The March 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami comprises one of the most recorded and reproduced disasters in history. Almost immediately after earthquake occurred, photos and video clips spread across the world of swaying Tokyo skyscrapers and workers and schoolchildren sidestepping falling debris. Just over an hour later, televisions and computer screens flickered with images of the terrifying tsunami waves that stretched over forty metres and surged up to ten kilometres inland, unleashing nuclear disaster at Fukushima.

Six years on, over fifteen thousand people have been reported dead, over two thousand five hundred remain missing and only a small number of those one hundred and sixty thousand people forced to flee their homes in the nuclear zone have been able to return. Given the multitude of images and recordings already in circulation both the such overwhelming tragedy, and, the reactions of artists might appear superfluous. Yet a number of Japanese and international artists have crafted compelling and sometimes controversial responses.

In the first place, artists have responded by seeking to create works that express sorrow or facilitate the grieving process. On the one hand, the infamous Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki used scissors to scratch 238 photographic negatives, resulting in black-and-white photographs whose deep cuts express the agonizing wounds of the tragedy. On the other, national and local institutions have established official memorials, from monument in the coastal city of Soma that bears the names of 458 dead to the photographs that were repaired after being washed away by the tsunami and displayed in a gymnasium in Sendai, Miyagi.

In each case, art plays a therapeutic role in providing a site of mourning and reaffirming communal bonds. In like manner, soon after the disaster, the world-famous fashion designer Issey Miyake organized an exhibition entitled “The Spirit of Tohoku” that focused on local traditions of Kogin-sashi (quilting) and Shifu-ori (paper making). By displaying these items, Miyake not only paid tribute to the ancient practices that helped inspire the “pleats processing” techniques for which he is famous, he presented these binding techniques as a powerful metaphor for the resilience of the community.

For other artists, however, many of these exhibits appeared to reinforce an official story of the disaster—exemplified in the slogan Ganbarō Nippon (“Go for it, Japan!”) —a narrative that seemed to stress the victims’ fortitude to mask institutional failure. Japanese artist Kota Takeuchi instead adopted a strategy of accusation by interrupting a live-feed camera recording of a post-disaster clean-up effort by pointing his finger straight at the camera and holding this pose for around fifteen minutes. As recordings went viral, Takeuchi earned notoriety as “Finger Pointing Worker”. Similarly, when the famous street artist JR visited the region he pasted enormous photographs of the eyes of twelve local people, describing it as “a symbolic representation of the hundreds of people who have given their life or their health to save others and limit the damage”.[1] These eyes acted also as a reminder of numerous witness testimonies of official wrongdoing.

Other artists sought to confront their audience. In a London installation, Fukushima-born Ei Arakawa and his brother Tomo offered visitors the chance to eat soup made from vegetables grown in the region free of charge. The exhibition catalogue reads: “the gift of food represents the essence of hospitality, sharing and humanity. However, the soup offer is laced with the (conceptual) possibility that it may be radioactive.”[2] In so doing, the artists cleverly compelled international participants to consider whether they were prepared to take real risks to support the region.

Perhaps the most notorious response was made by the provocative six-person art collective Chim↑Pom, who added an image of the Fukushima power plant to a missing corner of Okamoto Tarō’s Myth of Tomorrow (1969), a large-scale mural of the devastation in Nagasaki and Hiroshima which stands in Tokyo’s busy Shibuya station. The group’s guerrilla intervention confused many passersby into thinking that Tarō’s painting had predicted the disaster. The group followed this with a more ambitious collaboration entitled Don’t Follow the Wind, in which they installed various artworks in the exclusion zone. This exhibit included a collection of twenty-two framed photographs of Fukushima families by Ai Weiwei and a Level A hazmat suit incorporating pieces of centuries-old samurai armour by Ahmet Öğüt. Since entering this area currently is highly dangerous, these works can be experience only via a touring exhibition or Virtual Reality. The show was attacked as “a mere stunt, a gesture” by Guardian journalist Jonathan Jones, who complained “[l]iterally no one can visit this art show.” Others have argued that the exhibition’s very inaccessibility provides a potent metaphor for the lives lost and squandered by the disaster.

Further artists have presented Fukushima as an environmentalist message about humankind’s propensity to destroy its own environment and the risks of nuclear power in particular. For instance, in his 2013 acrylic drawing Meltdown, Ikeda Manabu depicts an immense iceberg of dilapidated scaffolding recalling the iconic airborne fortification in Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 anime Howl's Moving Castle. Manabu’s immense conglomeration teeters precariously over an emerald forest, threatening it with destruction. Manabu admonished: “this time it occurred in Japan…but there are hundreds of nuclear plants throughout the world, and you never know where an accident will occur next.” [4]

In contrast, artists have also envisaged Fukushima as a display of the fragility of human beings in the face of the overwhelming power of nature. When the award-winning Spanish-American photographer Moises Saman visited the nuclear disaster exclusion zone in 2017 he was struck by the natural world’s power of rejuvenation, recalling later: “[w]e kept finding animals taking over these villages; snakes in the middle of the road everywhere…Things like this really made me reflect on the cycles of life. Who really has the upper hand — is it man or is it nature?” [5] Saman made gorgeous and unsettling black-and-white photographs of an abandoned pile of children’s bicycles, and school backpacks littering the floor of an elementary school in the evacuated area. In so doing, he demonstrated the precipitous and implacable manner in which the disaster overturned everyday lives, transforming everyday objects instantly into relics of a former time. Similarly, immediately after the disaster, photographers such as Keizo Kitajima and Rinko Kawauchi visited the area before the clean-up operation had properly begun, capturing images of the ruined landscape of collapsed buildings, boats flipped on one side and the wasteland of debris. Kawauchi claimed the experience alerted her her own vulnerability: “[s]tanding there for a while, I considered the smallness of my existence; so small that even a gust of wind could have blown me away.” [6]

In their responses to 3/11, artists have asked compelling questions. Does Tōhoku present us with a tale of loss or resilience? A narrative of official incompetence or communal strength? An environmentalist fable or an Old Testament-style story of primal disaster? While the photographs and videos that were speedily disseminated across the globe captured the shock and violence of the earthquake and tsunami, later art has provided a space in which the event’s meaning could be constructed and contested.

[1] Michele Chan, Japan after Fukushima: 10 artists making art about the disaster, 15 May 2015.
[2] Henri Neuendorf, Artists To Serve ‘Radioactive Soup’ At Frieze London, 26 August 2016. [3] Jonathan Jones “Apocalypse no! Why artists should not go into the Fukushima exclusion zone,” Guardian, Monday 20 July 2015.
[4] Asato Ikeda, Ikeda Manabu, the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, and Disaster/Nuclear Art in Japan Asia-Pacific Journal, April 1 2013, Vol. 11, Issue 13, No. 2.
[5] Moises Saman, Fukushima, Seven Years On.
[6] Tess Thakara, Five Years after the Fukushima Earthquake, Intimate Photographs Remember a Devastated Japan. 11 March 2016.