Conditions of Recovery – Two weeks in

By Kenneth Masaki Shima on Monday, March 28, 2011

via Shimavision

Warm winds caress my face as Spring nudges life back into western Japan. We must lift our eyes to the quickening blue sky and acknowledge that time is not frozen. Yet now that we are in motion again, we look up from our shaken feet and see the road to recovery looms long in the distance. These last days a sense of social normalcy is returning: invitations and chance meetings with friends, random words exchanged. Stories of where and how, but almost never why. Outside our tiny house, my plants bud back to life and I realize it’s times to water more often, time to nurture that stubborn energy: life ceaselessly pushes forward.

Two weeks have passed since the quake and the traumatized aperture of our gaze slowly clicks wider, allowing a bit more light to pass through our lens, exposing film, our minds, to the changed world around us. The full glare of life destroyed in Tohoku, the nuclear threat, the media cacophony, left our eyes and emotions overexposed. In Japan, since March 11th, our eyes allowed only pinpoints of reality to enter, any more overwhelmed our gaze, rendering us frozen or fleeing. I think the reason we keep exchanging stories of the quake and its following is to get in touch with an ungraspable event. A futile task but therapeutic nonetheless. It’s our nature that even as glass shatters around us and the earth splits open, still we are in a state of disbelief, outside of ourselves, cracking jokes or screaming. Raised on heaps of images, we watch fictional and non-fictional things we never want to experience, so we doubt our eyes when the real thing occurs. In trying to remember, to bring ourselves back, we construct a memory, but memory is not experience, it is failed representation. As the gravity of the event pulls at us, our attempt to close off this trauma neatly into memory is bound to be lacking.

I was accused of being in denial about the danger of staying in Tokyo, and I supposed it’s true. Denial is a part of coping, part of scraping out space to think, space to not panic. Now that I’m leaving, it’s time to wrestle with this place, because even if I convince myself this is the right move, a normal move, I’m denying a part of my self that still needs to mourn, needs to affect the changes coming over the next weeks, months, and years.

'what to build?'


Although I take photographs normally, I’ve been unable to throw the shutter since the quake. Being in Tokyo, the most visible ‚disaster‘ was people’s fear: pushing crowds, panicked lines for taxis, self-justified (self-serving) hoarding. As each day passes, I feel the ripples of the disaster spread. Not in into chaos but simply growth: there is ever more happening and ever more to talk about. Now we deal with a perpetual cascade of reactions to disaster. My observational ability is not up to the task. There are many heroes who the media cannot notice or follow. There are many direct and consolidated efforts to help the situation. There are pitiful but typical attempts by companies and politicians to use this disaster to improve brand image with paltry donation campaigns, bleeding member point systems while encouraging love for thy neighbor. Rightfully angry anti-nuclear protesters crowd my local train station and I shake their hands in solidarity but know that I have no vote here. New lines are being drawn. All these different stakes and different needs branch out into a new tree that will hopefully support the weight of the older one. These branches are ripples I can track only so far. At the same time, with my imminent departure, I find myself grouped on the side of the ‚abandoners,‘ those who are leaving when help is needed. Despite my attempts at solidarity, this is my feeling. Life is all in the timing.

Yesterday I saw a special edition of Asahi Graph weekly magazine, a photo issue filled with powerful images of the Tohoku disaster. While I couldn’t help looking, I felt somehow ashamed, was I exploiting people’s misfortune as these images helped me piece together a memorial image?

A friend mentioned how the aesthetic trope of impermanence is fitting for thinking about this kind of disaster in Japan. In the classic text,  „Tales of a Ten Foot Square Hut“ [hojōki](12th C.), the fragile and fleeting nature of human life is embraced as traumatic yet beautiful. Through Kyoto’s repeated destruction, the observer notes their own fragility and finds there a new liberation. Keep in mind, stories of impermanence have a victim, but necessarily there is an observer who narrates the tale, and who continues on with life. In this sense, through our stubborn continuation of life, we can understand the need to stay, how our everyday is an affront to the frozen effects of disaster. This gravity draws me in, tries to keep me here. We are all scared, but we can see this solidarity is also a beautiful thing. And arguably, the unique strength of this place. As the state of continued solidarity exists as the reflection of impermanence, one interpretation is that impermanence is permanent,  in how it has changed the world as we know it forever.

Text und Foto: Kenneth Masaki Shima


Kenneth Masaki Shima

Born in San Francisco at the end of the 1970s, Ken migrated up the west coast of the USA to dwell in Seattle from 1999 and then moved to Japan in 2006. With a curiosity for film, literature and intellectual history from the 1950s, he now spends most of his time turning pages in a Japanese graduate department. Fascination with visual relations sometimes leads him to write about art, although his gaze is still seen through smudged cinematic glasses. He is often found rubbing elbows with cranky Ojisan in the dark of Tokyo’s repertory theaters or searching the suburbs for rivers and architecture on his bike. Ken calls a thoroughly Showa styled house in sleepy yet literary Asagaya home.



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