Visitor centres are where people go to find out information on a particular area or subject. It is here that many companies or organisations try to capitalise on and maintain positive public relations. Japan is of course no different in this respect, they also have a wide culture, an obsession one could say, with mascots. Aligning them with products, brands, businesses, organisations. Nuclear power. So it is only natural to see mascots here in abundance within the nuclear industry’s centres.
When presented with information that is complex or difficult to grasp it is understandable to attempt to make the specifics easier to fathom and more approachable. Although this may appear problematic with situations relating to issues like nuclear power, which are so hotly contested. Nevertheless, mascots in this context are widely used, partly due to their popularity but also to simplify and ‘soften’ the image of the industry and in turn to construct a more agreeable impression towards Japan’s population as a whole; the complexities of nuclear power, its consequences and the responsibilities that will be passed down through many generations is absent. One could argue that these mascots engender an initial engagement with their public, but are they encouraging the public to engage or just attempting to reassure them with an empty, superficial cuteness? If something has rosy-red cheeks and speaks about radiation in a sweet and innocent voice, it surely can not increase cancer risks or contaminate land, water and the food supply, right?
In the visitor centre at Horonobe Research Centre mascots abound, owls, squirrels and mice, an attempt to naturalise the work being undertaken, a way to incorporate nature into its mission. More are adorned above the exterior buildings, Horobe the centre’s reindeer mascot, and inside the visitor centre there are more images of reindeers, real ones this time, across the cylinder pillars, which further reinforces the apparent harmless qualities of nuclear power and its legacy. When we were given an introductory presentation and health and safety briefing two post cards were laid on each of our desks; mine were blue poppies and reindeer, further visual cues towards the purported undisturbed natural landscape of rural Hokkaido.
This imposition of the nuclear’s good-nature is thrust upon the visitor at Tomari Visitor Centre too by its grand scale, games and displays. The entrance foyer towers above and palm trees sit towards the back somewhat out of place. In the centre there are three cylindrical fish tanks surrounding a fountain, tropical fish swim around the tanks while air bubbles up to the surface. Everywhere you look Tomarin (the nuclear power station’s mascot) is waving, smiling and welcoming you, with the assurance that nuclear power is not that bad at all. The mascot sits atop two columns either side of an elaborate doorway, out of its reactor-dome shaped body an arm is thrusted up, holding the torch of liberty, lighting the way to nuclear powered progress.
The centre’s tour guides are very friendly and accommodating, throughout the tour they provide ample information on the history of the area and show us items that were excavated when construction began on the site. Actual size amusement park-like models demonstrate what is going on inside the power station just down the road. A mixture between factual information and spectacle.
We conclude the day with Takeichi Saito. He has been measuring the temperature of the sea in his home town of Iwanai, close by to Tomari Nuclear Power Station, for 40 years; yesterday was his 64th birthday! His aims are to monitor the thermal discharge from the power station and its impact on his hometown’s fishing industry. We accompany him on one of his measurements. This encounter urges us to further consider the approaches of disseminating information relative to the nuclear industry and its impacts. We meet Takeichi in the car park of the visitor centre where he takes us to a number of locations around Tomari Village, illustrating what he is saying with his bold, hand-coloured slides.
After this we have lunch at a local restaurant and then go back to Takeichi’s where he gives us two lectures, the first on the Tomari Nuclear Power Station more generally and the second is primarily on the nuclear and its correlation with cancer rates. Each talk begins with a round of applause before he illustrates the problems faced due to the nuclear industry, with his sincere, strikingly beautiful slides. We sit, listen intently whilst drinking tea and eating mochi. Takeichi used to be a kindergarten teacher and this is made clear through his methods. He feels that throughout his life he has taken much from the sea and wants to give something back.
Visual documentation. Horonobe Underground Research Centre and Toyotomi, Hokkaido, Japan
In rural Hokkaido, in the town of Toyotomi, we are seated around a table with a group of dairy farmers that actively oppose nuclear power and the legacy of radioactive spent fuel that may, in the future, compromise the integrity of the land they farm. At once they rightfully question the intentions of an art project in relation to their livelihoods; one farmer decrees that this is a matter of life or death for him and not something that is to be used as we wish. This is important, for we must acknowledge these concerns and avoid the negative connotations of cultural appropriation. A connotation that evokes the colonial method of taking rather than learning from the grass-roots activity that has emerged out of necessity or long-term lived experience that need not concern itself with any notion of art.
This is not an issue to glance over with ease, such appropriation methods have long been brandished as tools to accrue ‘cultural capital’, which directly or indirectly may disregard these complex histories and origins, as if possessing an authority to speak on behalf of or flattening them with a reductive, singular perspective. In more simple terms, cultural appropriation can be understood as taking the form of something, removing it from its context and emptying it of meaning. With this understanding, it is important to consider this is not a chance encounter, or one that we have picked up to suit trend.
In 2015 we initiated a long-term project centred around the context of the Blackwater Estuary, Essex; the site of one of Britain’s earliest nuclear power stations, now in a decommissioned state under the management of Magnox Ltd. With the current proposal of a new nuclear power station that would be the first of it’s kind in the west, the site has also been identified for the storage of intermediate-level radioactive waste (ILW) from additional sites from across the region, namely Dungeness and Sizewell. In view of this significant and dangerous possibility, the communities of the Blackwater Estuary have formed numerous protest groups that recognise the risks at stake here.
In a broader sense, the estuary also exemplifies a spectrum of energy production and consumption across a varied landscape, which is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Around the periphery of the power station an off-grid community has existed since the end of World War II; stood along the shoreline from here, the horizon is lined with wind turbines that signal the beginning of the London Array, the largest operational offshore wind farm in the world.
Kuse Shigetsugu, the dairy farmer we had the pleasure to stay with in Toyotomi, urged us to ‘think global and act local’. The relationship between Japan and the UK’s nuclear activities foregrounds this sentiment. The UK reprocesses high-level nuclear waste (HLW) for Japan by vitrification, it is then returned by sea. What’s more Japan and the UK have signed a memorandum of understanding, which sees the possibility of Japanese reactors being built in the UK some point in the future, however probable this is we do not know. So the question remains, how can these issues be borne in mind whilst addressing the direct concerns within local communities? The UK and Japan are perhaps much closer than initially thought.
Art projects in this context can give a unique perspective of the site in question, offering insights into, and making visible, the legacy of nuclear culture and the possible futures that may lie ahead. The application of curatorial and artistic methods ‘in the field’ allows for a way to identify what is at stake in the area and the forms of knowledge that pass through as well as inhabit it. The first implementation of this method is currently explored within the context of the Blackwater Estuary, UK.