‘Little Voices From Fukushima’ bridges time and space
between Chernobyl and Japan
[L]ike other artists and activists before her who have unequivocally opposed nuclear technology in all its forms, Kamanaka Hitomi doesn’t regard her own ideology as a matter of present-day left and right. However pitched her debate of choice may be, and however culturally freighted its most contemporary iteration has become in Japan, Kamanaka’s films persist in asking a particular question: How and why our particular moment in human history has accommodated itself (in a strikingly quotidian way) to a technology which could, under the right circumstances, become earth-shattering, and which occasionally has been.
In her latest film, Kamanaka looks at one source of these curious accommodations and their contested future: children growing up with the implications of the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters.This isn’t the first time Kamanaka has placed her faith in making documentaries which regard the damaging effects of radiation as a multipolar phenomenon, indifferent to questions of nationality and culture. Nor is it the first time that a Japan-based artist has fixed their gaze on what’s to be learned from Chernobyl. ‘Little Voices’ is thus an elaboration of several conversations between social documentarians in Japan and the many types of accepted wisdom they seek to challenge.
Over the course of a filmography which has included prolonged engagements with Swedish electrical utilities, the Hanford nuclear site in America, and the effects of depleted uranium munitions on Iraqi civilians, Kamanaka has repeatedly asked her audiences to consider whether our bodies–which subtly and irreversibly mediate our experience of radiation–deserve to be imprinted with the invisible effects of a particular nation’s “energy policy.”
In an interview with Anastasia Smith, Kamanaka discusses the texture and significance of using film to send political ideas across languages and borders.
The Japanese government has approved the restart of two nuclear power plants near Sendai. Is this a particularly important moment for your work and your message?
People think that the big accident is the problem, that Fukushima is a special occasion because a big earthquake occurred, and that we can manage with other nuclear power plants. But what I’ve been describing is how radiation affects the human body. Major scientists understand now—there is consensus—that for radiation safety, the acceptable level of radiation is zero.
It takes time, the nature of radioactivity’s effect. Maybe three years after the disaster you cannot see a difference, but after three years you’re noticing: Oh, my neighbor or my relatives and my family are getting tired or are susceptible to the flu. Or your friend found a tumor in her breast. Small things happen after three years, but you can still convince yourself that everybody experience these problems.
That’s why I went to Belarus for my latest film, Little Voices from Fukushima, because there are 25 years’ difference between Chernobyl and Fukushima. These things already happened there. They can see the future, I think.
Even very, very small radiation has risks. This is common sense, but in Japan those who want to promote nuclear power say there is a threshold, and that below this line it is okay. People want to believe this. For example, in Fukushima, people want to live in their same house, have their same life, and their same community, even if it is polluted and contaminated. The government and the prefecture and some scientists say, “It’s alright.” It’s a variety of collaboration: collaboratively, people cheat themselves.
I understand that human beings have a social kind of existence. So if you lose your social and geographic roots, you cannot survive. People are forced to choose: Do you forget about your social ties, or do you choose your health? Immediately following this kind of disaster, health issues seem less immediate because they aren’t apparent right away, and even then they are invisible at first. So people choose their homes and their careers and their communities instead of their health. This dynamic is used by the government to reduce their financial liability to these people. They say: “Oh, we don’t need to compensate them. People like to live in that community. They choose to live there.” People are silent. People don’t complain.
In Japan, whatever opportunity we might otherwise have to choose environmentally-sensitive energy sources is blocked by Japanese electric companies and the Japanese government. We can only have nuclear power, they say. So this is a kind of brainwashing, when they tell us there is no choice. Many, many people—almost all Japanese people—think they must accept nuclear power or they cannot survive. But more than one year passed already without nuclear power plants operating. We are surviving without nuclear power.
The title of the new film is ‘Little Voices from Fukushima.’ What does “voice” mean in your work? What does it mean to have a voice?
Voice means consciousness. I think normal Japanese people, especially women, are not conscious about many of the social implications of what is occurring now. If mothers want to protect their children from radiation, then they will have to address this lack of consciousness. They will have to fight with the school because the school will serve the children food grown in Fukushima Prefecture. Mothers are not comfortable with this, so they will have to say something. But they are not trained to speak out. They are trained not to do it!
Now is the beginning for them. I am documenting the beginning of necessary change in this film. These Japanese women have not yet grown into their voices. I filmed mothers in Belarus who had grown into their new social responsibilities. They are great—like baby chickens. “Peep. Peep. Peep. Peep!” Trying and trying. And they are depressed. And they fail. But they do not give up. That is the point.
Do issues of womanhood and motherhood naturally call up issues of environmentalism?
My film is almost complete, so I’ve had several screenings—for my staff and some outside people. Afterwards, they said, “Only women! Where are the fathers? Where are the men? You cut away the men. Did you cut away men?” It wasn’t my intention, but it did happen; I focused on this issue, and only women appeared.
After the disaster in Fukushima, many mothers wanted to escape radiation and they asked their husbands to leave, but almost 100% of these husbands said, “What are you talking about? The government says it’s safe. Why do we need to move? We have work. I have business here. I work and that’s how you survive.” Many mothers escaped without their husbands and this is another subject of my film. In Japanese we now call this boshi-hinan or “mothers and children escaping.” It’s a new word in Japanese.
In all your films you travel internationally. Is this an attempt to translate, in a way, the national policies and the individual narratives you encounter outside of Japan?
Japan is an isolated island. I don’t need to use English if I stay in Japan. Lately, I have been in a purely Japanese area speaking only Japanese. I think Japanese are living in a small world, in a very, very small isolated society. I think of Gulliver’s Travels. He was big and everyone was small. So common sense doesn’t work. In Japan, you think: Oh, this is normal. But it’s not normal. The government of Belarus, for example, made a law to protect people living in contaminated areas. The law states that citizens shouldn’t be exposed to one millicevert of radiation per year. But the Japanese government says 20 milliceverts is safe. 20 milliceverts!
An objective point of view tells you something. If you see yourself like a mirror, you see, Oh, we are doing things a little bit strange. So my film attempts objectivity. It’s a wide mirror, reflecting the audience’s culture back to them, and then they realize, We were told that this is normal, but compared to other countries, it’s not normal.
The audience has to reach its own conclusions, using their own observations and abilities. I hope the film provides viewers with this opportunity, which is an important one because there’s a kind of rule: if you ignore victims, then you make yourself victims.
Do you ever struggle to navigate the boundaries between cultures when filmmaking requires you to?
It’s strange—I actually find it much easier to film abroad. Filming is difficult in Japan, because it’s hard for people to opening their minds and show their insides to the camera. I think Japanese people are the most difficult people in the world. In Japan it’s easy to access people who are already speaking out or doing something special. They have so much to say. But I’m accessing gentle, shy Japanese mothers. They don’t want to stand up and they don’t want to show off. They say, “I am nothing special. I am normal.”
I always film many, many people, not only great ones. Forming this kind of connection between people makes for a kind of chemical reaction. Belarusian mothers and Fukushima mothers meet in Little Voices from Fukushima. It’s like putting colored ink into water and the color integrates into the water: a chemical reaction. You can see the process of something happening in the mind and the consciousness of these women.
I expect audiences to also see these people and to experience their own chemical reaction. Everybody is limited in their existences, but even these limitations make people want to go beyond themselves. For this film, the mothers needed to protect their children against something so big and they are small. So what do they do?
What has it been like to fundraise for your new movie?
I’m releasing Kamanaka’s Report (KamaReport, it’s called) monthly. I send a video letter to people who pay. It’s just a video letter, but I’m kind of showing the audience footage that I have before the film is completed—like the egg of the film, like a baby version of the film. Every four months, I combine Kama Report and release it on DVD. People buy it and have small screenings. We call them Kama Report Café, hold discussions there about things they cannot discuss freely outside.
In Fukushima, money goes to where people speak positively. If you say, “Rice or crops and vegetables are alright now. You don’t need to worry about Fukushima anymore!” that is where the money goes. People want to survive, and so they take this opportunity. If you say, “Oh, but I’m worried about it!” then people don’t like it, and you’ll be isolated from the community. There is invisible pressure, from society around you. Even before the disaster, Japanese people were not accustomed to discussing political issues. They are very gentle.
In my mind, this is a big issue. It is urgent. But people don’t care. They think: I am one. I am too small. I am powerless.
The generations are divided in Japan. The younger generation isn’t for this issue. I have been a university professor for ten years. I teach anthropology and filmmaking. My students are very dull. They have little passion. From such a young age they have been in Japanese schools. They have received so much pressure from society. In Japan, they cannot have a childhood. They can only be miniature adults. When they arrive as my students they have already learned not to look outside of themselves to social issues. Maybe they have some personal interests, but they do not look outside.
Did you feel pressure to behave a certain way and to be a certain kind of person when you were a child? In school?
When I was young I was bored in school. On my first day of primary school I left the classroom out the window. I escaped out the window the next day and every day for a long time after that. I was growing up in a very rural place, attending a rural school. Every day I went to play with alley dogs and alley cats. I had one wonderful teacher. When I returned to school she said, “Welcome back, Hitomi Chan. How was your trip? Did you have fun?” She thought maybe I had a very low IQ or event mental problems. At that time, all of the students with difficulties were also in the class. So that is why she tolerated me.
Do you see filmmaking as an aesthetic activity foremost? A political activity?
In the beginning, I wanted to shoot only the beautiful side of human beings: people dancing and relaxing and singing—life itself. I was asked in New York: why do you make films? What for? I realized then that the small people and the invisible people always need to be listened to or watched. Strong people are always ignoring those people’s needs. I thought: I can make them visible.
In Japan, contemporary artists are not choosing subjects or adopting inherently social viewpoints. For a long time, they’ve fixated on describing their own ethnicity or, on aesthetics. At the university, I studied contemporary art. I was disappointed in contemporary Japanese artists. Their perspective is so narrow: only looking at themselves, not society.
But art. What is art? Only beautiful things? No, I don’t think so. That’s why my films contain hope, but at the same time depression and difficult stories.
When you filmed ‘Hibakusha at the End of the World,’ you were exposed to depleted uranium in Iraq. You later developed cancer. Has this changed the way you think or make films?
After five years of exposure, yes I became sick. Nobody can say why. It’s possible that it is connected—but not definite. Everybody dies. It’s nature. But if you personally face that you’re going to die in a short time, your focus turns to survival. ‘Why did I get this illness?’ You don’t have time to think about that. You concentrate on surviving.
It’s the same in Fukushima. When many, many illnesses occur, people won’t be able to think why. They will be running around to save the children. By then it’s too late then. Houses can be rebuilt but people’s lives, people’s health, cannot. We can only do something if we act now.