On March 11, 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake shook the country's eastern coastal region, and sent a wave of water 12 stories high rushing toward the shore. The earthquake and tsunami would claim more than 15,000 lives, and the widespread damage — including a catastrophic meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant — would be labeled the "worst natural disaster in the country's recorded history."
Morning Glow, 2011 | (Kikuji Kawada/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)
Four years later, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts is opening In the Wake, an exhibition of work by Japanese artists who have addressed their country's disaster from behind the lens.
"The reaction and response to 3-11 is very deeply personal," said Anne Nishimura Morse, the head curator of Japanese art at the museum. "Collectively and nationally, statements are being made, but each artist responded individually. That allowed us to hear the different threads, and led to an interesting dialogue. There is no one voice in this show."
Untitled from the series Site/Cloud, 2012 | (Daisuke Yokota/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)
2013.10.20 Kesen-cho from the series Rikuzentakata, 2013 | (Naoya Hatakeyama/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)
The show features nearly 100 works by 17 photographers. To get that selection, Morse and her colleague, Anne E. Havinga, traveled all over Japan to seek out a range of both established talents and lesser-known photographers. As the women discovered, all of the artists felt affected by the day's events, no matter where they were on March 11, 2011.
"With Japan's nuclear past, [an event such as the one at Fukushima] strikes a very strong chord," Morse said. "It's not removed, in that sense."
Nor is it easy to talk about such events in Japan. In the Wake marks the first exhibition based on 3-11, a distinction Morse attributes to the American venue, which may offer some distance and perspective to the tragedy.
"In Japan, there's still a sense, I think, that it is too soon," Morse said. "We felt strongly that it needs to be done while we can still contribute to the dialogue."
April 26, 2011, Onahama, Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture, from the series Mirrors in Our Nights, 2011 | (Arai Takashi/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)
'11 6 2, 2011 | (Nobuyoshi Araki/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)
2011:04:02, Minamisanriku, Motoyoshi, Miyagi Prefecture from North East Earthquake Disaster Tsunami, 2011 Portfolio, 2011 | (Miyoshi Kozo/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)
The exhibition is divided into two sections: The first revolves around the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, while the second focuses on the Fukushima disaster and its aftermath.
"The approaches were different, and people in Japan see these as separate events," Havinga said. "From a non-Japanese point of view, this is often seen as one disaster, so in our presentation we tried to show it in another light."
Manipulating the photographs was one way artists chose to exert control over the tragedy, infusing an otherwise point-and-shoot recording of events with emotion. Nobuyoshi Araki (above), for example, took a pair of scissors to a black-and-white photograph of people walking across a street, umbrellas in hand. The angry gouges resemble black rain, Havinga said, which is a common motif in Japan when making reference to Hiroshima — a comparison that she said returned again and again.
Another artist, Seto Masato (below), managed to enter the Fukushima zone — still not an easy task — and make photographs of what, to the naked eye, appears to be a lush, wild area being overtaken by nature.
"But he printed the photographs as negatives," Havinga explained. "That's all about making the invisible radiation 'visible,' illustrating how hard it is now to believe the zone is still contaminated."
From the series Cesium, 2012 | (Seto Masato/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)
Rasen kaigan (Spiral Shore) 45 from the seris Rasen kaigan (Spiral Shore), 2012 | (Shiga Lieko/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)
Trace #16, Lake Hayama (Mano Dam) from the series Trace, 2012 | (Shimpei Takeda/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)
What was most important, to many of the artists, Morse said, was that the exhibition reaffirm that the disaster has not been forgotten.
"With most of the Japanese artists we visited, I don't want to say they were pleased, but they were relieved to be considered for an exhibition that would get another community involved," Morse said. "It reminds people that 3-11 is an ongoing event for the Japanese. And if we do it here, then it makes it perhaps easier for them to do it there."
Rasen kaigan (Spiral Shore) 46 from the seris Rasen kaigan (Spiral Shore), 2011 | (Shiga Lieko/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)
**In the Wake is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, April 5 through July 12. For more information, visit the MFA's website**