YANAI, Yamaguchi Prefecture -- Kikujiro Fukushima’s eyes barely see, his ears barely take in sounds and his legs give out on a 100-meter walk with his dog. But when he learned that villages near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant were to be evacuated, he knew it was time to summon up his last strength and head over there.
One of Japan’s best-known documentary photographers of the 20th century, the 91-year-old brushed the dust off his old cameras, got on the phone and caught a ride to Iitate, 39 kilometers removed from the stricken nuclear reactors and nearly 800 km from his room cluttered with negatives and newspaper clippings in the town of Yanai, Yamaguchi Prefecture.
“I’d been watching for months and taking notes, and knew exactly where I wanted to go,” says the photographer, who saw in Iitate--where dairy farmers refusing to abandon their animals stood against government evacuation orders--a metaphor for Japan’s greater struggle. “To see it on television is one thing, but as a photographer who spends a long time with his subjects, I knew I had to see it with my own eyes.”
That may seem odd, given that his visit, in which he was followed by a documentary film crew, lasted barely three days. Yet Fukushima’s relationship with nuclear fusion and its aftermath goes back to the summer of 1945.
Then a private in the Imperial Japanese Army, Fukushima was spared from the world’s first atomic bombing when his unit was transferred out of Hiroshima six days before “Little Boy” was dropped on the city on Aug. 6. He returned promptly after Japan’s surrender, however, at first to buy parts on the black market for his watch repair business, but later to begin a lifelong obsession.
Fukushima’s early Hiroshima photographs, many taken out of sight of authorities, show burn victims with their wounds still raw. Yet it was an extended eight-year project that first brought the photographer recognition.
Month after month, he focused on one subject, Sugimatsu Nakamura, a bombing victim whose struggles with radiation poisoning, poverty and depression would eventually wreck his family--but bring the photographer fame. Nakamura demanded that Fukushima capture him raw, for whom leaving a record was a final revenge.
Where his images of Iitate connect with those of Hiroshima, says Fukushima, is on the stage of normally unseen, long-term suffering.
“There were no nosebleeds, there was nothing to see,” he says of his Iitate experience, making hard to grasp the surveys in the exclusion zone estimating radiation to be 200 times higher than that of Hiroshima.
“What concerns me most is radiation-caused ailments. The radiation from the Fukushima plant has not yet totally stopped, so it continues to accumulate,” he also said. “They say decontamination efforts will reduce the accumulated radiation, but it is not going to be that easy. This makes me feel irritated and frustrated.”
There are hardly any people, either in the area or in the photographs. One of the simplest images in the black-and-white series is also the most powerful: It shows a line of gravestones before the sea, all slanted in the same direction.
“When I saw the markers I didn’t think of the dead; I thought of those still living,” says Fukushima. Weighing 37 kilograms after three cancer surgeries, the photographer had to prop himself up against the breeze so he could trip his shutter. “I saw several places and didn’t find many gravestones completely fallen down. I saw flower offerings, so I realized that people had come back to prop them up again. But among these same survivors are also people who have taken their own lives. Now that the big cleanup has started, I guess we’ll get to see the ugliest parts exposed.”
Fukushima says that as soon as it struck, he realized that the disaster would be the natural conclusion to a long career. After Hiroshima, the newly forged photographer turned his lens to Japan’s re-armed Self-Defense Forces, then to discriminated minorities and then violent student protests that defined the 1960s and early 1970s.
In 1982, when the easy money of the asset-inflated “bubble economy” began to still voices of protest, Fukushima quit Tokyo and moved to an uninhabited island in the Seto Inland Sea. From there, he moved to Yanai, close to his birthplace and Hiroshima, to continue his self-imposed and unpensioned (since he refused any assistance from the government he’d spent decades criticizing) exile.
Referring to the nation’s nuclear burden, he asks, “Japan is an advanced country, but what has it done? … It’s built a Peace Park and a monument where people come to sing once a year. I’ve seen it 60 or 70 times now, but other than that, is there anything to show?”
To ask that is to question the worth of his own photos, several of which have been inducted into the memorial.
“To be truthful, I’ve covered many issues, but have never seen one come to a satisfying conclusion,” he says. He explains that his photographic career so far has been defined by two collapses: One military, and the other economic--the 20-year hollow after the bubble.
“I don’t want to see Fukushima become the third. I have a sense that if we can’t recover from this accident, then this country’s decline will see no end.”
One old man pointing a camera at toppled headstones will not stem the tide, he admits. All he can do is set an example--for the record.
“I didn’t make a photographer of myself,” Fukushima says. “It was the times that made me what I am. Accomplishments might come easier to those with natural talent, but in the end it comes down to time. If there’s something you have to say, live long and keep shooting. Eventually it will be heard.”
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This article was originally posted on March 08, 2012.
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