The Atomic Artists

Japan's New Nuclear Generation

"Japanese youth had generally been very apolitical and apathetic" before the March 2011 disaster, says The Atomic Artists producer Emily Taguchi. But things have changed dramatically since then. We talked with Taguchi about this shift, and how one group, the art collective Chim↑Pom, is challenging the status quo with their controversial installations.

Emily Taguchi

Emily Taguchi is a journalist and filmmaker from Tokyo. Her work as a producer and camerawoman have appeared on PBS, CNN and The History Channel, among others. She plans to continue her reporting on post-March 11th Japan in the coming months.

Explain Chim↑Pom's mission -- who they are they and what do they want?

The collective is made up of six members in their 20s and 30s, five men and one woman. They all have different day jobs: one teaches art to kids, another is a radio personality, another works as a day laborer. They all met while apprenticing with the conceptual artist Makoto Aida, and were all motivated to create something interesting of their own.

“Art that challenges society, where established players are protective of lifestyles and affluence that has come to define modern Japan, hasn't always been welcome.”

They say that in the beginning, they were a group who didn't know how to paint or sculpt -- they don't have formal training in the arts. So all they could do was film themselves doing provocative things. But they were all interested in social issues they came across in their day-to-day lives, and pretty quickly turned their focus on societal themes.

They have created some very controversial pieces. In 2008, they chartered a small airplane to draw the word "Flash" over the sky of Hiroshima, a word that had come to signify the light that flashed when the atomic bomb was dropped there. They say they wanted to question how Japan had become so complacent in taking peace for granted, and to reawaken a conversation about the realities behind peace. But the piece drew an outcry from atomic bomb survivors, and Chim↑Pom leader Ryuta Ushiro had to publically apologize.

Ushiro told us that art and culture should continually challenge society to expand people's freedoms. He brought up as an example the painting they did to add to Taro Okamoto's mural Myth of Tomorrow and the reception they got. Although the traditional media called it vandalism, Ushiro also told us that some people said that what they did was interesting. And he believes that the more people put out their visions for society and people have a chance to discuss and debate those ideas, the better off we will all be.

What are the problems facing Japan that artists like Chim↑Pom are exploring?

At the moment, there are many young people who are involved in thinking about and creating a post-nuclear Japan. The radioactive fallout continues to dominate the news, with the latest being that cesium has been found in beef that had made it to supermarket shelves around the country. The crisis at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant also continues, as workers are struggling to create a cooling system that's sustainable so that they're not producing tons of contaminated water each day.

Personally, I believe that if there is a silver lining to this terrible disaster, it's the awakening of a social and political consciousness among people who had only known Japan as a peaceful and prosperous place. Japanese youth had generally been very apolitical and apathetic. There's a tendency in Japan for people to keep their heads down and continue persevering through life's challenges. But the months since the earthquake and tsunami have seen people of all walks of life demonstrating on the streets, in protests largely organized by people in their 20s and 30s.

How has the public and the media reacted to Chim↑Pom's art?

One Google search on Chim↑Pom and you'll see that they get a very mixed response, with one side saying that what they do isn't art, that it's a series of stunts hiding behind the name of art. And then there are others who say that their work is thought provoking, that it spurs conversation on issues that people need to think about.

They've gotten more media coverage on their recent work on Fukushima, Real Times.. They've appeared not just in the arts section of newspapers, but in society, or have gotten prominent coverage in general interest weeklies, but the coverage has been very factually based.

Ryuta Ushiro said, "The idea that art can change something is perhaps a value that hasn't taken root in Japan." Why?

Critics of Japanese art have told me that activist art had been much more common in the 1950s and 60s, when Japan was still struggling to come out of the shadows of World War II. I think the horrors of war, of the atomic bombs, and the day-to-day efforts to survive in a country that had lost everything provided an environment that was conducive to activist art. But as Japan recovered economically -- and as some critics would say, became materialistic and less soulful -- the focus of art turned to genres that are more commercially based.

Ushiro told us, and I think we have all seen, that commercially based art is very highly developed in Japan whether it be design, anime or graphic arts. They have institutional support. But art that challenges society, where established players are protective of lifestyles and affluence that has come to define modern Japan, hasn't always been welcome.

Describe filming in Japan. What are the country's current challenges?

March 11th represents the biggest catastrophe in Japan since World War II. We heard the comparison to the war quite often from the older generation, whereas the younger generation -- including myself -- had never seen the country so physically devastated. We filmed in Ishinomaki, a town in Miyagi Prefecture that was worst hit by the tsunami, and correspondent Marco Werman described it best -- it looked as if someone put the whole town in a blender and spat it all out. There were remnants of life everywhere. Framed photos of the traditional coming-of-age ceremony. Pianos. Baby monitors. Clocks that had stopped the moment the waves engulfed the area.

But probably the biggest challenge to filming in Japan came from the invisible source, radiation. We filmed in the village of Iitate, which was one of the latest to be designated a mandatory evacuation zone due to high radiation levels -- even though they didn't suffer any tsunami damage. It's a lush village that reminded me of parts of Hawaii and had been voted one of the most beautiful villages of Japan only two years ago. So your five senses are telling you one thing, yet the Geiger counter measured some of the highest radiation levels we encountered, certainly a level that should not be sustained. The discrepancy between what we could feel and what the measurements said was surreal, as it was to think about the villagers who had lived there for generations and had no idea if they could return in their lifetime.

Any other takeaways from producing The Atomic Artists?

Japan is a country very much at a fork in the road. Many of the old systems had in fact been breaking down long before March 11th -- assumptions like lifetime employment and job security that traditionally came with higher education had ceased to exist many years ago. But it still had stability and a base level of affluence for most of the population, despite the struggle to emerge with an identity for the 21st century.

Then the triple disaster not only claimed the most lives since World War II, it brought to the foreground some of the biggest weaknesses in Japanese society: the collusion between regulatory agencies and companies they're tasked to keep in check; the lack of transparency in the events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant; the wrangling among politicians, who have failed to face the catastrophe with a united front.

But producing The Atomic Artists also left me with a sense of hope. In telling the story of Chim↑Pom, I met people in their 20s and 30s who seemed to have awakened to a level of social consciousness that they hadn't possessed before. Whether it's through artistic expression or making noise on the streets in protests, it was the first time for me to see this level of involvement. There's an old Japanese proverb that says, "We forget the pain as soon as the heat passes through the throat," meaning we tend not to learn from our mistakes. I hope this is a heat that stays in our stomachs for a long time to come.

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Posted July 26, 2011

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