The University of Iowa

Voices of Fukushima: Art, Community, and Information after 3-11

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In February, 2017, the University of Iowa Japanese Program organized a two-day workshop, Voices of Fukushima: Art, Community, and Information after 3-11. The workshop featured presentations by Yoshikawa Akihiro, Leslie Mabon, and Toko Shiiki, and a screening of Ms. Shiiki’s documentary film, Threshold: Whispers of Fukushima (2014). The workshop was made possible by support from the Japan Foundation Institutional Project Support grant, with contributions from University of Iowa International Programs, and the University of Iowa Center for Asian and Pacific Studies.

The Voices of Fukushima workshop began and ended with an array of personal narratives. Toko Shiiki debuted her short film, a diary from fukushima (2017, 10 min., Japanese with English subtitles), which is a film rendition of two blog entries by a woman who goes by the name Afran, from northern Fukushima Prefecture. Shiiki then showed a second short film, From Fukushima: Ōkuma & Namie (2017, 12 min., English with Japanese subtitles), which is comprised of footage of Fukushima Prefecture taken by drone, featuring views that range from breathtaking to devastating in their documentation of the landscapes. After these birds-eye-views paired with descriptions of the current conditions of these areas, From Fukushima shifts to become a platform for communicating the personal reflections of a woman, Sato Nanae, as well as other residents of the towns of Ōkuma and Namie, which are home to the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Following these two film screenings, Leslie Mabon discussed his research projects working with small, local fisheries in Iwaki after the nuclear accident to examine coastal management and responses within fishing industries after 2011. In his talk, Mabon examined the challenges of sifting through the science, politics, and conflicting information concerning public safety in Fukushima Prefecture.

The workshop concluded with a presentation by Yoshikawa Akihiro about his experiences working in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant before and after March 2011. Yoshikawa discussed his experience of being aware of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant throughout childhood, and his decision as a sixteen-year-old to enter a technical high school where he would receive training to become an employee of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO. After relating to us his personal reaction to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, he described the technical aspects of his responsibilities as a worker on site during the event, which included responding to the damage to the plant and efforts to limit radioactive contamination. He concluded with a frank discussion of his feelings of personal responsibility for being complicit in this man-made disaster, which led to his decision to leave his position to become a community advocate and public liaison with the plant.

Yoshikawa, one of the Fukushima residents who was featured in Shiiki’s documentary, Threshold: Whispers of Fukushima, had been living as an evacuee since 2011.  Because the mandatory evacuation order was lifted for the first time in March, 2017, Yoshikawa had been in the middle of making preparations to return to his home in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture. He completed his move home only weeks after returning from this, his first visit to the U.S. to speak at the University of Iowa. Yoshikawa’s presence, both in the film and at the workshop, was a powerful reminder of the ongoing challenges and ambiguities of maintaining a relationship between the local communities of Namie and Ōkuma, and the power plant they host.

The purpose of bringing each of these visiting speakers together for the Voices of Fukushima workshop was above all to call attention to the diversity of situations faced by residents of Fukushima Prefecture after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident on March 11, 2011. By giving voice to a number of individuals from a variety of perspectives, and by considering each experience through the frameworks of art, activism, and research, these speakers shed light on the complex realities that are so easily obscured by generalized notions of “disaster” and “recovery” in northeastern Japan, even six years after the events occurred. University of Iowa students and faculty, as well as members of the Iowa City community, grappled with these wide-ranging personal accounts and the ways in which they counteracted the common assumptions and often over-simplified narratives that tend to dominate representations of this and other disaster events worldwide.

These narratives provided a foundation for the individuals featured in the documentary Threshold: Whispers of Fukushima, which interweaves the stories of several Fukushima residents as they each turn to their love of music to help them adjust to life after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters struck Fukushima Prefecture and its surrounding areas. is an intimate look at the process by which these individuals and families had to go through the process of deciding whether to stay or leave after the events of March, 2011.

Because the ultimate message of Threshold is relatively optimistic, following some individuals and families who decided to stay in their homes and embrace their communities, it has drawn some criticism for potentially encouraging people to continue living in areas that are no longer safe to inhabit. Indeed, Shiiki takes a very light touch in organizing her footage in an attempt to avoid imposing her own opinions about whether residents should evacuate. Instead, the film is made up of scenes of daily life interspersed with face-to-face interviews of individuals, in what is a clear effort by Shiiki to spotlight the words of her subjects as they work to articulate their complex emotions and intentions from one moment to the next, even as they struggle to understand or come to a decision themselves. It is for this careful juxtaposition of sometimes contradictory sets of personal narratives that I find the film a compelling introduction to the major issues surrounding long-term issues of recovery and revitalization in the affected areas. The message is clear, even if the outcome is not: the process of achieving some sense of recovery must take place on an individual level, and involves a constantly evolving series of negotiations for years afterward.

Voices of Fukushima Participant Profiles

Yoshikawa Akihiro, with interpreter Hiroko Czuprynski, speaks to the Voices of Fukushima audience on February 27, 2017
Yoshikawa Akihiro is a public educator and community advocate, and a former employee of the TEPCO nuclear facility that experienced a meltdown after the events of March 11, 2011. Mr. Yoshikawa founded his grassroots organization Appreciate FUKUSHIMA Workers in 2013, and is co-author of Illustrated Encyclopedia of the "1F": A Guide to the Decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (Fukushima daiichi genpatsu hairo zukan 福島第一原発廃炉図鑑, Ohta Books, 2016).


Leslie Mabon presents his paper remotely from Aberdeen, Scotland for the Voices of Fukushima workshop on February 27, 2017
Dr. Leslie Mabon is a Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Applied Social Studies at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland. He has a PhD in Geography, and has a particular research interest in understanding environmental change in coastal regions. Dr. Mabon is especially motivated to work alongside physical scientists to more fully understand the relationship between people and the environment in which they live. He works closely with Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology to research the process of restarting fisheries in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture after the nuclear accident. Since 2014 he has been visiting Fukushima Prefecture to talk to fishers, local governments, citizens and community groups about the past, present and future of daily life on the coast of Fukushima. Dr. Mabon has been funded through a Japan Foundation Fellowship, and will now continue his work through to 2018 and beyond thanks to a Regional Studies Association grant.

(Right to left): Toko Shiiki, Yoshikawa Akihiro, and Erik Santos hold a Q&A session, assisted by Kendra Strand, after the screening of Shiiki’s film Threshold: Whispers of Fukushima (2014) of February 28, 2017
Toko Shiiki is a photographer and documentary director based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ms. Shiiki has won multiple awards, including the International Photography Awards for her personal work, and she became a freelance photographer. This led to her current fascination with documentary filmmaking, as a vehicle for sharing the stories of unique individuals. She has produced several short documentary films since 2012, including which she debuted at the University of Iowa for the Voices of Fukushima workshop. Threshold: Whispers of Fukushima (2014) is her first feature-length film.
Dr. Erik Santos is the Associate Professor of Composition and Performing Arts & Technology, and Chair of the Composition faculty at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and singer who is active in many musical genres. He is the music composer and sound engineer for Threshold: Whispers of Fukushima, and he accompanied Ms. Shiiki during much of the film’s production on location in Fukushima Prefecture.

Yoshikawa Akihiro speaks with undergraduate students in the UI Japanese Program after the screening of Threshold: Whispers of Fukushima (2014) on February 28, 2017