A Reluctant Activist

Interview: Yumiko Sakuma / Portrait: Ports Bishop, Festival Photos: Hikaru Fujii, Ryosuke Kikuchi

Otomo Yoshihide, an experimental music giant from Japan who is probably most well known as the leader of the 1990s noise rock band Ground Zero, has recently become a de facto activist representing the people of Fukushima in the wake of the nuclear power plant crisis. He started a UStream TV station, Dommune Fukushima!, and on August 15th, he hosted a music and arts festival FUKUSHIMA!.
Late last year, he came to New York to play a show with Christian Marclay and Periscope caught up with him.

Q. Your speech at Tokyo University of the Arts about Fukushima was translated into various languages and circulated widely on internet.
As the speech was made about a month after the Tohoku Earthquake, I was still panicking. But since nobody had spoken out, I made a resolution that somebody had to start, and that if I spoke out, I would have to shoulder and stand by what I'd said.
Now I feel like, opening my mouth or keeping it shut in the future won't change anything because I have already made that speech.
Q. What do you want people  outside of Fukushima and Japan to know?
I want them to know about "current conditions" in Fukushima, even though that term is kind of vague. Unlike right after the disaster, if you are interested there is much information about the accidents at the Fukushima power plants as to how widespread the radioactivity is.  So people outside of Japan might wonder why people in Fukushima have not evacuated or have not fled.  They might also wonder why I am trying to make art and host cultural activities in a dangerous place like Fukushima.  I am not even sure if it is right to assume Fukushima to be a dangerous place. Of course it does have some danger, but I think I operate out of an area that does not require an immediate evacuation.  People are divided on that point.  I honestly don't know.  But as long as more than 80% of people are choosing to live in areas that have not been evacuated by the government, I want to choose a way of living and thinking with these people.  
I am not doing the Fukushima project to advocate against nuclear energy, even though I would like to see it go in the long term.  What I focus on is  creating a place where we can think about how people can live in areas that have experienced the disaster.  And I want to tell the world how horrible things can happen and the way they mess up your life.
Q. How was it growing up in Fukushima?
I was aware that there were nuclear energy plants on the coast, and that they were operated by TEPCO,  but I thought they had nothing to do with me.  I hated  grown-up society and I just wanted to do music and noise in a place that has nothing to do with complicated stuff, which I have been doing.  So I do have some anger at myself for having been that way.
Q. You play music with physically challenged children in "Otoasobi Project" ?
The fact that I started working with them opened a door to society for me.  Before that I only wished to play music with people who knew music.  I didn't bother to connect with regular people and I didn't feel the need to connect with the society.  But I happened to get involved with physically challenged kids and it became interesting. I didn't mean it to be some social activity or for me to become an activist, it was rather an extension of playing music. I just happened to meet interesting people.  They are a pain-in-the-neck, but really interesting people just like musicians tend to be pains-in-the-neck in general. They all tend to have problems, like drug problems. But if you think about it, people have different types of challenges and I learned that in playing music, physically challenged kids are no different. What I learned was the appeal of working with not just physically challenged kids, but also with amateurs. I'd never cared for playing with musicians who are not pros.  I used to feel like (if I were to play music with amateurs,) I'd have to come down to their level. But there is a different type of fun in playing music with amateurs, and physically challenged kids made me realize that.  So in addition to playing with physically challenged kids, I started a project called "ensemble" where the public can participate.  So when the nuclear accident happened and I went back to Fukushima where there were no professional musicians, naturally, it occurred to me I can do what I had been interested in. There are things only amateurs would do, like not thinking about profits. What I had been doing linked to what happened after the disaster, and we got to create a framework where people can participate in the process.  Of course, it is not a solution under the radiation, but it can be something that energizes people into thinking how to live in this.
Q. So that led to the Fukushima! festival?
Having talked to people in Fukushima, I concluded that we needed something that would give people energy to live, something like a festival.  Right after the earthquakes, you could do with food and a place to sleep, but after that, you would need culture, like words or festivals.  Without that you wouldn't be able to understand and confront what the conditions are. I also proposed that, since the name Fukushima became so internationally well known, but in a horrible way, we would make efforts to turn the name into something positive.  So with people like poet Ryoichi Wago and punk musician Michiro Endo, we launched Project Fukushima! in May.  To begin with, I thought two things needed to happen: one was to create a place where beginners like us can study about radiation, and the other was to start a medium where we could communicate information out of Fukushima.  And we chose August 15th, the day Japan surrendered to end World War II, to hold a festival at a place called Village of Four Seasons, which is a gigantic lawn that had a relatively low radiation level. After speaking with the scientist Shinzo Kimura, we concluded that having a festival for one day would not pose a serious danger.  But since the lawn had cesium, we saw the need to set something up to prevent it from contacting people's skin, or being tracked outside from people's shoes. And then Kimura suggested laying down Furoshiki, a traditional cloth for wrapping. So originally, we thought every single member of audience could bring a Furoshiki and turn it into an art work.  I consulted with Toru Nakazaki, an artist and he said it would be impossible unless we spent a month sewing Furoshikis into a gigantic piece of Furoshiki.  So we made this 6000 square meter (1.48 acres) of Furoshiki, asking people all over Japan, from Okinawa to Hokkaido, to donate Furoshikis. For three weeks, we had 20 to 30 volunteers, including artists, musicians, the neighbors of my parents, and a lot of ordinary people in Fukushima. The festival started out by laying the Furoshiki, and on top of it, we played all kinds of music including "Orchestra Fukushima" where amateurs and musicians like Ryuichi Sakamoto played music together.  It really was a blast.
Q. How do you feel about being called an activist?
I think everybody is an activist in some ways whether you like it or not.  You don't have to show that side when things are normal, but hardships like this force you to act.  I happen to be a musician and have a few media outlets which I could use to get out the information about Fukushima when there is so little coming out.  I don't know what would come out of it, but I feel like I should do this.  I don't know how these activities would connect to my music.  I don't dare to think music can change the society, not even a bit. One thing I can say for sure is that I want to keep this project alive, and that we need to keep studying what kind of condition we are in.  Radiation is not something we can feel or see, but something we have to think about.  So if we stop thinking about it, it would be the end of it. If there is something culture and art can do, it would be to show a framework where we can think about it.
Q. Is there anything else you want people to know?
I am not an anti-nuclear energy activist, but there is one thing that I cannot accept, which is the fact that Japan continues to export nuclear plants and technology after all these things have happened. As long as Japanese people agree on it, I can accept that we have nuclear energy, even though I don't like it. But even though this crisis has caused so much damage, how as human beings do you justify exporting the technology? I can't forgive them and I want to say this out loud. I am anti exporting nuclear energy.  I want to invite people to come and see what’s happening in Fukushima.  There are many things that the government has done since the earthquake that have made me sick, but this is the biggest one. Japan could regain credibility by quitting the export of nuclear energy plant, but they won't because it is profitable. That is their real motive.
  • Photo: Ryosuke Kikuchi
  • Photo: Hikaru Fujii


Otomo's speech, The Role of Culture:
After the Earthquake and Man-made Disasters in Fukushima, April 28, 2011:
Otoasobi Project
Japan Society video:


Team Periscope is traveling in


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