By now, images of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor meltdown that shattered northeastern Japan in 2011 are well-known to the public. Some of the most horrifying images depict waves gushing inland and destroying everything in its path, and survivors shivering in blankets as they look upon endless piles of mud and debris.
But seven years on, what does recovery look like, and what are the hopes of residents who were impacted the most by the triple disasters?
These questions are explored in Kizuna 7: Past the Devastation and Toward the Future, a photo exhibition on display at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago through May 26.
Kizuna (絆), which means bond or “people connecting” in Japanese, is a project led by Chicago journalist and musician Yoko Noge Dean, an Osaka native who started the effort as a way to push past the narrative of destruction and create a humanistic portrait of people who live in the Tohoku region of Japan. The earthquake severely disrupted life in three prefectures in Tohoku: Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima.
The group has organized photo exhibitions since 2012 to commemorate the disaster. In past years, the exhibition was comprised of photographs from various artists or journalists.
This year, the committee selected the theme “Women in Tohoku,” and enlisted the help of Alan Labb, a photographer and Associate Professor of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, to depict this theme through his own work. Labb had helped curate the Kizuna 6 event in 2017, and later that year traveled to the three stricken prefectures.
The theme became especially relevant this year as nations around the world, including Japan, grapple with the #MeToo movement and ways to support equal pay and rights. In Japan in particular, women still struggle against some patriarchal aspects of Japanese culture; with few opportunities for childcare, they must often choose between career and family. Their role in rebuilding Tohoku, Labb and Noge Dean say, deserves recognition.
“I myself went to Tohoku and I realized how women were instrumental to having a strong recovery process,” Noge Dean says. “They were often the center of the family, the center of the community, and the center of the effort for non-profit organizations.”
Together, Labb and Noge Dean created a list of questions to ask Tohoku residents. Starting north in Iwate, Labb traveled around Tohoku with his wife, Kimiko, who translated the conversation and helped with touring logistics.
The selected photographs and accompanying text provide viewers with an intimate view into the lives of Tohoku residents, some of whom lost family members and others with roots in the area who are working to rebuild communities. In the cover photo, calligrapher Seiran Chiba, a special ambassador for Fukushima who used calligraphy to help residents express themselves, stands behind one of the oldest cherry tree groves in the country with her calligraphy brush raised to the sky, triumphant in the face of disaster. In another photograph, two women still coping with emotional trauma from the tsunami keep busy by spinning yarn for their work on a sheep farm that sells local crafts and products.
“Almost everyone I interviewed, when you ask them about that day, they just have to collect themselves,” Labb recalls. “It takes a few minutes. It’s very emotional.”
Subtly through the text and photos, questions about complex social issues also emerge — How will the nuclear fallout be cleaned? How can communities safely move homes while maintaining views of the coastline? How can a culture be preserved if few residents return home? How can deceased loved ones be respectfully honored and remembered?
“Some areas that were just all but wiped out via the tsunami, everyone has been moved of course, because there was no housing, there really was no structure there. And if they had young children, they really weren’t coming back,” Labb says. “So the people who are attached to the land tend to be the older generations who are slowly making their way back to those spaces, but then that leaves a very large gap in who’s going to carry on the traditions of the area. How are they going to revitalize without a youth culture?”
Despite the ongoing hardships faced by the communities, both Noge Dean and Labb hope the resilience of the human spirit — and the courage displayed by so many residents — emerges through the photos. The medium of photography provided a unique gateway to tell these stories.
“I could talk about sea walls forever…but until you see that a view is getting closed down and you visually have that impact of what that means, that a house that maybe has always looked out to the sea is suddenly going to look out to a 12-foot wall, you wouldn’t understand that without the visuals,” Labb says. “So the photographs do tell a very particular type of story.”
Noge Dean adds: “Without images, it’s very hard to convey themes, what’s happening and what are people’s expressions and emotions. Images are a very, very strong thing.”
Coming this summer: I am launching a podcast called “Japan Unraveled” that will discuss social issues in Japan and America through the lens of culture. Hear more from my conversation with Labb and Noge Dean in the inaugural podcast.