Telluric Connections, Bodies in Transit

Un Cuerpo en Fukushima in Santiago de Chile

by | Oct 21, 2018

On a summery morning in Santiago, Chile—January 20, 2016—my mother and I decided to go to the Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center. My mother was returning to Brazil the next day, and I was going off on a solo trip to the south of Chile before returning to Cambridge. As we explored the architecture of the space and its many rooms, we encountered an exhibit called “A Body in Fukushima.” Fukushima was for me the birthplace of my ancestors from my mother’s side, and by a stroke of luck she was there with me. We entered a dark silent room, with its walls painted black. The white frames with pictures of the now phantasmagoric abandoned town and its debris stood out. The lower stage of the exhibition, with its ivory bound screens, accentuated the colorful futons carried by a pale, black-haired woman wearing opaque colored kimonos.

“A Body in Fukushima,” performed by Eiko Otake and photographed by William Johnson in the vicinity of Fukushima Daiichi Reactor reminds me of images from the film Dreams by Kurosawa. The photographs, taken in a ghost town, seemed to have come out of an incubus. The spaces portrayed in the pictures existed, the town existed, the people once existed, but they were all washed away by the tsunami. Any life that was spared had to flee from the town, as the radiation was everywhere and remains still there with its invisible and silent poison. Eiko, as the angel of history, wanders around trying to make sense of what was left. Her body, dressed in traditional Japanese clothing, kimono, stands out in the frames amidst emptiness and horror. In some pictures, she carries with her a bright colored futon—sometimes red, other times purple. It stands out as a silent scream, while Eiko’s pale face seems to be grieving with a quiet sorrow. She is the phantom who perambulates aimlessly in this haunted place where it is forbidden for any human being to enter. This was one of the most beautiful and horrifying experiences I had in Chile.

After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and the following meltdown in the nuclear plant, Fukushima will be remembered as the place of one of the most dreadful disasters in history. Nearly 20,000 people died, and about 2,500 went missing, and these numbers do not include the possible future deaths caused by diseases associated with this catastrophe. The Kurosawa dream, in which families are running away trying to escape radiation, came true.

My mother was actually born in Fukushima. Sometimes I forget it, since she went to Brazil when she was only a few months old, on a 56-day trip to the port of Santos. Her boat, Santos-Maru, crossed the oceans full of Japanese immigrants who came to work in the coffee plantations. My grandfather loved nature, and he wanted to be able to work the land, planting fruits and vegetables, and start a new life with his family in Brazil. My grandmother didn’t want to go, but she did not have a choice. She left Fukushima behind without knowing if she would ever go back. Baby Toshimi almost did not make it, since she contracted measles, a highly contagious disease, and was almost thrown overboard for it. Luckily, she survived, and here I am telling this story of bodies in transit and telluric connections.

On that day at the cultural center, I thought “what a surprise and an extraordinary bit of serendipity to have an exhibition on Fukushima in Chile!” It was something of a shock to find this exhibit by chance in Chile when the largest population of Japanese heritage outside Japan is in Brazil; however, I could only see this exhibition when I went to Chile. Why Chile and not Brazil? Brazil is located on the South American Plate and it is out of the reach of significant earthquakes. The same cannot be said for our “neighbor” without shared borders. The haunting disaster in Fukushima, echoed in Chile, a country that shares the same fear as Japan. This upside-down-reflected country is also susceptible to earthquakes and tsunamis. Japan and Chile—both very long, narrow countries— are the farthest from each other among the countries that share the Pacific Ocean. Nonetheless, the fear of natural disasters affects both the Japanese and the Chileans, who both might wonder from time to time why their ocean is called Pacific.

A year before the accident in Fukushima, Santiago de Chile had been struck by a terrible earthquake, 8.8, which became the subject of Juan Villoro’s book 8.8: the fear in the mirror: A Chronicle of the Chilean Earthquake. Villoro was in Santiago for a conference on children’s literature when the earthquake struck. He had already experienced the 1985 earthquake in Mexico—one that left more than 10,000 dead, thousands of injured, and hundreds of thousands of homeless. As he puts it, “We Mexicans have a seismograph in our soul, at least the ones of us who survived 1985.” He lived once again in his body the fear and the trauma one can feel when the earth shakes one’s spirit. The 2010 Chile earthquake and tsunami caused more than 500 deaths. Villoro also mentions Japan on his writings on the earthquake. He remembers having read instructions, in a Japanese manual, on how to survive violent tremors. They recommended keeping a kit handy with a flashlight, a whistle, and a pound of rice. The Japanese, as well as the Chileans and the Mexicans, know what it is like to live with the possibility of having their lives interrupted by seismic waves. Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi saw the aftermaths of the 2010 Chilean earthquake from space and sent a message to Chile “We pray for y[ou].”

Witnessing “A Body in Fukushima” in the context of Chile and with my mother made me think of different kinds of bodies, of narratives of displacement, fear, death and “disbelonging.” This moment of displacement—the earth moving under us shaking the soul of the ones who lived on it, and in the context of this exhibition—touched me in a soft spot removing me from an unstable zone within myself. The connection with my Japanese family was fading away. My mother is one of its last links, but it is a very fragile link, since she cannot really speak Japanese and is not in contact with her relatives still in Japan. She embraced Brazil in a way that makes me forget her place of birth.

The year I went to the exhibition was after the passing of my grandparents. I was never able to tell them that I also appreciated the culture and the place where they came from. All the bullying and prejudice that I suffered while growing up, and I still suffer, for being Asian, made me try to suppress and filter anything that could be associated with them. I rejected that “other” culture, without understanding that I didn’t have to deny their Japanese connections and their race. Why is it so hard for us Latin Americans to understand that Brazilians, in the same way as Chileans, or Mexicans, or many other Latin Americans, or North Americans, are in part Asian, physically, but also in some ways culturally? What are we Americans, if not a mix of several different cultures, ethnicities, races, and even, languages?

The beauty of the performing art, and in this specific case, “A Body in Fukushima” is that it can trespass frontiers, it can touch the audience through the senses and make us understand sorrow, pain, fear, even without writing or saying those words. All surfaces—from the water to the earth, from the photos to the mirrors and windows, from the concrete to the glass, from the confines of our skin to our soul, and from the imaginary boundaries created by us humans, to the walls, all those surfaces—can be fragile and ephemeral. Seeing Eiko wandering around in a land that lost its soul, as a ghost who is trying to understand what is left of humanity, made me think that the body that carries our soul shouldn’t be a barrier for us humans to have empathy with each other, and yet, being a minority in this world can be a reason for a lot of sorrow and pain. The body that carries our soul is also as ephemeral and in transit as the earth.

Eiko Othake says about her performance “By placing my body in these places, I thought of the generations of people who used to live there. Now desolate, only time and wind continue to move.”

I read her comment only after writing my own impressions on this exhibition, and it resonated greatly with me and my family, but I am sure it also resonates with many of the souls in transit in this world. William Johnston, who photographed Eiko’s performance in Fukushima, says “By witnessing events and places, we actually change them and ourselves in ways that may not always be apparent but are important. Through photographing Eiko in these places in Fukushima, we are witnessing not only her and the places themselves, but the people whose lives crossed with those places.” In the same way that Villoro was able to connect with the fear and the sensation of dislocation during the earthquake, Raul Zurita was able to connect with the dreams of Kurosawa. Zurita’s “Dreams for Kurosawa” is full of dead bodies within the geography of Chile, going from the Atacama’s desert to the sea. Bodies that disappeared during the Pinochet dictatorship—it could also have been the dream of Kurosawa or the bodies and lives that were washed away by the tsunami in Fukushima.

“A Body in Fukushima” was part of a larger project entitled “A Body in Places.” Eiko is lending her body and her performances to build bridges and connections between the viewers and the places. Chile and Japan seem to be very far from each other, but they share many ties, including some Japanese Chileans going as far back as 1860 when a Japanese ship docked in Chilean shores. There is also a deep and telluric tie through their earthquakes, a connection through the fear and through the possibility of having a whole city destroyed together with the lives and bodies of the people in it. What makes this exhibition also universal, is that it touches on something that all of us will face one day, death and solitude.

Sometimes you have to be in contact with the disaster and horror to realize that there is a thin line that separates the ones who are still in this world and the ones who have vanished away. Time is implacable, and the “angel of history” wanders around, trying to make sense of the destruction. Being in front of these pictures with my mother in Chile made me have to face again a past that I wanted to forget. Villoro said in his book that he had to go to the end of the world to find another “first occasion” to write about the earth that opens up. I also had to go to Chile and see “A Body in Fukushima” to be able to speak of the traumas of my body, and have another chance to be able to connect with Japan.

Fall 2018Volume XVIII, Number 1

Ana Paula Kojima Hirano is a doctoral student in Harvard’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. As a Ph.D. student, her studies have focused on Latin American literature and film theory and the intersection between history and fiction, and her thesis is on Brazilian filmmaker Eduardo Coutinho. She also co-directed One Day We Arrived in Japan, a documentary film about immigration from Brazil to Japan.

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