Coping with Catastrophe: The MFA’s Photographic Rendition of Japan’s 3/11 Disaster

By Fatima Mohie-Eldin

Currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, is the temporary exhibit: “In the Wake” a collection of photographs captured by various Japanese photographers in response to the now infamous disaster of 3/11.

The disaster was initiated by the magnitude 9.0, Great East Japan Earthquake, which struck the Pacific Coast of Tōhoku on March 11, 2011 and precipitated the massive tsunami that soon followed. The combination earthquake and tsunami alone resulted in the deaths of 15,891 people. In addition, 6,152 more people were injured, 2,584 went missing, and another 228,863 people were displaced. Altogether 4.4 million households were left without electricity, while 1.5 million were left without water in northern Japan in the aftermath of the natural disaster.



However, the natural occurrence further prompted the deterioration of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which led to level 7 meltdowns at three reactors and necessitated massive evacuations of the surrounding areas.


LIEKO SHIGA, Photograph

The destruction inflicted upon Japan in the wake of this triple disaster was immeasurable, similar in scale only to the destruction wrought by the end of World War II and certainly the only comparable crisis since then. Through this exhibit, some of Japan’s most prominent photographers, such as Naoya Hatakeyama and Nobuyoshi Araki, as well as a collection of emerging talents, have attempted to capture, not only the physical devastation, but the emotional and psychological trauma that also arose as an outcome of the calamity.

“Taken as a whole, their work explores the way art provides a powerful language for reflecting on tragic events and contributing to human recovery” (Exhibition statement, “In the Wake“). Faced with such a pivotal, defining moment in the nation’s recent history, many people were forced to confront the ways in which their social realities are informed by their natural surroundings, exemplified by the inherent “connection among us that sleeps in the innermost depths of the earth and air” (Lieko Shiga, from “In the Wake”).



Across the exhibit, each artist’s perspective differed. Some captured instances of devastation in stark simplicity, while others artistically manipulated their images to yield displays of ethereal but eerie beauty. Overall, however, the entirety of the exhibit exposed a restructuring of our relationship as humans with time, the environment, and suffering. As acclaimed Japanese Photographer Naoya Hatakeyama noted, “the tsunami severed time,” while all that remained was “the merciless light that filled the [resulting] emptiness…the awareness to perceive it, and [one’s] own fickle memory” (Naoya Hatakeyama, from “In the Wake”).

The images themselves represent acts of remembering, fully embracing the bias and emotion that  are intrinsic to all memories. However, suffering from such a monumental catastrophe, these acts of remembering become even more symbolic coping mechanisms, channeling the pain of those affected, but also the pervasive hope for the future.

From the viewer’s perspective, one is invited to step inside the mind of each artist and connect to that individual’s emotional endurance. The pain is palpable, but the lessons gleaned are even more so, for instance as Tomoko Yoneda suggests that we all are subjected to “an invisible ‘authority'” guiding our lives (Tomoko Yoneda, from “In the Wake”).

There is anguish evident in every piece, but there is also beauty, hope, and an indelible perseverance. It’s an enormously beautiful exhibit, and certainly one of the most engaging that I’ve experienced. For those in Boston, I highly encourage you to experience this magic for yourselves; it’s on display until July 12, 2015. For others who are unable to view it, you can certainly learn more about 3/11 online, here and here, and of course on Wikipedia.



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