Illustration of Minato Chihiro by Don Mak

“When I grow up, I want to be an artist.”

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

I really like the word “almanac,” although I don’t know what language it comes from. It sounds a little bit Arabic to me, though its origins are said to be unknown. The word seems to have first appeared in 13th-century English philosopher Roger Bacon’s records of the movement of the planets. The reason an “almanac” is connected to the astronomy and astrology of the Middle Ages is because it was thought that a precise record of the past would help to better predict what lies ahead: an unforeseeable light illuminating the future.

For Japan, in this sense, I think there may never have been a year in which an almanac was more necessary than 2011.

The scale of the disaster inflicted by the Great East Japan Earthquake is said to be “once in a millennium.” The combined devastations of a massive earthquake, ensuing tsunami and nuclear accident, revealed the frank helplessness of 21st-century science and technology. No matter how many advances science makes, we do not know when such a tremendous natural catastrophe will occur. Thus in the case of foreknowledge, from Middle Ages’ astrology to modern earthquake science, things have not necessarily changed all that much.

According to the government and the people, this was a crisis on a scale never experienced before, and which could only be compared to World War II. This is especially evident from the fact that two of the most frequently heard words since the disaster have been “reconstruction” and “radiation.” The nuclear accidents in particular have resurrected memories of war, including the atomic bombings, for the country’s postwar generations.

While we wondered what art could do at such a time, we came to realize anew that there was really only one option: to join forces. It was our only choice. This can be perceived from the many helping hands that were extended to Japan from around the world. Usually, the assistance of others is the reason we can surmount even seemingly hopeless situations. Who knows to what extent this simple truth has given strength to the many victims. What sustains this truth is our shared capacity to empathize with one another.

Yet as I passed through the disaster-stricken Fukushima prefecture, amid the debates regarding the danger posed by radiation, I realized there now exists a crisis of empathy. Specifically, a profound gap has formed between the scientific jargon of “experts” and the language of ordinary people that emerges from day-to-day life. No space is allowed in the former to accommodate sensitivity or emotion. Those living through this calamity brought on by our great science have simply lost the words to express how they feel.

Nonetheless, I will never forget the words of one 16-year-old high school student. It was a statement made immediately after he was rescued, after nine days trapped in the wreckage of his family’s home, which had been knocked down by the tsunami. When asked by the leader of the search-and-rescue crew what his dream was for the future, he apparently answered without hesitation: “When I grow up, I want to be an artist.”

As the words of one who has just narrowly escaped the clutches of death, they certainly stick in the mind—that the word “artist” could even come from the lips of someone pulled from a mountain of destruction and rubble. Also, coming from one who has lived just 16 years, they imply a more profound question, which deserves due consideration. Perhaps what rouses our basic humanity in the midst of such a crisis is none other than art. And isn’t such a feeling based on the fact of our shared sensibilities? Surely it is with those emotions that are bound to our common physical senses that we will recover a language that allows us to survive this “age of discontinuity.” The answer to this no doubt depends on how we choose to act. For the moment, however, I’d like to record this 16-year-old’s words in this almanac as a sign of hope.

Minato Chihiro is a photographer, writer and professor at Tama Art University, Tokyo. He was the commissioner of the Japan Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale.