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Issue 144

Island Nation

After the tsunami: the role of disaster in Japan’s artistic psyche

BY Philip Brophy AND Kyoji Maeda in Critic's Guides | 01 JAN 11

Philip Brophy
A filmmaker, musician and writer who is based in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of 100 Anime (BFI Publishing, 2005).

A viscous black cloak spreads across ploughed fields and rice paddies. Viewed from an aerial perspective, it’s hard to gauge its force; you have to focus on dotted trucks caught unawares on narrow roads bisecting the fields to realize that the dark wave is moving very fast. This footage, which was shot from a helicopter, charts the effects of the tsunami resulting from the Great Tohoku Earthquake in north-eastern Japan on 11 March 2011, and documents about five square kilometres in 30 seconds. The tsunami flooded over 560 square kilometres in 18 hours. Yet this brief glimpse of its energy induces a dread typical of real-time passing in slow-motion in the face of the unstoppable.

The recording and imagining of the tsunami halts time in manifold ways. Not only does it occupy space with a fast-but-slow momentum, it also appears equally in the ‘now’ of televised and captured media, and in the expansive past of Japan’s depiction of natural disasters. Watching that dark wave engulf Sendai’s fields, I was reminded of the climax of Hayao Miyazaki’s strident eco-fantasy Princess Mononoke (1997). When the Night Walker is decapitated by the ruthless Lady Eboshi, a gelatinous black ooze spills forth, transforming the lush land into a morbid swamp. Miyazaki powerfully depicts the monstrous forces in his drama as culture (Lady Eboshi) and nature (the Night Walker). Typical of Japanese story-telling, the nature–culture binary moves through a series of transitional states based more on their shifting balance than their fixed positions. No sides are taken, all differences eventually collapse and blur, and culture and nature inevitably become interchangeable. As phantasmagorical as Princess Mononoke is, its panoramic obliteration is calmly evoked: in Japan, there’s something natural about the depiction of unnatural disasters.

Equally, there’s something preternatural about Japan’s acceptance of natural disasters; the populace seems attuned to disastrous rhythms. The role of vibrational shocks is ingrained in the Japanese psyche ‘like breathing oxygen’ as one Japanese friend told me: ‘We just don’t notice them because they’re everywhere.’ This notional merger of registering with breathing, of feeling with perceiving, has arguably shaped everyday life in Japan into a continuum of vibrations. Consequently, the role of time-shifting through space-changing as evidenced by the devastatingly slow-yet-fast tsunami’s ‘geo-morphing’ is equally ingrained in Japanese sensibilities of how time and space can cosmologically merge. Japanese visuality, then, is not solely a visual matter.

Kano Kazunobu, The Six Realms: Hell, left: Scroll 22; right: Scroll 23, from the series 'The 500 Arhats', c.1854-63, hanging scrolls, ink on silk, each 172 x 85 cm. Courtesy Collection Zojoji, Tokya, Japan

When Asako Narahashi shows land in the photographs she has been working on since 2003, she depicts it from afar – which, for a Japanese artist, means from the ocean. Her beautiful vistas of smudged land enforce the dominant aspect of Japan’s geography: it’s an island nation. Island cultures tend toward a transitional state, ensnared in a temporal domain on the cusp of becoming either ocean or land. Narahashi’s photos make the blurred ocean seem like an imposing mass while the slivers of land seem transitory and elusive. Her perception reverses the tectonic primacy of continental cultures, giving us images from a kind of ‘floating world’ endemic to Japanese flotational aesthetics and sensibilities.

Narahashi told me that many people in Japan had remarked on the prescience of her photographs but her image-making is less eerily prophetic than saliently reflective. Her images seem to ‘sense’ vibrational surges in land and the encompassing totality of the ocean, siting her physically and symbolically in a uniquely Japanese sense of place, where time, space, energy and vibration mould landscape. Katsushika Hokusai’s depiction of a large open-ocean wave (not a tsunami as many have presumed) in his famous print The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1830–31) is an obvious indicator of this sense of fluxive space. The wave – not the ocean – is an event. The surrounding boats are poised ready to ride the foaming morph of energy; Mount Fuji stoically observes the incident from afar, like a parent watching a child at play.

Hokusai’s elegant depiction records a moment of energy ascribed to natural force. Kano Kazunobu’s ‘The 500 Arhats’ (1854–63) (arhats being Buddhist deities) similarly depicts a moment of energy, but one ascribed to divine power. From the section The Six Realms: Hell of Kazunobu’s 100-scroll set, a huge calligraphic brush stroke – singular and awesome in its scope – sweeps across the painted image. Its materiality is beyond the scale of the hanging scrolls: it bears down like a brute defacing cursive from beyond the mortal world it depicts. It symbolizes the gods’ employment of wind as an instrument of divine retribution.

Manabu Ikeda, Foretoken, 2008, pen and acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board, 1.9 x 3.4 m. Courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery, Tokyo, and Sustainable Investor Co., Ltd,; photograph: Yasuhide Kuge

The complete set of 100 tsuifuku (dual vertical scrolls) that comprise ‘The 500 Arhats’ was exhibited for the first time in its entirety at the Tokyo Edo Museum a month after 11 March. This synchronicity, though, was absorbed by Japan’s appreciation of pictorial disasters in its traditional arts. Record figures poured through the museum and studied that singular brushstroke. The scrolls of The Seven Misfortunes section are especially chilling. In one, titled Earthquake, an arhat distractedly holds a rope for desperate souls to climb up to the heavens from their hellish internment. I couldn’t help but recall the televised image of townspeople throwing lines to people clinging to rooftops as the tsunami engulfed their houses (footage not released to television in Japan until a few months after the tragedy struck). 

The worst synchronicity between fatalistic unnatural disaster and fateful natural disaster was voiced by the newly re-appointed mayor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, who declared 11 March an act of tembatsu – divine retribution. This sounds like what one might expect from a conservative Japanese official, but if anything, Ishihara was amplifying the resonances the day activated in the Japanese disaster-ready psyche. If a large part of the country’s thought is based on cyclical and reincarnative perception of events, interconnections certainly do arise like oxygen. Yet far from being a lackadaisical acceptance of how things unfold, this perception allows for aligning the unnatural with the natural. 

Manabu Ikeda’s paintings of cultural flotsam playfully portray contemporary Japan as a Hokusaian wave of abundance, with consumerables unleashed in an expulsive projectile. In Foretoken (2008) he diagrammatically blends natural energy (the oceanic wave) with unnatural manifestation (the noticeable absence of water). It’s the kind of unnatural disaster that has symbolically figured in a near quarter century of anime’s gorgeous detailing of natural dynamics. Yet when local TV cameras captured an actual tsunami surge spilling into small town streets, they evidenced the reality of anime’s imagined dynamics: flotsam rode the waves, as roofs, boats, poles, cars and their amassed contents merged with swathes of wood, Styrofoam, paper, plastic, rope, wire and tin.

Naoya Hatekayama, River Shadow #9, from the series 'River Series', lightjet print, 54 x 49 cm, 2002. Courtesy L.A. Gallery - Lothar Albrecht, Frankfurt © the artist  

Similar transmogrified waves appear throughout the anime film Summer Wars (directed by Mamoru Hosoda, 2009). It depicts the online world of Oz as concentric rings of cute consumer avatars, like a Takashi Murakami landscape unleashed in IKEA. When hacked by an Artificial Intelligence, these absorbed avatars become a nightmarish tidal force of virally transformed consumers, like the sudden materialization of an unordered demographic spread that in turn brings Japan to a halt. Following the shutdown of all power systems at the Fukushima Dainichi Nuclear Power Plant, Tokyo was brought to a near-standstill on 11 March, leaving around three million people stranded. The Nihonbashi Takashima department store alone housed 14,000 people overnight, cramped and compressed into lines of bodies threaded throughout the store like fleshy striae from Summer Wars’ collapsing online world. 

The sudden materialization of excess people in an unplanned space on 11 March highlighted the precarious spatio-temporal balance of everyday life in a metropolis as compressed as Tokyo. In Japan, everything proceeds through integrated flux, from its swaying skyscrapers to its ‘just-in-time’ market distribution to its adaptive train scheduling. Continual change is the norm; instantaneous response is the method. Earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, mud slides and the like devastate by halting the fluid channels of self-modulating change. Despite nature causing these blockages, the consequences are ‘unnatural’ when compared to the ‘natural’ pulsations of everyday life coursing through Japan’s networks. Japanese visuality – the broad spectrum of how fantastic scenarios are imaged and imagined – is intonated with the worldly experience of upheavals, decimations and ground-zeros. All the examples briefly discussed here visualize natural things in unnatural states – but always through acceding that nature’s manifestation often appears unnatural. Through its phanta-smagorical evocations, Japan illustrates that no disaster can ever be unnatural.

Kenji Yanobe, 'Atom Suit Project: Desert 1', performance, 1998. Courtesy YAMAMOTO GENDAI © the artist; photograph: Seiji Toyonaga

Kyoji Maeda
Deputy editor of Yomiuri Shimbun, a daily national newspaper in Japan

‘What can we do?’ was the question asked by Japanese people after the earthquake and tsunami that hit the north-eastern region of Japan on 11 March 2011. Eighteen days later, Taka Ishii Gallery in Tokyo opened an exhibition titled ‘NOART’. The gallery issued a statement: ‘In this instance, we painfully realized the powerlessness of art to deal with such extreme conditions [...] Without exhibiting anything within the gallery space, we will present a single donation box in the space surrounded by its plain white walls. The donations gathered will be remitted from the gallery to the National Red Cross Society.’ The gallery’s gesture implied that, in the face of disaster, art is powerless. Undoubtedly there is very little it can do when faced with 20,000 dead and missing people, and radiation leaking from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. One of the things it can do is raise money: thus, influential galleries and the Japanese Council of Art Museums held charity auctions to benefit those affected by the tsunami.

The question ‘What can we do?’, may also have been a kind of absolution. When the mood had calmed down in regions other than those devastated by the earthquake, young people on TV shows cheerfully declared, ‘What we can do is entertain!’ While sympathizing with the victims of this tragedy, I agree it was better that those who were not affected returned to normal. But, at times, I also heard people ask, ‘What can we do?’, as if it were a way of shaking off a sense of guilt. It’s undeniable: although dancers should dance and artists should start creating work again, daily life in Japan has become severely traumatized. 

After World War II, Japan achieved economic success and many artists became deeply self-interested. Cartoons and animation became a big industry and art that was influenced by them came to the fore. Although Takashi Murakami represents this trend today, he is exceptionally self-aware: the title of his exhibition ‘Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture’, at the Japan Society in New York in 2005, was a reference to the nickname of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. It’s perhaps surprising that Japan pushed forward with nuclear power in spite of the 200,000 deaths that resulted from the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 (and many more died from their injuries in the years that followed). It would take a detailed analysis of the politics and cultural mores of Japan to explain the reasons for this, but there is great ambivalence about nuclear energy in this country. The apprehension about radioactivity, which gave birth in 1954 to Godzilla – the monster born as a result of an H-bomb in the Pacific Ocean – and various dystopias in our subcultures, has been resurrected after the Fukushima nuclear accident.

A photograph taken by a Miyako City official on 11 March 2011 of the tsunami breaching an embankment and flowing into the city of Miyako in Iwate prefecture, Japan. Courtesy AFP/Getty Images

The attitudes of Japanese people to their country since the earthquake and nuclear accident have become increasingly confused. Several exhibitions – such as ‘Masterpieces of French Painting from the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow’, which was to have run from April to December in Yokohama, Nagoya and Kobe; the Giorgio Morandi exhibition at the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art; and ‘Birth of Impressionism’ at the Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum – were cancelled because lenders feared radioactive contamination, although it is unlikely that it damages works of art. Many Japanese people have bought radiation detection devices and there has been little confidence in everyday safety. The plan to use wood from the disaster-hit area of Rikuzen-Takata in the Gozan no Okuribi ceremony in Kyoto – a ritual to soothe the souls of the dead – was cancelled because of the detection of a tiny amount of radioactive cesium in the wood. This is just one example of Japanese people failing to mourn and obsessing instead about data. Generally speaking, the nation’s sensitivity to human dignity has been blunted.

In these circumstances, is there anything that art can do? Both activism, which aims to stop nuclear power, and relational art, which acts in solidarity with people in the disaster areas, are appropriate responses but ultimately they bring to mind Jean-Paul Sartre’s question: ‘Is literature useless when faced with starving children?’ I expect new work will emerge exploring this question; long before the tsunami, contemporary artists in Japan were making art that is already relevant to the current situation. For example, Kenji Yanobe has explored his unease about nuclear energy since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, while, for his first solo exhibition in 2005, Masanori Handa created strange installations inspired by seascapes featuring a nuclear power plant. Naoya Hatakeyama – who lost his mother and family home in the 2011 tsunami – is a photographer who has, over the years, taken many pictures of landscapes that portray the complex negotiations between nature and humankind.

After the earthquake, a 16-year-old boy who had been trapped in the rubble of his home for nine days was rescued. One journalist asked him about his dreams for the future. His answer? ‘I want to be an artist.’

Translated from the Japanese by F. Warburton

Philip Brophy is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia.

Kjoyi Maeda is deputy editor of Yomiuri Shimbun, a daily national newspaper in Japan.