Now and then I hear stories from a relative on the phone, from coworkers and customers at work—a local grocer is going out of business; a bankrupt business owner committed suicide to pay employees with his life insurance; an elderly woman is struggling with loneliness and depression. Calamity is conveyed in carefully hushed tones, as though such news might disrupt the surrounding peace if spoken too loudly. We exchange a few observations, a few encouraging words, the “hopefully this will all be over soon”; and life goes on.
The number of new coronavirus cases in Japan has declined drastically since reaching a peak in January; on Sunday, the government lifted all “state of emergency” measures, in which people were advised to stay home. With vaccinations beginning, the country seems to be starting back up again, slowly. As headlines talk of “recovery,” I find myself wondering when the quiet conversations will dissolve into silence again. Coming of age in the years following the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011, I learned from the way adults spoke in measured tones, from their pauses and awkward glances, that talking about tragedies has an expiration date.
On March 11, at 2:46 pm, people across the country prayed in silence, remembering those who lost their lives in the Tohoku earthquake-tsunami and those still missing. The day marked the 10th anniversary of the nuclear disaster, and yet, just for a moment, it felt like no time had passed. A 20-year-old student, who lost his grandparents in the tsunami, told a reporter that he keeps a broken clock—the clock that he had begged them to buy for him, and that fell off the wall when the earthquake struck and stopped time at exactly 2:46. “I don’t want to fix it,” he told the reporter, “I want to remember how I felt then.”
The government’s promise of recovery in the wake of that disaster meant erasure. It meant covering up the full extent of radiation and lifting evacuation orders without proper evaluation and evidence. It meant cutting subsidized housing for tens of thousands of people who were simply dropped from the “official count” of evacuees. Two years after the disaster, the Japanese prime minister declared, “Japan is back.” With that, mourning became something reserved for official days only.
We traded reflection for a version of recovery that requires a finite past. Fukushima became a tragic thing that once happened but that we overcame, a testament to our resilience as a nation. Such recovery requires us to reconstruct our lives around the official narrative, to draw a line between those who bore the brunt of the disaster and the rest of us, their world and ours. It requires our silence—we repress the dismay, fear, rage, and sorrow we feel to go on as if everything is back to the way things were, the way things always are. It becomes harder and harder to remember—what is happening, what it feels like, what is being erased. The current of all the unsaid things running beneath the silence.
Government officials dubbed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics—which were postponed to this summer—the “Reconstruction Olympics and Paralympics.” The Games were meant to display Japan’s recovery from the Tohoku/Fukushima disaster—or in the words of former Prime Minister Abe, to show the world a Japan “born anew” against the “backdrop of splendidly reconstructed streetscapes of Tohoku.”
In a recent op-ed titled “History shows the importance of holding the Tokyo Olympics in 2021,” Hisashi Sanada, a professor at Tsukuba University, writes that the Olympic Games in ancient times “sprang from the very idea of overcoming wars and epidemics” and that “this Olympics will bear a strong message that humanity is united in confronting the challenges that threaten its very existence.” He goes on to explain that the first Tokyo Olympics, to be held in 1940 but canceled because the world was at war, was intended to showcase the nation’s recovery from the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. Two decades later, the Tokyo Olympics were held in 1964 to “show how Japan had risen from the ashes of World War II.”
Sanada says recovery has a “double meaning” now. The 2021 Games will signify “the world’s recovery from the pandemic” and show that “the pandemic has not defeated humanity.”
What I really, desperately need, though, is not triumph but healing.
Healing requires confrontation. It demands that we face a national crisis that has seen more death due to suicide than to Covid in the past year, with a surge in the number of women and children taking their own lives. Healing prods us to reckon with the ongoing nuclear disaster during this pandemic: the fact that more than 40,000 people are still displaced; that 337 square kilometers of land where towns used to be are uninhabitable; that it will take many decades to decontaminate the region, and we don’t know what to do with the more than 1 million tons of radioactive water stored in the nuclear plants. The government plans to dump it into the Pacific Ocean.
Healing requires a change of plans. It requires us to recognize our cycle of denial, to listen to people and their experiences, to understand that the root of the wounds we carry go much, much deeper in our history. The gaslighting of evacuees from Fukushima, especially women who continue to voice concerns over health effects and demand accurate information from the government, is reminiscent of Minamata, where officials dismissed the dire impacts of mercury poisoning. When it was discovered in 1956 that a chemical factory had been dumping methylmercury into the bay of the fishing village for decades, the government did little. The dumping, and the dying of people and animals, continued for another 12 years. Like the survivors of Minamata, evacuees from Fukushima are mistreated and stigmatized by a society invested in forgetting.
As part of its pledge to go “carbon neutral” by 2050, the government is looking to restart the more than 30 operable nuclear reactors scattered across the archipelago that had been put to sleep since the disaster. At the memorial ceremony on March 11, Prime Minister Suga declared that the “reconstruction” in the Tohoku region is “now entering its final phases,” even though rebuilding has been significantly delayed due to the pandemic. The government’s efforts to restart the nuclear reactors have been obstructed by opposition from local residents, spurring lawsuits and nationwide protests.
It feels like we’re at a familiar crossroads. We can choose Kako-ka, literally “to make past.” We can file away the nuclear disaster, the pandemic, in the cabinet of historical challenges we “overcame,” and continue on our same tired path. Or we can choose to remember, to mourn together, and to start on a path of reflection to repair our world.
Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.