“Still Life”, the play by Japanese author and playwright Miri Yu, is performed by twelve young people at Futaba Futur Public High School in Fukushima. Fifteen to seventeen years old, they play roles that are not foreign to them.
May 20, 2019
Where were you and what were you doing on that fateful day, 11 March 2011?
Eight years have gone by, and the then six to eight-year-old children are now high school students who use theatre as a channel for self-expression. Through their performance, they attempt to tell the story of their home towns and cities. It is also a way for them to assimilate the experience that changed the face of an entire region.
Still Life is the name of the play performed by six girls and six boys from the Futaba Future public high school in Fukushima. Aged between 15 and 17, the parts they play are based on their own life experiences. They tell the story of what the children went through, laying bare the complex web of emotions they have been caught in till this day. It is a tangled tale of love, childhood and suicide, seen through the unadulterated eyes of young people, who were just small children when the triple disaster struck. They are the youngest and will therefore be the last generation to keep a memory of those tragic events. And it is important for them to be able to share it.
The brown colour of the sea. A uniform left behind when a school was hastily closed down following the radiation alert. A teddy bear with a broken heart and the incessant ringing of a telephone searching for missing grandparents. Lampposts swaying dangerously on a hill, while children huddle together, remembering the adults’ instructions not to be left on their own. Innocently playing in a classroom with the water and sand spilt by the earthquake and cleaning it all up before heading for safety. Sleeping in the car with all the family when not a space was left in the sports centre. Memories of an earthquake, a tsunami, of radioactivity and the fear surrounding the decontamination process.
Until she was eight, Ayumi Ota lived in Tomioka, a town that was evacuated in the aftermath of the disaster. The 16-year-old actor was inspired to join the school theatre group by her elder brother. They are both part of the cast. With her inquisitive and lively gaze, Ayumi shines in her part as the likeable classmate spurring on the others, despite her own longing for a place to which she knows she will never be able to return. She enjoyed the experience so much that she is considering joining a theatre group: “When I’m acting, it brings back what we went through, although [acting] has not been so hard for me because I want to express myself. We are all interconnected, Fukushima and Tokyo, we’re not that different.”
Seventeen-year-old Minoru Tomonaga comes from the town of Iwaki. He likes to sing and wants to study in a professional academy. He admits that his main motive for taking part in the play is a girl he likes. Minoru found the whole process much harder to handle: “My mind was on overdrive. It was like hitting a wall, because each one of us had our own experiences. It was difficult to cope with all those feelings. But I do hope that we are listened to, in this time of fake news.”
After its debut in Fukushima, in September 2018, the young actors wanted to take the play to Tokyo. Writer Miri Yu, the soul of the play, recalls how, as the performance ended and the curtain went down, the students seemed to be glued to their desks.
“They had grown attached to their roles, so they had to do it. Audiences in Tokyo hadn’t experienced the earthquake, the tsunami and nuclear accident first-hand. How the play would be received was obviously a worry, but something always gets across.”
Miri Yu, who is also a playwright, has won a number of national literary awards, including the prestigious Akutagawa Award (1996). After a string of back-to-back, sold-out performances in Tokyo, Yu explains to Equal Times the importance of art and creation as a source of comfort and consolation. “The play is a still life that captures the sadness of the disaster-struck children. The pain or suffering we carry deep inside eventually ends up overflowing, like water in a dam. Otherwise, the pain breaks the dam and drags you along with it. To prevent this from happening, I wanted to build a channel in which to pour all this sadness. The play is the vessel in which it is collected. Isn’t sadness what we as human beings have most in common? We all carry certain sorrows in our lives; all of us, in Tokyo too. This play emerged as a beacon of light, a source of solace for young people.”
Kanako Saito works as an English teacher at Futaba Future High School. She is also in charge of the theatre group. This teacher, who supports her pupils and is also part of the cast, explains how theatre helps them. “Back then, they were just small children and were unable to express themselves. Their parents shielded them from what was happening, be it from the radiation or the decision to move. They weren’t allowed to watch television and had to play indoors, never outside the house. They had no way of venting their feelings. Eight years on, they now have the vocabulary to express themselves. As they build the drama, they focus on how they felt, which helps in their healing process. It also helps the families who, by watching their children acting, gain a better insight into what they went through. It helps people to move on.”
Futaba Future High School has kept the name of the place where it had stood until radioactivity made it uninhabitable. Futaba is one of the towns nearest to the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. In 2015, the school relocated to Hirono, a nearby town that was outside the danger zone. Its guiding principle is to prepare global leaders that can contribute to tackling today’s new challenges.
Following the disaster, 470,000 people – which amounts to almost the entire population of cities like Lisbon or Edinburgh – were evacuated. According to the Reconstruction Agency, a body tasked with this unprecedented mission, by February 2019, the number of evacuees had reached 51,778. Places like Namie, Tomioka, Futaba and Okuma were totally or partially evacuated. Their names resonate throughout the play, when the budding actors relive their memories.
“The experience had a strong impact on everyone. The actors, who were little children back then, have barely taken in what they went through. The coast of Fukushima has not yet been fully reconstructed. The young locals and their families continue to be faced with great hardships. They have become displaced persons, constantly being shunted from one place to the next, and even now some of these young actors are still having to live in temporary accommodation,” says Yu.
In 2017, the government lifted evacuation orders – based on the area, the radiation levels and the progress made in the decontamination process – but places like Futaba are still classed as ‘difficult return’ or uninhabitable zones.
The decontamination work has also covered farming areas, 89 per cent of which have been recovered, according to the Reconstruction Agency. Reconstruction tasks have been completed in 64 municipalities over a seven-year period. In Fukushima, an area measuring 371 km², greater than the size of a country like Malta, was affected by the triple disaster.
The writer is currently living in Minamisoma, because of a promise she made and a radio show. In the aftermath of the disaster, under the state of emergency, she started working as a volunteer at a provisional radio station set up by the municipal authority to broadcast information to the population and the armed forces. She used to travel once a week from another part of Japan to do the show. Although only meant to last a year, her stay was successively prolonged until she ended up relocating for good, to fulfil her promise.
Today only 3,000 of the 13,000 residents are still living in her neighbourhood, and more than half of them are over 65 years old. Located 16 kilometres from the nuclear power station, the town now has a bookshop and a theatre. For Yu, culture is an integral part of the reconstruction process.
“In a place where people have lost everything, no one at the neighbourhood meetings organised by the government speaks out to ask for culture. People ask for their basic needs to be covered, such as infrastructure, hospitals or supermarkets. But even if the basic needs are met, can this be called a city? Can this be called reconstruction? Not in my view. Culture is something that enriches you, it is relaxing, enjoyable and valuable in its own right. It can be a book or a secondary role in a play.”
Disasters are also a threat to culture. And yet culture is vital to community identity and expression. In 2015, the United Nations adopted the 2015-2030 Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which sees culture as playing a key role in reducing vulnerability to disasters, aiding recovery and building peace.
At the end of the performance, the Japanese audience leaves in solemn silence. A young woman from Tokyo says it was important to listen to them. On leaving the theatre, people buy a copy of the book on which the play is based. A dedication penned by the author and playwright stands out as a declaration of intent from Fukushima: “Speak out from the heart of silence.”