Seventy-five years ago, on 6 August 1945, an American warplane destroyed the city of Hiroshima with a single atomic bomb. Over the following five months, 140,000 people died. The surviving 210,000 came to be known in Japanese as hibakusha, ‘bombed people’. A second atomic bomb destroyed the city of Nagasaki on 9 August, leaving 73,000 dead and 200,000 hibakusha.
Sakoku, Japan’s 200-year policy of national isolation, ended in 1854. As breathless British travellers returned home, writing of their adventures, interest in Japanese-style gardens blossomed. ‘The mountains of Japan are covered with forest,’ the naturalist Isabella Bird wrote in 1876, ‘and the valleys and plains are exquisitely tilled gardens. The Empire is very rich in flowers.’ The craze was brisk. Josiah Conder’s influential book Landscape Gardening in Japan was published in 1893. Gunnersbury Park laid out its Japanese Garden in 1901. There were nurseries, such as Gauntletts of Chiddingfold, that specialised in Japanese styles, lanterns and imported plants. White City hosted the Japan-British Exhibition in 1910. Dwarf trees, bamboos and pines were shipped from Japan for the exhibition’s Garden of Peace and Garden of the Floating Isles. Over six months, eight million visitors came hoping to be transported to Japan via authentic tea houses and replica ‘peasant’ villages, which the Japanese press found embarrassing.
Two canary yellow stratocasters, mounted on stands to face each other and wired into squat black amps, buzz with a tentative open string drone. Next to the guitars hangs the shell of a radiation-proof suit. The stage is set for a band that never arrives: Fuyuki Yamakawa’s Atomic Guitars – recently on display at the Tokyo Art Fair – are played by decaying atoms.
The events unfolding at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant are already worse than any worst case scenario could have predicted. Three reactors are thought to be damaged, but no one knows how badly, because the tsunami knocked out most of the instruments that would have allowed operators to read, among other things, water levels. With the roofs blown off by hydrogen explosions, there is increasing concern over the spent fuel pools inside the secondary containment shells. The spent fuel, recently discharged from the reactor cores, is hot and extremely radioactive. If the fuel disintegrates (or ‘melts’) because of insufficient cooling, there is a chance that it could reach criticality, either inside the core or in the spent fuel pools. In other words, a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction could start, and fires could spread the radioactivity far and wide – depending on wind and weather conditions, possibly beyond Japan.
The media are giving as much attention to the Fukushima I nuclear power plant as they are to the impact of the tsunami, even though the likelihood of measurable health effects from the former is small, and the number of deaths caused by the latter is certain to be very large. This isn’t surprising: nuclear fear, founded on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and reinforced by Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, is not irrational, though it’s worth noting that many more people have been saved by X-rays and radiotherapy than have been killed by radiation of any kind. What’s happening at Fukushima Dai-ichi Units 1 and 2 is similar to what happened at Three Mile Island Unit 2 in 1979.
I’ve been living in Ichikawa City, on the outskirts of Tokyo, since January. It all feels a very long way from Berkeley, California: my neighbourhood here has a public address system, for example, which quietly reminds us at 4.30 every afternoon that the children are on their way home from school and we should try not to run them over, and half an hour later plays a thirty-second excerpt from the New World Symphony (arranged for organ). With the few minor earthquakes I’ve experienced in California, it’s often been hard to tell whether it‘s really a quake or just a heavy truck going past, and by the time I’ve shambled over to stand in a doorway the whole thing‘s already over, with no harm done except maybe a couple of broken plates. No one I know in Berkeley has a disaster kit or a disaster plan. The consensus seems to be that it probably won’t happen, and even if it does, as long as you’re not on the Bay Bridge you’ll be fine. There was no doubting what was happening when the earthquake struck here this afternoon.
Over the past two weeks, a dispute between Japan and China over a series of islands claimed by both countries has spiralled into a major diplomatic incident. In response to the Japanese coastguard’s seizure of a Chinese fishing boat following a collision near the islands, Beijing has cut off high-level diplomatic talks with Japan. In both countries, nationalist protestors have taken to the streets. The dispute is part of an ominous trend.