Photo by Laird Hunt

Impressions of Fukushima

Teaching a workshop in the aftermath of the 2011 nuclear disaster, in Koriyama, Fukushima, between famous Japanese novelists in running shoes, empty shrines and the color of persimmons.


My visit to Koriyama, in central Fukushima prefecture, begins with crows feasting on irradiated persimmons, travels past Haruki Murakami’s orange-soled running shoes, and ends with a unicorn made of stars, but the first thing that comes to mind when I think of my time there late last November is a giant, hanging head.

I am up early and out of my hotel (the Washington) and walking empty arcades and the cold streets webbing their way off the massive station square, when I find my way past all the glass and metal and concrete and beautifully strange signs — “Lovery Dog Kirii-Koriyama Triming School” — up ramped, moss-worried steps, to a pair of fierce stone foxes who don’t require trimming, thank you very much. They and the green-roofed red shrine they guard scratch my immediate itch for the old and not obvious (no country I know does a better job of tucking treasured beauties discretely away). I think of turning back, dialing off down different streets, getting back to the hotel, gathering thoughts for the classes I have to teach, but somehow before I know it one shrine has led to another and there she is.

Looking for all the world like a gorgeous glowing oversized swollen Noh-mask, she hangs under the red-gated eaves of a structure I’ll learn later forms a key part of the Asakakunitsuko Shrine, which was tested and found worrying by Greenpeace for radiation in 2011. For now though she remains nameless and I think of her and of the foxes often over the next few days.

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I am in Koriyama for ‘The Drifting Classroom’, an annual school/conference founded in the wake of the 2011 tsunami and subsequent Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant disaster by Koriyama native novelist Hideo Furukawa (Belka, Why Don’t You Bark), whose family owns a local shitake mushroom farm and suffered greatly as did so many when the nuclear reactor melted down.

In my workshop, which takes place in a traditional Japanese room that looks out over a traditional, raked-gravel Japanese garden, hidden away in a high-rise tower, students and I talk luminous detail, photographs, things suppressed and things forgotten. I ask them, after looking at the opening page of Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, and a photograph I requested they bring, to draw an empty frame on their papers, put their photograph away, and write about what is no longer in front of them. Also among the materials I have placed before them is the opening of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, where photographs of animal and human faces have been cropped into eye-focused slivers.

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Earlier (after my visit to the Shrine), I co-ran a conversation on translating and being translated with my translator, Motoyuki “Moto” Shibata. Halfway through, as we were taking a break, a casually dressed man came over and introduced himself. He was wearing a plaid shirt over a white hoodie and orange-sole running shoes and he crouched down on the floor behind us to say hello. I knew who he was immediately. Everyone did. If he noticed that much of the room was stealing glances his way he gave no sign. Later, in the workshop, when the Sebald excerpt comes out, I think of all those eyes flicking toward him and away and back again. The fact that the eyes on the page of Sebald blur the animal and the human seems notable in this context too.

I try to come up with something articulate to say about Sebald and Ondaatje and Murakami’s humanimal! hybrids before the class session ends but the words won’t come. This is appropriate, no doubt, because so many people attending ‘The Drifting Classroom’ are struggling with how to speak the unspeakable in the aftermath of disaster — how one can’t speak, but must and does — but it still bothers me.

I think of turning back, dialing off down different streets, getting back to the hotel, gathering thoughts for the classes I have to teach, but somehow before I know it one shrine has led to another and there she is.

Koriyama is color rich. There are sidewalks painted bright blue in some places, ochre in others, buses striped red rush everywhere, planted greens cut the ubiquitous concrete, a pair of high-rise parking lots near the station are almost emerald, and I stumble upon a yellow and turquoise metal Clorets container by a lost brown glove with a cheerful faux fur fringe. Drink machines, whose choices far exceed the paltry 5 or 6 on these shores, are on every other corner and present like exploded rainbows.

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Signs and advertisements are everywhere in the city center and though I find my hiragana and katakana returning to me from my days as an English teacher in Japan in the 1990s, my kanji is as lost as the glove next to the Clorets tin and I understand little of what I see on my solitary walks beyond standard and unusual (see “triming” above) englishings. The after effects of jet lag (I’ve only been in country for a couple of days) plus these circumstance plus — not just incidentally — the mind-bending experimental novel Loquela by Carlos Labbé that I am on assignment to review make me feel like I’m in an essay by Roland Barthes or a 21st century Lewis Carroll send up, or both.

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There was no “pika”, no bright flash, as at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the Fukushima reactor was breached: just an invisible, air-borne earth- and plant- and animal- and insect- and people-killing event. Koriyama, buffered by distance and luck (the drift went north and west) is well past the worst of it. But still, for me, the visitor, there is a blinding quality to it all.  A kind of too much. A gorgeous surfeit: my brilliant co-teachers, my brilliant students, the brilliant sky, the brilliant buildings, the brilliant, wounded, city, Haruki Murakami’s brilliant orange soles.

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And so I come back to and bend it: partial understanding and compromised articulateness is perhaps the only appropriate reaction during a gathering of people devoted to unpacking and processing and making art after a catastrophe. If I, only an interested outsider, grope for words, ways to say things, so must we all. Or so I tell myself. It makes sense that in our seminars and workshops and discussions with groups small and large the cracks and crevices of language come up. The novelist Mieko Kawakami talks punctuation or the lack thereof during the Heian Period, and Kasetsu, a calligrapher who incorporates moving performance into her practice, notes that punctuation happens in her calligraphy when her brush runs out of ink.

I read so much mortality into this image that as immediately as I can I have to go outside and gulp fresh air. On the esplanade near the bottom of the tower where the events are being held, near a statue of a mother holding her child, I see a big crow pecking away at something, probably a piece of candy.

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I breathe and think of thick brushes and black ink and wonder idly if this is one of the crows I saw the first morning as I went with new friends Yukiko, Kazu, Yuko and Shoichiro to visit first a hundreds-of-years-old sake factory, then a soba-making club. As I’ve said, radiation levels are way down in Koriyama, and even if cleanup efforts continue and the situation, as I learned during a briefing in a lounge at the sake factory by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, is enormously improved, the giant orange persimmons that hang everywhere on trees are still, my friends tell me, mostly being left for the crows.


The crows are everywhere in Koriyama and even as I watch the one in front of me grow tired of trying to fight the candy wrapper another one flies past us both, vaguely, it strikes me, in the direction of the Akakunitsuko Shrine. As I watch it disappear, and think of going back upstairs, I am reminded that as I made my way back to the hotel that morning, I stumbled on a street lined with constellations. I will forget to ask about it before I leave for Osaka two days later, and so even as I look, this morning, now, at the pictures I took — in some of which I can see the reflection of the purple scarf I was wearing — I’m no longer sure quite where in the city they were. Though I rather imagine, were I one day to return, I could easily find them.

All photos by the author.