From Fukushima – Pt.6

This post comes to you from EcoArtScotland

I have come for a short weekend break to the port city of Niigata on the West coast of Japan at the mouth of the large Shinano river which also serves the huge areas of rice fields that lie between here and the inland mountains.

My first day here brought two cultural experiences that took me to the extreme ends of cultural life in Japan.

Fighting Kite Museum,  children's kites below the large ones.  Photo and permission Su Grierson

Fighting Kite Museum, children’s kites below the large ones. Photo and permission Su Grierson

With several major attractions shut for renovation and total re-hangs, I decided to head out of town to the Large Kite Museum. With not so much English being spoken here finding my way on local buses was the first challenge. And with only a very rudimentary tourist map to assist me, knowing where to get off the bus proved an even greater problem. But it was certainly worth the effort.
As the only visitor in the Museum on a Saturday afternoon I was given privileged treatment. I had a private viewing of a 3D film in English outlining the annual Shirone fighting kite festival. It is a year long community effort to construct and paint the massive 7m x 5m, 30kg, bamboo and paper kites. The strength of the handmade grass ropes that are needed to keep these massive constructions airborne is critical to the outcome of the battle. It takes great skill that is passed down through the generations.

9m bamboo poles are split to make the frames.  Photo and permission Su Grierson

9m bamboo poles are split to make the frames. Photo and permission Su Grierson

Handmade grass ropes are crucial for success.  Photo and permission Su Grierson

Handmade grass ropes are crucial for success. Photo and permission Su Grierson

With teams on either side of the Nakanokuchi river the aim is to catch the opposition by twisting lines so that both kites come down in the river. This is when the real battle begins as both sides enlist their whole community to tug the kites towards their bank of the river. The winner is the team with the fewest broken ropes. It can take 30 to 40 people on the ropes to get the kites airborne and hundreds of all ages pulling together when the kites are in the water.

Kites preparing for battle Photo and permission Su Grierson

Kites preparing for battle Photo and permission Su Grierson

The day before the main battle there is a children’s festival with smaller kites and a large street procession. As the film points out, these battles which are always carried out in a sense of friendly rivalry, are important in keeping old traditions and skills alive in a way that is still embedded in the community as well as promoting a genuine inter-generational unity in their society.

Museum curator laying out kites for me. Photo and permission Su Grierson

Museum curator laying out kites for me. Photo and permission Su Grierson

The Museum itself also has examples of kites from around the world, and the curator who came and laid out some kites for me to see, said they had an example of a traditional English kite. I protested that I didn’t think we had any but had to laugh when he showed me the example. It was a cane bent over and tied into an oval shape with newspaper pasted over. It had along string tail with twists of newspaper slotted into the string. I do indeed remember making a kite exactly like this, as a child in the frugal years at the end of 40’s and early 50’s. There were a few other examples of small kites made with leaves and feathers. Such simple and natural toys.

Part of Sake festival.  Photo and permission Su Grierson

Part of Sake festival. Photo and permission Su Grierson

My second cultural experience came late in the afternoon when I set off to visit the Annual Saki festival held in a very large conference venue on the river banks of Niigata City. The hundreds of people walking (or more accurately staggering) towards me as they left the event was a clue to what was to follow.

Sake Festival  part of the Tasting Hall. Photo and permission Su Grierson

Sake Festival part of the Tasting Hall. Photo and permission Su Grierson

I had originally intended to buy a ‘tasting ticket’ where you are given a label and small ceramic Sake cup in which to freely sample up to 900 of the varieties on display. But one look down into the main hall quickly decided me otherwise. Thousands of people formed what looked like a monumental scrum gathered around the drinking stalls. It seemed quantity rather than quality was the aim. The palette would be so quickly flattened that I doubt it would be possible to distinguish one variety from another anyway.

Going down into the hall as a visitor I was constantly jostled by inebriated drinkers and the smoke and food smells from the surrounding stalls was sticky and oppressive, nothing like the aroma of the interesting and subtle food I have been eating while here.

The Japanese make the most clear and amusing illustrated public signage. You can never doubt that you will drown, crash you bike or walk in dog poo, but the ‘no fighting’ signs at the Sake festival really did give an idea of what might happen as the evening progressed.

No Fighting Sign.  Photo and permission Su Grierson

No Fighting Sign. Photo and permission Su Grierson

Sake is the national drink made from fermented wine. Like wine it ranges from sweet to dry depending on brewing times and water quality. It is also made into rich fruit liqueurs and can be added to many cooking sauces and dishes. Mr Sato owner of our local Yamatogawa brewery and many members of the public have donated so much Sake to our events that we need some extra gatherings just to use it all. In Kitakata generosity and levels of support for our projects are both humbling and inspiring.

Finally after reaching Kitakata again, we are faced with the news that there has been an electricity failure at the crippled Daiichi nuclear plant. It seems they do not know the cause which seems even more worrying. The online Japan News Today says:

“Electricity has been cut to pools used to cool spent fuel at the reactor 1, 3 and 4 units” as well as to the equipment to treat contaminated discharge including radioactive cesium, TEPCO spokesman Kenichi Tanabe said.

However, the incident had not so far affected cooling-water injection to the number 1, 2 and 3 reactors, which suffered core meltdowns soon after the start of the March 2011 nuclear crisis, he said.

The temperature at the pool for spent fuel from reactor number 4 was believed to be the highest and slightly above 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit), still well below the safety limit of 65 degrees, he said, adding it was rising by 0.3-0.4 degrees every hour.

If the system is not restored, it will take four more days for that pool to reach the limit, he said.

“We are trying to restore power by then,” he said, adding the deadline would be about 14 days and 26 days for the other two.

This was on breakfast news today (Tuesday 19th) but I have the feeling that the people are almost numbed to disaster now. There are endless TV programmes about potential Tsunamis and personal security, yet I find that most of the people I speak to have no faith in the new Government to handle these situations. They believe they will bend to the industrial companies desire to re-open the nuclear plants, and I have seen for myself that some sea defenses broken two years ago have not even begun to be restored. There are some small anti-Government public protests in Tokyo, but few people seem to believe it will make any difference.

Based purely on the people I talk to here, I find that while they are individually inspiring, the country seems to be still struggling to cope with all that has happened and are a long way from finding a constructive way forward.

I fly home in 3 days time and by then the first cooling deadline will have been reached. Let’s hope there is only good news to report.

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ashdenizen: is climate change a zombie concept?

Kellie Payne reports on the Tipping Point event, held earlier this month, where Mike Hulme suggested climate change was a zombie concept:

as a metaphor it has done its work. As a concept, it connects a large swathe of issues combined through the scientific narrative and perhaps there are other ways to make progress.

Much less the as-billed scientific update, the Tipping Point event held on Wednesday 13th April at Kings College, London was a philosophical exploration of the status of our current conceptualisation of climate change.

Hosted by Tipping Point, the arts organisation that seeks to build bridges between artists and climate scientists, the afternoon featured Mike Hulme, UEA climate scientist and author of Why We Disagree About Climate Change, climate change adaptation specialist Emma Tompkins and Greenpeace’s Senior Climate Advisor Charlie Kronick . In attendance were past Tipping Point conference attendees, a mix of artists, academics and a few scientists.

Hulme is a veteran climate scientist whose career has included serving as the founder-director of the Tyndall centre and contributing scientist to UK climate change scenarios and reports for the IPCC. However, writing his recent book led Hulme to take a more philosophical perspective: his interest being more in the positioning of our larger conceptualisations of climate change and interrogating different epistemological constructions of climate change. Moving beyond the merely scientific understanding of climate change, he investigates how climate change is understood in disciplines varying from economics, ethics, politics and humanities. In particular, he argues that climate change is a value laden concept that reflects our views of the world, nature, the economy and ethical frameworks.

Hulme’s presentation was largely an explanation of the four myths he explores in his book: lamenting Eden which draws on a sense of nostalgia, presaging apocalypse based on a sense of fear, constructing Babel (hubris) and celebrating jubilee which builds upon our sense of justice. In essence, what Hulme argues is that every individual brings their own agenda, applying the challenge of climate change to their own problems, that is, climate change is the raw material that is used to work on our individual projects. Hulme suggested we ask ourselves whether stabilising the climate was indeed our ultimate goal or whether stabilising climate was instead a means to an end, and we were using climate change to achieve our other goals.

Emma Tomkins on the other hand bases her work on a belief that climate change is happening and asserts that the government is leading the way on adaptation. Based at Leeds and the Government’s Department for International Development, Tomkins outlined types of adaptation currently being implemented including risk management policies and attempts to build resilience. When Tomkins asked the audience how many were currently taking adaptive measures, it became clear that the line between what constitutes mitigation activities and adaption is often blurred in the minds of many. The government makes a clear distinction between mitigation measures (limiting ones emissions) and adaption (preparing for the impacts of climate change). For instance when asked about what types of adaptation individuals were taking, some audience members mentioned the work of the Transition Town movements, but from the government perspective Transition Town activities would constitute mitigation measures as their main focus is reducing emissions.

Tomkins conducted an exercise to see how we as an audience would allocate adaptation funds, whether we would base our decisions on: equitable distribution of resources, reward mitigators, help those facing the most exposure, help the most vulnerable, or offer developmental assistance. At the moment, current government policy (Adaptation Policy Framework) is based on risk mapping and awareness and therefore has its focus on those who face the most exposure to risk. Tomkins stressed the need to be aware that in any adaptation policy there are a number of decisions to be made about the type of losses we are willing to take and warned that there is a potential to make serious mistakes unless we seriously consider the issues.

Charlie Kronick weighed in with the activist viewpoint, reminding the audience that in the past adaptation wasn’t even considered because to do so would be to accept defeat. Further, he didn’t see the need to separate out adaptation and mitigation as he sees them as one and the same. For Charlie, climate change isn’t about science, or art, but about power politics, ‘the deal makers and takers’ and inequality is a major driver.

Hulme agreed that it’s about politics and our ambitions about what type of society we want to inherit. Hulme suggested that perhaps climate change was indeed a zombie concept, and as a metaphor it has done its work. As a concept, it connects a large swathe of issues combined through the scientific narrative and perhaps there are other ways to make progress.

Kellie Payne is a PhD student in the Geography department at the Open University researching culture and climate change

The 2nd International Humanities and Sustainability Conference

Florida Gulf Coast University
Fort Myers, Florida
October 7-9, 2010

Florida Gulf Coast University’s Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education, and Departments of Language & Literature and Communication & Philosophy are currently accepting individual abstracts and panel proposals for FGCU’s 2nd International Humanities and Sustainability Conference, to be held in Fort Myers, Florida, October 7-9, 2010. Our goal is to encourage interdisciplinary conversations about the role of the humanities in fostering sustainability, however defined, and about the sustainability of the humanities as we move into the second decade of the 21st Century.

Please submit 300-500 word paper and panel proposals, with A/V requests, by email to The deadline for proposals is June 4, 2010 at midnight EST. Include all text of the proposal in the body of the email (attachments will not be opened), and be sure to include full contact information for all panel members. See for more information.

Possible questions for investigation might include, but are not limited to:

  • What have “nature,” “culture,” and “environment” come to mean? How have these concepts been constructed, for better or worse, in the academy, but also in the global community at large, and how have these constructions structured our relationship to what we refer to as the natural world, whether in a limiting or a liberating way?
  • What role do the humanities have, not only in fostering awareness of global environmental and social issues, but also in creating thoughtful and productive analyses of these issues by questioning the way environment and culture are represented in humanities and non-humanities disciplines alike, in addition to examining the role of media and information technology in establishing, complicating, altering, and/or breaking down those representations?
  • What are the different ways we understand and relate to nature and society in the academy, both through humanities disciplines like religious and spirituality studies, cultural studies, new media studies, art, literature, and philosophy, and non-humanities disciplines like political, natural, and social sciences?
  • What have been the goals, implementation, and outcomes of efforts toward integrating environmental and cultural sustainability education into humanities courses and curricula? How can information and media technology be used to enhance such efforts?
  • Is “sustainability” sustainable?
  • What pressures are being exerted on the humanities to transform themselves so as not to become obsolete in the ultra-practical and future-oriented information age, and how should the humanities respond to such pressures?

Eric Otto, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities
Florida Gulf Coast University
10501 FGCU Blvd. S.
Fort Myers, FL 33965

phone: (239) 590-7250