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19 November 2021

“Picturing the Invisible”: Ten years on from the Fukushima disaster

A new exhibition provides a photographic portrait of communities living with radiation and trauma a decade after the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear fallout.

By Gerry Brakus

A striking and evocative collaboration between academics, artists and policymakers, “Picturing the Invisible” provides a photographic portrait of communities living with radiation and trauma in Fukushima, ten years after it was struck by an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in north-east Japan.

Declared the “worst crisis Japan has faced since World War II” by then-prime minister Naoto Kan, the earthquake and tsunami killed nearly 20,000 people and triggered a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant – forcing 200,000 people from their homes. The exhibit captures how, even today, vast swathes of land remain uninhabitable: the contamination of plants and soil made visible to visitors through technical means. However, it also explores how efforts to decontaminate the region continue. The exclusion zone is slowly shrinking and as evacuation orders are lifted, residents are being incentivised to return home.

Few choose to do so – and many of those who do are old. One village found that only 10 per cent of its residents chose to return, and they have an average age of over 70. Those who do and are working discover that few wish to buy food “made in Fukushima”, posing an additional challenge for traditionally agricultural communities.

Restricted Residence by Giles Price, 2017
 A Mirror on the Other Side, Maquette by Takashi Arai, 2021

This exhibit provides an intimate portrait of the peoples rebuilding their lives in the affected territories. It examines their memories of disaster, their continued contact with radiation, and their efforts to reclaim their heritage. The 14 photographs are complemented by a series of short essays, provided by policymakers, experts and activists united by their deep engagement with the triple disaster. Contributors include: David Warren (British ambassador to Japan, 2008-12); celebrated Japanologist, the activist Aileen Smith; and author Robert Macfarlane.

Launched online in September, the exhibition can be viewed at “Picturing the Invisible“, or at the Royal Geographical Society in London until 23 December 2021.

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Blindfolded Pilot, from the Rasen Kaigan (Spiral Shore) series by Lieko Shiga, 2010
Cypress Leaves, from the Autoradiograph series by Masamichi Kagaya, 2014
Nuclear Samurai by Thom Davies, 2014

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