Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

“What March 11 Means to Me”

Posted in Current Events,Japanese literature,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the March 13th, 2012

This past weekend, we hosted a remarkable event here at the University of Chicago: “What March 11 Means to Me: A Symposium in Honor of Norma Field.” A large audience turned out both days to hear a remarkable array of speakers from Japan reflect on the ongoing disaster in the Tohoku region of Japan.

Ryusawa Takeshi, former editor-in-chief for the Heibonsha publishing house and currently one of the central figures in the East Asia Publishers Conference, was the first speaker on Saturday. He reflected on the role of liberal, progressive journalists in the 1950s in disseminating the doctrine of “Atoms for Peace” in Japan and traced the fascinating history of the benign-sounding word genshiro (原子炉), the Japanese term for “nuclear reactor” that might more literally be translated as “atomic hearth.”

He was followed by Yokoyu Sonoko, a child psychologist and a leading voice on such issues as bullying and hikkomori syndrome (social withdrawal syndrome), who spoke on the mental health costs of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. Her talk included a number of moving stories about how families and individuals already struggling with psychological difficulties tried to cope with the disaster. She also described the rising incidence of PTSD and other forms of anxiety in the months following 3/11. She concluded by speaking about the sense of “hopelessness” shared by many in today’s Japan and on the possibilities for building new connections based on it–especially in response to the very real danger of fascism in today’s Japan.

The last speaker on Saturday was Takahashi Tetsuya of the University of Tokyo, one of Japan’s leading contemporary philosophers and a native of Fukushima Prefecture. He spoke quite movingly of his childhood in the region and his concerns for its future. Using the example of the recent People’s Tribunal trial of Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) and its management, he unpacked the complexities of the kinds of responsibility we need to consider in remembering 3/11. Of course, primary responsibility lies with what Takahashi called the “nuclear mafia,” the business and governmental figures who promoted the myth of absolute safety while neglecting to secure adequate safety measures. But those who allowed themselves to be deceived also bear some degree of responsibility, as do those who had remained indifferent while enjoying the benefits of cheap electricity generated by what Takahashi has called the “sacrificial system” of contemporary Japan.

Komori Yoichi of the University of Tokyo, one of today’s leading scholars of modern Japanese literature and one of the prime figures in the movement to preserve the anti-war Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, was the first speaker on Sunday. He provided a moving account of his and his family’s personal experiences on 3/11 and the days that followed, arguing for the importance of claiming the embodied experience of sense perception (taiken) of the ‘event’ as a kind of experience (keiken) shared with others through language and dialogue. He situated the events of 3/11 against the history of postwar Japan and of his own lifetime, going back to his birth at the time of the Lucky Dragon Incident and the initial promotion of “Atoms for Peace” as an American Cold War ideology.

Amamiya Karin, a well-known activist in the “precariat” and anti-nuclear movements, was the final speaker. She talked about her experiences traveling in the Fukushima region and the kind of unreal reality people now encounter there–when, for example, Tsutaya video rental stores now also offer to lend Geiger counters for personal use. She focused in particular on divides opening up among the affected populations–resentment, for example, that those who lived within the mandatory evacuation zone get greater compensation than those living just outside of it. As a result, the focus of popular anger is shifting away from TEPCO and the government to fellow victims. But she also discussed tactics being used in recent demonstrations to bring together disparate strata into a single, unified force, and showed videos from several recent protest marches.

It was a memorable event and a great tribute to my colleague, Norma Field. She will be retiring from the University of Chicago at the end of this academic year–though we know she will remain an active force for many years to come. Without her, there’s no way we could have brought together all of the people who made the symposium such an intense and inspiring occasion.

Postscript: Here’s local television station WGN’s coverage of an event commemorating the Fukushima disaster last Sunday right after the symposium, including interviews with Amamiya Karin and Norma Field.

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