Essays by Noi Sawaragi and Jason Waite

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Don't Follow the Wind, View of the Fukushima exclusion zone, 2015, Courtesy of Don’t Follow the Wind.

Below are two essays, excerpts from a catalogue that accompanies the exhibition Don’t Follow the Wind, organised by eponymous collective Don't Follow the Wind consisting of Chim↑Pom (initiators), Kenji Kubota, Eva and Franco Mattes, and Jason Waite. The ongoing exhibition is housed in the irradiated Fukushima exclusion zone and opened in March of 2015, but remains inaccessible.


Noi Sawaragi

The road North out of Tokyo on the Joban expressway is straight and flat until we leave Ibaraki. As we gradually rise up on an elevated girder bridge and enter the Abukuma Mountains of Fukushima, it’s hard to believe, looking out the windows at the sweeping views, that we are now in the second most contaminated place on Earth. In Japanese it’s called the ‘difficult-to-return-to’ evacuation zone, [1] or what might more easily be understood as a legal ‘point of no return’: an area with so much radioactive fallout from the three meltdowns at the TEPCO Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Reactors (an International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale level 7 disaster, on a scale of 1~7), that there is no viable framework for re-inhabitation. We are here to visit Don’t Follow the Wind, an art exhibition installed in a landscape which is off-limits to the public, as it is still considered unsafe to be here. I am struck by the invisible character of this danger, radioactivity, and the radioactive particles which have made this area off-limits, and how radiation serves to establish the essential conflict between the visible and the invisible, and forms the criteria for discussing this project.

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Don't Follow the Wind,
Drawing by a former resident of the Fukushima Dai-­ichi Nuclear Power Station meltdowns, 2015,
Courtesy of Don’t Follow the Wind.

First, let’s clarify terms. What do ‘radioactivity’, ‘radiation’, and ‘radioactive substances’ mean?[2] Most of us didn’t differentiate between these before the meltdown. They were interchangeable synonyms for ‘radioactivity’. Now after the disaster, of course, through learning to deal with our new severe and extraordinary circumstances, we’ve come to use each with precision.

We’ve learned, for example, that the phrases ‘radioactivity is invisible’, ‘radioactivity is odourless’, ‘radioactivity is tasteless’, ‘radioactivity is inaudible’, and ‘radioactive contamination is undetectable even if it is affixed to us’ are, in fact, mistaken. Radioactivity is an abstract concept, and therefore invisible. Radiation, on the other hand, isn’t an abstract concept but rather a concrete force with substantial effects, so just like music is something that we can discern even though we can’t see its sound waves, radiation too is invisible but manifests depending on how its particles or waves affect their surroundings. What about radioactive substances then? One certainly can’t immediately visually identify microscopic traces of radioactive caesium, strontium-90, or plutonium with the naked eye. But these unstable and unbalanced substances immediately act upon their surroundings when released into the actual world. Scattered skyward in plumes by the meltdown explosions, radioactive substances eventually fell to Earth and immediately began effecting the physical world they encountered. Moved by rain, snow and wind, they gathered in drains and sewage points, and in this pooling and aggregating their movements became evident. These invisible traces, through engaging actual world processes, were made visible.

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Don't Follow the Wind, View of the Fukushima exclusion zone, 2015, Courtesy of Don’t Follow the Wind.

As you approach the highway interchange, the nearest access point from Tokyo for Don’t Follow the Wind, you first notice the mounds of black or green plastic bags filled with contaminated soil, dead wood, dead leaves, and such, gathered regularly by the decontamination crews. This constant harvest becomes evident here and there throughout this green and pleasant land of former rice paddies and fields. It’s an extraordinary motif which, once established returns time and again through the car window, a refrain of ‘toxic piles’ of black and green plastic, all packed up but with no place to go. It adds to the sense of dis-reality, as if you are looking at a science fiction film set, but of course it’s not fiction. Here you have the invisible radioactive substances made visible.

When people think of ‘art’ they imagine the visual arts, but like radioactivity, art too is invisible. When we encounter art, what we tend to see is merely the artwork-as-substance. And while the artwork-as-material is visible, we still might fail to appreciate the experience or meaning of the material that makes it art. We expect to experience an abstract power of art, something emanating, invisibly, one might say, almost like radiation.

Because the Don’t Follow the Wind exhibition is staged in this very peculiar zone-of-no-return, this place polluted by radioactive contamination, new metaphors which might not ordinarily occur to us are revealed: the relationship between radioactivity and art; the power of radiation and art; the affinity of radioactive substances and artworks.


Don’t Follow the Wind proposes, through this juncture of art and radioactivity, an issue of ‘here’, the place where we are now, versus ‘elsewhere’, the places where we are not, places we may even be forbidden access to, and it proposes them in ways that bind and mutate, and having mutated, refuse to disengage. Just because Don’t Follow the Wind takes place in a contaminated ‘elsewhere’, and is off-limits, doesn’t mean that it is happening in some ‘elsewhere’ unrelated to ‘here’. On the contrary, through Don’t Follow the Wind, a whirlwind of encounters and exchanges between ‘heres’ (= non-sites) and ‘elsewheres’ (= sites) are established, de-stabilising all meanings of ‘location,’ ‘place’ and ‘site’, and the significance of boundaries. In this way Don’t Follow the Wind re-reconfigures site-specific art as a distributed and networked concept in the same way that radiation doesn’t recognise borders.

This intermediary exchange between Don’t Follow the Wind’s ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’ is from the lineage of Robert Smithson, who first proposed the conceptual framework for what came to be known as Earthworks (Land Art) in the US back in the 1960s. Smithson expanded the territory of art by working in the environment, to explore what art might become if it were not contained within the walls of museums and galleries. By creating art in the landscape he released it from the social-political system of museums and galleries, densely packed man-made urbanity and, in contrast, unleashed art into desert plains, abandoned houses, and post-industrial landscapes.

Although ‘artworks’, Earthworks are unlike art experienced in museums. Obviously they cannot avail themselves of clear horizontal or vertical planes, reliable consistent lighting, or protection. Open ‘environments’ naturally become inundated with dirt, rain, water, stone, rocks, and such, exposed to the elements, intrinsic with and inseparable from their surroundings. Smithson called this condition, where environments become artworks ‘sites’, to distinguish them from the conventional conditions of classically installed art. A ‘site’ in this case means an artwork which is integral to its location, incapable of being transported like paintings or sculptures. Synonymous with ‘particularity of place’, within a set of specific conditions, the artworks attempt to exist outside of any system of exchange value.

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Don't Follow the Wind, Maintenance trip with flag designed by Naohiro Ukawa, Fukushima exclusion zone, Japan, 2015, Courtesy of Don’t Follow the Wind

Unlike museums, artworks installed at ‘sites’ don’t limit visiting hours; once created the exhibition theoretically never ends. The artworks are surrendered to the passing of time, moderate or brutal, they exist outside of the idea of limited space or time. Each individual artwork featured in Don’t Follow the Wind has its own close relationship with its permanent ‘site’ in the ‘difficult-to-return-to’ evacuation zone. By becoming integrated with the radioactive substances which are now an intrinsic part of the area, the artworks are embedded in the unknowable passing of time, where the sites remain off-limits until some day after the half-life of radioactive decay.

The Don’t Follow the Wind exhibition is at once both typical, and an extreme example of art that exists in Smithson’s usage of the term ‘site’. [3] Extreme because the twelve works, placed in this zone-of- no-return by the artists, are exposed to conditions even more severe than Smithson could have anticipated. These works, constantly bombarded by radiation from the contamination, could experience accelerated deterioration along with that of their environment. Furthermore, the ‘sites’ which are acted upon by Don’t Follow the Wind are strictly controlled to exclude human entry, so the audience is forbidden from freely visiting or experiencing the work. In Smithson’s ‘site’ artworks, the act of approaching the work was intentionally difficult, but not impossible. Smithson’s ‘sites’ were mostly installed in areas without reasonable transportation or other infrastructures. But Smithson also provided another important reference for Don’t Follow the Wind, a model of ‘non-site’ artworks acting as an extension of his ‘sites’: an alternative practice of using art spaces to present what is not present.

As the artworks installed at ‘sites’ are hard to visit, for the work to reach interested viewers, alternative ‘non-sites’ have to be established. However, if we see the relation between ’site’ / ‘non-site’ as the former being the primary ‘real body’ versus the latter being just a ’record’ to communicate the former, a hierarchal relationship is created regarding the authentic whereabouts of the artworks, and an inauthentic record; no matter how the two forms of the artwork bisect each other, there is no equal basis to be found in the end. In this respect, what was important about Smithson’s Land Art proposition, wasn’t that setting the ‘site’ expanded the exhibition space to the world outside museums, but rather that by discovering the meaning of ‘site’ in art, he tried to reform the fundamental meaning of how art, until then, had been limited to the museum and exhibition formats. The Don’t Follow the Wind Non-Visitor Centre exhibition, held at the Watarium Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, 2015, was the latter of the two natures, the ‘site’ / ‘non-site’– that which ‘can be visited’. No longer simply the record of a ‘site’, it was an experiment to transpose the art which ‘cannot be visited’, like radioactivity, into the ‘can be visited’ exhibition, like a radioactive substance, turning it to a bound state in alternative form, by adapting the artworks which belong to ‘site’= ‘elsewhere’ into ‘here’.

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Don't Follow the Wind, Installing the exhibition on site in the Fukushima exclusion zone, 2015, Courtesy of Don’t Follow the Wind.

This ‘non-site’ presentation of Don’t Follow the Wind at the Watarium Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, in the autumn of 2015 was called the Don’t Follow the Wind Non-Visitor Centre. It was neither off-limits nor difficult to return to. So how did the artefacts of the ‘sites’ and artworks presented at the non-site Non- Visitor Centre work in terms of the contaminated ‘elsewhere’ of the Fukushima exclusion zone? One characteristic of Don’t Follow the Wind is the complete asymmetry between the locations where the individual artworks physically exist, and the location where their art functions. This misalignment is intrinsic to the fact that the ‘sites’ where the artworks are installed are heavily contaminated point-of-no-return zones, and that the works will presumably become contaminated by radioactive substances over time, and become radioactive substances themselves some day.

The Don’t Follow the Wind exhibition began on 11 March 2015, and although it cannot be visited that doesn’t mean it’s closed. The works are there, installed as a matter of principle, on view every afternoon, night and morning, come torrential rain or tempest wind. Being unprotected in the elements, we can expect unpredictable deformation and deterioration, damage, and in some cases even theft or loss. Of course such unforeseen circumstances are inherent in the decision to place artwork in this ‘site’. What should never happen at ‘non-site’ art spaces is precisely what should happen at ‘sites’, and we can even anticipate, in some cases, that this asymmetry is capable of causing reversals in each poles’ value.

One reason we enjoy the experience of appreciating the Don’t Follow the Wind artworks is that these two poles correspond in time and in space, such that we can successfully superimpose them inside the ‘non-site’ Non-Visitor Centre art space. To put it another way, their ‘site’ / ‘non-site’ disconnection creates a stability. Even though the artworks as physical objects are ’elsewhere’, distant from ‘here’, by bringing artefacts and documentation about them to the ‘non-site’ art space, viewers can sense the power of work they cannot visit, mediated by the reliably visible. The photographs and data have only secondary meanings compared to the actual work, yet because they construct a primal opportunity to experience and appreciate, they can relativise and mediate the physical distance between ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’. ‘Here’ becomes ‘elsewhere’, and ‘elsewhere’ is ‘here’. ‘Site’ becomes unspecified ‘non-site’, and ‘non-site’ becomes a specific ‘site’. The invisible become visible, and the visible become invisible.

This is how each visitor to the Don’t Follow the Wind Non-Visitor Centre exhibition-as- ‘non-site’ converts the ‘non-site’ provided into the ‘site’ of their own perspective, reassembled in their imagination. Divisions of mere physical distance, toxic levels of radioactive contamination, and legal restrictions: which of these can bar the mind’s eye? Or perhaps I should ask ‘Doesn’t the invisible power of art mean the ability to overcome such borders in the first place?’ In that sense, Don’t Follow the Wind rather casually reveals the fact that in art exhibitions the power of art (radioactivity) and artworks (radioactive substances) are only presumed to be adjoined, before proceeding to visualise their misalignment. What emerges through Don’t Follow the Wind is the extraction of how originally invisible art is: not reliant on particular locations or materials, but rather worked out purely through the power of art.

The reason that this catastrophic accident occurred at the Fukushima Dai’ichi Nuclear Reactor is because we Japanese built approximately 54 nuclear power plants throughout the Japanese archipelago, one of the most tectonically volatile places on Earth; where massive and destabilising earthquakes and tsunamis are commonplace. Therefore Don’t Follow the Wind, can be considered an exhibition unique to the ‘site’ of the Japanese archipelago, a by-product of relentless tectonic plate activity. Just like so many museums and other cultural facilities which experienced the impact of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 11 March 2011, there are no such things as unconditional places or ‘non-sites’. Each must know that it can be forced to become a ‘site’, when its artworks can be directly exposed to tremors, rains, winds, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and surging tidal waves at any moment.


Don’t Follow the Wind is nothing if not an exhibition largely attributable to the natural conditions of the Japanese archipelago. Blue flags, flying in the wind, indicate both the exhibiting ‘sites’ and the implication of the merciless and savage nature of the geology of the region; simultaneously indicating how this must be the first and also the last opportunity to test how art is possible in a land so ‘befouled’(Chuya Nakahara). [4]

This essay is adapted, with permission, from Noi Sawaragi’s essay in: Don’t Follow the Wind, Watari Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, 2015. The English translation was first published as part of the Nuclear Culture Source Book by Black Dog Publishing, Bildmuseet and Arts Catalyst in 2016.

タ イ ト ル = 「 Don’t Follow the Wind」 の旗が立つ場所(サイト)/非・場所(ノン-サイト) For the ‘site / non-site’ where the Don’t Follow the Wind flags fly.

© Noi Sawaragi 2016 (translation David d’Heilly)

[1]. Zones set by the nation to constraint inhabitation, to avoid danger for residence by the radioactive substances scattered by the nuclear disaster of the Tokyo Electric Power Company's Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station in March 2011.

[2]. Radioactivity is the process by which a nucleus of an unstable atom loses energy by emitting radiation. Radiation is the emission or transmission of energy in the form of waves or particles through space or through a material medium. Radioactive substances are unstable – because the strong nuclear force that holds the nucleus of their atom together is not balanced with the electric force that wants to push it apart – and it therefore they produce kinds of radiation which are destabilizing to other things in their periphery.

[3]. Robert, Smithson, ‘A Provisional Theory of Non- Sites’, from Unpublished Writings in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, Jack Flam, ed, Berkeley, California: California University Press, 1996. Available at: ; last accessed 29 September 2020.

[4]. From poetry ‘Sadness that’s been befouled’, by Japanese poet Chuya Nakahara’s anthologies Yagi no Uta (Goat Songs), 1934.




The Entropic Silence of Fukushima

by Jason Waite


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Bontaro Dokuyama, Acchi [Over there], 2015, Video, photographs, watercolours, masks made from the local newspaper in Fukushima for 4 years after March 11, 2011, Courtesy of the artist.

Jostling around our necks, the dosimeters flashed their readings and the ticking of the handheld Geiger counter spasmed sporadically in alarm. We were bumping through the overgrown field behind reactor six, designed by General Electric at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, on an old bus with plastic taped over the seats A Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) guide was shouting over the struggling engine. While describing TEPCO’s storage for the daily accumulation of large amounts of contaminated water used to cool the melted down reactors that leak into the broken infrastructure at the plant, the portable PA system broke. Neither the public relations manager nor his assistant could fix it, and there was no backup system available. The significance of this glitch was magnified when the bus stopped in a field alongside a small electricity transmission tower that lay slumped and twisted in the grass. This precarious tower was part of the system to supply electricity into the power plant to keep the reactors stable when the normal systems malfunctioned. When the 2011 earthquake shut down power production at the plant and felled this small tower, it stopped the external power supply, and along with the subsequent swamping of the back-up generators by seawater from an ensuing tsunami, these tiny glitches added up to the largest nuclear catastrophe in history.[1] The blame, however, does not lie with the crumpled metal and salted couplings, but rather, as the independent commission verified, the fault was a result of human error and the failure of imagination—a lack of contingency for contingency.[2] 


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Don't Follow the Wind, Curatorial collective on a site visit in the Fukushima Exclusion Zone, 2015, courtesy of Don't Follow the Wind.

Fukushima was not a disaster. When the plant lost electricity for an extended period of time and the earthquake destroyed the surrounding area, making it difficult to marshal resources, the Japanese prime minister and his cabinet pulled out the emergency guide for what to do in a nuclear disaster, flipped through the entire book, and found no mention of prolonged power outages. The guidelines had been developed in close relationship with the nuclear industry and government agencies, which had considered the danger only of 'short term' power outages. They had always considered calamity in a vacuum. Power—in this case the combination of capital and state—never took systemic risk into account. They conceived any nuclear event that might occur would do so without large-scale disruption to society, and therefore believed any contingency plan could rely on immediate support from the surrounding area.[3] There was a disaster mentality. 

Etymologically, 'disaster', meaning 'ill-starred,' purports the notion of a chance disruption. What happened at Fukushima was not just an aberration in the system. It was not a chance disruption of an apparatus that could then be mended, simply folding the disruption back into its workings. Rather, what happened in Fukushima obliterated the framework itself. 


Part of a military-industrial complex that descended from the Manhattan Project, Fukushima Daiichi had a built-in destructive capacity. The site selected for the plant was on a bluff next to the Pacific Ocean, home to a former World War II airbase used to train Kamikaze pilots. [4] This nationalist necropolitics extended into corporate extractivism when TEPCO dramatically cut into and lowered the rocky plateau, which would have a been a natural barrier against tsunamis, in order to save money on the transportation of material and lower operating costs. This made the site and surrounding communities more precarious. In addition, none of the electricity produced at the plant went to the local community, but was rather sent south to Tokyo—part of an internal colonial relationship between the metropolis and Fukushima. 

The fragile notion of nuclear safety propagated by the industry and the central government was a framework of thinking formed around a temporal myopia and an almost religious belief in acceptable risk, known in Japan as the 'safety myth.' This ideology produced the limited contingencies for isolated disasters, the veneer of safety that allowed the industry to be profitable. Acknowledging the possibility of large-scale risk would expose the cracks and deep fissures in this belief and force an acknowledgment of ontological instability of the safety myth. Moreover with the climate becoming more violent, actual preparation for contingency in these precarious times, would dramatically reduce profits—or if a 'clean up' after nuclear contamination is taken into account, erase them entirely. In Fukushima, it was this abdication of contingency—imagining a future—that wrought total catastrophe. 


While 'disaster' is related to degrees of chance and outlying phenomena, the etymological root of 'catastrophe' lies in a complete overturning, a reversal of what was expected—a paradigm shift. Fukushima superseded contingency to lay bare the fragility of the underlying order. By overturning what was conceived of as feasible, it opened up the necessity for a new modality of life. 

Entropic Silence

On the bus tour, the amplification of the guide’s voice ceased, indicative of another symptomatic silencing that has been multiplying in its effects since the catastrophe took place. The radiation fallout left towns, fields, mountains, and bodies of water contaminated, rendering them uninhabitable. Approximately 100,000 residents were forcibly displaced and a large swathe of ground was rendered a type of no-entry nuclear reserve. The fallout produced a quieting of the land. This is the sonic landscape of the failure of modernity: a chain reaction of neoliberalism that in its wake produced an immobilizing void of sound. An entropic silence that expands, deterritorializing as it descends, exhuming stillness, piercing the everyday acoustic sphere and draining it of vitality.


Re_FreedomAichi, #YOurFreedom, collaboration between artists and exhibitions visitors of the Aichi Triennale 2019,

Image: Kyun-Chome, Courtesy of Kyun-Chome.

Symptoms of this entropic silence abound. In 2010, Japan ranked eleventh in the world in media freedom. Since the disaster, a concerted project of government intimidation, corporate censorship , and self-censorship has created a repressive climate for speech, tumbling Japan down on the media freedom list to sixty-seventh, between Niger and Malawi.[5]

In 2016, standing in an alley in Seoul, an activist with a quiet fortitude from Saitama—a neighbouring prefecture of Fukushima—shares the story of his father’s death following March 11, 2011, from a type of cancer that was predominate in Belarus after Chernobyl. His family was divided about whether to go through the arduous process of suing TEPCO, as cases have been difficult to substantiate in their singularity, the process is complicated, and there are no clear standards determining what deaths relate to the catastrophe.[6] The growing aggregate of these related deaths provides a glimmer of the effects of the catastrophe not limited by prefecture or proximity. The entropic silence knows no boundary. 

Raging against this silence, Hamako Watanabe, an elderly resident of rural Yamakiya, Fukushima, was forced, with her husband, to evacuate to a cramped apartment in Fukushima City and found herself in increasing turmoil over her separation from her home and land. When she was allowed to return to her contaminated home for a short visit, she sat in her garden under a cherry tree, dousing herself with gasoline. Undertaking an act of self-immolation in an attempt to halt the advance of the silence, she burnt herself and the contaminated air rather than breathing it. In the subsequent trial, this became the first suicide juridically deemed a direct result of the nuclear catastrophe, and TEPCO was forced to pay compensation to her family. The symbolic nature of this simultaneously desperate and defiant act, forced an acknowledgement of the emotional burden that accompanies physical contamination and displacement.[7]

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Hikaru Fujii, Les nucléaires et les choses, 2019, Video still, Fukushima Cultural Property Center, Courtesy of the artist.

Privatizing Sovereignty

Wherever the radioactive isotopes landed, TEPCO, in effect, became responsible for local welfare, providing monthly compensation for those forcibly displaced and for the loss of their homes and jobs. While the welfare of a population is usually the concern of the state, here the contamination effectively produced an amalgamated territory of private dominion. Radioactive nuclides fused with atoms of capital. This contamination set in motion a dual process of community privation and the privatization of individual well-being. Similar processes can be seen with fracking, which injects huge quantities of chemicals into the earth that can mix with oil or gas and seep into the groundwater, rendering local water supplies toxic. In these circumstances, communities lose their only source of water, and in certain cases where the company has been found liable, the naturally existing subsurface water supply and its infrastructure has been replaced with a privatized subsidy system of water that is trucked in. With the expropriation of a basic resource, a precarious delivery mechanism is left in its wake to reproduce a structure for everyday life.[8]


The reliance on largely a single company (TEPCO) and the government to dictate the terms, as well as the timeline for one’s future, has caused widespread anxiety in the region. Wherever capital-infused nuclides landed, they have spawned distress and mental illness. One forcibly displaced resident of Fukushima, in hours of interviews with the artist Meiro Koizumi, spoke of his sleepless nights of uncertainty and anxiety about having no agency over his future.[9] Asked to imagine his first dinner with his family upon his future return home once it is re-inhabitable, the former resident’s tale of an idyllic scene with the familiar taste of food is haunted by doubts and conflicting desires as to what his return will mean. Even in his imaginary account, the family decides that they will leave the home that they had just settled back into. Contamination and the fragmenting of the communities forecloses a nostalgic notion of 'return.' 

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Meiro Koizumi, To Laugh, 2017, installation, video, audio track, [video still], commissioned for Don't Follow the Wind: Non-Visitor Center, Fast Forward Festival, Athens, Courtesy of the artist.

In December 2018, residents were given three months to decide whether they wanted their homes demolished for free by the local government. If not, residents would be responsible for any future costs. Without knowing when their homes might be accessible again, or what the conditions of living in the area might be like, residents were asked to make a decision on an unprecedented, conflicted, and unknown future. He ultimately decided to destroy his home.


These demolitions are changing the temporality of the built structures in the area. The Fukushima exclusion zone held a diversity of historic and modern buildings, maintaining the continuity of life before the catastrophe that was 'frozen' in time. But this ongoing destruction is razing the area’s lived lineage. Wooden houses are replaced with empty gravel lots, and new buildings in the surrounding area—largely built in an inexpensive contemporary vernacular—are 'cementing' the built landscape in a single moment of time. All of the buildings look relatively the same, erasing the deep history and evolution of homes and structures that reflected the generations of inhabitation. 


The 'clean up' program of TEPCO and the government entails the burning and transfer of some radioactive waste to temporary repositories in order to reduce contamination levels in affected communities. The 'cleaned' areas of low-level radiation are then deemed safe for former residents to return to by the local governments, even though questions have been raised about the long-term effects of low-level radiation on health.[10] Many residents have made the difficult social and financial decision to live elsewhere. The one-in-ten who decide to return inhabit a largely vacant terrain outside of the zone and live with only fragments of the former social body left intact. Regardless of whether former residents return to their homes, compensation from TEPCO ceases one year after the areas have been designated as 'inhabitable.' Risk is therefore transferred onto the body of the resident, while their livelihoods become a liability wiped from the ledgers of the company. 

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Chim↑Pom, The Peace Day 2011, 2013, ©Chim↑Pom, Courtesy of the artist and MUJIN-TO Production.

Negative Commons 

In 2008, when Naples’ landfills were overrun with the illegal dumping from across Europe and trash piles accumulated to the size of small hills in the city, neighbourhoods slipped into disarray as medieval diseases returned. However, Silvia Federici notes that instead of waiting for the broken municipality to find a new repository for the excess trash, a negative commons emerged among the Neapolitan community.[11] Neighbors exited their houses with shovels and began to work together, self-organizing garbage disposal and putting into place a basic infrastructure to confront the contamination. 


The waste crisis traversed class relations as neighbours who had never met worked together to address this negative commons. Even after the waste was gone the bonds in the community persisted. The Fukushima disaster also had the unintended result of increasing the agency of local caregivers. Faced with a new contaminated reality, many parents and care workers in Fukushima and the surrounding area had to figure out how to protect the vulnerable, such as children, from the invisible force of radiation. In particular, many mothers who did not traditionally participate in politics were galvanized after March 11 and became important activists, speaking out to have the remaining nuclear plants shutdown and for a transparent assessment of the contamination. 


Though some people were displaced into rural towns just a few dozen kilometres from their homes, they were often considered as different in those communities—either refugees or guests. This forced the host towns, with their traditional power structures, to encounter and negotiate with these newcomers and with ideas of difference. Mothers who were forcibly displaced began to quietly lobby officials and committees in their new towns to advocate for victims’ rights and push for information about contamination levels. Throughout the catastrophe, the activist work of caregivers has expanded and transformed tradition roles and expectations of gender in society.[12] Care work has halted the entropic silence to mend the fracturing of communities, and has done so with loud demands for the co-construction of a very different future. 


Beyond the family unit, care relations have also been instrumental in recombining the fragmented and scattered communities that remain. In a parking lot in Fukushima outside of the zone, hundreds of small prefab 'temporary' container dwellings were constructed for those residents who were forcibly displaced with nowhere else to go. Five years into the catastrophe, they still housed residents of Tomioka—one of seven towns that make up the exclusion zone—who had been forcibly evicted from their contaminated homes. Those housed together did not necessarily know each other before entering the encampment. Many of the residents were older and did not have family or others who they could live with elsewhere in Japan, and therefore lost the immediate support networks that they had previously relied on. 


We met with an eldercare nurse who had lost her job and home after the catastrophe who was relocated to the temporary dwellings. She set about to get to know her new elderly neighbours, and with her ample time, began to transfer her professional care skills to the new community. Such self-organizing of informal care infrastructures both maintained the health of precarious bodies and began to weave a new texture of a community together. Despite the difficult living conditions, many aging people had begun to see the encampment as their home and the new bonds of friendship that had formed there as an indispensable part of their lives. 

While these examples of care should not be read as permission for prevailing structures to evade their basic responsibilities, what becomes evident in the aftermath of Fukushima is that an emerging collectivity has coalesced around mutual aid and bonds of communal care that transcend the catastrophe. In the new world that has opened up for those living in Fukushima, forms of agency are not given but rather self-produced. If a shattered sovereignty is returning to Fukushima, in those fractures is evidence that different forms of life and self-organization are emerging with deeper roots and unknown possibilities.

This essay was published in a previous form in Margarida Mendes, ed., Matter Fictions (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017) 115–24, and in e-flux Architecture, April 18, 2020,


[1] A comprehensive, concise account of the events surrounding the meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, as well as a survey of the conditions leading up to disaster, can be found in the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station Disaster: Investigating the Myth and Reality (London: Routledge, 2014). A more technical history can be found in IAEA Director General, The Fukushima Daiichi Accident (Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency, 2015).

[2] The Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station Disaster, xviii.

[3]  The Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station Disaster, xviii, 2–3.

[4]  A video of the airbase that trained kamikaze pilots on the location of the power plant before it was built can be found in this link The video is from an attack by the US military on August 9 or 10, 1945, the day of or after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. 

[5]  Reporters Without Borders, 2019 World Press Freedom Index,

[6]  Japan Federation of Bar Associations, ‘Activities of the JFBA and Local Bar Associations for Victims of the Earthquake,’; and ‘Death Toll Grows in 3/11 Aftermath,’ Fukushima Minpo News, March 5, 2015,

[7]  A full account of Hamako Watanabe’s suicide can be read in Mark Willacy, Fukushima (Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2013); and the subsequent court judgment, Agence France, ‘Fukushima Suicide Victim's Family Wins Damages,’ Guardian, August 26, 2014.

[8] Eliza Griswold, ‘The Fracturing of Pennsylvania,’ New York Times, November 17, 2011,

[9]  From Meiro Koizumi, Home (2015), for which the artist interviewed a former resident on multiple occasions for over a total of fifteen hours inside the latter’s present temporary residence as well as in his former contaminated home. The resulting three-minute sound work emerged from the artist asking the former resident to imagine the first dinner he would have on returning to his previous house. Home is installed as an audio track playing in headsets in the resident’s inaccessible home in the exclusion zone, waiting for the residents and public to be able to return. The work was developed as a part of 'Don't Follow the Wind' (2015–ongoing) a long-term collective project taking place inside the Fukushima exclusion zone.

[10]. In 2015, a large-scale long-term study of the effects of low-level radiation showed an increased risk in leukemia. Klervi Leuraud et al., ‘Ionising Radiation and Risk of Death from Leukemia and Lymphoma in Radiation-Monitored Workers (INWORKS): An International Cohort Study,’ Lancet Haematol 2, no. 7 (2015): 276–81.

[11]. Silvia Federici, ‘Women, Reproduction, and the Construction of Commons’ (lecture, Museum of Art and Design, New York, April 18, 2013),

[12]. Accounts of the relationship between care and agency for affected mothers in Fukushima are taken from research by David Slater, Haruka Danzuka, and Satsuki Uno related to the oral history archive Voices of Tohoku, presented at ‘Radical Distances: Fukushima and Okinawa,’ organized by the author and CAMP at Shine Shokudo, Tokyo, November 2, 2015.