- Watanabe Toshiya
It is well known that the bubble economy began at the end of the Shōwa era (1926–89), collapsed shortly after the dawn of the Heisei era (1989–2019), and was then followed by a long period of stagnation referred to as Japanese society’s “lost 20 years.” The Great East Japan Earthquake occurred soon after the passing of these two decades, in 2011. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the Japanese media was flooded with stimulating and easy-to-understand images such as “abandoned livestock carcasses,” “a single flower in the rubble,” and “a miracle pine tree that survived the tsunami”—images that were easy to verbalize and used to illustrate predetermined narratives. This “populism of images” provided viewers with temporary excitement—consuming them and bringing their thoughts to a standstill—yet were eventually forgotten.
Watanabe Toshiya (1966-) has been photographing his hometown of Namie in Fukushima prefecture since the disaster. Jun. 12. 2011 “Seven-Eleven” Minamisoma, Fukushima is one of the pictures Watanabe took during the eighteen months following the disaster, when the whole of Namie was still designated as an off-limits area, except for certain residents, due to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident. This photograph of “a person in a white protective suit with his or her upper body in a black car parked in a parking lot” is difficult to understand, to say the least. It conveys, in a slow manner, a sense of the unusual, or more precisely, the fact that the ordinary has been lost. Instead of providing the viewer with a visual, easy-to-understand shock, the photograph encourages us to keep looking at it and thinking about it.
The convenience store in the background is apparently not open. A closed convenience store would have been a rare sight. The white curtains and newspaper that cover the windows of the closed convenience store, together with the white protective suit, may be the reason for the unusual feelings that this quiet photograph elicits. Operating 24 hours a day with dazzling in-store lighting, convenience stores are [End Page 96]
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a true symbol of Japan’s convenient society. In recent years however, convenience stores have oversaturated society, and in 2019, for the first time ever, the number of stores will fall below the previous year’s level. The profits of individual stores are declining and as the work environment for workers worsens, the iconic 24-hour service of convenience is finally beginning to be reconsidered.
Meanwhile, the electricity that the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant produced mainly supplied the metropolitan area of Tokyo. I am ashamed to admit that I was not aware of this fact until after the earthquake. The convenience that I took for granted was premised on someone else’s sacrifice. Various social problems that had accumulated over the course of the Shōwa era did not suddenly disappear like the bubble economy, but rather came to the fore during the Heisei era. One of the problems, I believe, is a distortion of society that is the result of the relentless pursuit of affluence and convenience. The problems that were finally revealed in the Heisei era will hopefully be addressed in the Reiwa era (2019-), and we must continue our efforts to correct them.
Even after compiling 18 months, Watanabe has continued to photograph his hometown of Fukushima. [End Page 98]
Kakishima Takashi (Founder/Director of POETIC SCAPE)
Kakishima Takashi is the Founder and Director of the gallery POETIC SCAPE. Since its opening in 2011, he has curated a number of exhibitions of both established and emerging artists, including Moriyama Daidō, Nomura Hiroshi, and Watanabe Toshiya. He has also been a part-time lecturer at Kyoto University of Art since 2017. In 2019, he was invited as a guest curator to the Belfast Photo Festival in Northern Ireland to give a lecture on “truth in Japanese photography.”
(Gallery website: www.poetic-scape.com/)