Five years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami hit the Tohoku coastline and triggered a nuclear meltdown in Fukushima. Although daily life in most of the country is back to normal, effects of the Fukushima disaster are still felt today. Water that has been contaminated by radioactivity from the damaged power plants is running into the sea and the 24,000 residents who were evacuated from Fukushima’s exclusion zone still cannot return to their homes due to the area’s high radiation level. On December 9, the Japanese government announced that cost for demolishing the plants and compensation for damage and losses related to the accident would be more than JPY 21 trillion (USD 188 billion), almost double the amount of a previous estimate. In response, Akira Tsuboi commits to art activism. In mid-December, he mounted “Tokyo Report Vol. 5,” a two-day exhibition with accompanying artist talks at KEN, an alternative art space in Tokyo’s old, affluent residential neighborhood of Setagaya.
It was Akira Tsuboi’s fifth edition of his solo exhibition series at KEN, showcased seven works from his triptych series “Mushu-butsu: No-owner-substances” (2011– ). Tsuboi has been visiting Fukushima since 2011, shortly after the disaster unfolded. He conducts interviews with locals, including former residents, current manual laborers at the power plants and workers who are decontaminating the area. Drawing from those experiences, Tsuboi has been producing plywood panel paintings relating to the Fukushima disaster. The title of the series is taken from a phrase used by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which operated the Fukushima plants—they claimed that some radioactive materials presumably produced by the accident are “no-owner substances,” thereby releasing TEPCO from the responsibility of managing the fallout. The statement sparked controversy, and Tsuboi responded by embedding acrimony in his art.
The artist pulls no punches in his creations. His subject matter includes the deaths of exploited decontamination workers, the tragic death of power plant manager Masao Yoshida because of cancer and a depressed, middle-aged wife committing self-immolation in her home after returning from temporary housing. He caricaturizes TEPCO employees and their families, as they escape from a village near the plant by bus without first informing other locals of the risk of staying. Another panel work, The part of the morning sun should have come (2011– ), depicts animals that have been contaminated by radiation, and the unfair relationship between impoverished manual workers and those in the power, such as executives of TEPCO.
Tsuboi’s work can be regarded as today’s equivalent to Reportage paintings of 1950s Japan, championed by artists such as Nakamura Hiroshi and Yamashita Kikuji. These creations embody journalistic views on society and a critique of power. However, Tsuboi never had formal art training and was not aware of this genre when he started painting. In fact, his practice resembles that of a street artist’s, complete with guerrilla-like actions to reach a broad public audience with little regard for the conventions of high art. All of Tsuboi’s artworks shown at KEN were painted on plywood, not canvas, which gave them portability and durability that was perfect for street-side display. Some panels’ edges were already frayed—evidence of their rough treatment during outdoor hauls.
Tsuboi showed his “Mushu-butsu: No owner substances” series in front of the National Diet Building during the anti-nuclear power plant demonstration in 2012, and in Shibuya Station under Taro Okamoto’s famous mural which depicts the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Myth of Tomorrow (1969). Because of the high level of security and intensive surveillance in Tokyo’s public space, Tsuboi’s temporary street exhibitions sometimes only last a few hours, though he utilizes the opportunity to converse with passers-by and discuss his chosen topic. Earlier this year, in Yoyogi Park, he juxtaposed his artwork against an advertisement banner of the Tokyo Olympic Games 2020 to drive his point home: Japan should prioritize solving problems in Fukushima over hosting the Olympic Games.
On the first day of the pop-up exhibition, I interviewed Tsuboi. He explained his choice of the Fukushima disaster as his subject matter—the meltdown’s cause and the subsequent response by the government and TEPCO represent problems in Japan’s social structure—those who are on the bottom rungs of the social ladder are happy to obey their seniors without discussion, while others in power take advantage of this norm. Tsuboi believes that large-scale paintings have the power to stop people in their tracks and draw in their full attention. None of his creations are meant to be sold to collectors. For Tsuboi, it is the power of his voice, and the ensuing dialogue, that matters.