The government of Japan is clearly intending that the 2020 Olympics will function as a public relations win in which the image of Japan, and especially of Northern Japan and Fukushima are cleansed of images of radiological contamination. Even as the Fukushima Daiichi site itself, and the traces where the plumes of its explosions deposited fallout throughout the area remain un-remediated, the public perceptions will be remediated. This is typical of the behavior of governments in the developed world that suffer radiological disasters. The disasters themselves are so difficult to clean up, and take decades to even begin the clean up, that money is allocated for extensive public relations efforts. These become tasks that CAN be completed and CAN be considered successful. They function both to advance the public image agenda of the governments, and also deliver a sense of agency when the overall tone of nuclear disaster remediation is one of lacking effective agency.
Towards that end, the Japanese government is planning to integrate Fukushima sites and perceptions into the upcoming Olympics media fest. The journey of the Olympic torch through every prefecture of Japan will begin in Fukushima, a symbolic rebirth intended to facilitate the repopulating of the local communities that were evacuated, many of which have had few returnees since the government has declared them “safe” and cut public funds to those forcibly evacuated.
The government is also planning to hold multiple Olympic events in Fukushima prefecture including baseball and softball events. “Tokyo 2020 is a showcase for the recovery and reconstruction of Japan from the disaster of March 2011, so in many ways we would like to give encouragement to the people, especially in the affected area,”said Tokyo 2020 president Yoshiro Mori last March.
This active rebranding of Fukushima as safe involves removing physical reminders of ongoing risk. The central government has recently announced that it will be removing 80% of public radiation monitors from the region. An argument can be made that the presence of these monitors is theatrical in that they only measure external gamma radiation levels, which are not the primary risk to residents (this comes from internalizing radioactive particles that blanketed the region in the fallout of the plumes of the explosions of March 2011), and that positioning these gamma detectors in midair produces low readings since the particles are primarily on the ground. However, they are a tangible, embodied reminder that risk remains.
While there is a clearly an active campaign to rehabilitate the image of the region leading up to the 2020 Olympics, an effort that will no doubt intensify as the event draws near, there is also pushback and resistance in the local and national communities. A recent sculpture unveiled at the JR train station in prefectural capital Fukushima City (about 80km from the Daiichi nuclear site) has been stirring up controversy. A Guardian article explained:
“The statue, by Kenji Yanobe, depicts a child dressed in a yellow Hazmat-style suit, with a helmet in one hand and an artistic representation of the sun in the other.
Yanobe said his Sun Child, which was installed by the municipal government after appearing at art exhibitions in Japan and overseas, was intended to express his desire for a nuclear-free world.
The artist said he did not mean to give the impression that local children needed to protect themselves from radiation more than seven years after the Fukushima Daiichi plant became the scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
He pointed out that the child was not wearing the helmet and that a monitor on its chest showed radiation levels at ‘000’.”
While some, including the mayor of Fukushima City, have praised the statue for emphasizing a hopeful future for local children, others have criticized the statue for suggesting that there is any danger to local children.
Regardless of how one interprets the sculpture, it does confront people with the fact that things are far from normal in the region. This, in spite of the central government’s strong efforts to implore people not to pay any attention to what is happening behind the curtains it has been raising.
Figure 1: Noro Mika in Little Voices of Fukushima
Will You Still Say No Crime Has Been Committed? Agamben and the Japanese Constitution
One of the most gratifying moments in the interview is when Kamanaka and Hirano speculate about how a post-3.11 “state scholar” (goyō gakusha) like Yamashita Shun’ichi could have justified his actions to himself. When the Nagasaki University Medical Professor and author of a World Health Organization study of Chernobyl’s epidemiological legacy12 was dispatched to Fukushima after the triple-meltdowns to assure residents that children didn’t need to take iodine pills and that there were “no immediate health risks,” was he himself convinced? Of course not, Kamanaka replies. But this is where political theorist Giorgio Agamben’s work is relevant, as Hirano points out by introducing the phrase reigai jōtai no kōzō, or “state of exception.” What Hirano means is that Yamashita is thinking in much the same way as mid-century political theorists like Carl Schmitt and Clinton Rossiter, who justified authoritarianism with the logic that “no sacrifice is too great for our democracy, least of all the temporary sacrifice of democracy itself.”13 Agamben cites thinkers like Schmitt and Rossiter in order to warn us that “states of exception” have come to define modern democracies. They are not, as we like to think, extreme cases: rare situations in which democracy fails when executive orders override the rule of law. Rather, states of exception increasingly operate as democracy’s default mode.
In Fukushima, when Yamashita put nation ahead of region; when he put “what the Japanese government ha[d] decided” over what the people of Fukushima deserved, he perhaps more vividly than any single actor helped abandon Fukushima to what Agamben calls “the no-man’s land between public law and political fact.”14 The Japanese constitution of 1947 guarantees “individual dignity” (Article 24), “public health” (Article 25) and “life and liberty” (Article 31); this is the law.15 But according to Kamanaka, the political fact, at least in Yamashita’s mind, was that securing these rights for the majority would require denying them to Fukushima. Rather than acknowledge that public law would be suspended, he convinced himself that the safety myth would do a better job of “avoiding the escalation of fear, social panic, and community destruction” that would have been caused by mandatory evacuations. This is how the government rescinded basic human rights without anyone speaking about criminal responsibility.16
Meanwhile, as Kamanaka points out, there is no better way to destroy a community than to force it to disavow its own panic and accept temporary crisis measures as permanent arrangements. Here the raising of the legal allowable annual radiation exposure from 1 to 20 millisieverts is but one obvious example.17 A compelling moment in the interview comes when Kamanaka describes the psychological effects of inhabiting the compressed temporality of this sort of endless emergency:
It’s as if people are living only by their reflexes, playing some sort of mindless video game. They no longer think in terms of contexts and narratives; there’s no sense of history, or reflecting on cause and effect within the flow of time and the particulars of chronology. What we’re seeing is the proliferation of a style of living only with what is right in front of one’s eyes.
By using social media to gather community members and put her films in front of their eyes, each others’ voices in their ears, Kamanaka aims to reopen time, reopen contexts and narratives and relationships. It’s a task made difficult, she says, first by the Japanese education system’s failure to nurture self-expression, and second by the post 3.11 pro-nuclear faction’s success in labeling those who give voice to the collective injury of sustained worry as part of the problem – as circulators of “fūhyō higai” or “harmful rumors.” Kamanaka’s point is that it is essential to reopen a space between the mainstream media as sole purveyor of truth, and alternative media as at least equally true. The harder it is to open the distinction, the more valuable it is for Japanese democracy.
She explains that back in March 2011 local newspapers like Fukushima Minpō and Fukushima Minyū had no idea that high radiation readings were making the failure to evacuate many areas of the prefecture a violation of national law.18 The reason these papers waited to report on the accident until Tokyo told them what to say, repeating it obediently with no analysis, was that the very possibility of local investigative journalism had long since been shut down by the nuclear industry itself. Since the 1960s when the plants were first built, TEPCO had been the single biggest source of advertising revenue for every newspaper, television and radio station in the prefecture. As a result, there was no history of interest in or talent for nuclear reporting beyond the safety myth. This is how it was possible for Yamashita Shun’ichi to reaffirm that myth at precisely the moment it seemed most absurd. By contesting it, Kamanaka is making a crucial intervention.
Another reason Agamben is useful for framing Kamanaka’s intervention is that he keeps us from reading Fukushima’s state of exception as a uniquely Japanese political phenomenon, a return of pre-war Japanese fascism. As Hirano points out, Kamanaka’s films, particularly Hibakusha at the End of the World (2003), show how Japan learned to mix its schizophrenic cocktail – both affirming the need for nuclear sacrifice and denying the extent of nuclear harm — directly from the United States. At the Cold War nuclear production site in Hanford Washington, featured in the film, only a small fraction of cancers suffered by people living downwind of nine nuclear reactors and five large plutonium processing complexes is publically acknowledged to be the effect of radioactivity. What is more, when Kamanaka interviews Hanford families for her 2003 film, we witness their willingness to justify this small percentage with a rhetoric of heroic sacrifice: “This is how we won the Cold War” they say, in Hirano’s paraphrase.
Agamben’s point is that this sort of suspension of human rights is integral not only to the smooth operation of fascism but increasingly, throughout the 20th century, to those very democracies that like to uphold themselves as examples for the rest of the world: England, France, Italy, the United States. He helps us see how vulnerable we have been to authoritarianism all along, and how crucial it is to strengthen democracy not by petitioning our respective executive branches, which are already far too good at overriding the legislative branch, but by practicing representative government locally, in towns and villages. It’s in this context that we can perhaps best appreciate Kamanaka’s remark,
Especially when faced with “national this” and “the Abe administration’s that,” I think being able to decide how to solve problems at a local level – the problems we face in the places where we live, and where we’ve put down roots – is crucial to cultivating a democratic society. That’s why I don’t spend much time at weekly protests in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence (kantei mae). If I’m always making the rounds with my films. . . to the prefectures, it’s because I’ve come to believe that the center has no hope of changing if these other places don’t change first.
Two Different “Revolutions Underfoot”
There’s no question that when Kamanaka speaks of “ashimoto no kakumei” at the end of the interview she is referring to this sort of “revolution from below” — to democratic activism as an exercise in local autonomy. But let me quote from the final sections to suggest an additional meaning. Kamanaka says:
True transformation emerges from everyday living, not from historical principles or dogma. In this sense I have to say that, like Mutō Ruiko, I believe in “women’s sensitivities” (onna to iu kanjō).19 It’s because women are the ones who live daily life most intimately. Whether they live in the city or the countryside, women cook, women do laundry, and women sort the trash. [. . .] Where the maintenance of daily life is concerned, [they] are the ones who do it closest to the source. Of course one could object that statements like this presume natural gender differences. But my point is that in society as it actually exists, clearly it’s overwhelmingly women who do this work. Isn’t that why women are the ones who are best able to sustain political movements that derive from daily life? The discovery of potential within the act of living itself seems old, but it’s quite new.
In the interview, Kamanaka stops short of explaining how the kinds of carework (cooking, laundry) she references can fuel political transformation. But what’s remarkable about both her post-3.11 films is that they document the potential inherent in nuclear carework in particular – the potential unleashed when people attempt to keep food and bodies safe from an ionizing radiation whose impact can never be fully measured or known. In addition to “revolution from below” as radical democracy in the form of local autonomy, the films also document a revolution that begins from a lack of autonomy. That is, they document what happens when we acknowledge that humans are not in control of the unfolding nuclear event, and that its bearing on our health is as much in the hands of external material forces as in our own.
How is this revolutionary? As the fields of philosophy of science and Science and Technology Studies have long argued, what Kamanaka calls “the potential within the act of living” is a material potential, a physical impetus that forces innovation in both thinking and living.20 Living Through Internal Radiation, from 2012, documents this innovation in the affective labor of frontline radiation doctors. Little Voices of Fukushima, from 2015, documents it in the affective labor of mothers. What we appreciate watching the films together is that they portray the doctors and the mothers doing much of the same work, work that philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers has dubbed “small-s” science for the humility and patience necessary to acknowledge “the possibility that it is not man but the material that ‘asks the questions,’ that has a story to tell, which one has to learn to unravel.”21 Attuning themselves to the interval between what Kamanaka calls in her interview “the time it takes for the radioactive material to establish itself in the body, and for the body to begin changing in response,” her doctors and mothers know that to study radiation is to listen as it asks its own questions of the bodies it affects, and not assume that they are in charge. Hida Shuntarō, the Hiroshima oncologist who became a mentor to Kamanaka when she returned from making Hibakusha at the End of the World in Iraq, explains the medical consequences of this with wonderful simplicity. He says, “there is no treatment for exposure itself; there is no safe amount of exposure; any amount can cause illness. But there is healthcare for extending life.”22
The Four Doctors of Living Through Internal Radiation
We get a vivid example of this kind of healthcare from the first doctor in Living Through Internal Radiation, Valentina Smolnikova. Working as a pediatrician in a town in Belarus 160 kilometers from Chernobyl, Smonikova discovers that thyroid cancer, the most direct effect of nuclear exposure, is far from the dominant problem.23 Given that the half-life of Cesium 137 is 30 years, and that internal exposure through contaminated food, air and even placental nutrients lodges in the body, what Smolnikova says she has treated most frequently since 1986 are compromised immune systems, anemia, weak bones, low birth weights, congenital defects, respiratory problems and, not least, mental health (stress, headaches, insomnia, fear). Kamanaka’s film gives equal attention to the long arc of Smolnikova’s expertise, built over decades of experience, and to short snatches of her maternal care — for her own family, and for patients like a depressed orphan in his late teens, abandoned when his parents turned to alcohol. These scenes underscore the interrelationship of medical care and affective care, emphasizing the emotional intensity of both, and the patience and humility necessary to understand how radiation manifests differently in different bodies over time.
Figure 2: Valentina Smolnikova in Living Through Internal Radiation
Humility and emotion are emphasized also by a second doctor, Smolinkova’s Japanese colleague Kamata Minoru, when he explains the key concept of “hoyō,” or respite care. Recalling his own work in Belarus, Kamata relates how studies undertaken in part through the Japan Chernobyl Foundation in the 1990s and 2000s proved that regular respite care in clean environments with clean food can reduce internal radiation significantly.24 Although these reductions are measured in discrete units, the emotional support and nutritional cleansing that coax them to happen are impossible to quantify. Precisely because the cause-effect relationship remains imperfectly understood, Kamata asserts (Figure 3), “It’s not enough to check kids’ thyroids. We need to have a system for looking after the body in its entirety, the emotions in their entirety.” In such scenes, Kamanaka affirms that radiation is asking its own questions of childrens’ bodies and minds, and that the responses can only begin to be unraveled, however partially, by doctors for whom paradigm-shifting epidemiological discoveries like hoyō are linked to everyday care.
Figure 3: Kamata Minoru in Living Through Internal Radiation
In perhaps the most powerful scene from Living Through Internal Radiation, 94-year-old Hida Shuntarō, himself a Hiroshima survivor, moves seamlessly from the technical language he needs to explain recent developments in oncological science to the elemental language he needs for his medical practice, and his own self-care. Having cited a paper by a Russian researcher that proves ionizing radiation causes illness not, as everyone had assumed, by harming genes in the nucleus of cells, but rather by affecting cytoplasm and mitochondria outside the nucleus, he continues (Figure 4):
Figure 4: Hida Shuntarō in Living Through Internal Radiation
There is only one thing humans can do, and that is,
use the force of living to gather all their might,
and determine to live a long healthy life.
Thinking and living this way require courage and stamina.
. . . .
You can never live just any old way.
From the way you eat your meals, to the way you sleep at night,
to the way you make love, to the way you work,
and the way you play.
You have to concentrate [your courage and stamina].
This is the only way to fight ionizing radiation.
Kamanaka’s cinematographer Iwata Makiko lingers over Hida’s fingers here, and his healthy skin, and the way he leans back in his leather chair in his own home, comfortable and open, as she records the precision with which his ninety-four year-old-lips form their syllables. Viewers’ filmic interaction with Hida is thus itself quite loving, and helps us intuit how Kamanaka decided to follow up her 2012 doctors’ film with a 2015 mothers’ film. Kodama Tatsuhiko,25 a medical doctor who directs the Radioisotope Center at the University of Tokyo, is the fourth doctor she introduces in Living Through Internal Radiation. In this scene (Figure 5), he makes the connection between doctors and mothers explicit:
Figure 5: Kodama Tatsuhiko in Living Through Internal Radiation
Mothers who are taking radiation seriously are truly turning the tide in Japan; I’d be grateful if you could convey my thanks to them. Watching their efforts, we [scientists] find it easy to cheer them on, and we’re pleased that they exist not only in Fukushima but throughout the country. [. . .] Government officials are constantly telling them that a certain level of radiation is fine, that they shouldn’t worry. But they are having none of it, and their arguments are revolutionary. I think they should absolutely be proud, and continue fighting.
Because the sound quality of Kodama’s clip is not good, Kamanaka may have vacillated on whether to include it. No doubt she kept it because Kodama is rebutting so forcefully the idea that carework amounts only to unpaid, apolitical female labor.26
Care as Filmmaking, Filmmaking as Pedagogy: Little Voices of Fukushima
In Japanese, the title of Little Voices of Fukushima is Chiisaki koe no canon: A Canon of Little Voices. Because this film too emphasizes what post-Fukushima Japan can learn from post-Chernobyl Belarus, “canon” may conjure a single melody sung first in one place and then another. Yet we soon realize that there is little straightforward repetition. Little Voices toggles between lessons learned and taught first by Smolnikova and other mothers in Belarus, second by a group of mothers in the town of Nihonmatsu, Fukushima, and third by the women directors of a respite care center in Hokkaido where both Belarusian and now Japanese children come to recover.27 In each case, women struggle mightily first to master the melody and keep it going. Because it can only be sung in harmony with radiation itself, it takes its toll. In this sense, the “littleness” of the voices refers also to their tentativeness. Each new chorus must attune itself to a different set of material circumstances, a differently irradiated set of bodies.
We follow the Nihonmatsu mothers as they begin to channel their fear and anger into acts of resistance that are also acts of radiation care: starting a vegetable co-op to distribute safe produce, removing contaminated vegetation along school routes, taking tentative first respite-care trips with their kids, and, Kamanaka is careful to emphasize, providing the emotional support for each other that sustains the mental health of the entire community. Despite triumphant scenes of the formerly apolitical mothers attending a Prefectural Health Survey meeting and speaking out at an anti-nuclear rally in Tokyo,28 their gains are summarized most poignantly late in the film. After letting us enjoy the high spirits of the expanding vegetable co-op, Kamanaka takes us outside alone with Endō Fumiyo, whose chubby face, ready wit, and tearful doctor visits have endeared her to us in several earlier scenes. When Kamanaka asks, “do you feel supported?” she replies “Yes. Things are expanding in a circle, no, – no, in a spider’s web. And it must be rough for [our supporters who send us the vegetables and invite us on respite trips], because we’re all so heavy!” What Endō has discovered is that the kind of health care capable of extending irradiated life is not geometrically sturdy like a circle. Rather, it is delicate and fragile, almost invisible, like a spider web. Difficult to spin and even more difficult to inhabit, it is what she has learned she must count on, nonetheless.
This sort of reliance on the most tenuous of connections can at times feel remote from the lessons Belarus is teaching. When Kamanaka shows us a map (Figure 6) that applies Belarusian safety standards to Fukushima, it seems clear that, at least since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus has taken much better care of irradiated citizens than Japan since 2011.29 As we see from the red shading for “enforced evacuation zone” (kyōsei hinan kuiki), if Endō’s town of Nihonmatsu were in Belarus, it would have been declared uninhabitable and its citizens relocated with state support. Yet even if Belarusian measurements are confident and straightforward, how the country treats exposed citizens is not.
In a voiceover, Kamanaka explains that by means of a state respite care system, children between the ages of 3 and 17 who live in places with annual radiation readings greater than one millisievert are sent to one of 14 national recuperation centers for 24 days at a time, twice a year.31 Little Voices spends a long time in these centers, observing what Kamanaka’s voiceover calls “gentle, holistic and natural” treatments that eschew western-style drugs in favor of therapies like “mucous membrane stimulation for the immune system,” “mineral-rich asthma treatment,” “carbon dioxide gas-baths to stimulate the production of oxygen,” “massage for bronchitis and lung disease,” and “salt therapy for respiratory issues.” Viewers may feel a degree of prejudice toward the former Soviet Bloc’s kooky-looking, low-tech medical apparati when they first watch these scenes. But what are these treatments if not ways to inhabit the interval between exposure and cellular response, and to cajole damaged DNA toward rest and regeneration? In the face of humanity’s failure to control its most advanced technology to date, mucus membrane stimulators and carbon dioxide baths remind us again that it is not humanity but the material that gets to ask questions, which we must learn to unravel.
Perhaps the most powerful scenes in Little Voices of Fukushima are shot in Hokkaido at the respite care (hoyō) center, which occupies a repurposed elementary school. When interviewing in Fukushima and Belarus, Kamanaka typically speaks to children and mothers directly, in respectful tones and at their height. In Hokkaido she asks fewer direct questions, and camerawoman Iwata Makiko’s lens moves distinctly lower. Viewers find themselves increasingly alone with kids who are crying, or fighting, or urinating. With no other grownups in the frame, they talk to the camera as if it were the parent on duty. In one scene, the camera hurries over to two brothers on the school stage, one of whom has just burst out crying. When we arrive the other looks at the camera and explains, “He said he hit his head.” (Figure 7)
Figure 7: At Noro Mika’s Respite Care Center in Hokkaido, from Little Voices of Fukushima
In another, several boys are jumping in a plastic-lined pool dug into a ditch filled with warm water. One tumbles in head-first and wrenches his neck. Wailing, he looks at the camera while two others look at him and tell him he’s an idiot. (Figure 8)
Figure 8: At Noro Mika’s Respite Care Center in Hokkaido, from Little Voices of Fukushima
In a third scene, a toddler trails his fingers slowly along the wall of an empty corridor making his way slowly away from the camera, which is at his height. When he calls out “mommy?” “mommy?” we feel like answering him. (Figure 9)
Figure 9: At Noro Mika’s Respite Care Center in Hokkaido, from Little Voices of Fukushima
In a fourth, a child walks alone to the bathroom to collect a urine sample. Although we hear him talking to one of the women who runs the center, the camera does not show her. Instead it crouches with him at knee-level as he holds up his shirt with one hand and aims into the bottle with the other. Looking into the camera he asks, “could you hold it a little lower?” (Figure 10)
Figure 10: At Noro Mika’s Respite Care Center in Hokkaido, from Little Voices of Fukushima
Kamanaka’s lesson for viewers is that we too have something to learn from carework. Rather than dismiss it as abject or apolitical, she performs it, and honors it. “True transformation comes from everyday living” when we learn how to close the distance between the discourses that govern our lives, and the material origins that sustain and challenge them.
I would like to thank Kamanaka Hitomi and Katsuya Hirano for giving me a window into their respective projects and politics, and for their inspiration and insight. I would also like to thank Norma Field for her support and passion, and Mark Selden for his editing.