JQ Magazine: JQ&A with Photographer Wei Yuet Wong on ‘The Fukushima Project’

"Though people have told me no one wants to see disaster photos anymore, I think it's a good reminder because it's barely three years, and already people are forgetting. Not only outside Japan, but within Japan itself, people are forgetting. It’s true that people need to move on and rebuild their lives, but there's still so much more work to be done in Tohoku." (Courtesy of Wei Yuet Wong)

“Though people have told me no one wants to see disaster photos anymore, I think it’s a good reminder because it’s barely three years, and already people are forgetting. Not only outside Japan, but within Japan itself, people are forgetting. It’s true that people need to move on and rebuild their lives, but there’s still so much more work to be done in Tohoku.” (Courtesy of Wei Yuet Wong)

By Nathalie Ng (Shizuoka-ken, 2010-11) For JQ magazine. A member of JETAA Singapore, Nathalie was an inaka JET and her time in Japan has taught her to appreciate the flowers by the roadside and how to snowboard.

Wei Yuet Wong (Nagano-ken, 2008-10) left his home in Singapore to join JET following a summer homestay in Hiroshima. He went there because of the history as he’d learnt about the devastation during World War II, and he was particularly interested in seeing how the city had progressed since then. The relationship formed with his homestay family inspired him to join JET.

Assigned to three different schools in Ueda City, during his first few months he was often left feeling clueless and dependent on his supervisor due to the language barrier and the office hierarchy, but he soon got better at it by keeping an open mind and adapting. He is particularly proud that he was able to inspire in his students that they didn’t have to speak English with an American accent to be understood, and this has helped them to be more confident, speaking out during and outside of classes. (In fact, one of Wong’s former students even visited him and his family during the Chinese New Year.)

Since returning from Japan Wong has been working as a corporate warrior, but since last year he has finally taken the leap to pursue his photography interests. His work is now on display in a new exhibition called The Fukushima Project, which runs through 14th February at Select Books in Singapore on 51 Armenian Street. Through special postcards available for sale, visitors can write messages to the people of Hisanohama in Iwaki, which will then be collected and sent to them to let them know that their story has not been forgotten.

In this exclusive interview, JQ spoke with Wong about his visits to Fukushima before and after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and the relationships he’s made with the locals through his numerous community activities.

You were posted to Nagano-ken and you lived there before the quake happened. What was your motivation for this exhibition?

I felt awed and hopeless when I first looked at the videos of the earthquake, perhaps like so many people around the world. Then why Fukushima? I think there may be three explanations. One, I first visited Fukushima in 2009 to visit friends, so I got to see Fukushima before the disaster. It was quite a different place.

Two, I have friends in Fukushima, and they live in Koriyama city, about 45 km away from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. I was concerned about them. I was curious to know how they felt on the day of the earthquake, and then during the subsequent confusion about the nuclear power plant. I also wanted to see how they are doing when most other parts of the world, and Japan, starts forgetting about them.

Lastly, I wanted to experience how it would be like to venture into the disaster zone. I have a need to see things for myself. To touch the soil. Walk on the sand. Smell the salty air on the Japanese east coast, and try to imagine how people felt that day.

Why did you choose this particular town of Hisanohama?

It was by chance that I discovered this town. It’s quite a story, one thing leading to another, with some fortunate chance encounters. But, the best summary is: I met a friend at Koriyama Station to listen to her account, and her experiences. After that I wanted to visit the coast, so she told me that Iwaki is where I should go. With my ticket bought, I hopped on the bus for the 1.5 hour journey to Iwaki. Once at Iwaki, I went to the local tourist office, and asked for directions to the coast. The person at the office looked quite surprised, and she pulled out a map, studied it for a moment, and said, “Maybe you shouldn’t go. We used to have nice beaches, shrines, and attractions. But now, nani mo nai (there’s nothing).” I was not put off, and she finally realised that I would still go no matter what, and she suggested why don’t I go to Hisanohama, where I can have a nice walk, and just look around. So, there I went.

In the international media, most people know about Kesennuma, Rikuzentakata and Minamisoma, but Hisanohama remains unknown. So, I think it’s nice that I visited Hisanohama. It’s a town just 31 km south of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, along the Pacific Coast, and has suffered great damage in the tsunami.

What’s your favourite photo in this entire exhibition, and why?

It’s difficult to decide on a favourite photo. However, I can explain why I decided on showing some photos over others. It’s an indie production, very modest, and very small in scale, so I had limited space. I decided to show photos that convey two themes: a reminder, and hope.

The reminder includes three large prints (36” x 24”) of the destruction. Though people have told me no one wants to see disaster photos anymore, I think it’s a good reminder because it’s barely three years, and already people are forgetting. Not only outside Japan, but within Japan itself, people are forgetting. It’s true that people need to move on and rebuild their lives, but there’s still so much more work to be done in Tohoku.

The hope bit includes the summer camps for kids from Fukushima with which I had been helping with since 2012. It’s called The Fukuhachi Project, and is a collaboration between people of Fukushima, and the people from Hachijo Island, hence the name Fukuhachi. It’s run by a merry misfit band of volunteers, mothers, friends, people from the island, and supported by some benefactors. The camp lasts for about a week on Hachijo Island, about 350 km away from Fukushima. It’s a tiring camp because the kids have so much energy, and want to go to the beach every day. However, it’s satisfying to see them happy, and enjoying the summer. In some parts of Fukushima, kids are still discouraged from playing outdoors because the radiation levels remain higher than that of the natural levels.

In the summer of 2013, TEPCO admitted that they knew that radioactive water is leaking into the Pacific, and we only got the news of this after the camp. During the camp, I was swimming with the kids almost every day in the Pacific—for two summers! I mean, this goes to show that no matter how far away one goes, one cannot run from the issue of Fukushima.

Tell us a little more about the summer camps you help for the Fukushima kids?

In the summer of 2012, I wanted to visit a friend in Fukushima, but she said she’ll not be there. Instead, she’ll be helping a kids’ camp at Hachijo Island. She said I was welcome to help if I wanted to. So I went.

The summer camps have only been active since 2012. There are two groups every year, a Koriyama group and a Hamadori group. Each camp lasts for about seven to nine days. I only help with the Koriyama group because my friends are there. In the Koriyama group, there were nine kids in 2012, and 18 kids in 2013. Something like that.

The unique thing about this camp is that the kids get the final say of what they want to do. There is a schedule of suggested activities, but the kids make the final decision. Of course there are things that are non-negotiable, but as much as possible, it’s a kids’ camp for kids.

The kids really love to go to the ocean very much. In the first camp in 2012, I was so tired that I asked, “Huh, the ocean, again? Ha ha!” That was a joke, of course. I slapped on my sunblock and went. Of course, jumping into the ocean was not the only thing we did. We went night fishing, to the summer festival, hiking up to the waterfall, the kids also learned to make their own bread, had barbecue with the people of the island, and went swimming in the open ocean.

I hoped that the kids had fun. It was really tiring for helpers during the camp. No one knows how long this camp can continue because it’s completely run by volunteers and benefactors, but the last I asked, the planning for 2014 had already begun.

What things did you learn from your interactions with the people of Fukushima?

I learned that they were much happier if people visited them, talked to them, and spent time with them. So instead of sending money as individuals, it’s much better to visit, or to send messages of encouragement and hope.

My friends in Fukushima told me they had two choices, to stay or to leave. Many of them cannot afford to leave. And when they make the decision to stay, they don’t want to keep being reminded of the bad news. They try to live healthy, take care of themselves, keep themselves updated with information as best as they can. However, it’s a very stressful way to live. There is a limit to the amount of bad news that one can take. Sometimes, my friends get angry with me for sharing some bad news of recent thyroid cancer rates among the young people in Fukushima. They told me people outside Fukushima will never be able to understand how they feel, and even among people in Fukushima, there are many different opinions. A friend remarked that sometimes she feels she will die faster of stress, rather than from the effects of radiation.

Do you have any more plans to develop the project further?

No big plans, really. I had no big plans for this when I first went there in 2011. It just so happens that I kept going back every year, and built up a collection of photos, stories and experiences. The people I met in Fukushima also told me to share them, and let people know of the realities of life there. They wanted people outside Fukushima and around the world to know that life still goes on. That though it is difficult, there is still happiness.

For more of Wei Yuet’s work, visit his homepage at http://weiyuet.com. For more JQ magazine interviews, click here.