Artists Focus on Change in Post-Earthquake Japan

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: Japan continues to struggle with the aftereffects of the March earthquake and tsunami, and the ensuing nuclear disaster. Today, Japan's parliament approved an additional $25 billion in disaster relief. The World's Marco Werman recently traveled to Japan as part of an ongoing collaboration with the PBS documentary program, Frontline. While he was there he found Japanese rethinking some big issues -- energy, an economic policies and even your cultural direction of the past 50 years. Marco's story airs tonight on Frontline. It chronicles a group of young people bent on provoking change. They call themselves Chim Pom and have some surprising influences.

Marco Werman: Six people in their 20s and 30s, Chim Pom told me when they first met they seemed to have as their common interest the MTV series, Jackass. You know, people who take a run down a flight of stairs in a shopping cart, crazy stuff like that. And they like the idea of doing crazy, Jackass type stuff, but around social issues.

Mullins: So more art as activism?

Werman: Right, you know for example, long before the earthquake Chim Pom noticed that as Tokyo became more affluent, the piles of garbage grew and so did the number and size of rats in Tokyo. So they went out with nets, captured a bunch of rats, killed them, stuffed them. They videotaped the whole thing. Then they displayed these rats. Now, imagine these rats are now stuffed, taxidermed rats with kind of like clown makeup on their faces and sort of almost emulating anime characters from Japanese culture. So it really has this kind of very local indigenous feel, but at the same time it's kind of scary.

Mullins: Kind of scary, I mean they're trying to make a statement there.

Werman: Yeah, I mean they're making a statement of affluence. This is what you're paying for when you have all your designer handbags and you know, big cars.

Mullins: Which makes you wonder what they're saying now as a statement through art about the current nuclear crisis.

Werman: Well, that's precisely what the Frontline story is all about. And they are in this crisis up to their ears, literally. I mean they've gone up to Fukushima a number of times. One of the pieces they've done is a video installation called 100 Cheers (we've got a link at so you can see what it looks like), but it's also got a strong audio component. So the Chim Pom guys and the one girl in the group went up to Fukishima. They went to a fishing village that was really wrecked by the tsunami and met some local kids from the fishing village. And together they formed this huddle and in the huddle they cheer [speaking Japanese]. One kid might be shouting out 'Stop radiation!' Or 'Fukushima nuclear power plant, radiation leakage' or whatever comes to their minds...'I want a girlfriend,' 'Give me spinach', 'Grandpa!' It was very much of the moment, very spontaneous, very free association. [speaking Japanese], but when I saw it in the gallery show back in Tokyo, I mean it really came out as a strong expression of Japanese solidarity with what had happened up in the North. And so there's this one shot from the middle of the huddle, and then another shot, wider shot as you saw where you've got the entire wreckage of the village in the background. It's shocking.

Mullins: These boats and they're out of the water just standing on end, and these kids off to the side just being kids.

Werman: Yeah.

Mullins: And then letting out a big...

Werman: Well, it's kind of a giant exhale of relief almost. It's catharsis.

Mullins: That's right. So how are these messages from the artists who filmed this, how are they getting out?

Werman: Well, you know, some people are paying attention. There was work that they had that quite a few people saw. Some media outlets in Japan have written articles about Chim Pom. One of the people that I interviewed for the story was veteran journalist, Mitsuko Shimormura, and she's interesting because she started this talking group of business leaders, lawmakers, citizens. And she's directing the discussions with them around where Japan is headed economically and spiritually.

And she began this kind of philosopher's camp if you will, before March 11, before the earthquake. And they're discussing a lot what would it take to change in Japan? To move away from massive amounts of nuclear energy to feed the Japanese affluence to less energy in a more austere economy? And Shimormura told me that her prognosis for change in Japan is pretty mixed.

Mitsuko Shimormura: Japanese people and Japanese culture is a very I mean difficult, full-changing you know, because nobody wants to stand up and say I want to change this way. That means criticizing former system, former leaders you know, so nobody wants to say that. That's our system. You have to break that too.

Werman: So slowly, Lisa, partly because of people who are speaking out like Chim Pom, change I think is coming to Japan.

Mullins: That is The World's Marco Werman. His story, The Atomic Artists, airs tonight on PBS' Frontline. You can also find all of Marco's coverage from Japan on our website,