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November 6, 2017

Poetry in the Wake of Nuclear Disaster

On March 11, 2011, an unprecedented magnitude-9.0 earthquake razed northeastern Japan, causing a tsunami and the meltdown of a nuclear reactor in Fukushima. Much like the tectonic ripples that continued to shake Japanese soil in subsequent days, Enrico Fermi and his team’s groundbreaking initiation of the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction in 1942 set off a series of waves throughout history.

As part of the University’s commemoration of Fermi’s innovation, the Program in Poetry and Poetics, supported by the Committee on Japanese Studies in the Center for East Asian Studies, hosted “Arts and the Nuclear Age: Japanese Poets Speak Out About Fukushima.” Attendees of the event on November 1 were invited to partake in a historical investigation of the 2011 catastrophe in light of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as CP-1, Fermi’s reactor.

Jeffrey Angles, a prolific translator of Japanese poetry as well as a poet himself, used the works of poets affected by the bombings as a vehicle through which to explore the meaning of trauma, the anxieties accompanying the risk of mass-destruction, and the potential of science for good and evil in a post-nuclear world. Japanese poet Takako Arai’s impassioned readings in the event’s second half rattled listeners with rhymes straddling a unique position between bereavement and dark humor, a delivery only intensified by the storm brewing outside the Logan Center’s 8th-floor windows.

Often referred to as 3/11, evoking the catastrophic weight of 9/11, the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown also left Japan’s media landscape in ruin. Newspapers were inundated with images of the reactors and rueful reprises, often in the form of poetry, replaced jovial television commercials. Japanese poets played a substantial role in driving the nation’s cultural response to Fukushima—one inexorably tinted with the memory of the 1945 atomic bombs. From fundraisers and travelling exhibitions to popular music and social media sites, post-3/11 poetry proliferated like atoms in fission, opening up a space for mourning, protest, and eventual healing. Angles, who is a professor of Japanese language and literature at Western Michigan University, gave several readings from his translated anthology, These Things Here and Now, to illustrate the sundry positions Japanese poets took towards the meltdown, citing figures like Ryoichi Wago, whose poetic tweets were compiled in book form, and Chikara Kojima, an ardent anti-nuclear activist since the advent of the contentious technology.

After a short break, Arai and Angles alternated reading the former’s poetry in Japanese and English, respectively, conjuring ancient ritual and modern practice. “Dollology” re-frames the annual tradition of wrapping silks around a sacrificial effigy as a form of feminist critique, while “Galapagos” satirizes capitalism and the nuclear industry. In “Lots and Lots”, Arai attacks the “cruel joke” of the popular manga, Mighty Atom, (later Americanized into Astroboy) and how the threat of nuclear disaster insidiously hid behind the kawaii façade of its animated characters. Much of Arai’s 3/11 work is informed by her visit to Fukushima in July, when the government declared the area fit for repopulation, though it was still a ghost town. “Half a Pair of Shoes” was precisely what she continued to find washed up on the shore of a prefecture not far from the site of the reactors, inspiring the poem’s imagistic invocation of the ocean’s rage “as the other shoe was swallowed.”

Despite the brevity of the evening’s foray into Fukushima-inspired poetry, listeners nonetheless left with a better appreciation of the personal and political complexity in the wake of nuclear disaster, and, hence, a more thorough understanding of the legacy left by Fermi’s momentous success on December 2, 1942. 

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