“Turning into the Wind” Reflection on the Atomic Age II: Fukushima Symposium May 5th, 2012 at Chicago
As I was walking around the august campus of the University of Chicago, a young girl who kindly hosted me commented that Chicago is a “windy” city, and it is called “the windy state” for that reason. Her roommate immediately corrected her paternalistically by saying that it is called that way not because of its windy weather but because of its political atmosphere. Little did I know then that her creative misunderstanding indeed had something to it. In Japanese, the word wind “kaze” is used to connote forgetting or “fūka”—turning into wind—and this word in the windy (both politically and climate-wise) state of Chicago is very appropriate to talk about my experience participating in the Atomic Age II: Fukushima at the University of Chicago.
The conference with its strong anti-nuclear theme was both a movement away from the Atomic Age, but also a firm affirmation that we are in fact the conspicuous dwellers of the Age. Ironically, however, Professor Koide’s keynote presentation, welcoming us to the symposium, demonstrated our profound lack of knowledge of the very technology of modernity with which we surround ourselves. As an initiation, we had to learn about the black box of nuclear chambers where the source of our everyday energy comes, and of the source by which we, unbeknown to ourselves, claim our rights to be citizens of a comfortable life. The shock of ignorance, encumbered by the emerging radical wind from the Kyoto University, added the additional meaning to the conference theme atom or atomon: “indivisible thing.”
The conference participants were composed of diverse specialties such as area studies, literature, language, history, sociology, education, nuclear physics, engineering, and anthropology as well as non-academic activists from different nationalities, ethnicities, and colors. Just like tons of uranium gathered across continents that are then put into a nuclear chamber in order to produce the energy of modernism, the conference brought together individuals spread transnationally and condensed them together for a new-and-clear explosion. Its aim is antithetical to the Atomic Age not in form but in content. The theme was indeed atomic; we all are individuals with particular knowledge areas, histories and memories whose half-life depends on how strong the wind will blow in the fleeting present where so many things could have been better only if we were more aware, or so many of us hope.
Counterattacking a possible forgetting of the nuclear disaster and its devastating impact on humans, animals, and ecosystem all alike was to remember the past, to consciously engage with a genealogy; in order to remember anything for the future, we need to know the past forgotten. To this end, the visit to the Chicago pile was necessary and fitting. On the way to the two monuments indexing the sites of burial of the first child of modernism, it was more than obvious that the place was designed to be insignificant. Their unremarkable character was what made them remarkable for those who sought after them like the site of the misplaced Holy Grail.
Neither the sign nor “the air” around them hinted to any presence of the grave stones commemorating the buried nuclear reactors. People were jogging and cruising with bicycles, passing by the monuments placed innocuously away from the path. A couple of seemingly frequent walkers in the area expressed their surprise at the strange sight of people not suitably dressed for a brisk stroll, rather an anti-nuclear pilgrimage led by the children’s day carp with the writing “no nukes” on it. The grown trees and active insects were the only signs of life. Perhaps it was by design; the dangerous place should not be attractive. The stone monuments remain dead in the area, dead in a sense of immovability; the stubborn witness of history is also made to be shy and unsociable.
But we were not after history. Disappointment was the sentiment among the crusaders. Professor Koide’s Geiger counter showed no significant amount of radiation emanating from the burials. He too looked disappointed. “There is no danger to visitors,” read the message left in 1974 by the U.S Department of Energy on one of the monuments. Indeed the scientific measurement of invisibility informed us of the verisimilitude of the statement. Hermes, the boundary stone, promised Zeus not to lie, and on this occasion Hermes’ dilemma was not to wonder whether to tell the truth. The monument showed the sign of contestation; someone at some point in the past had carved out the “no” from the inscription. The statement “there is __ danger” can now only be justified by reflecting on Dr. Patterson’s presentation a day before; any amount of exposure to radiation is dangerous; the damage has already been done, and the present absence of radioactivity is by no means the sign of ‘no danger’.
Much to the surprise of many, Professor Koide’s Geiger counter detected an increased radioactivity when placed on the stone monument itself. He clarified that the stone contains naturally occurring radioactive substances. The real danger is not that radioactive substances exist in the world, I thought, but the fact that they are created, produced, generated, consumed unnaturally and exchanged with a series of transient desires for technologically mediated comfortable living—the contaminating modern ideology of the standard of living—the iron cage as Max Weber called it. As Murakami Haruki would say, it is the lack of imagination of the past and future in the present is what radiates danger around us. We live in the atomic age; each individual is responsible for the proliferation of the indivisible things that we fear, blame and wish had never existed but only when they become visible in the realm of our body. We should not let them spread in the air, blown by the wind to far places and be rained on to the ground on which each one of us stands. Each of us, the indivisible atoms of the world we live in together, should not let those indivisible things turn into the wind. As Mr. Dean Wilke said, we need to stop the use and abuse of nuclear power for future generations, our future children. We should not turn their future into the wind.
An anti-nuclear activist from Fukushima, Ms. Ruiko Muto’s presentation was very memorable because she talked about the life left behind in the shape almost exactly akin to how it used to be before the triple disaster. She talked a lot about her own house she built slowly by herself and gradually expanded with the help of professional builders. Her presentation showed us about the place that became inaccessible. I thought that what she had lost was very different from the kinds I experienced in the northeast Tohoku in the summer of 2011 where many people have lost what they used to have. Their places were not inaccessible, but no longer existent, obliterated.
Bobbie Paul told a very different in kind but similar story of contaminated regions where people resided in an unsettled manner. In rural Georgia, they speak indirectly about the danger of the Atomic Age through their contaminated body, in their mysterious death and various, unpredictable physical ailments. A variety of conditions related to an exposure to radiation are not irreversible, but their physical manifestations might not come for a decade or even longer. What if people realize such latency of many irreversible effects of radiation only after Iwate and Miyagi prefectures are finished being re-constructed? I wondered. Are we building what Rebecca Solnit would call “a paradise built in hell,” or have we been so irreversibly conditioned by the miraculous progress of science to believe yet again in its ability to self-correct? An eye for an eye, science for science? But focusing only on the nuclear issue in this particular moment is exactly what allows us to forget the sublimity of nature that took away almost 20,000 people in Japan. In the politically windy atmosphere of Chicago among anti-nuclear initiatives, I would like to ask how we can remember both natural and technological disasters without selecting what to be passed on to the future and who decides what to be remembered and forgotten.
Professor Koide repeatedly referred to the power of nuclear reactors with the unit of the Hiroshima Bomb. I did not know exactly what it meant, for example, what the force 8 times of Hiroshima bombs is like. But we all felt rather intuitively that it would be very powerful and would indeed inflict enough damage to end the world. I question, however, if the use of the Hiroshima bomb as the unit of measurement foregrounds our consciousness only on the collective victimhood of the atomic weapon. Would it, yet again, emphasize our historical consciousness partially on the history after World War II? I often wonder how much anger, trauma and at times hatred from the neighboring countries could have been wholeheartedly felt if Japanese did not come to form their collective identity as the only victim of the atomic bombs; in order to become the victim of war, we had to forget being the victimizer prior to the atomic bombs.
On my way back to Boston, a storm was on its way, delaying my departure four times. As I was leaving my host’s apartment, the thunder storm brought a heavy scattered rain. “The weather in Chicago is very changeable,” my host told me and bode me a farewell: “I hope you will have a safe flight back.” As I was heading to the airport, checking one voice mail after another from Delta airlines calling about the delay, I wondered about the wind incessantly blowing on this earth each moment, unbeknownst to us, scattering radioactive substances in the air. But more pointedly, I wondered about what would be forgotten from now on, what would be remembered selectively and partially in the future, and what would turn into the wind and invisibly damage each of us, atoms, the indivisible beings. In the Atomic Age we are in, we need some collective mnemonic to help us counter the vicissitudes of fūka. And as much as we all love and hate its human-made sublimity, nuclear is the stain we collectively put on our history book and the trauma we need to re-present in order not to reproduce.