Fallout as a Process: Ryo Morimoto on Fukushima

“That’s what my book is really trying to get at: What are the things that we have missed as a result of confronting our own fear of the invisible?”

Ryo Morimoto’s Nuclear Ghost: Atomic Livelihoods in Fukushima’s Gray Zone published with the University of California Press in 2023 shows in stunning detail how residents of the region live with and through the “nuclear ghost” that resides with them. Here, Ryo discusses his fieldwork and the ways in which residents of Fukushima changed his understandings of living with nuclear fallout, about disaster as a process rather than an event, and the unexpected effects of machines that extend the senses to measure threat. A longer version of this interview aired recently on Recall This Book, a podcast partnered with Public Books. You can listen to the interview here or by subscribing to Recall This Book on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Elizabeth Ferry (EF): So, Ryo if you could just get us started telling us a little bit about the project and what you learned.


Ryo Morimoto (RM): Thank you for having me. It’s exciting. And as Elizabeth mentioned, I went to Brandeis for my PhD and half of this project was conceived while I was a PhD student there. I have to say, things changed a lot. What this book brings is an ethnographic analysis of Fukushima. It’s been an interesting project to me and also a sticky one in the sense, like, how long one can do ethnography of one specific field, and what does it mean to stay with the same group of people? In my case it was eight years, which made it very difficult for me to actually write this book.

COVID for me was a saving grace in a sense of finishing the project because I was not able to visit the area during that time. That finally made it possible for me to leave the fieldwork behind and begin to write something. That gave me a lot of time to reflect on what is it that I did in my fieldwork.

What does it mean to write about the people who are against imagination of the public? In the book, I spent a lot of time talking about myself actually, describing what is it that I brought to the field and what happened as a result of my long-term engagement with a group of people in the region.

The weird thing about this book is that as much as it’s motivated around talking about the triple disasters that happened in 2011 and their aftermath, it’s a lot about the afterlife of the disasters. What does it mean for us to approach disaster, which is conventionally looked at as an event, as a process, and one that is constantly shape-shifting, a phenomenon that people actually live along and live with?

If people think, I want to learn about the Fukushima accident, they might not get what they’re looking for from the book. When I was writing it, I was really thinking about how can I betray potential readers’ expectations here—I took a pride in my ethnographic approach to Fukushima.


John Plotz (JP): I like that formulation of the disaster as something other than an event, because that’s something I’ve been thinking about in terms of the Anthropocene and earlier moments of human monstrosity, including, for example, the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and that distinction between understanding something as momentary and something unfolding as an ongoing structure.

Would you say that’s the crucial move in your book—to try to think about disaster as extension over time?


RM: In disaster studies, and especially in anthropology, people have been looking at disaster as in-process as opposed to an event. That perspective is not anything new. If anything, what’s new is that I’m thinking about process not within a short-term window of a year or two, but rather describing what I’ve experienced through the last eight years after the accident, especially in between 2013 and 2019/2020. So, I am not only focusing on the year-long journey of the residents. Instead, I’m asking, How can we understand these still ongoing disasters that happened in 2011?


JP: One way you crystallize that beautifully is through an anecdote of the Geiger counter. Can you remind us of what you say about the experience of bringing a Geiger counter with you into the zone?


RM: The Geiger counter was a critical object for me from the beginning to the end. Partly because that radiation is not something you can immediately experience, it’s beyond human sensory area and we need some technical assistance to be able to sense or even to experience it. Much of what happened after the accident was that we had to rely on these technological devices to understand a potentially familiar environment. So, there was a lot of discussion around this technological device as a way to access the objective facts about the post-fallout coastal Fukushima, the area where I was working. At the same time, the residents’ relationship with the Geiger counter shifted over time. That is, even though each household was given a Geiger counter by the city or municipality office, by the time I arrived in the field, which was in the summer of 2013, most of the residents didn’t use a Geiger counter.

I appeared with a Geiger counter and they would look at me and say, “Oh, you must be from the outside.” I was like, “How do you know that,” and they said, “Well you’re holding a Geiger counter, who would hold Geiger counter in this area?” But I was still new, I was still very concerned, especially given the information outside about the state of Fukushima. To me, I thought, Well, if you don’t use a Geiger counter to understand this space, how else would you understand it? Especially, you might want to fact-check what the state or the electric company is telling you.


EF: You describe it even more strongly as not just people who are perplexed by you having it, but rather that they don’t really like that you have it, they don’t really like its presence and they’re saying, “What difference would, let’s say, a high reading—what does that actually mean?” That’s just very interesting in terms of a whole bunch of experiences that people have about the relationship between these objects that supposedly measure stuff that is important to our bodies and health.


JP: What about mask-wearing during the pandemic? It’s not exactly analogous, but there’s this shibboleth quality, where you’re semiotically announcing something as well as protecting yourself.


RM: Well, one interesting thing about the Geiger counter that I came to experience in the field was that once you have it you actually want to see a higher score, which is very different from wearing masks. Usually it doesn’t fluctuate; radiation is naturally present and regardless of where you are, you get some amount of reading.

If the number doesn’t change, it gets really boring. Because people say, “Well, nothing is changing. What’s the point of having this stuff, even if it’s a little bit higher than the average or what’s considered safe?” If it says it’s 1.2 all the time people lose interest. But what happens is because of the spread of the contaminants across space, it’s possible for you to be able to go and find what they call hot spots.

If you are very attached to your Geiger counter and consider that as a way of knowing about the fallout in Fukushima, you end up going to areas where people might not go due to their concern about higher levels of radiation. For local residents, sometimes the outsider like myself coming with the Geiger counter signals: “Here is another individual who came to look for the dangerous area, where we might not go, because we’ve done this already. We know that’s why we’re not going to these areas.” The problem for them was that outsiders, the ones who would go into those areas, report the readings to the outside and share what they found in Fukushima. And they may feel, “That’s not my subjective experience, but this objective device is telling us it’s dangerous there.”


EF: Is it also that having the Geiger counter defines Fukushima residents as victims of this nuclear accident?


RM: Yeah, the Geiger counter is smart in the sense that it detects a radioactive source nearby. But it doesn’t say where exactly the sources are or what they are. So, it could be radiation—the isotopes that were produced during the Cold War weapons program, which all of us live with. Or maybe it came directly from Fukushima or maybe it’s actually the residues from the Chernobyl accident. So, it started giving a really black-and-white view of the state of the world based on the presence or absence of radioisotopes, the contaminants in the area.


EF: But divorced from history.


RM: Exactly, no context or nothing else.


Nuclear Noir

By Reed McConnell

JP: Ryo, I am interested in what you say about the Geiger counter as a tool that tells you something you can’t experience. We don’t have any empirical sensoria available to detect radioactivity. So, we create this prosthetic sensing device instead. Is your understanding of it that once we create that device it becomes a sixth sense? It gets internalized, prosthetically incorporated into our sensoria? Or is it something more unnatural or estranged? Are you seeing it primarily as a way of amplifying or augmenting? Or are you seeing it as, like, a deceptive signal that is outside of the bodily experience?


RM: I should clarify that the radiation I’m talking here is considered low level, radiation exposure that would not have any immediate physical biological effect. There are cases from Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or other places where people could directly experience damage from the high-intensity radiation, in which case it’s sensible to use a Geiger counter. But when the level is low enough, that would not affect your biological entity immediately. That’s when things become a little bit gray: How long can you be exposed or not?

To answer your question: a device like this, which has the possibility of extending sensory perception, actually ends up producing the standard language with which people might be able to communicate about something beyond their senses. So, there’s a good thing about saying we need to have some objective standard, in order to address something not immediately visible. In the case of COVID, the science provided some sense of objective fact with which to study the air quality to help us relate to this disease.

But the other issue is that if that mode of knowledge or even the language around it becomes the hegemonic way of understanding a particular environment or area, it might end up shaping the way that people experience their place and cultures and history. Because this objective thing comes, scientists determine an area is contaminated, and people said, “Yeah, but I still have family here, I’m very connected to this culture.” So, the problem came from the scientification of the accident in the aftermath as the only way to talk about what happened in Fukushima.

That’s what my book is really trying to get at: What are the things that we have missed as a result of confronting our own fear of the invisible?

EF: You talked about writing against the media coverage and betraying your reader’s expectations—not disrupting them, but betraying them. I like that. And maybe you even betrayed your own expectations because you described your own entrance into the field in that way as well.

But can you talk a little bit about the way the memorialization of the event, which has come to be called 3/11, in that it happened on March 11th. That’s not exactly scientification, that’s some other -ication happening. Can you talk a little bit about that?


RM: When I was doing the PhD, I was focusing on how people go about memorializing or even commemorating 3/11. I focused a lot more on what kinds of material objects people might use to represent, commemorate, or memorialize the accident. After I graduated, I kept working with people there, and my understanding of memorialization changed partly because of my commitment to really understanding or even treating people like people. That is, even the local residents who directly experienced the disasters and its aftermath, their memory constantly kept changing, and their relationship to the disaster changed over time.

Even the local residents actually often resist fixing a specific date to the accident and its fallout. What was 3/11 to them? They sometimes said, No, that’s not as important now because of COVID. So, one of the ideas I’m trying to toy with in my book is this Japanese understanding or relationship to disaster. There’s one sociologist who coined the term between disasters, that is, that we’re constantly living in between more than one disaster in each given moment. People in Fukushima are currently going through a global pandemic, but their reference point is still 3/11. They’re constantly doing back and forth between what is new about these disasters related to the old one and the other way around.

So, commemoration or memorialization of the disaster really is contextual here in the sense that what’s happening in the present or what they anticipate will happen in the future affects the way they want to remember the event in the past.


JP: That’s such a great formulation. I have a couple of different questions about that. The first one was one I was trying to lead up to earlier, which is specifically how the afterlife of Hiroshima and Nagasaki fits in here. I understand that memories can’t be indefinitely long and that is something that happened in only the living memory of very few people. But I wonder how much it frames the encounter.

There’s a wonderful book by Paul Saint-Amour called Tense Future. It’s basically about how people living in the interwar period understood it already as an interwar period, even before World War II took place. In other words, you live with the awareness not just that we had the Great War, but that having had the Great War, we’re going to have another. And I would just love to hear your thoughts about how that relates to your point about the iterative structure of these things? Like, if it’s not one damn thing, it’s another.


RM: I don’t necessarily consider it as iterative. There is some regularity because one of the things that I was very surprised to find in the region through my fieldwork was that the past that people choose to reactivate is very nonlinear. For example, the local people kept talking about the importance of persimmons. I asked them, Why are persimmons important when you’re talking about 3/11? It turned out that that particular fruit bore the history of internal migration from one region to another, that was propelled by the past historical disaster or the famines in the region.

There was a big famine that happened 200 years ago. Then, all these poor people and farmers from other regions moved. But they wanted to bring some aspect of their former life to the new area. So, they just stuck this persimmon branch into the daikon radish which is moist and walked across the mountains.

This leads to your first question about the connection to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many fishermen residents do not want to have much association with Hiroshima and Nagasaki because it’s very stigmatized as an iconic image of dehumanization as a result of radiation exposure and they don’t want to be associated with that. Initially the Hiroshima and Nagasaki people didn’t really make a connection with Fukushima partly because Fukushima residents are the most enthusiastic supporters of nuclear energy after the war.

So, there’s a historical dimension, but collaboration has begun to flourish partly because of the common issue of increased loss of life within groups of those exposed to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s becoming an urgent task to pass down the memory of the atomic age into the future. So, for Fukushima residents, the most relevant point is 3/11 and then the national experience of radiation exposure. The new event reshuffled the ways that nation or even local communities memorialize this more recent past.


EF: Would you describe that as a shift? Maybe this is oversimplifying, but there’s a way in which the Fukushima case is about living with disaster, whereas the iconic dehumanization of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is about dying with a disaster. And those images, very searing images—I can totally imagine why they would want to distance themselves from that particular way of being represented.


RM: Japanese people are negotiating their relationship with radiation exposure. The Fukushima case might be very unsettling to many of us because it actually provides potential proof that we could actually live with a certain level of radiation, which is a structural position that might be very difficult to accept given the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This balance between Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima creates a difficult negotiation process. I had to be very careful about my presentation, to make sure I was true to how people lived with radiation. It doesn’t mean that I’m a pro-nuclear person.


Does Chernobyl Still Matter?

By Gabrielle Hecht

EF: That’s a good moment to shift to a more general question around studies of suffering or disaster or violence within anthropology. More broadly, there’s a reaction against former ways of representing these kinds of things, so a feeling that there’s a certain dehumanization that accounting for disasters participates in—a voyeurism or a portrayal of abjectness. I see your study as well moving away from that notion of the object or the victim.


RM: That’s central to my project. I work within a subdiscipline of anthropology, the anthropology of disaster. The topic is talking about people who might have suffered or are still suffering, so the question of what I write about with regards to the community I worked with was in the back of my head all the time. But also, my interlocutors themselves have been bombarded by media, researchers, writers, documentary filmmakers, you name it. After the accident, they all came to extract the dramatic stories of radiation exposure.

I was always looked at by the local residents as someone who might exploit the dramatic stories they told, and then never come back. I tried to be mindful about asking, What does it mean to write about disaster here?

Ultimately, I was not a resident there. People always made the distinction—saying, Well, you can leave if you if you want to, but we can’t. That’s what makes us different.

Also, it’s important to note that these people are funny and interesting beyond talking about the disasters. Most of the time I spent there, I was watching TV with them, we weren’t always talking about the disasters or how the disasters affected them.

There was this particular informant who mentioned their experience as “a nuclear ghost.” This person was the one who said, “If you’re holding a Geiger counter you must believe in something invisible.” Looking back, I can tell that she was just fooling with me as an outsider. But at the moment I was super confused, like, “What do you mean? The nuclear ghost you’re talking about must be the radiation that neither of us can experience.”

In Japan, ghosts are not unusual figures. People actually constantly talk about them. But one thing that’s important in terms of the way the Japanese conceptualize ghosts is that the ghosts are shape-shifting figures. And they appear because they have some message. It’s not necessarily a moral message or anything. It’s just that we know that they have some message and until we receive them, they won’t go away. They change shapes to try to communicate to us something. That figure really spoke well with the things happening in the area.

EF: Well, so this has been a marvelous conversation and maybe this is a moment when we can think of some recallable books; that is a book or something else that might suggest to our listeners other directions to go with this conversation. John, do you want to start?


JP: I do. It’s a book called Roadside Picnic, which is a science fiction novel by the Russian brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who are very influenced by Karel Čapek and Stanislaw Lem. It actually spawned the movie Stalker. It’s about an area called the Zone, which is the area in the science fictional world where aliens have landed. And only a few basically dodgy criminals go into the Zone, but they have their own code of conduct. It’s essentially a mafia novel set inside the Zone about what it means to be an insider, one of the people who’s willing to go into that space, which is actually very deadly.

It’s not a perfect match, but it’s about living with two different ways of encountering the same world. And actually, there’s a video game, which was called S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Legends of the Zone, which is based on it, which came out after Chernobyl. The novel is pre-Chernobyl, the movie is pre-Chernobyl, but then after Chernobyl, the video game literally makes the connection to the Chernobyl area. It’s a fascinating genealogy.


RM: I was thinking about saying After Dark by Haruki Murakami, but I will change it to 1Q84, which is also by Murakami. This novel talks about the Japanese experience of dealing with terrorism on the subway. But the story is doing a couple of things, one of which is the dimension I explore in my book, which is to think about what if we don’t consider there to be a difference between the real or surreal? The figure of ghost to me is doing that work of not distinguishing these two. And in the novel there is a description of a scene where the protagonist enters into a parallel world, where you would know that it’s another world because there are two moons. That’s the only thing different from the world and that’s the way that the residents experience the city after the accident. That is, that outsider coming in and it’s turned into a different city, but they’re seeing two moons there, while the residents are only seeing one moon. So, that book maybe really speaks to my project here.


EF: I was thinking of the novel The Ghost Road by Pat Barker. It’s set in World War I and it has a set of parallel stories. Pat Barker’s trilogy combines fictional characters with historical characters and in this one, there’s both this idea of ghosts that are present in the war and in the trenches. At one point she describes living people as ghosts in the making. But the other thing that makes me think of it is there’s a long part of the novel that follows the anthropologist W. H. R. Rivers on an ethnographic field trip with a group that is intensely involved with ghosts. So there too, there are multiple kinds of ghosts. icon

This article was commissioned by John Plotz.

Featured image: International Atomic Energy Agency Experts depart Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (2013). Photograph by Greg Webb (International Atomic Energy Agency) / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)