other less dramatic, perhaps more penetrating evidence. And she found it in imagery that, oddly enough, makes no explicit visual reference to the tragedy. Consider the work of Yuriko Nakao, one of which serves as a bookend to Kano's on the back cover of Environmental History, a placement the editor established to put the two images in graphic, dramatic dialog.

They could not be more different: Nakao's photograph is of a sunflower field in full bloom, stretching out into the deep background. In the foreground, an individual's right hand holds a small metering device. Life not death, order not chaos seem to frame this picture.

Only if you know that the iPod-like instrument is a dosimeter (which measures radiation exposure); only if you know that these sun-kissed flowers were "planted at the Joenji temple in Fukushima to absorb cesium from the soil," does the shattering realization become clear: everything in our field of vision is tainted -- the hand, the meter, the vivid yellow petals and russet seeds, the soil and air.

As chilling are Nakao's images of hospitals, clinics, and other interior spaces highlighting what Marran describes as "the ecological violence of progressive technologies through a photographic style that reduces glossy disaster pictures to plain images of white walls, white coats, latex gloves, digital apparatus, and stoic faces."

Then consider Kano's photograph of a mother and daughter separated by a glass wall, peering into each other's eyes. Outside, the anxious parent and the family's pet terrier press up and against the condensation-clouded glass hoping to get news of the younger woman's quarantine status, the level of her sickness. Inside, the partially visible daughter, her hands cupped around her mouth better to amplify her voice, conveys her life's uncertainty.

In this disquieting tableau, writes Marran, the "impact of invisible radiation is made legible through the metaphor of the glass"; it makes plain too the "conundrum presented...by radiation exposure. It is transparent but isolating."

By bringing these painful, post-Fukushima hazards to light, photographers Yuriko Nakoa and Tomohiko Kano -- and by extension critic Christine Marran -- have forced us to recognize that our technological ambitions and the hubris it breeds only reinforces our perilous place on a planet ever in flux.

We stand exposed, we are vulnerable: those are admissions worth remembering.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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