A Restatement: The Art of ‘Ground Zero’ (Part 25)
From the Daigo Fukuryu Maru to the present (1)
From the reception marking the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall (a sketch based on a work by Kobo Abe). Photo courtesy the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Peace Association
On May 29 I attended a reception at the Gakushi Kaikan in Kanda marking the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Tokyo Metropolitan Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall. (1) The venue was packed, and here and there around the table could be seen the faces of what could be called historical witnesses to the events surrounding the ship that has a long and checkered past. Among them was Masaharu Okano, who was on board the Shunkotsu Maru, the improvised research vessel manned by interested scientists from various fields that was sent to investigate the accident and measure radioactivity in the area in May, some two months after the incident, and was responsible for taking and analyzing samples of the “death ash” in the waters around Bikini Atoll. (2) Yes, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the opening of this facility in Yumenoshima, Koto-ku, on June 10, 1976.
Above: Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall. Below: The hull of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru displayed at the Hall. Photos courtesy the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Peace Association.
On March 1, 1954, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, a tuna fishing boat operating out of the port of Yaezu, was exposed to radioactive “death ash” scattered by the US Castle Bravo nuclear test conducted at Bikini Atoll near the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, despite the fact that it was fishing in the open sea. All of the 23 people on board experienced acute radiation syndrome and were taken to Yaezu Kyoritsu Hospital upon returning to port. On September 23 the same year, the chief radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, who had been in critical condition, died at Tokyo First National Hospital (the present National Center for Global Health and Medicine). For the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan was a victim of nuclear weapons. But that is not all. It was later discovered that the entire Pacific Ocean – a fishing ground that supplies the marine products that underpin the Japanese diet – had been contaminated as a result of the dispersion of radioactive material. Enormous amounts of fish including so-called “radioactive tuna” or “nuclear tuna” were disposed of around the country by burial in the ground, for example. As well, we now know that in fact many fishing boats were exposed to radiation at the time, although the full extent of the damage, including the contamination not only of tuna but of bonito, which is greatly affected by the Japan Current, and the impact on humans of the radioactive material in the rain that fell all over Japan after the nuclear test, is still unclear.
Soon afterwards, following appeals to the ward assembly by fishmongers and other affected parties, housewives in Suginami Ward began to protest, sparking an uproar that developed into a large-scale, nationwide signature-collecting campaign to halt nuclear testing. As an extension of this, on August 6 the following year, the first World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs was held in Hiroshima, while in September 1955 the Japanese Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs was formed followed by the formation of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations the following year. In truth, it was as a result of the exposure of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru to nuclear fallout that the Japanese people first became fully conscious of the evil of radioactivity by tracing it back to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and could actually express their opinion about and act on their real fears of this evil. In this sense, the significance of the existence of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru is not limited to the historical fact that it was the first example of exposure to radiation in Japan since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, in the context of the turmoil surrounding the meltdown of Reactor 3 (ie, the large-scale radiation leak) at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, its significance is even greater today. Furthermore, it was just two days after US President Obama visited Hiroshima on May 27 that this commemorative reception for the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall was held. What was surprising was that despite it being such a valuable opportunity, the program of the ceremony handed out at the reception area included nothing in the way of a message from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Given the opening speeches by the mayors of the cities of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Yaezu, and of the town of Kushimoto in Wakayama prefecture, where the Daigo Fukuryu Maru was built, is it not downright cruel that the city of Tokyo, under whose jurisdiction the hull and engine now fall, should remain silent?
The engine of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru displayed outdoors on the grounds of the exhibition hall. Photo courtesy the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Peace Association.
Of course, there is actually some background behind this attitude. Of the various items displayed in this exhibition hall, in fact only two, the hull and the engine, come under the jurisdiction of the metropolitan government. But if you actually set foot inside the exhibition hall, you will see that for the purposes of informing visitors of the true circumstances of this historic case of radiation exposure, as many as 3300 items are stored, and displayed as the occasion demands. In other words, while the metropolitan government owns the exhibits, it has no involvement in the instructional or peace educational policies conducted at the exhibition hall. To put it another way, the exhibition hall is no more than a “shed” for the hull that comes under the jurisdiction of the metropolitan government (the engine is displayed outside) and is not registered as a museum to begin with. The administrative body is actually a public interest incorporated foundation called the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Peace Association.
Even given the above, however, there is no changing the fact that for 40 years this exhibition hall has collected and stored valuable material related to the hull, which has become a historical medium embodying Hiroshima and Nagasaki and communicating their message widely to the world, and given us the opportunity to learn about the exposure of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru to radiation. Not only that, but if this incident had not been widely reported, and if the World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs and the Japanese Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs that were born soon after, and the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations did not emerge, then Hiroshima and Nagasaki might have become something completely different than what they mean today. In fact, if it were not for this series of events, then even the aforementioned visit to Hiroshima by President Obama might not have become a reality. That this incident has resisted fading from memory and being forgotten and continues to be handed down to this day is due largely to the fact that the hull has continued to be preserved as a “thing” and “exists” in a place where we can go and see it whenever it occurs to us. But that is not all. In the aims of the establishment of this exhibition facility (“Aims of the establishment of the exhibition hall and of the exhibits”), the metropolitan government clearly states, “The Tokyo Metropolitan Government built this exhibition hall in the hope both that people will learn through interacting with the real thing about the wooden vessel that embarked on a deep-sea fishing voyage and that the horror of an atomic or hydrogen bomb attack will never be repeated.” (June 10, 1976) This date corresponds to the date 40 years ago when the exhibition hall was opened.
Presented with such a historic opportunity, why couldn’t the metropolitan government – the owner of the hull and engine that have formed the very foundation of the ideas and hopes for the future I have just outlined – reissue a clear message? After all, wasn’t it a report by personnel at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Bureau of Port and Harbor, along witih other interested parties, that uncovered the fact that “waste” resembling the Daigo Fukuryu Maru’s hull had been dumped at Yumenoshima, and wasn’t it the Governor of Tokyo, Ryokichi Minobe, who announced in the Metropolitan Assembly in 1968 that he would cooperate in preserving the hull?
In any case, backed by this historical context, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru has inspired numerous artists and given rise to countless works of art. Taro Okamoto’s Men Aflame (1955, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo) and Myth of Tomorrow (1969, currently installed inside Shibuya Station) and Ben Shahn’s series Lucky Dragon (1960, Fukushima Prefectural Museum of Art) have long been famous, but the Toho movie Godzilla (director: Ishiro Honda; special effects director: Eiji Tsuburaya; music: Akira Ifukube, etc.), which was released in November 1954, the same year the Daigo Fukuryu Maru was exposed to radiation, has particularly strong meaning today. Its influence, resulting in numerous remakes both here and in Hollywood – the latest of which, Shin Godzilla, also known as Godzilla Resurgence (co-director/VFX director: Shinji Higuchi; writer/editor/director: Hideaki Anno), is due to be released this summer – has extended globally and shows no sign of waning. If anything, its actuality – Shin Godzilla boasts the tag line: “Reality (Japan) versus fiction (Godzilla)” – is growing.
Taro Okamoto – Myth of Tomorrow (1969), 30 x 5.5 m. On lower right is a motif with a fishing boat, thought to be the Daigo Fukuryu Maru. In 2011, Chim↑Pom’s guerilla addition of LEVEL 7 feat. Myth of Tomorrow, depicting the explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, to the lower left corner of the painting provoked controversy.
Ben Shahn’s series Lucky Dragon developed out of the illustrations he created to accompany physicist Ralph Lapp’s reportage of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru story published in Harper’s Magazine in 1957-58. In 2006, these illustrations were also turned into the picture book Home is Here: Ben Shahn’s Lucky Dragon (Shueisha), with text and layout by Arthur Binard. Lucky Dragon (1960, cotton/tempera, Fukushima Prefectural Museum of Art), which accompanies the essay by Binard at the end of the book, is thought to have been painted by Aikichi Kuboyama.
Trailer for the movie Godzilla (1954, Toho)
At the least, however, at the time of the original release of Godzilla, based on the social conditions of the day, it is unlikely that audiences would have been able to view separately Godzilla, the Castle Bravo nuclear test, the fear of “radioactive tuna” stemming from the exposure of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru to radiation, and the appearance in Tokyo of an enormous, radioactive-fire breathing, thermonuclear sea monster. In this sense, the time has come for us to take a fresh look at the various works of art mentioned above as examples of art born out of the aftermath of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru incident, from the works of Taro Okamoto and Ben Shahn to Godzilla, based on the new background that has come into view. The event and words that symbolizes this new background are none other than the death of Aikichi Kuboyama, the “victim” who departed this world soon after the Daigo Fukuryu Maru was exposed to radiation, and the words inscribed on his monument: “I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb.” (To be continued)
The Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall website
- At the reception, a pamphlet marking the 40th anniversary of the opening of the hall titled
Toritsu Daigo Fukuryu Maru tenjikan 40 nen no ayumi
- (Tokyo Metropolitan Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall: 40 years of history) (Daigo Fukuryu Maru Peace Association) was handed out, which I referred to in writing this column.
- Masaharu Okano (1926- ). After the Daigo Fukuryu Maru incident, he has continued to monitor developments at sites of severe radiation accidents, including the Chernobyl disaster, using radiation-measuring instruments he has made himself. His activities at the time of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, including his monitoring of environmental radiation levels at his home in Kamakura using a scintillation spectrometer and his being among the first people to transport equipment into the disaster-stricken area and measuring contamination levels while moving around in a car with radiation hygienist Shinzo Kimura, were widely reported in the NHK ETV special “A Radioactive Contamination Map Created via a Network.”