At the Mercy of the Waves
04.07.2012, 2:52 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

the Shirakawa (White River) in Kyoto, Japan, FOP 2012

There is a Chinese character rarely used today in modern Japanese: . It has largely been replaced by a slightly simplified character composed of 12 strokes instead of 16. Both of these kanji are pronounced “zui.” Both can be found in words such as “zuihitsu,” which is described as a miscellaneous essay, literary jotting, or musing–a form this blog post is likely to take. While the modern, simplified version has acquired additional meanings over the years, it retains its old definition, which is the sole meaning of the out-of-date kanji: “at the mercy of (the waves).”

We’re about 20 days into our time in Japan, and despite having a very limited understanding the Japanese language, we sense that an appropriation of “zui’s” historical meaning offers us a way to begin to creatively respond, and make sense of our experiences here to-date.

Over the past three weeks we have sensed some of the literal and metaphorical waves that are shaping life in Japan, many of which were set in motion by events last March.  These waves are affecting each other and in turn sending waves of change around the world. Human desire and technical capacity can direct and channel some of these waves, but not others.

Our Amulets for Infrastructure project is underway. But because of our time here, we are realizing more fully that infrastructure might best be understood as human attempts to concentrate, hold, channel and redirect powerful earth forces–as we try to negotiate the physical world. Some of our best attempts are more successful than others. The tsunami waves of last March breached critical infrastructure designs here in Japan, resulting in incalculable waves of feelings, waves of connection and disconnection among people, waves of political change—and the unleashing of invisible radioactive waves out from Fukushima Daiichi.  Even if one can not see or feel these various waves, we sense that on the streets and in the homes of people living and working in Japan, a profound and quiet adaptation is taking place to how these waves are materially re-shaping daily life.

sign posted on the door to Cafe Kailash in Kyoto, graphic by nijino-tane

Last week we read March was Made of Yarn, a compilation of essays and poems that respond to the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.  In the introduction, the editors encouraged readers to sense how experiences in Japan might lend insights to broad audiences:

“The idea for this project took gradual shape as we traveled among Tokyo, Tohoku, London and New York, watching from near and far as March 11 and its aftermath unfolded. A thought became a shared idea that was developed further as we shoveled debris into the back of trucks in Tohoku, as riots racked London, as storms struck the East Coast of the United States, as a heat wave hit Tokyo, as floods raged through Bangkok, even as the cleanup in northeastern Japan proceeded but radiation continued to leak. It has been that kind of year.”

Indeed, with The New York Times report this week that radioactive beef is quite possibly being sold and eaten by Americans (the result of cattle grazing on lands surrounding abandoned uranium mines in Arizona), the radioactive contamination currently affecting food supplies in Japan is hardly unique to this country. Fukushima is far from being the only source of radioactive contamination in food. We’ve all been at the mercy of such waves since some time around 1945.

Describing the rewritten, 2011 version of her 1993 essay (entitled God Bless You) that appears in March Was Made of Yarn, Hiromi Kawakamisays:

“But let me return to the story of the god of uranium. Uranium-235 had been resting there in the ground, quietly dwindling away for billions of years. Had no human touched it, it would have gone on peacefully emitting its piddling quantities of radiation without any problems … Human beings, however, had another idea. They gathered bits of U-235 from wherever they lay, concentrated them, and then whipped them into action. ‘Split your atoms,’ they cried. ‘Give us light, give us heat, give us power. Work! Work!’ For nuclear bombs, they demanded that the power be released in great explosions; for nuclear power, in dribs and drabs … If the god of uranium really exists, then what must he be thinking? Were this a fairy tale of old, what would happen when humans break the laws of nature and turn gods into minions?’ … my purpose was to express my amazement at how our daily lives can go on uneventfully day after day and then suddenly be so dramatically changed by external events…”

After the March 11 disaster, the Japanese government raised the limits for acceptable amounts of cesium in the food supply.  Recently, we saw a story on the NHK evening news (the national broadcaster of Japan).  It explained that as of April 1st, these limits have been lowered significantly.

NHK evening news on April 5, 2012 showing lowered levels of cesium (measured in becquerels) now deemed acceptable in the Japanese food supply as of April 1st, FOP 2012

It’s cherry blossom season in Japan and there is a strong cultural tradition to celebrate both the appearance and disappearance of these tiny flowers. This sensibility, of acknowledging and contemplating perishability, runs deep in Japanese culture. We’ve been watching blossoms arrive slowly along a small river in Kyoto, the Shirakawa. The continuous streaming of water beneath the ephemeral blooms gives sensations, both celebratory and slightly melancholic, of the relentless change that permeates daily life here.

sakura blossoms, Kyoto, Japan, FOP 2012

As expected, our Amulets for Infrastructure project is changing purpose and meaning as we adapt it in ways we think might make better use of it in Japan. Our neighbors here in Kyoto have helped us to gain an expanded understanding of “infrastructure.”  Some of the most important forms of  civic and urban “infrastructure” are human-to-human networks of communication and daily gestures of social connection. Just down the street from where we are living, a community group is working to save one of Kyoto’s traditional forms of architecture, a machiya townhouse, from demolition.  They have staged a pop-up tea house and cherry blossom viewing station in a vacant lot next to the machiya—an ephemeral aperture for cherry blossom viewing and tea drinking that also informs about the group’s efforts. Such human connections are among the most vital, urgent, and reliable of “infrastructures.”  The fact that this group is forging human networks on behalf of an infrastructural remnant–the machiya– makes it especially relevant to the amulets for infrastructure project.

ephemeral outdoor tea house and machiya along the Shirakawa, Kyoto, FOP 2012

Kyoto infrastructure in action, cherry blossoms in background, FOP 2012

Yesterday we passed off our first amulet for infrastructure at Cafe Kailash.  It’s one of the few cafes we have encountered that openly reports that it has tested its food for radiation. We offered an amulet to the owners of the cafe to acknowledge their effort, and the importance of human and technical infrastructures that support the world’s food supplies.  They then told us that mothers from northern regions of Japan have brought their children to eat at this restaurant because they could trust that the food here was safer than in their home cities.

flyer posted in the bathroom at Cafe Kalish, FOP 2012

This week, we also shared the Amulets for Infrastructure project with a group of students in fashion design at the Kyoto University of Art and Design. The students will be making their own amulets for infrastructure and we look forward to documenting and sharing the results of this collaboration in the coming weeks.

Kyoto power lines, FOP 2012

 Kamo River, Kyoto, FOP 2012

We encountered this stanza from J.D. McClatchy’s poem, entitled One Year Later, while reading March was Made of Yarn.  It gave us one more reason to embrace the antiquated Chinese character , (zui: at the mercy of the waves) and take it as inspiration:

Ministers, tell me
Why did you think that power
Would stay where it was?
Aging cores collapse
Under waves of a future
No one can live in.
The reactors stand there still.
What is left to warm or kill?

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