Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Japanese Peace Movements #9: Signs

I may have only been in Japan for a little less than a month, but it seems to me that Japan enjoys a heavy emphasis on instructions, signs and communicating properly. Perhaps because I can't read most of these signs as they are in Japanese and so because of that they are more visible and noticeable to me, whereas for others they simply fade into the background like visual cicadas. When walking by a construction site, signs are everywhere warning people to be safe, to not enter and even to apologize profusely for the inconvenience. Everywhere you go helpful and usually colorful mascots offer everything from advice, advertising and even just cheery, "hang in there!" messages. I'm used to walking into stores where I exchange less than ten words with a clerk, but here each employee is their own tenderu techa and every purchase offers their their own rosary or two about what I am buying, the money I am giving them and the importance of having a good day as I leave. Even in the bathroom, Japan seems to have turned my life into a joke from the film Demolition Man. When Sylvester Stallone is woken up after a lifetime in cryosleep he is very disorientated and unfamiliar with the new world and new time. One things which confuses him is the three sea shells in the restrooms, which are where toilet paper is supposed to be. When he discusses this with others they laugh at him because for them, whatever those shells do is normal and so it is ludicrous to them that someone wouldn't be able to understand their purpose. For me, using the bathroom in Japan is sometimes like that, except rather than three simple seashells, toilets contain master thesis size descriptions of all the marvels that this machine can do. I can't read Japanese but I imagine that some toilets can do my taxes for me if I can just figure out which button to press.

I've become accustomed to this type of information overload as I have traveled throughout Japan, which is why when it disappears or is lacking around something, I notice. When there is a gap and suddenly this social obsession with communication breaks down and vanishes, it makes me pause and it makes me wonder why? The silence for me is, to borrow an already overused phrase, deafening. The lack itself is a huge sign. The lack of a structure to give this a clear and distinct meaning can be troubling.

When I was in Fukushima I encountered some massive gaps in the social structure. Where huge monuments to a terrifying problem in contemporary Japan, stood tall with little to no meaning attached to them. With few signs explaining what they were, what was happening. It was as if the government or corporations hoped that if they attached no specific signs to these edifices then no one could or would see them. They would simply bleed into the landscape, disappearing into the normal visual ebb and flow.

In Fukushima City, as with much of the surrounding areas which were contaminated by the radiation from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in 2011, there are ongoing cleanup efforts. There is a brightly colored and very welcoming office in Fukushima City where you can pick up flyers and posters and other information about how this cleanup effort is going. There are even TV shows that are designed to help people feel better about their prefecture by focusing on how things are improving and getting better, so that they do not get too caught up in their concerns about contamination or increased radiation at their schools, in their homes or in the fields. As I wrote in my previous post 'Rich Dirty Secrets" there are huge earth-moving projects throughout the disaster affected areas. In Fukushima City, the earth in yards, in parks, around schools is being dug up, put in large plastic bags and then either being buried back into the ground or taken to temporary storage areas, where they are piled high in rows, covered by green tarps and surrounded by fences or walls.

Over the course of a single day I was taken to visit four such sites of temporary dirt storage. Three of them were on the outskirts of the city, while one was right in the middle, close to a park where children play and dance in a large water fountain. The radiation of the dirt in the bags in high, but by covering it and surrounding it by other dirt or sandbags the government claims that it is safe. While standing at the temporary storage center in the downtown area, I stood above it near a set of apartments, and watched the scene below. People walked along the walls without any concern for what lay behind them. People stopped and bought drinks from vending machines that were against the wall. A restaurant across the didn't seem to have much trouble getting lunch customers. While there I learned that a week before a film crew had talked to children who play or walk in the area to ask them if they knew what was behind the wall, inside of the towering green mounds. The children stated they had no idea what was in there, and figured it was just some construction equipment or a construction site.

It was then that I first realized there was something different about these temporary storage locations. Unlike the world around them covered in signs indicated what you could and couldn't do and what was safe or unsafe, these locations seemed to have very little signage. There were euphemistic signs indicating that this was a dirt storage area, but nowhere were their signs that mentioned why the dirt was being stored there and if it was dangerous. As expected terms like contamination and radiation were scarcely used at all the sites I visited. But surprisingly numbers, radiation readings were quietly and anonymously placed on walls. Small slips of paper, thrown onto the walls and fences almost as an afterthought. They were the only clues as to why the dirt was there and the potential danger the dirt or nuclear power represented to Japanese people today.

For the storage units that were away from Fukushima City the signage was even more quietly disturbing. In those areas stock construction signs warning people not to enter an area were used or even signs featuring just the letters for don't enter. These small warnings appeared in front of huge mounds of contaminated dirt, each of which with their own markings on them indicating how much radiation is emitting from the bags. It was incredible to see these areas, natural landscapes, beautiful forests and wooded areas, where the earth had been gutted to create these storage facilities, and then no information or explanation as to what was being stored there.

It was a testament to the Japanese government's approach to dealing with the issue of nuclear power and its potential dangers. Simply don't talk about it, don't mention it, find ways to indicate its existence or effect in the most minute and harmless way possible, and then people won't worry about it. And even if you are digging up every yard and park in a city, if you eliminate as many of the signs as possible, people will eventually find a way to integrate it into their daily cognitive landscape and either pretend it doesn't exist or that is doesn't really matter.


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