Johnston historicizes Fukushima Disaster

Wesleyan History Professor William Johnston, specializing in epidemics and Japanese history, gave a talk on March 31 about the Fukushima disaster, examining its history through photography./ Courtesy of Bill Johnston

When we think of disasters, we often think of them as phenomena beyond human control. We picture uncontrollably strong forces destroying everything, and everyone, in their path. Humans have generally played the victim in when it comes to disasters, which we view as a force independent from mortal control. However, William Johnston, Wesleyan University Professor of History, Science in Society, Environmental Studies and East Asian Studies, combines his roots in historical scholarship with his passion for photography to prove this popular conceptualization of disaster to be a fallacy.

On Saturday, March 31, at 4:30 p.m., Johnston, who specializes in the history of epidemics and Japanese history, gave a talk titled “Disasters Fast and Slow: Photography, History, and the Environment” in Taylor Hall. The presentation served to inform audiences that disasters not only have the capacity to affect the immediate moments that follow, but can also affect both people and places over the span of months, years and decades. Although the initial aftermath of destruction receives the most press coverage and overall public attention, the long-term effects of disaster can be just as devastating.

In reference to the talk’s title, Johnston explained the dichotomy between events that are natural and those that are artificial. Humans conceive of natural disasters as earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, droughts and floods. Conversely, anthropogenic (human-induced) disasters are categorized as human action or human inaction. Examples would be wars, genocides, terrorism, bombings, pollution and the release of carcinogenic and radioactive material.

During the talk, Johnston displayed several revelatory photographs. One depicted countless black garbage bags filling a rural landscape; another delineated one ton of radioactive debris. He added that the Japanese government has tried to claim the Fukushima disaster as a thing of the past. Johnston’s photos expose quite the opposite.

Using the example of the March 11, 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, Johnston explained that it encapsulated both natural and human-induced categories. He also noted that Fukushima started in the 1950s, in reference to the atomic bomb’s global popularity. Moreover, the consequence of nuclear power revealed itself in the Fukushima disaster, which was the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

Throughout, Johnston referred to this triple-disaster as “3/11.” The Fukushima accident was precipitated by a major earthquake that started an equally major tsunami, all before the third disaster, which took place at the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. This tsunami resulted in countless people left dead, displaced and injured. It also destroyed millions of buildings and homes (World Nuclear Association, “Fukushima Accident”). The waves from the tsunami damaged the backup generators of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Three explosions resulting from too much hydrogen pressure led to the release of carcinogenic radioactive material. Moreover, workers were not allowed to go near the plant in fear of radiation exposure, further preventing them from mitigating the consequences of the deadly disaster. As Johnston mentioned, “People couldn’t do much based on the radiation that had inundated the area.”

Speaking on the long-lasting effects of nuclear disasters, Johnston explained, “Radiation is a different story. If you don’t do something about it, you can’t heal it later.” Because only seven years have passed, it is difficult to gauge the effects of the radiation on people with higher levels of exposure. However, Johnston’s theory suggests that the effects on humans and the environment could mimic those seen in Chernobyl.

Using a multidisciplinary approach to revealing the aftermath of disasters in a historical context, Johnston collaborated with performing artist Eiko Otake on a project called “A Body in Places.” “A Body in Fukushima” is a collection of digital photographs, with Johnston behind the camera and Eiko in front. The series placed Eiko’s body in places destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami. To date, the duo has had 20 exhibitions, with more planned for the future. Prior to this project, Johnston had described himself, for over 25 years, as a closeted photographer. However, embarking on this artistic journey changed that for him.

During the question-and-answer segment of the talk, an audience member asked, “Is Eiko posing in these photos, or are they a series of movements?” Johnston replied, “She’s always looking for performance. She’s always in motion.” This question is important to understand the project’s dynamism. Although Johnston is the photographer, he says, “They are not my photos. It’s truly a collaborative effort. I’m always looking for light, whereas she’s always looking for performance.”

In the photo album, Eiko is almost always wearing draped clothing. Her performances, all distilled in snapshots, evoke the painful memories of 3/11. Many of the photos capture Eiko in fetal position or with her back hunched, looking down. A particularly beautiful photograph is of Eiko emerging from an ocean wave, reflecting the tsunami’s impression on the human form. The viewer can only see Eiko’s head, but she carries a bundle of bright red fabric beside her. In this image, Eiko and Johnston make the overwhelmingly sublime natural world a part of history to remember.

With a scholarly commitment to history, Johnston envisions his photographs being used as historical documents that record single moments in time. When he takes a photograph of a region in Fukushima destroyed by the tsunami or from radioactive material, he is documenting the historical process. Moreover, Eiko’s presence in the images exposes the intrinsic relationship between human and nature. Johnston elaborated on this theme: “The divide between human and natural is artificial and illusory. Humans are a part of nature pure and simple.”

Photography can be an extremely powerful medium by which to reveal the truth. The term Johnston uses to describe the photograph is “index quality.” The image allows history to be retraced, revealing factual accuracy while also provoking an emotional response.

Johnston described his experiences talking with locals affected by 3/11 in Japan as inspiring. However, he has found that booking exhibitions in Japan can be more difficult than in other countries. He attributes this to the photography eliciting heightened emotional responses from Japanese audiences, given that the nation has been so personally impacted by the disasters depicted in his photographs. Johnston recalls a woman at Tokyo University who burst out of the exhibition room in tears, clearly triggered by the photos.

Overall, Johnston and Eiko’s photographs reveal that the Fukushima disaster had both immediate and long-term effects on humans and the environment. The tsunami itself was a violent and quick catastrophe. However, symptoms of radioactive decay have yet to fully reveal themselves. “A Body in Fukushima” works to temper humans’ tendency to see themselves as superior to nature, a perspective many environmentalists point out as flawed. Moreover, the project highlights how media forms such as digital photography can be powerful means of documenting history. Perhaps this slightly less conventional approach to making history will heighten our awareness of all disasters—whether fast or slow, natural or anthropogenic.

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