Friday, December 16, 2011

“Atomic Café”: Japan’s entertainment personalities confront post-Fukushima sociopolitical realities, lament media silence during recent Tokyo event

Kenji Endo ("Enken"): "Living in this nuclear age and facing the dangers of radiation, it is important for each of us to do what fulfills us. My love is singing, and I will continue to do it passionately every day for the rest of my life."

Nine months following the triple earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that struck Japan on March 11th of this year, life has largely returned to business-as-usual as far as most of the country is concerned. With the majority of those living outside the affected regions unable to fully register the scale of the tragedy to begin with, even Tokyo—which was largely paralyzed during the days following the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant due to fears of imminent large-scale nuclear emergency—now once again buzzes along obliviously in typical metropolis fashion as if nothing had ever occurred.

Helping to support this image of normalcy is a mainstream media that routinely downplays Fukushima’s ongoing health and environmental costs, despite ongoing bad news regarding leakages and radiation contamination, while a seemingly unrepentant Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) continues its pursuit of profit-making nuclear power over other possible sources of energy.

With notable exceptions such as a recent sit-in demonstration in front of the Ministry of Economy led by righteously angry Fukushima mothers, tremendous pressure is being exerted at most levels of society to tow the official line.

In few industries is this taboo stronger than in the world of entertainment, where media personalities are expected to keep critical thoughts to themselves lest they risk offending sensitive sponsors. In addition to a growing number of citizens, however, certain celebrities are violating this restriction to speak their minds against what they perceive to be strong injustice.

On a recent evening in Tokyo, several members of Japan’s entertainment and media industry who are all outspoken critics of Japan’s nuclear policies—broadcaster Peter Barakan, singer Tokiko Kato, citizen journalist Yu Tanaka, vocalist/guitarist Hiro Yamaguchi and actor Taro Yamamoto—gathered at a live music space in the artsy neighborhood of Daikanyama to do this very thing.

The November 23rd event, titled Atomic Café after the 1982 documentary film that satirized the nuclear fervor of 1940s and 1950s America, began with a powerful performance from rocker Kenji Endo (known as “Enken”). This was followed by an engaged two-hour discussion facilitated by lawyer/musician Kikujiro Shima, as panelists delved into the complexities of the social and political landscape that continue to define post-3.11 Japan.

Atomic Cafe panelists (L-R): Kikujiro Shima (facilitator), Peter Barakan, Tokiko Kato, Yu Tanaka, Taro Yamamoto, Hiro Yamaguchi

Perhaps the most egregious example of what can happen if one flouts the established rules of enforced silence surrounding the nuclear power industry may be seen in the case of Yamamoto, who lost his scheduled role in a forthcoming television drama after speaking his mind following the Fukushima disaster.

“Prior to 3/11, I had only ever expressed myself on an intellectual level; and as an actor, I had lived exclusively through my sponsor,” he told the audience. “After the accident occurred, however, I came in touch full-force with my emotions—which included extreme anger in addition to regret for not having spoken out sooner against nuclear power.”

Specifically, Yamamoto incurred the wrath of the scandal-shy media establishment by attending an anti-nuclear demonstration held in Tokyo on April 10th that drew some 20,000 people—announcing beforehand to his Twitter followers: “I can’t stay silent while Japan continues the state terrorism of nuclear power."

“I knew I was bound to lose work after making my views known, but it was shocking how quickly it actually happened,” Yamamoto told those in attendance. “Although it was an incredibly difficult thing to do given the constraints I was under, I thought about the possibility of another Fukushima occurring, and finally realized that I had no choice but to speak out.”

Despite differences in age, career and backgrounds, one common thread uniting all of the panelists was a passionate sense of righteous anger toward a bureaucratic system that has consistently protected the interests of the powerful corporate nuclear industry, while silencing any and all dissent regarding the human suffering that has transpired as a result of the Fukushima crisis.

Journalist and environmentalist Yu Tanaka, who has been speaking out against the dangers of nuclear power and radiation for decades, spared no contempt for those responsible for the recent tragedy, and its effect on the lives of society’s most vulnerable. “I recently took a group of Fukushima children to Okinawa, and they displayed obvious fear toward both the ocean and the rain, in addition to being afraid to stay outdoors more than ten minutes at a time,” Tanaka recounted. “They finally realized they were safe, but we had to send them back to Fukushima at the end of the trip knowing that they would once again be returning to this kind of stress and fear. These children have been robbed of their lives, and we must look clearly at who and what is responsible for it.”

Tanaka emphasized, however, that we now have a golden opportunity to transcend tragedy by creating a society with radically different values. “Other countries are making the shift to alternative energies, so why can't Japan—the number one technologically advanced nation in the world—do the same?” he challenged. “An Internet-based business model created at the grassroots level could in fact make the energy industry profitable enough so that companies will want to fund it. However, it is critical that we first break out of the existing dictatorship whereby TEPCO (The Tokyo Electric Power Company)—an enormous media sponsor—threatens any information outlet that dares criticize it.”

Peter Barakan agreed readily about the issue of media control, with which he is intimately familiar as a broadcaster. Originally from the UK but having spent the better part of his life in Japan, he has consistently challenged the existing climate of both overt and subtle media censorship by featuring the music of politicized artists on his radio programs, along with his own commentary regarding government policies in areas such as war and nuclear issues.

Within this climate, broadcasters who are willing to challenge the official line are a precious resource to those with few other outlets for expression. During his weekday morning radio program, Barakan recently read an email message from a listener who had returned to his hometown of Minami-Soma, one of the areas most severely affected by the nuclear crisis, and said that he was “seething with anger” as a result of being forced to remain at the mercy of a system that could only be described as “nuclear fascism.”

“As a monopoly—not to mention one that is, incidentally, in debt—TEPCO should most certainly not be spending its money on PR, which I believe should more rightly be termed as ‘propaganda’," Barakan remarked.

“Musicians speaking out on social issues are a minority in any country,” he also noted, “with the notable exception of the Vietnam war era during the 1960s and 1970s, when a group of top-name artists gathered in the USA for a major concert held in New York City titled Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE).”

In Japan, one consistently similar voice in this regard is that of Tokiko Kato, who has combined singing with social activism since the era of the ANPO (Japan-U.S. Security Treaty) protests during the 1960s. Long having advocated the eradication of all things nuclear, she was among the lineup of artists participating in the first grassroots-level Atomic Café Festival held in Tokyo in 1984, which aimed to “call for the abolition of nuclear weapons and nuclear power through music."

Involved in sustainable organic farming movements together with her late husband for the past several decades, Kato’s echoed Tanaka during the recent event with the resounding message that we must now work to transcend the current nuclear crisis by completely transforming our social values. “Many Fukushima citizens have had no choice until now other than working at nuclear plants, but more and more people—including many youth—are now moving to the countryside in order to begin creating completely new lifestyles,” she told the audience. “In addition to being fun, growing your own food also empowers you to begin taking charge of your own food safety.”

Tokiko Kato, with backdrop photo of her writing a note of support for local citizens
 while visiting affected regions following the 3.11 disaster

Hiro Yamaguchi, who has traveled numerous times with his band Heatwave to play music for residents from the cities of Minamisoma and its neighboring Soma in Fukushima prefecture, agreed with this last point. “I’ll never forget the many young women I’ve spoken with who are agonizing right now regarding whether or not they will ever be able to have children,” he remarked.“While power company officials may clearly be blamed for this accident, each one of us also needs to think seriously about the impact of our individual actions on society at large, so that we can help create a hopeful future.”

Yamamoto, before having to leave early from the event to attend another engagement, delivered an impassioned final speech regarding concrete steps that are now being taken in order to make positive change in this regard. Specifically speaking, he announced an initiative that he is helping to spearhead along with a collection of other public figures, whereby signatures will be collected in Tokyo and Osaka to call for a citizen referendum regarding the issue of nuclear power.

“I would like to ask each one of you here today to go home and call the offices of lawmaker candidates to ask the following three questions," he said. “First, given the certainty of future earthquakes occurring in Japan, what is their concrete plan for closing nuclear power plants? Second, what is their stance on the situation facing families near the Fukushima nuclear power plant whom the government has yet to evacuate? And finally, what is their plan for dealing with nuclear waste? And those who do not give acceptable answers should expect to feel the heat come election time.

“Hibakusha (people affected by nuclear radiation) are now increasing by the moment,” he said before exiting the stage. “We really don’t have any more time to waste.”

Text by Kimberly Hughes

Images by Mari Onoda

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