This spring I taught an “Introduction to International Studies” class, which had 12 students in it from Waseda university in Japan. They are outstanding students, and I always feel that I learn more from them than they from me during the class. During some of my individual conversations with the students I was struck by the impact that the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami had on their lives. The subsequent nuclear accident magnified an already terrible crisis, in which over 15,000 people died. Now the country is also having to rethink its energy future, while dealing with nuclear cleanup. As Japan made the decision to close its nuclear reactors -now the subject of great debate- the entire country was plunged into efforts to conserve energy.
The quirky blog the Pink Tentacle (which now sadly seems to be inactive, as the last post was from April 2011) had a broad focus on everything from the graphic arts and history to science and technology in Japan For example, it has a collection of catfish prints created after the great 1855 quake. In traditional Japanese culture, earthquakes were caused by catfish spirits. After this nineteenth century quake a diverse set of catfish prints became bestsellers. In these prints, one can see a human mob chasing catfish for revenge, tradesman partying with the catfish (because the rebuilding brought them so much money), or the great god Kashima lecturing the catfish for having misbehaved. These prints are a great source for social history, as they show popular attitudes towards the earthquake’s social impact, and raise many questions. Why for examples, were prostitutes a particularly significant group depicted in some prints?
What struck me most, however, from the blog were images related to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which were posted in April 2011. One set of high resolution arial photographs show the disaster site from the air. The scale of the destruction, from the twisted rebar to the fractured concrete, was amazing. More subtle was a video of images from Tokyo taken before and shortly after the disaster, which allowed one to see how the lights were dimmed throughout the city as people sought to conserve energy.
The news from the disaster site lately has been bad. Steam is rising from reactor building number three, even though it is supposed to be in cold shut-down. Radioactive water is leaking into the Pacific. Worse, Tokyo Electric Power, which owns the facility, delayed sharing this information with the public. At this point, Japan is at the start of a nuclear clean-up which will last for a very long time, but there are good reasons to have little confidence in the company carrying out the work. For many Japanese, the events after the disaster stripped away their trust in the authorities. The video on Pink Tentacle gives us a sense of how people throughout Japan have been reminded every day of this catastrophe.
My thanks to Corinna in Trier, Germany for sharing the “Pink Tentacle” blog with me.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University