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Picturing the Invisible: Interview with Makoto Takahashi

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

If the Radiance of a Thousand Suns were to Burst into the Skies at Once, IV by Yoi Kawakubo

Nuclear safety is of increasing global concern: a nuclear weapon can raze a modern city and potentially kill tens of millions of people (ICAN). Exposure to very high levels of radiation can cause acute health detriments, such as skin burns and acute radiation syndrome, and result in cancer, cardiovascular disease, or other long-term health effects (EPA). As the world watches Russia and North Korea threaten to deploy nuclear weapons and destroy nuclear power plants, we increasingly turn our attention to the possibility and gravity of such consequences — with some, like Dr. Makoto Takahashi from VU Amsterdam, bearing an all too deep understanding of such possibilities.

2021 marked a decade since the earthquake and tsunami that sparked the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, a disaster that released toxic, radioactive materials into the environment and forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes and businesses (National Geographic). Dr. Takahashi, a sociologist of science, commemorated this dark anniversary by organising an art exhibition named ‘Picturing the Invisible’. His show brought together 7 talented artists, all working in the territories affected by the Fukushima nuclear accident, and supplemented their work with essays by academics, authors, activists, and policymakers. We spoke to him about his connection to the meltdown, and investigated his thoughts about the exhibition:

Q: Makoto, what do you feel is your personal connection to the disaster?

‘Being an undergrad looking for a thesis topic, I woke up one morning quite tired and thought, “I’ll just grab a coffee on the way to my lectures.” I was waiting in line and caught the news from the corner of my eye. The news [about the Fukushima accident] woke me up faster than a cup of coffee was ever going to. At that moment, it was an experience of shock. This was a national crisis, frequently described as Japan’s most severe crisis since World War II. The topic for my thesis became clear to me instantly.’

Makoto has since conducted extensive fieldwork in Japan. He tells us about commuting to work in Japan on trains in which the lights frequently turned off due to energy shortages resulting from the Fukushima nuclear power plant shutdown. He recounts how the disaster even changed Japanese businesses’ attitudes towards dress codes, promoting the notion of a “cool” business rather than one which requires wearing hot suits due to limited power for air conditioning.

Q: How did you develop the idea for the exhibition?

‘The idea was to commemorate Fukushima, but it was also a response to how the COVID pandemic colonised our mental real-estate.
COVID dominated coverage of theTokyo’s 2020/21 Olympics, but they were supposed to be a moment when Fukushima was given global attention again. From its earliest days, Japan branded them as the “Recovery Olympics”. The Olympic torch was even made from aluminium recycled from an evacuation shelter to symbolise how the region was building back better and stronger. However, there is another side of this story. Even today, hundreds of people are still involved in decommissioning the plant itself, which is expected to take at least another 30 years. Thousands more are involved in decontaminating the surrounding countryside. Many people cannot return home. More choose not to.The questions that trouble them are: “Is this safe?”; “What quality of life will there be?” Some areas near the plant are agricultural, but people don’t want to eat food made in Fukushima.’

Japan has spent roughly $7.3 billion per annum on the damage caused by the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi NPP and the ultimate total price tag for such a reconstruction is still uncertain (Nikkei Asia). The Japan Centre for Economic Research said the cleanup costs could mount to between $470 billion and $660 billion.

Overview of the Exhibition

When asked about his favourite piece in the exhibition, Makoto couldn’t choose, answering, ‘It's like being asked to choose your favourite child.’ Still, he provided reflections on a few choice works.

Yoi Kawakubo, If the Radiance of a Thousand Suns were to Burst into the Skies at Once, IV (2019)

To produce this abstract image, artist Yoi Kawakubo donned personal protective equipment and ventured into the exclusion zone, burying large format Fuji Film into the contaminated earth. He returned months later to disinter and develop it. Most of the buried film was corroded or completely overexposed. But in other cases, like this one, the ghostly touch of radiation remained visible (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists).

‘The first work that people engage with upon entering the exhibition is If the Radiance of a Thousand Suns were to Burst into the Skies at Once IV, by Yoi Kawakubo. [...] It is just a magnificent piece. It’s 2x1.5 metres. It really sort of powers over you and dominates your field of view. There’s just that sense of it being deeply mysterious, so unabashedly abstract. I love the way visitors stick their nose almost up to the glass, trying to figure out what it is and eventually seeing the ‘aha’ moment when they realise it’s a photograph.’

Masamichi Kagaya and Satoshi Mori, Evacuation: Insoles (2018)

This work was produced by placing shoes – left in evacuated villages surrounding the plant for more than six years — onto a radiosensitive plate. The piece evokes the scale of the displacement caused by the Fukushima Daiichi disaster (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists).

‘The piece "Evacuation" hit me hard. The artists collected and captured [...] shoes contaminated with radiation. It captures a sort of shared experience of disaster: some footprints are adults, some are heels, some are children’s shoes. But all walk in the same direction. Away.’

Lieko Shiga, Portrait of Cultivation, from the Rasen Kaigan (Spiral Shore) series (2009)

Situated outside the exclusion zone, Kitakama [the village where the photo was taken] was not affected by Japan’s evacuation orders. Nonetheless, the knowledge that so many have been forced from their land lends the photograph new poignancy (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists).

Portrait of Cultivation was created before the disaster struck. Shiga had worked in North East Japan for several years, and the tsunami destroyed her works and studio. Many of her works were lost. In that sense, the photos in the exhibition are literal survivors. The man with a giant root growing out of his chest conjure a sense of connection and rootedness with the land he cultivated, [and with those who worked it before him], his father and grandfather.’

Q: What do you foresee as the future of nuclear energy?

‘I suspect nuclear energy will be with us for years to come. One of my great worries is that we will end up with increasingly ageing nuclear power plants. On one hand, there is a push for nuclear as a solution to climate change. On the other hand, there is considerable resistance to the construction of new nuclear power plants.These two opposing forces could produce a continuation of the status quo, resulting in extension of nuclear power plants’ lifetimes.’

Q: What lessons may we learn from the 2011 disaster?

‘One basic lesson is that the stories we tell shape how we respond to a disaster. Take the reconstruction of Fukushima.This whole project is tied to a story about Japan’s post-war greatness. There are memories of when Japan was the future. And how this future was lost, leaving Japan with this sense of an ascendency that never quite arrived. In the early plans for reconstruction, you see the hope that the crisis might reawaken Japan and help the nation get back to the future. And these collective dreams powerfully shape how you start dealing with the concrete details of the post-disaster situation.’

Pictured: Dr. Makoto Takahashi in his exhibition "Picturing the Invisible"

Take a virtual tour of "Picturing the Invisible" through YouTube or the exhibition’s website.


Makoto Takahashi is Assistant Professor of Transdisciplinary STS at the Athena Institute, VU Amsterdam. His work examines how claims to expert authority are made in conditions of low public trust. He received his PhD from Cambridge University, writing a thesis on the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster (The Improvised Expert), which received the American Association of Geographers' (AAG) Jacques May Thesis Prize. He previously worked at Harvard (as a Fulbright-Lloyd's Fellow), TU Munich, and Waseda. Makoto is the lead curator of Picturing the Invisible, a traveling exhibition shown at the Royal Geographical Society (2021), TU Munich (2022), and Heong Gallery (2023). The exhibition was awarded the 2022 Ziman Award by the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST)

Anastasiia Zagoruichyk is a former Head Editor of Anthroposphere Review, doing an MSc in Sustainability, Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford. She runs an environmental NGO, “Offiсe for the Environment”, in Ukraine.


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