Review: Fukushima Black Rain by Soichiro Koriyama

Soichiro Koriyama

It is probably appropriate that Soichiro Koriyama‘s Fukushima Black Rain starts out with a photograph of a wall clock, hanging askew and stopped. It’s a metaphor, and a photographic reference at the same time (Shomei Tomatsu’s famous photograph of a wristwatch from Nagasaki, you can see it here). Nothing truly arrests time. But when your life undergoes massive changes, it can feel as if time had stopped.

The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan caused widespread damage, and they led to a massive loss in life. But they also led to one of the worst nuclear disasters mankind has managed to produce in the relatively short period of time since radioactivity was discovered. The four nuclear reactors at Fukushima were hit by the tsunami, they lost power quickly, and three of them experienced a meltdown. The reactor buildings also exploded, but unlike in Chernobyl this did not expose nuclear material to the atmosphere. As it turns out, information coming from the company in charge of the reactors and from the Japanese government itself has so far proven to be very unreliable (here is just one of the latest examples).

The full extent of the problems at the reactors is still unknown. The radioactive material (this includes the still highly radioactive spent fuel) seems contained and cooled, but there appear to be vast leaks of radioactive water somewhere. If the cooling ever fails again, for whatever reason, the site will be back to where it was after the tsunami hit.

The 2020 Olympic Games were just awarded to Tokyo, which is 238km (94 miles) from Fukushima. Even without the Games, the presence of a nuclear disaster site of this proportion so close to a metro area inhabited by around 36 million people is a very big problem.

So far, the people hardest hit by the Fukushima disaster are those living closest to the plant and those who used to live there, but who had to relocate. Dozens of villages and towns had to be abandoned, many thousands of people had just a very short period of time to collect whatever they could carry or transport, to be evacuated to safety. Soichiro Koriyama is one of the photographers who went to the area to take pictures. Unlike many of his Western colleagues, he did not focus quite so much on empty streets in deserted towns. Instead, he worked more closely to the people of the area, some of them going back once a week to their homes, some of them dairy farmers, some of them going with their lives elsewhere, giving birth or dying.

Fukushima Black Rain, the resulting book, compiles this work, to create a moving and somber reflection on loss, and on lives turned upside down. The photographs are stark, and they are made to work together wonderfully. One cannot help but be moved by what one is looking at, even if a Westerner might miss a lot of the cultural connotations in many of the photographs. There is an index at the very end of the book, with short captions that provide some context for the photographs – this helps massively understanding some of the more subtle things going on.

Radioactivity is invisible, as are feelings. Photography can only deal with something that is invisible by trying to work around it, by doing this little dance that if you do it well will reveal that, which is talked about only indirectly. Fukushima Black Rain does this very successfully. Recommended.

Fukushima Black Rain; photographs and short text by Soichiro Koriyama; 72 pages; Shinnihon; 2013

(Unfortunately, I was completely unsuccessful tracking down information about the book online. The publisher has a website – this might prove helpful if you speak Japanese (I don’t). There’s an ISBN: ISBN978-4-406-0563-1; and Peter Evans of Microcord fame supplied me with the Japanese Amazon page)