Artistic Responses to Disaster – A Discussion

Photograph of the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima

The study of Japanese history has traditionally been centred around the metropole but this is fundamentally limiting – it risks oversimplification by suggesting that only the centre can influence the periphery and not vice-versa, overlooking local history and ignoring paradigm-shifting events. Such events can include disasters and this essay will focus specifically on the benefits and the difficulties that arise from artistic responses to disaster events.

The island of Okinawa, that has thrice been subjugated by different countries, exemplifies how art reflects the shifting social-political climate. Pre-war Okinawa was depicted as an exotic but “primitive” land, as seen in Fujita Tsuguharu’s Grandchildren (1938). This style of depiction served to demonstrate Japan’s colonial capabilities whilst simultaneously using Okinawa as a point of reference with which to celebrate the extent of technological advancement undergone by mainland Japan.

During the post-war period, under US occupation, Okinawan art underwent a transformation with the increased used of muted colours and abstract designs to express the horrors that had occurred during the war and the difficult reality. Exemplified in Adaniya Masayoshi’s Tower (1958), where an abstract depiction of a US military tower is like a black scar down the middle of the painting, dominating the natural blue sky behind. Art was used not only to express trauma and create a sense of solidarity, but to provide a critique on wartime activities.

The exhibition Don’t Follow the Wind (2015) displays artistic response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster within the radioactive exclusion zone. Its creators claim that the government is trying to distract the general public from the plight of Fukushima and states that it aims to remind the public that the after-effects of the disaster are still ongoing. Although currently no one can view the exhibition, the artists created the exhibition with the hope that in the future, once it is finally safe to enter, people will visit. Demonstrating a potential benefit of disaster art –  it can be used to educate later generations, providing an insight into the physical and emotional damage of a particular event.

Chim↑Pom, a multi-media artistic group involved with Don’t Follow the Wind, are notorious for their controversial work. In 2008, they planned for the word “PIKA!” to be written in skywriting above the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima. This prompted heated debate with many condemning their actions as insensitive and inappropriate and the group had to publicly apologise. Highlighting how delicacy and empathy are key when dealing with disaster events.

The portrayal of disaster in art is inherently controversial because it tackles a subject matter that physically and emotionally damaged many. At its most beneficial, disaster art can be cathartic, educating and/or thought-provoking but it can also be deeply upsetting and disrespectful if handled inappropriately. Although disaster art will remain a uniquely difficult subject because of its content, it is a vital way of remembering and honouring those caught in the disaster.

Photograph of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park – which contains carefully considered and thoughtfully designed pieces of public art.



Radioactive Art in Fukushima: Don’t Follow the Wind Video

Eriko Tomizawa-Kay, “Reinventing Localisms, Tradition, and Identity” edited by Tomizawa-Kay and Watanabe, East Asian Art History in a Transnational Context, 2019, pp.102-125

Seminar given by Eriko Tomizawa-Kay on Art History and Study of Place as part of my MA.

Michael Lewis, “Center and Periphery in Japanese Historical Studies” in William Tsutsui, Companion to Japanese History, 2007, Chapter 24

4 Replies to “Artistic Responses to Disaster – A Discussion

  1. Thank you for elucidating the importance of deconstructing boundaries of metropole-centric art history.
    I totally agree with you how delicacy and empathy are key when dealing with disaster events.

    Due to Okinawa’s political and historical background, post-war artists had to face various identity challenges and sought originality and identity as a artist through reconstructing Okinawan traditions.
    The fact that this notion persists to the present day demonstrates the significance of this aspect of Okinawan art.

    Regarding Chim↑Pom’s PIKA, later, Chim↑Pom united with those A-Bomb victim organizations and began preparing ‘Why Can’t We Make the Sky of Hiroshima “PIKA!”’, a book investigating the series of disputes through interviews with the organizations and contributions from critics and artists was published in March 2009.

    1. Dear Eriko,

      Thank you for your comment and the fascinating seminar you gave. I think it is really interesting how Chim↑Pom and the A-Bomb victim organisations united to turn something negative into a book that could educate people on the different stances to consider when thinking about the event.

  2. Dear Zoe-san, Thank you for your interesting blog. Why would you think some people pressured Chim Pom’s to cancel their Hiroshima event? Wouldn’t that be a good thing for those young people to support abolishment of nuclear weapons while many are often indifferent?

    1. Dear Natsue,

      I think there are many different reasons people could have opposed it. Possibly they felt it was insensitive or that the group did not truly understand the event or that it was a publicity stunt or it just brought back painful memories that they wanted to move on from (though this is all conjecture). I do not think that it would have been the anti-nuclear weapons message that was the problem for most people – it could have been a case of agreeing with the underlying motivation but not the method utilised.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *