Japanese Photography Responds to 2011 Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Disaster in MFA Exhibition, "In the Wake"

Nearly 100 Works from 17 Photographers Chosen for Exhibition at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

BOSTON, MA (February 11, 2015)—On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and enormous wave of water swept through the Tōhoku (Northeast) region of Japan, destroying virtually everything in its path and irrevocably damaging the Fukushima nuclear power plant. This disaster was of such epic proportion that it became a defining moment for Japan. Today, the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima failure have collectively become known as the “Triple Disaster” or “3/11,” after the date of the first events. Four years later, In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is the first exhibition to explore the photography created in reaction to these tragic events. On view April 5—July 12, 2015 in the MFA’s Henry and Lois Foster Gallery, the exhibition is divided into two sections––one focused on the earthquake and tsunami and the other on the Fukushima disaster. On view will be approximately 100 works by 17 photographers, some among Japan’s most celebrated artists and others who are emerging talents. Their work explores the way art provides a powerful language for reflecting on tragic events and contributing to human recovery. Presented with generous support from Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne. Additional support from the Ishibashi Foundation, the Toshiba International Foundation, Brian J. Knez, and the Barbara Jane Anderson Fund. Supporting sponsorship from Shiseido Co., Ltd. The catalogue is supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Publications Fund.

In the Wake presents a range of photographers who felt compelled to record not only the Triple Disaster’s physical effects, but also to interpret the overarching significance of the tragedy through art. For the exhibition, co-curators Anne E. Havinga, Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Senior Curator of Photographs, and Anne Nishimura Morse, William and Helen Pounds Senior Curator of Japanese Art, together with Tomoko Nagakura, Research Fellow for Japanese Art, worked to select photographs from 17 artists who work in a range of photographic media, including Takashi Arai (born 1978), Nobuyoshi Araki (born 1940) , Yishay Garbasz (born 1970), Ishu Han (born 1987), Naoya Hatakeyama (born 1958), Takashi Homma (born 1962), Kikuji Kawada (born 1933), Rinko Kawauchi (born 1972), Keizo Kitajima (born 1954), Kōzo Miyoshi (born 1947), Yasusuke Ota (born 1958), Masato Seto (born 1953), Lieko Shiga (born 1980), Shimpei Takeda (born 1982), Masaru Tatsuki (born 1974), Daisuke Yokota (born 1984) and Tomoko Yoneda (born 1965).

In the Wake encourages viewers to experience the power of art to record and reflect on historic events,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director at the MFA. “These artists have produced images that are at times searing, disturbing and often strangely beautiful.”

In addition to photographs, the exhibition features a room devoted to the role of photography in the face of disaster, including news footage and the international photographic response from 3/11. An area featuring a lost-and-found photo installation includes rescued personal snapshots that were washed up in the debris and sorted for survivors—offering a tangible way to hold onto memories. A publication, In the Wake (2015, MFA Publications), by Havinga and Morse accompanies the exhibition, with additional contributions made by Michio Hayashi, Professor of Art History and Visual Culture, Sophia University; Marilyn Ivy, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Columbia University; and Tomoko Nagakura, Research Fellow for Japanese Art. The book will be available in both English and Japanese. On May 17, a special symposium inspired by the exhibition discusses humankind’s remarkable responses in the face of adversity.

“The response of Japanese photographers to the events of 3/11 was immediate. From the beginning, they created remarkably strong bodies of work. Our exhibition will present the variety of their perspectives,” said Havinga.  “One of the most fascinating aspects of this exhibition is the conversations between works that the installation inspires”.

Throughout history, photography has been an essential medium for artists seeking to convey their reaction to tragedy. The artists on view in In the Wake were among the first to respond to the 3/11 disaster, using cameras to document and give expression to the societal anxiety surrounding the events. For example, photographer Nobuyoshi Araki expressed his inner turmoil by scratching the negatives of 283 images with a pair of scissors. The resulting jagged marks––and the emotional distress they convey––can be seen in works such as Shakyō Rōjin Nikki (2011), where the gashes are as much the subject of the photograph as the people portrayed.

“The events of 3/11 have compelled artists in Japan to question their relationship to their environment, to society and to reassess their assumptions about their own work. For some, the photographs that they have created are poignant testaments of loss and for others, powerful expressions of anxiety,” said Morse.

Kōzo Miyoshi was among the first photographers to engage with the 3/11 disaster by traveling to the sites of destruction. Miyoshi has photographed Tōhoku since the mid-1980s, including taking portraits of the region’s traditional fishing communities. In response to 3/11, he created a series of black-and-white images in a neutral documentary style, such as Nishiminato, Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture (2011). In the work, the 4,724-ton cargo ship Asia Symphony is seen torn from its moorings, as it thrusts into the town of Kamaishi. Left in place for months, the ship became a painful reminder of destruction to local residents.

Rikuzentakata—a small village on Japan’s coast—was home to some 20,000 inhabitants until its seawall was breached by the tsunami. Since that day it has been the sole subject of photographs by Naoya Hatakeyama, who had previously explored the dynamic, cyclical relationship between nature and urban development. Many of the artist’s ideas about the nature of photography were called into question after 3/11, when not only was Rikuzentakata destroyed, but his mother lost her life. Pictures taken after the disaster are his testament to the passage of time—documenting the ravaged landscape, the immediate cleanup, and the slow process of reconstruction. This progression can be seen in his work, 2013.10.20 Kesen-chō (2013), in which a nearby mountain has been brought down so that the soil can be used for landfill near the waterfront.

Emerging artists featured in the exhibition include postmodern photographer Lieko Shiga, who has called Tōhoku home since 2008. Before the disaster, local officials in the coastal town of Kitakama asked her to be the village photographer, leading her to become engrossed in the town’s history and the residents’ personal stories. Shiga was in the offices of Kitakama’s town newspaper when the tsunami struck and she narrowly escaped. When she returned, she found that she had lost her house, studio, cameras and a year’s worth of work. Although she does not want to be identified strictly with the disaster, she sees her photographs as a larger body of work that explores her own internalization of the stories of the Kitakama community. In her Portrait of Cultivation (2009), an elderly couple poses next to the upside-down twisted root of a pine tree that had been dug up on family land, and which has been propped up so that it appears to pierce the man’s heart.

The events of 3/11 have also confronted Japan with its nuclear past. Photographers have never lost sight of the catastrophic impact of the atomic bombs, and have ensured that the experiences remain part of the national collective memory. Since 3/11, Japanese photographers have drawn connections between the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. For years, Takashi Homma has taken photographs of fungi that he harvested from forest floors throughout Japan. However, since 3/11 the mushrooms have taken on a politically nuanced significance, as in Mushrooms from the Forest (2011). Not only do fungi absorb radiation yet continue to thrive, the subject of mushrooms unavoidably conjures up images of the mushroom clouds identified with the nuclear explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Masato Seto was one of the few photographers who gained direct access to the nuclear plant after the disaster. In February 2012, nearly a year after the initial meltdowns, he was asked to accompany the French Industry and Energy Minister, Eric Besson, on a visit to the site. Although the visit took place on a sunny day, Seto manipulated his photographs by printing them in the negative––turning them into nightmarish visions. Seto took these photographs on commission, but also took two black-and-white images of his own, including Cesium (2012). Ishu Han, a Shanghai-born artist who moved to Tōhoku when he was ten years old, exploited an image that has been widely circulated in the media––the deteriorating Fukushima nuclear towers. In his art, Han presents a slightly pixelated image of Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1, with the metal framework of its upper walls exposed by an explosion in Life Scan Fukushima (2014). Han’s digital manipulation permits viewers to examine Fukushima as if it were an organism under a microscope. Looking closer, the structural components of the plant are revealed to be one-yen coins, repeated in a digital mosaic of lights and darks—a statement on the intertwined economic interests that led to the catastrophe. 

After the meltdown, Shimpei Takeda abandoned the camera in favor of autoradiography––a method that uses a photographic process to expose radiation. In his series, Trace (2011–12), Takeda strove for an abstract aesthetic in images that could also provide scientific documentation of the environmental conditions in Tōhoku. He created these pictures by collecting and exposing soil samples from sites in or around Fukushima Prefecture, producing images from the area’s irradiated soil. Works such as Trace # 16: Lake Hayama (Mano Dam) (2012) appear to evoke the cosmos, but confront the viewer with the knowledge that the “stars” are hot points created by the contamination.

Rather than chronicling the onslaught of the waves, the artists in the exhibition examine the impact of the tsunami through the physical or spiritual traces of the communities that have been destroyed. Instead of documenting the explosions of the reactors at Fukushima, they seek metaphors for the invisible nuclear particles that contaminate the surrounding countryside and for the anxiety that continues to reverberate throughout Japanese society. It is certain that these artists will continue to return to the subject whether explicitly or implicitly, and that other generations of artists will follow.

Japanese Art and Culture at the MFA

The MFA has a long relationship with Japan that dates back to the 19th century. In 1890, the MFA became the first museum in America to establish a Japanese collection and appoint a curator specializing in Japanese art. The MFA’s Asian Conservation Studio is one of only five such studios in the United States and is the oldest outside of Asia––its initial mission was to preserve Japanese paintings. Today, the Museum’s Asian art collection, in particular Japanese art, is celebrated as the finest outside of Japan. To highlight many notable works, the MFA reinstalled its Art of Japan gallery in January 2013. It features more than 130 objects dating from the fifth century through the present day, showcasing a range of paintings, textiles and decorative arts. The gallery is adjacent to the Buddhist Temple Room, which was designed in 1909 to evoke the dignified simplicity of Japanese temples. In addition to In the Wake, the MFA celebrates Japanese art and culture in spring 2015 with the opening of Hokusai (April 5–August 9, 2015) and the reopening of the Japanese Garden, Tenshin-en, which means the “Garden of the Heart of Heaven.” Media sponsor of Hokusai is WCVB-TV Boston. With generous support from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Exhibition Fund. Tenshin-en founding and renewal partner is Nippon Television Network Corporation, Tokyo, Japan. Additional support for the ongoing care and maintenance of Tenshin-en provided by Jan Fontein, the Beacon Hill Garden Club and Sharon and Brad Malt.

Inspiration in the Face of Adversity: Humanitarians and Artists

Sunday, May 17, 2015: 1– 4 pm; $40 nonmember, $32 member

Inspired by In the Wake, this afternoon symposium discusses how humankind responds in remarkable ways in the face of adversity. For the first half of the program, author and economist Sonali Deraniyagala recounts her survival and recovery following the 2011 Indonesian earthquake and tsunami, and humanitarian Paul Farmer (Kolokotrones University Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard University; co-founder, Partners in Health; Chief of the Division of Global Health Equity, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital) shares insights from on-the-ground operations across the world. In the second half of the program, the artistic response to recovery is presented by artist Ryūji Miyamoto of Japan and Russell Lord, Freeman Family Curator of Photographs, New Orleans Museum of Art. Artists from Boston Lyric Opera end the afternoon with a musical meditation on human recovery. Sponsored by Estrellita Karsh.


The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its collection, which includes an estimated 500,000 objects. The Museum has more than 140 galleries displaying its encyclopedic collection, which includes Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa; Art of the Ancient World; Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 am–4:45 pm; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 am–9:45 pm Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission is free for University Members and youths age 17 and younger on weekdays after 3 pm, weekends, and Boston Public Schools holidays; otherwise $10. Wednesday nights after 4 pm admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25). MFA Members are always admitted for free. The Museum’s mobile MFA Guide is available at ticket desks and the Sharf Visitor Center for $5, members; $6, non-members; and $4, youths. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. For more information, visit mfa.org or call 617.267.9300. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115.