When the earthquake struck, I had just returned from Tokyo to New York. At first, I watched the shocking images on the news as if what was happening was a natural disaster, but once the grave problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were revealed, I began to think the disaster was actually man-made. Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operates the plant, made one strained attempt after another to conceal the danger while the public’s anxiety reached its peak. As people learned of the increasing severity of the nuclear accident, former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa declared, “This is not a man-made disaster… it’s a crime.”
While the nuclear experts on television were repeating that the radiation readings were “only a little higher” and that there were “no immediate health effects,” it was announced that the severity of the disaster on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale had been raised to Level 7, the same as Chernobyl. We were shocked at the gap between what we were being told and what we had just learned. In that moment we lost our faith in the media. Those Japanese living in Japan seemed the calmest and the furthest from objective information.
3/11 will go down in history as a day that fundamentally changed the environment of modern Japan. The overwhelming majority of people in Japan now believe we must move away from nuclear energy. But the Japanese media, either because of direct pressure or solicitude, are suppressing that view, and the many nuclear power plants in Japan are still in operation. In the current climate, even voicing this kind of criticism might be considered unpatriotic.
Regardless of what anyone says, the culture of mass consumption, predicated on the benefits of nuclear energy, is headed for a critical turning point. Originally, the people of Japan loved the darkness of night and appreciated the sunlight that greeted them in the morning when the day began. This culture endured for a long time, a culture that loved nature’s transience, that read poems to the pebbles on the side of the road and sang of the beauty of streams. Today the cities of Japan are as brightly lit at night as an operating room, and some complain that the traditional beauty of the country has already disappeared. We must acknowledge that Japan has reached the end of the line, and this lesson has come with a heavy price.
In September 2001 my painting studio in Tribeca was only a few hundred meters from Ground Zero. After the terrorist attacks I renamed my studio the Tribeca Temporary, and I opened it up to the public as a free gallery. I was not expecting art to heal people’s hearts, but the tens of thousands of people who visited the gallery over the course of the next six months showed me that even in times like this, people still want to see beautiful pictures. Beauty gives us courage, I learned; it gives us the strength to live. Art’s greatest gift has always been the awareness that you are not alone, that no matter how different we might seem, we are all the same. We grieve in times of grief; we are joyful in times of joy. We must give up the mistaken idea that art and beauty are useless, and employ every means available to us as artists to come together with the victims of the disaster. We must recognize as artists that this is our true calling.