Remembering Fukushima: Japanese daguerreotypist Takashi Arai links past, present and future by creating these timeless images

A partially-submerged ship. An abandoned rice field. The solemn faces of fishermen and farmers. Japanese photographer Takashi Arai hopes these carefully-captured images will connect with present and future generations, prompting them to reflect on the events of March 11th, 2011.

It is now just over five years since an earthquake and tsunami took the lives of approximately 19,000 people and an evacuation order uprooted another 160,000. Upwards of 100,000 individuals are still unable or unwilling to return to their homes in Fukushima Prefecture. Efforts to decommission the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and decontaminate the surrounding regions are expected to continue for decades. But already, Arai fears that too many people in Japan have forgotten ‘3/11’.

While mainstream media has been flooded with countless ‘documentary-style’ images of the devastation, Arai thought that, through his signature medium of daguerreotypy, he could inspire viewers to look deeper and longer at the consequences of the disaster.

Arai is well-known in Japan for his mastery of this archaic photographic technique. His award-winning images have appeared in exhibitions in Japan and internationally and are held in collections in Tokyo, San Francisco and Paris. He recently published his first monograph, ‘MONUMENTS,’ and is currently participating in an exhibition organised by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston entitled ‘In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11.’

Daguerreotypy, the first commonly-used photographic method, made its international debut in 1839 and remained popular until the 1860s. It is a delicate, multistep process that requires the photographer to handle hazardous chemicals including mercury. Due to the long exposure time, subjects must remain still for up to several minutes. In the end, an ethereal image composed of silver particles takes shape on a mirror-like metal plate. Arai demonstrates this elaborate process in a short video—it’s a far cry from snapping a selfie with a smartphone.

‘[The] slowness of daguerreotype forces me to stay at one location longer, to engage people deeper. Since Fukushima is an ongoing disaster and won’t be solved for some decades (or probably more), I believe daguerreotype is one of the best processes to work with this long term issue.

‘Also, the nature of daguerreotype brings a unique experience of ‘seeing’ to viewers. [The] mirroring surface of a daguerreotype reflects everything in front, so the image on a silver plate is always overlapped and sometimes double-imaged with the face of a viewer her/himself. This interaction triggers remembrance of viewers, and makes them connect themselves to the subject personally and emotionally.’

It’s less than 300 km to Fukushima Prefecture from Arai’s home in Tokyo, and he had visited there several times prior to the disaster. He remembers luxuriating in its hot springs, fine food and drink and natural beauty, but when he went back to visit friends in April 2011, something didn’t seem right. ‘I certainly saw [the] landscape differently but I feel this is from my psychological [perspective] changing. I know how I felt before in the same nature, so I was surprised that my point of view was changed so easily.’

Images and diary excerpts from ‘MONUMENTS’ recorded during visits in 2011 and 2012 speak to his shift in outlook and attempts to reconcile the present with the past: ‘I took a daguerreotype of mountain lilies I picked in Nagadoro, Iitate. I later heard that place, most famous for lilies, was the most severely contaminated . . . I’ve smelled this lily many times before: at my childhood piano recital and kindergarten graduation party. Or at my grandfather’s wake after the earthquake’.


During his travels, Arai also remarked on the experiences of local residents. ‘Everyone I met in Fukushima told me his/her life has been irreversibly changed.’

In Matsukawaura, he met two fishermen who agreed to pose for a photograph. ‘I asked what their names were and listened to their stories about the earthquake. Most of the boats in the port were washed away, and the port was covered with debris. They guessed it will take decades before fishing returns to normal. Soma stands on the coast, and two rivers run through it. The mountains have been contaminated, so no matter how much they are cleaned, radioactive material will flow down. If that’s the case then the state of the coastal fishing and wakame [an edible seaweed] aquaculture will be hopeless’.

The animals revealed their own stories of tragedy and loss: ‘An upside down four-wheel drive laid unmoved since the tsunami. A little bit ahead, a dog-like silhouette waited for me motionlessly . . . After I threw it a rice ball, she only sniffed at it. There was no motion to try to eat it . . . She was well-trained, and it was clear she must have lived with a good owner. I wondered if her owner was one of those who were washed away in the tsunami. Or maybe the owner couldn’t take her to the evacuation centre, and she was there waiting for their return’.

Arai is pleased to be presenting his works from Fukushima Prefecture alongside those of 16 other artists in the exhibition ‘In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11,’ currently at the Japan Society in New York City.

‘I was motivated to participate in the show because I thought I could draw more attention from outside of Japan, and then from inside of Japan as well. I’ve been working on the history of nuclear trade-off between Japan and the US, so that exhibition is also important for me to share my perspective on the history of the Atomic Age from Trinity Site to Hiroshima, Nagasaki to Fukushima. The entire show was sensibly organised, and I felt the curatorial team tried to show not only the surface level of disasters, but also socio-historical and anthropological background of our ‘disaster-rich’ country, which make our culture and art language unique.’

He wants to keep 3/11 on the public radar, worrying that similar disasters could occur in future and that, due to a lack of political will, not enough is being done to prevent them.

‘We have 54 nuclear reactors in Japan and they are all vulnerable, standing on the active volcanic belt [that] lays from the North to the South. My question is . . . how we could work together to get rid of all nuclear power plants in the [path] of earthquakes . . .

‘Sadly, I don’t think Fukushima changed the mindset of the majority of people in Japan. Japanese society has too much relied on economic growth based on manufacturing industry (the first economic revival after WW2 was brought by the special procurement during the Korean War), and also on nuclear industry. Many people fear the loss of nuclear industry brings huge bankruptcy of national companies and mega-banks. I had some hope until 2012, because the alternative political party won the majority of the House of Representatives, but soon retrogression took place rapidly and people chose 100% pro-nuke and ultra nationalistic government.’


Even as their vintage character evokes memories the past, Arai hopes his daguerreotypes have the ‘power to attract eyes of future generations,’ and ‘help them to connect their own experience and emotions to a particular time and space (for example, Fukushima after 2011).

‘I was inspired by the story of Onkalo, the nuclear waste site in Finland. Scientists are still discussing how [to communicate] the danger of the site to future generations. We don’t even understand the culture from just 400 years ago, but nuclear waste must be under control for 100,000 years from now. Some say ominous statues must be built at the site, but no one knows if it really works (e.g. Pyramids have complex traps and ‘cursed’ signs but they have been already explored many times).
‘[These are] almost metaphysical debates, and it is impossible to get an answer. I sometimes feel like we are living in the age of nuclear mythology.’

To learn more about Takashi Arai and his work, visit his website. If you are in NYC, you might also want to check out ‘In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11,”’which will be at the Japan Society until June 12th.