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Japan and Being There

Posted: 07/26/2011 10:20 am

When I heard about the passing of singer and songwriter Gil Scott-Heron last month, I was in Japan. It was mid-morning there, and late-night in New York when a few of my music-tweeting friends and acquaintances issued their RIPs to the man who coined "the revolution will not be televised." I happened to be in Ishinomaki, the Japanese city worst hit by the March 11 tsunami. Staring at an iPad in the back seat of a parked car, I had been reviewing a series of amateur television clips of waves gulping up houses and cars, tossing boats like corks.

This natural disaster felt revolutionary, I thought. And it was being televised, again and again.

The earthquake and tsunami came at a time of unprecedented cell phone penetration in Japan. Even people in remote fishing villages could capture the graphic destruction of their towns in hi-def on their handhelds. Everything was captured.

Moments after watching it all, again, I found myself walking through the ruins of Ishinomaki's port. Compared to the footage I had just seen and which had me glued to my TV in the US for weeks after the earthquake, being there was mind-numbing.

For professional photographers, it's got to be frustrating to try to capture this kind of disaster. It doesn't fit into a viewfinder. You can't capture the width of the catastrophe, nor the smell and the sound of it. Cawing crows glided over the wreckage, knowing that there was death to feed on below if only the garbage wasn't so thick. A misty sky softened the incessant grind of bulldozers clearing rubble. And everywhere, the odor of ocean air collided with a wide swath of rotting fish in the port, mixing with sewage, garbage and old fires. The morning after being there, even though I was miles away, the smell was still on my palette.

The aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami feel distant to Americans now. We've had our own string of grueling natural disasters. Someone from my newsroom asked me, while I was in Tokyo, how the Joplin tornado story played in Japan. It didn't. Since March 11, the news in Japan has been dominated by the earthquake, the tsunami and its wanton destruction of life. And the headlines have now shifted to the nuclear crisis, how the Japanese government can't seem to deal with it. After many official missteps and a fresh understanding that Japan embraced nuclear power with a passion, the Fukushima disaster is now seen as a man-made calamity.

That's a new way of thinking. Since World War Two, Japan had built its economy with cheap nuclear energy. Now an increasingly vocal and socially disparate group there is demanding a different approach. Mitsoko Shimomoura, a well-respected journalist, has started the Ikitiki Jukyu -- a sort of Japanese version of Emerson's Adirondack philosopher's camp -- with businesspeople, policy makers, lawmakers and anyone who believes Japan needs a new way forward. The Ikitiki Jukyu wants to reconnect Japanese to "the Buddhist way" of less-is-more, and to shift the focus away from, as Shimomoura-san says "mass-production, mass-consumption and mass-waste" that led Japan to depend so heavily on nuclear.

Shaggy haired artists and musicians are also questioning the wisdom of Japan's economic goals over the years. Chim↑Pom, a young artists' collective inspired in equal parts by Jackass and Picasso's "Guernica," have traveled to the Fukushima plant to collect material for their work, and creating installations that challenge policy, and even offer creative, sometimes erotic, ways of making electricity.

In Japan, 3-11 and its ensuing nuclear crisis have prompted soul-searching, and that is itself a debate about Japanese national identity. That is a revolution, but it likely won't be televised. And yet its impact could be massive.

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After the largest recorded earthquake in Japan set off a nuclear disaster, its people are facing a generation-defining moment as they question their lifestyle and dependency on nuclear power. In "The Atomic Artists," airing Tuesday, July 26, at 9pm ET on PBS, FRONTLINE journeys with Marco Werman of PRI's The World as he meets Chim↑Pom, a provocative group of young artists making headlines as they use art to challenge the status quo and ask Japanese society to rethink their way of life.