Voices From Japan

Every year since March 11, 2011, to commemorate the loss experienced after the triple disaster in Fukushima and the greater Tohoku region, I have participated in events to remember Japan in New York in universities and churches here. At one of those events I was greatly touched when presenters recited the poetry from survivors. Rereading them recently I thought back to what I had witnessed on many solitary walks though the exclusion zone. While I do not know any of these remarkable poets in person, looking at my pictures and their words I imagined myself walking with them through the dilapidated landscapes that were once their communities.

From the editors of Voices From Japan where these poems were collected: Since the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake & Tsunami on 3/11 in 2011, and the subsequent nuclear disasters, many affected people in Tohoku and other concerned Japanese started writing poems.

Many painful but beautiful tanka, a traditional poetic form of only 31 syllables, have been published every week in newspapers in Japan. Why do the Japanese write poems during a time of crisis? Voices from Japan are usually not very audible in the world. But when Japanese voices are composed as tanka, amazingly, one can hear them as a common world language.

The Tanka were originally exhibited at Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City in the summer of 2012. It featured 75 tanka, which were assembled mainly from the poetry section of Asahi Shimbun newspaper and was presented by The Studio for Cultural Exchange and assembled by Isao &  Kyoko Tsujimoto, Director of SCE. The tanka were translated by Joan E. Ericson, Ph.D, Colorado College, Amy Heinrich, Ph.D, Columbia University & by Laurel Rasplica Rodd, Ph.D, University of Colorado Boulder.

For more on the pairing of poems and photos and other information please read below.

07020-I call it radiation.jpg

降る雨も 流せぬものを 放射能と 呼べば止まざる 冬の雨音

I call it radiation–
what even the rain
cannot wash away–
the unrelenting sound
of the winter rain

美原 凍子 (福島県 2011年12月)Toko Mihara, Fukushima December 2011

2211-I pushed through.jpg

荒草を 分け入る我が家 戻れざる ことを予感す 一時帰宅に

I pushed through
the wild grass to my house –
had a premonition

I never would return
the brief time I was allowed home

半杭 螢子 (福島県 2011年11月)Keiko Hangui, Fukushima November 2011


東京の 空に桜の 満ち満てど 十キロ圏の わが里哀し

though cherry blossoms
in the skies of Tokyo
bloom in profusion
sorrow abounds within
thirteen-kilometer radius of my home

半杭 螢子 (福島県 2011年5月)Keiko Hangui, Fukushima May 2011

0970-my old home.jpg

わが里は 荒れ寂びにけり 音もなく セシウムのふる 町のかなしさ

my old home
now a deserted ruin–
the sadness of a town
where Cesium rains down
without a sound

半杭 螢子 (福島県 2011年11月)Keiko Hangui, Fukushima November 2011

6783-the sky I gaze at.jpg

窓辺から 見ている空は 福島の 先週までと 変わらない空

the sky I gaze at
from near my window
is the Fukushima sky
that is unchanged
from how it looked last week

畠山 理恵子 (福島県 2011年3月)Rieko Hatakeyama, Fukushima March 2011

1626-grazing on grass.jpg

原発に 汚染されたる 草を食む 人なき野辺に 放たれし牛

grazing on grass
contaminated by fallout
in an empty field
left behind to roam

植原 昭士 (群馬県 2011年5月)Shoji Uehara, Gunma May 2011

04453-the sky I gaze at.jpg

わが町は チェルノブイリと なり果てし 帰るあてなき 避難民となる

my town
has become
and we have become refugees
with no hope of return

半杭 螢子 (福島県 2011年4月)Keiko Hangui, Fukushima April 2011


終わりなく 始まりもなく フクシマは 苦しみ深し これからもまた

there is no end
and also no beginning
the pain is profound
and unceasing

渡辺 良子 (福島県 2012年3月)Ryoko Watanabe, Fukushima March 2012

2248-i'm home i cry.jpg

「ただいま」と 主

なき家に 声かける 懐かしき匂いに 声あげて泣く

“I’m home,” I cry
as I enter
the empty house –
my voice responding
to the familiar smells

半杭 螢子 (福島県 2011年5月)Keiko Hangui, Fukushima May 2011


ヒマワリは かなしき花と なりにけり 汚染の土地に あまた咲きいて

now have become
flowers of sorrow –
so many are blooming
on polluted land

美原 凍子 (福島県 2011年9月)Toko Mihara, Fukushima September 2011

4102-the rice paddies and the fields.jpg

田も畑も 黙り込んでる ふるさとの 風が重たい 原発の空

the rice paddies and the fields
are left to lie fallow
in my home town
where wind blows in a heavy
nuclear power plant sky

美原 凍子(福島県 2011年4月)Toko Mihara, Fukushima April 2011

5371-picking up.jpg

三月の 十日の新聞 手に取れば 切なきまでに 震災前なり

picking up
a newspaper dated
the tenth of March
heart breaking, that it was
before the great earthquake

中村 偕子 (埼玉県 2011年4月)Tomoko Nakamura, Saitama April 2011

05756-this one year.jpg

千年に 一度の年を フクシマに ただ声もなく 終えてゆくなり

this one year
in one thousand
in Fukushima
just slips by
in silence

美原凍子(福島県 2011年12月)Toko Mihara, Fukushima December 2011

06738-my homeplace.jpg

ふるさとは 無音無人の 町になり 地の果てのごとく 遠くなりたり

my home place
has become a town
without voices, without humans
it is as distant
as the end of the earth

半杭 螢子 (福島県 2011年5月)Keiko Hangui, Fukushima May 2011

5861-as we air the bedding.jpg

怖がって ニュース消す子と ふとん干す その時あなたを 守れるだろうか

as we air the bedding
I wonder, “could I protect you
at such a time ?”–
my child who turned off
the news in fear

佐藤 由佳 (新潟県 2011年4月)Yuka Sato, Niigata April 2011

6104-it hurths to hear about both.jpg

犬つなぎ 避難せし人 責める人 聞くもつらしや 原子漏れ事故

it hurts to hear about both
the one who left his dog
tied up when he evacuated,
and the one who reproached him–
the nuclear power leak tragedy

北村 ミヨ (福島県 2011年4月)Miyo Kitamura, Fukushima April 2011

DSC06702-not knowing how long i can live.jpg

あてど無き 余生なりせど 安住の 終


処を 夢見て眠る

not knowing how long I can live,
with not much time remaining,
dreaming of
a safe, final resting place
I sleep

加藤 信子 (岩手県 2011年12月)Nobuko Kato, Iwate December 2011

7553-in the advancing.jpg

襲いくる 津波の中に 町一つ 悲鳴聞こえず 呑まれてゆけり

in the advancing
the whole village
was swallowed up
without a scream

山本 憲二郎 (鳥取県 2011年3月)Kenjiro Yamamoto, Tottori March 2011

7148-after changing.jpg

避難所を 転々とせし 九十三 墓に避難すと 書きのこし逝く

after changing
evacuation centers time
and time again,
at ninety-three she wrote “I’ll find
refuge in the grave,” and died

根岸 敬矩 (埼玉県 2011年8月)Yukinori Negishi, Saitama August 2011

7129-in one glance.jpg

一望の 荒地と化しし 汚染の地の 庭にけなげに 水仙の咲く

in one glance–
reduced to a blotted wasteland,
narcissus blooming heroically
in a garden

半杭 螢子(福島県 2012年3月)Keiko Hangui, Fukushima March 2012

06844-unable to proclaim that.jpg

声高に 東電にいるとは 言えねども 母は見てるよ 昼夜働く君を

unable to proclaim that
you work for Tokyo Electric–
yet I, your mother,
am watching you and I know
how hard you work day and night

鈴木 陽子 (東京都 2011年8月) Yoko Suzuki, Tokyo August 2011

6520-holding still.jpg

ただじっと 息をひそめて いる窓に 黒い雨ふる ふるさと悲し

holding still
breathing softly
at my window
where black rain falls
O the sadness of my home town

美原 凍子 (福島県 2011年4月)Toko Mihara, Fukushima April 2011

6352-no place to go but here.jpg

原発の 空のしかかる ふるさとの ここにいるしかなくて水飲む

no place to go but here–
in my home town
where the sky above
the nuclear plants begins,
I drink some water

美原 凍子 (福島県 2011年4月)Toko Mihara, Fukushima April 2011

1819-the sky I gaze at.jpg

たびたびの 事故隠したる 原発を 想定外と 吾は認めぬ

time and again
of the nuclear accidents
I shall not accept
that this was unimaginable

遠藤 幸子 (福島県 2011年5月)Yukiko Endo, Fukushima May 2011


Since arriving 3 days after the tsunami and nuclear crisis in 2011 many things in the world have changed: I lost my father to cancer, the world has seen leaders come and go, loves in my own life come and just as quickly disappeared into the ether, children have been born, wars have begun and ended, technologies that have reshaped how we live didn’t even exist then (at the start of this project I never had an iPhone), and so much more. But what has not changed and will not change for hundreds and even thousands of years is the fact that much of Fukushima will remain a wasteland because the radiation that rained following the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nucelar power plant will poison these lands for time immemorial.

When I began working in Fukushima one of the first things I said was that what happened in Fukushima was not some isolated incident that happened on an island in the Pacific Ocean. With more than 70 nuclear power plants along the world’s coasts Fukushima represents all of our backyards. In a time of global sea level rise and more powerful and volatile storms what happened there can happen anywhere where ocean and nuclear power plant meet. And as we face this universally held problem so too are these voices a part of our collective humanity and Fukushima a loss for all human beings. Considering what people from Fukushima have experienced it’s a tremendous loss for us all if their voices are not audible.

Disclosure: some liberties were taken when pairing poems with images and this is much due to the universality of the poems, the sentiments of loss and hardship transcend prefectural borders. To that end, while all the photos were taken within Fukushima prefecture poems composed to the north in Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures are included here, especially as it relates to locations in Fukushima that were only affected by the tsunami and not the meltdown. Also, the specific homes written about in the poems are not the ones photographed, however all the homes were abandoned because of the meltdown.