Radioactive Sunset and New Dawn: On the Ecopoetry of Wago Ryoichi

Poetry of witness can be powerful, especially when the event witnessed is an ecological tragedy bearing a global signature. In the case of the Fukushima disaster, the radiation released at the intersection of a natural phenomenon (a tsunami) and a human structure (a nuclear power plant) spread throughout the world. The poet enmeshed in such a tragedy as an observer faces the challenge of steering clear of the human tendency to rant. Poetry which seeks to supplement emotional response with scientific fact, and which seeks to interrogate human causation of ecological harm, is known as ecopoetry. When ecopoetry succeeds in conveying  both emotion and scientific detail, it achieves the remarkable: it remains a form of art. The poems in Since Fukushima by Wago Ryoichi, as translated by Judy Halebsky and Takahashi Ayako, meet that test. 

Three Centuries before Wago, the renowned Japanese poet Basho advised that to know the pine, you must go to the pine. The poet who approaches the pine firsthand, rather than as mere idea contemplated from a place of isolation, seeks ecological truth. But nature is not always patient, it sometimes comes to us. In the case of the Fukushima disaster, the tsunami came to Japan, and to the poet Wago.

When the tsunami came to Wago Ryoichi, he was living with his family in his hometown of Fukushima City, located 80 kilometers northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. His poems address the aftermath of what is known as the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident. On March 11, 2011, Japan experienced the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. The earthquake, the largest recorded to date in Japan, struck below the North Pacific, triggering a tsunami. Waves struck the shoreline at great heights. Thousands of lives were lost. The tsunami knocked reactors offline at the power plant. Cooling systems began to fail, causing partial meltdown of reactor cores, which in turn caused breaches of containment, explosions, and releases of radiation into the water and into the air. 

Since Fukushima includes poems written over a ten year period beginning with the disaster. The first two poems in the collection are entitled “Pebbles of Poetry.” Each is comprised of a series of tweets posted by Wago on Twitter beginning five days after the incident. The individual entries are brief, but taken in total the tweets act as lines of a longer poem. What stands out is the immediacy of these poems, a result of their being written in real time. The first “Pebbles of Poetry” poem is especially spare, as Wago comes to grips with basic necessity and the idea of home:

I was taught, “wash your hands before coming in the house.” But there isn’t any water for us to use.

March 16, 2011. 4:37 a.m.

For you, where do you call home? I’ll never abandon this place. It’s everything to me. March 16, 2011. 4:44 a.m.

As the poem progresses, an interlude speaks to common humanity:

My elderly neighbor gave me a box full of onions. He grew them himself. Sadly, I’m not much for onions. The box sits in the entryway, I stare at it silently. A few days ago, I was living my ordinary life.

March 16, 2011. 11:59 p.m.

Wago’s ordinary life before the incident included teaching in the local school system. Appended to this collection is an interview of Wago and of Brenda Hillman conducted by the translators of these poems, on the topic of activism and poetry, in which Wago says: “When I teach, I try to explain things in a way that my students can best understand (...) It’s important to feel with the students and connect my words and feelings with theirs.” The above examples show how Wago connects words and feelings, first reaching out in a direct address to the reader, then sharing his vulnerability, not knowing what to do with the gift of onions.

In the second “Pebbles of Poetry” poem, the depth of reflection and depth of feeling increase. It becomes clear that Wago’s wife and children have evacuated, but he has decided to stay. His parents have also decided to stay. While the immediate danger may have passed, aftershocks persist, and radiation is being emitted by the damaged power plant. Wago’s lines shift to explore new danger in simple acts, standing in the rain and lining up for gas:

During the radioactive sunset yesterday, I was again downtown getting gas. Cars lined up. I got into the line. We didn’t move at all. A light rain was falling. People were walking around, everyone was getting wet in the rain. Be careful, people. It’s dangerous, people. 100 people. 1,000 people. 10,000 people, 10,000,000,000 people, souls, more people, no people. No people at all. Abandoned people. In the shadows of disinformation.

March 27, 2011. 10:16 pm.

As Halebsky and Takahashi describe in their introduction to Since Fukushima, this passage represents an example of the challenge of translation. In translating from Japanese into English they needed to account for the visual component of kanji (the Japanese readings of Chinese characters). For example, in the above passage, the original text employs the character 人 (hito or person). Wago repeats the character over and over, in part for visual impact,  to show the growing numbers of people displaced, or abandoned by the government. The character is also combined with other characters, to form the word nanibito (a number of people, or anyone) and the word mujin (uninhabited). Since a word for word translation would not have been as impactful in English, the translators chose to use an escalating numeric count of people to signify the immense population affected by the disaster.

In the above passage Wago mentions disinformation. These ecopoems not only explore human impact on the broader natural world but also social and political elements. As a Japanese citizen, Wago is well aware of the complicated history of atomic energy. Atom bombs dropped by the United States decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. After the war, Japan was sold the idea of peaceful use of nuclear power (as the nation lacks oil resources). Wago’s poems explore the extent to which governments defend their policies.

To this engineer, Wago’s poem ring true. In 1979, I was a civil engineering student at a university 140 miles from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant is located. A partial reactor meltdown released radiation into the Susquehanna River and into the air, leading to evacuations and, even 140 miles downwind, fear of the unknown. The atom forever links the cultures of the United States and Japan. Expressed in real data: radiation emitted in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident has been detected in the United States, in its ocean currents, in its tuna, even in its wine.

Following Wago’s “Pebbles of Poetry,” the collection proceeds chronologically toward present day Japan. “In the Flesh of a Peach” embodies the stone fruit with Wago’s memories of his hometown. But the flesh has been compromised as if by a hornet’s rage, “not bitten but torn open, torn while grieving, torn while tasting, torn while praying, the peach, everything.”  The poem “Screening Time” chronicles the bureaucratic side of the disaster in which, exiting the restricted area, the  poet’s left, shoe, right shoe, et cetera, are scanned by a mechanical device. The word “screening” is repeated over and over as if to demonstrate there is practically no end to what must be screened. The poem goes on to ponder whether the same scientific approach through which instruments screen human beings for radiation can apply to the psyche:

screening what is outer space

screening what is a hometown

screening what is life

screening what is radiation

to us

what is most precious

what cannot be measured

The answer is clear: science cannot answer all of our questions in digital readouts on pieces of machinery.

In the poem “Spring & Thorn,” a more common pain is experienced. A thorn has become embedded in the poet’s fingertip (acquired in a civic gesture of clearing away fallen branches in the neighborhood). Even as the poet worries about the thorn he experiences epiphanies:

this is the time a pebble in spring is kicked by a pebble in spring

and a butterfly is blamed   this is the time   I desperately coax my

internal organs   to continue to walk   this is the time

oh, the shadow of a bird chasing a bird that continues to smile

over there in the marsh is a sea we’ve never looked for

The poet experiences a topsy-turvy world of ideas rearranged by the disaster in which pebbles, butterflies, and birds act strangely, and in which the sea never looked for reached up to find a nuclear power plant in its way.

Two of the poems in the collection directly address the idea of abandonment: “Thoughts of the Abandoned,” and “Abandoned Fukushima.” The first explores the human emotions associated with the act of forsaking a place.. The phrases “dark dark” and “a pitch-dark night without any moon” repeat. The darkness suggests a lack of enlightenment, even a state of depression. Given the moon is often seen as an object of hope and reflection, its absence suggests the relinquishment of hope. In a nod to ecological accuracy, in addition to people, Wago names among the abandoned: cows, dogs, horses, pheasants, sparrows, crustaceans, and ants.

The poem “Abandoned Fukushima” explores  a place that appears forsaken but is actually inhabited by a few holdouts.  In the poem a lonely narrator obsessively repeats the phrase “abandoned Fukushima on this hushed rainy night”. A boy sighs as he drifts off to sleep dreaming of horses. Another cries over the hushed absence of those who have died. The poem ends with new birth, an infant’s first cry, and while birth into such an uncertain world can prove the source of joy or grief, the poet skillfully expresses this dichotomy by ending the poem with the thought: “thank you for arising into the world / this is your dawn”.

The poem “QQQ” which is visually suggestive to this reader of cows swishing their tails is, sadly, about a starving cow. This is an example of what the translators call Wago’s  ability to “open the frame of the suffering caused by the disaster to include animals that were abandoned when farmers evacuated”. The Qs signal that the lines of the poem form a series of questions, some addressed directly to a starving cow, others addressed to broader humanity in an attempt to contextualize, and seek empathy for, the starving cow.

The collection concludes with the poem “January 11, 2021,” a date nearly ten years after the disaster. The poem centers on the sea, with the finding of a “big catch flag” on the beach not long after the disaster, debris from a fishing vessel lost in the tsunami. The poem circles from past to present. The sea is reclaimed through an outing on a friend’s new boat which was named after one  lost in the tsunami. The boat makes a circle in memory of the deceased and returns to a waiting crowd in the harbor:

they were cheering

they were clapping

they were waving their hands

they were crying

we waved back at them

from a calm and shining ocean

those of us 

still alive

The poem concludes with an appended stanza dated 4/24/2011. In cycling back to the first days after the incident, celebrating the life force still present in seashells, clouds, cows, and more, the poems itself seems a constantly evolving part of the cycle of life.

In the interview with which the book culminates, Hillman offers the following observation: “I think of ecopoetics as worried nature poetry (...) You can’t really go into nature and feel safe anymore.” Today, when we follow Basho’s advice and go to the pine, we carry with us a new awareness that nature may come to us. The pine may come to us as embers set aflame by human induced wildfires. The tsunami may come to us, radiation in its aftermath, as it came to Wago, who served as a poet of witness. Now his words of witness have been translated for an English speaking audience. This is fitting and right, as our continents and cultures are connected by climate, ocean currents, and radiation. These poems wave across the ocean to us. Let us wave back in thanks.

Dave Seter is a civil engineer and poet, and the author of Don’t Sing to Me of Electric Fences (Cherry Grove Collections, 2021) and Night Duty (Main Street Rag, 2010). He is also a translator of contemporary Lithuanian poetry. His own poetry is informed by his environmental career protecting drinking water in the Eastern United States and healing the scars of mineral extraction in the Western United States.