Things Break: Reflections from Fukushima

10 March 2021

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On the anniversary of Japan’s triple disasters, this piece reflects on an important lesson I learnt from the research I did on the Fukushima nuclear accident: some things break.

On 11 March 2011, a huge earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a massive tsunami that struck the Tohoku region. This, in turn, led to a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which lost power with a number of reactors going into meltdown. While Japan is among the world’s leaders in disaster preparedness, it was not ready for the triple disaster that struck. Much of its preparations had been modelled on the experience of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, a poor match for what unfolded in 2011. In the weeks that followed the authorities struggled to regain control of Fukushima Daiichi and prevent a worst case – but then considered increasingly possible – scenario in which Tokyo might have to be evacuated. Fortunately, this outcome was avoided. Residents of Tokyo experienced the uncertainty of the moment and perhaps some higher than normal levels of radiation, but they were spared the worst consequences of the nuclear accident. The same cannot be said for the people of Fukushima, the name of a prefecture that – like Hiroshima and Chernobyl – has become a signifier for human folly and technological hubris.

As the situation at Daiichi was brought under control, attention turned to the difficult task of recovery and rebuilding. The Japanese government – directly, and indirectly through bankrolling the guilty party TEPCO – promised to deal with the radiation and damage caused by the accident. Huge sums were devoted to decontamination efforts, with the plan to reduce radiation to acceptable levels that would allow former residents to return and resume their lives. Much of the money went to major construction firms with little experience at decontamination, which in turn contracted the work out to smaller firms, with more and more sub-contracting occurring. The end result was cleanup crews in the countryside of Japan scooping up dirt, leaves, debris and so on, putting it all in large bags to be stored somewhere. Where exactly they would be placed in the long-term remained unclear, with all communities unsurprisingly not wanting to accepted the waste. Japanese politicians solemnly swore to the region that they would do their upmost to restore Fukushima. Money was allocated, plans were agreed upon, efforts were undertaken. There was a kind of grim absurdity to all of this, the government, TEPCO, and armies of officials all acting as if things could be restored, as if it was possible to return to the ways things were. Certainly, there were strong material and ideational incentives for maintaining this facade, but the brave words were never believable because the lived reality of the region said otherwise. Still, the truth could not be spoken. Everyone had to act as if it was possible to fix the unfixable.

The unavoidable but unspoken truth was evident to anyone who cared to look: the Fukushima that existed on the morning of 11 March 2011 was gone. It was no more. And most importantly, it was not possible to bring back. It was gone forever. The Fukushima that existed before the triple disaster was destroyed through bad luck interacting with a degree of maleficence and negligence that blurred into malice. Cleanup crews could fill up all the bags of radiated soil they wanted to, nothing could rectify the damage done by the accident. Some very basic and fundamental things were lost that day: the sense of security, the feeling of safety, the comfort of home. For most of us, these accepted features of daily life are simply there in the background, they used to be for people in Fukushima too. Day to day, it can be difficult to appreciate the vulnerabilities and risks that reside beneath the surface of our lives. There are times, however, when we are shaken from this sense of comfort, and the vulnerability and impermanence of relations and structures becomes all too apparent. Fukushima was one such moment. For many people, it has been possible to return to that accepted-ness of daily life, but depending on who and where you are, this process might have been more or less easy, more or less complete.

After 11 March 2011, Fukushima would no longer be associated with peaches, or rice, or fish. It would be marked indelibly with the taint of radiation, the stigma of Daiichi. The Fukushima that survived the disaster was not bettered or empowered by it, although some individuals, organisations and places may have since experienced some positive or beneficial outcomes. The Fukushima that once existed is gone. Acknowledging and accepting this is not easy, because it means facing up to a horrible and deeply upsetting reality. It is important and necessary to face up to this broken and lost Fukushima, however, as it shows us that some things cannot be unbroken, some mistakes cannot be undone. Talk of ‘building back better’ is more comfortable for it papers over the more difficult truth, namely, that some things cannot be rebuilt, and that such disasters tend to amplify and exacerbate existing vulnerabilities.

Perhaps a more appropriate way to think about it might be the Japanese tradition of Kintsugi, the art of repairing broken ceramics. Christy Bartlett beautifully conveys the mentality of this aesthetic:

It becomes an eternally present moment yet a moment that oddly enough segues into another where perishability is circumvented by repair. Simultaneously we have the expression of frailty and of resilience, life before the incident and life after. Yet the object is not the same. In its rebirth it assumes a new identity that incorporates yet transcends the previous identity. Like the cycle of reincarnation, one life draws to a close and another begins.

This framing is poetic and tantalising, perhaps too much so, as it risks beautifying a much uglier reality, one in which the future of Fukushima has been fundamentally pushed off its trajectory of a decade ago, and not for the better. Nonetheless, the Fukushima that now exists needs to be matched with the Fukushima that was lost. Doing so means trying to reconcile the unreconcilable, to restore what cannot be restored, to wrestle back control of meaning and time.

Fukushima tragically teaches us the need to reckon with the fragility of things and people, to acknowledge the role of the unexpected and unlikely, to deal with the shortcomings of institutions and systems, and to recognize that some things cannot be undone. This, in turn, should foster an ethos of humility. A sense of care. An appreciation of what was lost. A desire to conserve. A capacity to move forward.

The cup is broken. The cup is not broken.

This piece was written by Dr Chris Hobson, Program Convenor of the Bachelor of Asia Pacific Affairs, a dual degree program with Ritsumeikan University, Japan.

Article originally published here.

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