Saturday, August 17, 2013

Living the disaster

Takashi Sasaki is a retired professor specializing in Spanish philosophy, with a number of translations into Japanese of the works of Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset to his credit. For a number of years, he has been blogging in Japanese under the nom de plume of Fuji Teivō (derived from the Spanish fugitivo, "fugitive"), and his posts have been collected in a series self-published books under the title Monodialogues (the word is borrowed from Unamuno). On March 11, 2011, he was at home where he lives in the city of Minamisōma in the prefecture of Fukushima, when the region was struck in quick succession by a severe earthquake, a massive tsunami, and the consequent nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Fukushima: Living the Disaster, which thus far has been issued in Japanese, Spnaish, and a few other languages but not apparently in English, reprints the blog posts he wrote in the aftermath of those events. The handsomely produced edition shown above, the only one in a language I can read, was issued by the Spanish publishing company Satori Ediciones, which specializes in books about Japan.

The book begins with a post on March 10, the eve of the earthquake, and then, except for the text of a brief note hand-written on the 12th, breaks off until the 17th, when Sasaki was able to resolve some computer issues and resume blogging. By then, a great deal had transpired, but one of the curious things about this book is that Sasaki has relatively little to say about the tsunami, which devastated large parts of Minamisōma and claimed many lives there, and this may be due in part to the fact that he apparently lives a few miles inland from the coast. The book isn't really about the chain of events that made up the disaster, but about living through the aftermath, which of course was itself a kind of ongoing catastrophe (and still is) because of contamination from the damaged power plant. Rather than an eyewitness chronicle (though it is that to some extent as well), it is a moral examination centered around two questions: how the nation that had suffered the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came to jeopardize the safety of its people by promoting nuclear power in one of the most seismically active regions on Earth, and how one chooses to act in the face of catastrophe.

Sasaki, though he makes no pretense of being an expert on nuclear energy, has some understandably scathing things to say about the actions of various Japanese politicians, scientists, and corporations both before and after the crisis. But as a student of philosophy, he also rigorously examines his own actions, and that examination is made more pertinent by his own particular circumstances.

At the time of the disaster, Sasaki, who is in his seventies, was living with his wife, who suffers from advanced dementia, his elderly mother, his son, and his granddaughter. Though the area where he lived was designated by the Japanese government as an exclusion zone (one of several, with varying degrees of restriction) after the nuclear accident, he elected to stay put and continue to care for his wife in their home, arguing that leaving would be both cowardly and irresponsible (he alleges, and I have no reason to doubt it, that a number of elderly citizens died from the trauma of being evacuated). Though the remainder of the family eventually relocated, he and Yoshiko stayed, and much of the book amounts to a chronicle of their efforts — and the town's efforts — to regain something approaching normal life. He is quite blunt about the frustration, and often fury, he feels in the face of what he sees as the duplicity and lack of humanity of various elected officials, bureaucrats, and corporate employees who stand in the way of that objective. When the book ends, in July 2011, he and Yoshiko are still at home, he continues blogging, and Minamisōma is slowly making a recovery, even as its future is shadowed by radioactive contamination and the still unstable state of the damaged nuclear reactors.

A final side-note: there is much wringing of hands at present about the future of the publishing business, and of the printed book. Fukushima: vivir el desastre is printed on good paper in a sturdy paperback format with French flaps and a nice cover painting by the artist Eva Vázquez. From what I've seen of the company's catalog, they seem to be producing a steady stream of high-quality, carefully focused books — and this in despite a Spanish economy that has itself been little short of disastrous. Granted, in Spain, as in a number of other European countries, books tend to be held in greater esteem than in the US, but perhaps more of our domestic publishers should take note of the example.

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