Only three photographs remain. They are grey, blurred, dotted with drip marks and a glass screen barricades us from the outside terrain. I had chosen not to revel (as I saw it) in the landscape. It would be crude and insensitive, while the world’s media elbowed in with commentary as gloating as it was goading, to add my own western gaze to an already bloated photo album of tragedy.
Some seven months after a tsunami tanked its way across the north eastern coast of Japan in 2011, I sat with a coach-full of Japanese women on our way to Tohoku province to volunteer. Even then it felt absurdly… obvious. Affected. But I was almost Japanese(?), I felt deeply connected to the people I had lived and worked with in two years. It seemed quite right that I extend my affection to those families whose daily lives had been so severely disorientated as to disavow the foundations of their ordinariness.
These three photographs represent three moments of lost control in a six or so hour coach journey: my astonishment at the landscape beyond those safe reinforced windows took hold in three pulses. Because the outside, in the worst-affected areas that we drove through, was to my un-trained eyes (now the eyes of a nuclear historian) an apocalypse.
In this in-land, the coast was not meant to be present. Perhaps a cloud bound bird might glimpse the ocean – its infamous waves – but it should not have saturated my view, not by many miles. Here an upturned fishing boat on a washed out field; there an immaculate tarmacked road obscured by tidelines of weeds (of sea and land), plastics, metals; a giant rag and bone man had strewn his wares across the countryside. And the colour; gun metal grey is too kind, it was silty, slick, stuck, drenched, dosed. Colour the antithesis of water.
I cannot remember being at all anxious about the nuclear crisis occurring in the same region – the destruction of the Tokai Mura power plant raised many unanswered questions about nuclear contamination. Only a few lines in my original blog refer to the world we saw that day: ‘mountains of collected rubbish – large enough to contain whole cars, walls of peeling paint, uprooted cement curbs, dangling telephone lines’. I did not want to undermine or sensationalise the experiences of those whose lives were now that place. The sight of three-storey high columns of mangled, rusted car bodies, piled up like dystopian totem poles spoke directly to simpler human vulnerabilities. I wanted to think about the people I met, not the situation we met in: over-sensitive to the privilege of departure contained in the act of my arrival. Everything was fragile.
As we closed in on our destination we also edged closer to the sea, the coast appeared in its proper place and that was scary. Lapping playfully on the sand as if to say ‘it was just a bit of fun’. My travel companions told me that roadside stone effigies were associated with local fishing communities. Facing out to sea, they symbolised the villagers’ gratitude to the ocean for a peaceful and supportive relationship. I imagined those same statues in the terrifying moment that the tsunami tore in and was reminded of the giant Buddha in Kamakura, famous for his dense and dominating presence. Reminded because in 1498 a tsunami tore his inland residence away, leaving his commanding figure bereft of shelter.
Miniature deities were suggestive of a highly vulnerable, deeply resistant human relationship with nature: humans were always the subjects and the elements the actors. Environmental dangers are fundamental to the humility with which we conduct ourselves in the world. Now, in my work and research, I wonder what the consequences of radioactive elements have done to our relationship with Earth. At the time, I was not so concerned about the nuclear accident (I did, after all, eat a bag of apples bought in Fukushima that week). Yet that catastrophic landscape informed my understanding of nuclear futures as much as it became a personal memory of human suffering. Somehow, non-nuclear and nuclear vulnerabilities merge together in my mind, reconstituting what a memory means and re-shaping a vision of the future.