Don’t Follow the Wind: Chim↑Pom and the Creation of a Collective Imaginary

Don’t Follow the Wind: Chim↑Pom and the Creation of a Collective Imaginary


The Exhibition and the Website, the Real and the Virtual

“Is art possible after 3.11” is a question many Japanese artists asked in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. Many went through a period of time when they could not produce anything. Others tackled the grim reality by feverishly producing artworks, often with intensity and a sense of urgency previously unfamiliar to them. This essay focuses on one example of the latter and reports how an unusual exhibition, titled Don’t Follow the Wind, was realized in an irradiated no-entry zone after the nuclear meltdown at Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO)’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (a.k.a. Fukuichi).

[Image 1. A group of the first viewers of the exhibition Don’t Follow the Wind next to a flag designed by Naohiro Ukawa for the project, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. Courtesy of Don’t Follow the Wind.]

[Image 1. A group of the first viewers of the exhibition Don’t Follow the Wind next to a flag designed by Naohiro Ukawa for the project, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. Courtesy of Don’t Follow the Wind.]

The exhibition was initiated by the six-member artist group Chim↑Pom and developed through their collaboration with curators and a dozen international artists. Help from some individuals whose houses were in the no-entry zone was a key element of its realization. Don’t Follow the Wind is an exhibition that almost no one can see until the catastrophic nuclear contamination is cleaned up. When that will be remains a question, although the national government and some of the towns in the affected area are planning to reopen access to some parts of the zone for residents in the coming months: part of a push to promote an image of environmental safety in preparation for the 2020 Olympics.[1] The exhibition might then become accessible earlier than many had expected. However, at the time of this writing, the exhibition is still only accessible for most people through its website,

The very nature of the website—a blank white page with two minutes and fifty seconds of audio—opens up various questions about the raison d’être of the exhibition. What constitutes the invisible, intangible part of art; its social impacts, economic implications, and political effects? The best way to start thinking about these questions is to visit the website. This is the transcript of the website’s narration:

Hi. Welcome to the website of Don’t Follow the Wind, an inaccessible exhibition inside the radioactive zone surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant owned by TEPCO in Japan. The exhibition, started on March 11th, 2015, consists of twelve new artist projects hosted in sites left by the community, which was evacuated after the disaster. The exhibition will be able to be viewed only when the area is decontaminated and people will be able to return. Until then, it remains invisible. What cannot be perceived has an immense power. There is no official timeline for access to these sites—perhaps three years, ten years, or decades. Periods that can extend beyond our lifetime can make us reconsider our relation to art, environment, and time itself. The participating artists are: Ai Weiwei, Miyanaga Aiko, Chim↑Pom, Grand Guignol Mirai, Nikolaus Hirsch and Jorge Otero-Pailos, Takeuchi Kōta, Eva and Franco Mattes, Koizumi Meirō, Takekawa Nobuaki, Ahmet Ögüt, Trevor Paglen, Taryn Simon. The project is initiated by Chim↑Pom and curated by Kubota Kenji, Eva and Franco Mattes, and Jason Waite. For more information, email   

The website is devoid of any visual elements except for its sterile white color on the screen. The blank website reminds us of the question many artists began asking after 3.11: “Is art possible?” It seems to suggest art’s impossibility through its denial of visual elements or any other information. But, like Theodor Adorno said in his late work Negative Dialectics, “[p]erennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream.”[2] The exhibition organizers may well be giving a voice to those who are perennially suffering: the approximately 24,000 people displaced from the Difficult-to-Return Zone (kikan-konnan-kuiki) because of the nuclear meltdown at Fukuichi.[3] The suffering may already feel less relevant to many of us who were at a safe distance, but it needs to be kept in our consciousness because no one definitively understands how destructive, long-lasting, or widespread the effects of the nuclear pollution could become. The unaccountably silent voice of the website might just be the most powerful. 

This essay is my account of what I witnessed in (and around) the exhibition during a visit to the Difficult-to-Return Zone in November 2015. Despite some degree of vagueness surrounding the exhibition and its context (for example, I have only a very basic idea of how radiation works), the visit did help me personalize, so to speak, the urgency underlying Don’t Follow the Wind. This text is therefore a performative one; I am reconstructing the experience from more than a year ago. But the point is that the exhibition exists as something real in Fukushima, something remembered in my mind, and will now begin to exist as something imagined in the minds of the readers. This text takes full advantage of becoming text, to seed a more complex and enlivened relationship between the readers and the exhibition, beyond the realm of the website, and to maximize the volume of the scream of the suffering locals, which is real. The exhibition organizers do not follow conventional means of promotion and publicity, thus, this text itself, like an exposé, is precariously positioned along the fault line between the experience and the memory, the real and the imagined, and the inside and the outside. How information about a show like this could spread, as through this text, requires a meta-analysis, which I will return to in the conclusion. 

Fukushima, the Difficult-to-Return Zone

[Image 2. The Difficult-to-Return Zone, November 10, 2015, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan.]

[Image 2. The Difficult-to-Return Zone, November 10, 2015, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan.]

On November 10, 2015, from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm, a handful of people—including four members of Chim↑Pom, the curators Kenji KUBOTA and Jason Waite, and I—entered the Difficult-to-Return Zone in Fukushima Prefecture. This zone, near the northern border of the prefecture and facing the Pacific Ocean, is about 140 miles north of Tokyo. The initial designation of the zone covered a circle with an approximately 12.5-mile radius around Fukuichi. Shortly before our visit, that is, four and a half years after the incident, the zone was reduced to an approximately 9.5-mile radius. Even before we entered the zone, we could see pile after pile of black plastic bags along both sides of the road which contained soil removed as part of the cleaning operation: about a six-inch layer of topsoil had been scraped from the entire area to remove pollutants that might have settled in it.

[Image 3. A makeshift sign on a blue tarp laid out on a slope by evacuating residents that reads “kaerō” (let’s come back). November 10, 2015, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan.]

[Image 3. A makeshift sign on a blue tarp laid out on a slope by evacuating residents that reads “kaerō” (let’s come back). November 10, 2015, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan.]

Right after March 11, 2011, nearly 300,000 people were evacuated from the affected area. Currently, 24,000 people are still displaced from the Difficult-to-Return Zone, and have no clear idea when they might be allowed to return. And yet, from the car window, we caught a glimpse of a makeshift sign made of blue tarp laid on the sloping ground calling out, “kaerō” (let’s come back): a voice of resolve that the community should rebuild their hometown.

In 2016, thirty temporary entry permits were available for each of the former residents and their representatives. A year prior, when we were there, the permits were limited to fifteen.

[Image 4. The zone entry permit, November 10, 2015.]

[Image 4. The zone entry permit, November 10, 2015.]

[Image 5. A dosimeter provided to each individual entering the zone, November 10, 2015.]

[Image 5. A dosimeter provided to each individual entering the zone, November 10, 2015.]

Each time an individual enters the Difficult-to-Return Zone, he/she is required to sign in to an identification registry and wear coverall clothes to protect from exposure to radioactive dust in the air. To limit the level of exposure the maximum stay is five hours. Everyone is provided with a personal dosimeter that constantly monitors the radioactivity air-dose rate. In truth, interpreting the dose requires fairly sophisticated knowledge of methods of radioactivity measurement so the numbers can mean little to laypeople.

[Image 6. A sign indicating the level of radioactivity placed by the local community, November 10, 2015.]

[Image 6. A sign indicating the level of radioactivity placed by the local community, November 10, 2015.]

Consequently, the locals (meaning the former residents who periodically enter the zone with a permit) came up with their own system of interpreting the measurements that uses emoji-style signs with color coding, ranging from blue (clean) to red (highly contaminated). 

The exhibition Don’t Follow the Wind is situated in a unique environment filled with contradictions. It is installed at four venues—a house, a farm, a warehouse, and a recreation center—that were lent to the organizers by the owners, who had been forced from them. The details of each location are kept secret to protect the identity and privacy of the collaborating local individuals.

[Image 7. An empty street inside the zone viewed from inside a car, November 10, 2015.]

[Image 7. An empty street inside the zone viewed from inside a car, November 10, 2015.]

The reason for the secrecy is two-fold. First, despite the ongoing efforts of the local government and the “temporarily” dispersed community, the zone is deserted and consequently lacks complete security: there have been incidents when thieves have burgled abandoned homes. Second, the evacuees disagree on a number of issues, including the level of openness toward interventions from outsiders; the collaborators would risk being ostracized by the community if their identity became public.

The national government has announced officially that it will take about four decades for the zone to return to levels of radiation safe enough for people to resettle. But recently there have been indications that the government hopes to reopen the area sooner than originally estimated. In addition to the upcoming Olympics in 2020, there is a financial incentive to free themselves from subsidy payments to the evacuees. From the perspective of the exhibition Don’t Follow the Wind, the sooner the area is reopened, the more artworks installed in it will be discovered, in various stages of decay marking the passage of time before they completely disintegrate.

Chim↑Pom, the Initiator

[Image 8. Curatorial team on a site visit in the Difficult-to-Return Zone, courtesy of Don’t Follow the Wind.]

[Image 8. Curatorial team on a site visit in the Difficult-to-Return Zone, courtesy of Don’t Follow the Wind.]

The key to realizing this ambitious exhibition was a close collaboration among artists, curators, and willing evacuated residents. Soon after 3.11, the artist group Chim↑Pom reached out to curators Jason Waite in London, Kenji Kubota in Tokyo, and an artist duo Eva and Franco Mattes in New York, with the idea of creating a project inside the restricted area of Fukushima. The two curators, in a close dialogue with the artists, articulated the framework, logistics, and the activist nature of the project that ultimately evolved into an exhibition of newly commissioned works by international artists installed inside the Difficult-to-Return Zone. The twelve participating artists and artist groups are those who Kubota thought “could operate between speculation and memory, and stimulate the collective imaginary.”[4]

[Image 9. Chim↑Pom, courtesy of Chim↑Pom.]

[Image 9. Chim↑Pom, courtesy of Chim↑Pom.]

Known as one of the most active artist groups in today’s Japan, with a strong social conscience, Chim↑Pom taking such an initiative is hardly surprising. Formed in Tokyo in 2005, the group consists of six members—Ellie, Ryūta USHIRO, Yasutaka HAYASHI, Masataka OKADA, Toshinori MIZUNO, and Motomu INAOKA—no one, except Ellie, has a formal art-academic background and they were all in their twenties at the time of the founding. They were all drawn to art while searching for something exciting and something that allowed them to freely express themselves in any manner. The point of contact that led to the formation of the group was artist Makoto AIDA (b. 1965), who was then teaching at Bigakkō in Tokyo, a legendary alternative art school originally established as the “antithesis to the conventional academic system” by the literary publisher Gendai Shichōsha in 1969.[5] They were all students in his class and his border-defying activities in art, subculture, and literature inspired the young and hungry while pushing them to explore new artistic approaches that were relevant to their generation.

Tezuka image 10a

[Images 10a and 10b, Super Rat, 2006, single-channel video with sound (2 minutes 53 seconds), courtesy of Chim↑Pom]

[Images 10a and 10b, Super Rat, 2006, single-channel video with sound (2 minutes 53 seconds), courtesy of Chim↑Pom]

One of the strongest convictions that Chim↑Pom upholds in their activities is that art must be rooted in the present day. In their view, the potential of art is realized when it engages with society in real time; artists can be “an involved party (tōjisha)” rather than eccentric outsiders—the slot to which the public most often relegates them.[6] One can see this idea in one of their early works, Super Rat (2006): an urban intervention work that has since been framed by the group as their self-portrait (and thus annually recreated to renew their self-awareness). In the work, which is documented in a video, the members capture six super-sized rats on the streets of Tokyo at night, which they subsequently make into taxidermies shaped and colored to mimic the Pokemon character Pikachu. The work is a criticism of a wasteful society of consumerism which breeds ever-mutating and stronger urban pests. At the same time, Chim↑Pom exposes the reality of uncontrollable wilderness in the city and, with an almost childlike innocence and cruelty, celebrates the survival skill of these otherwise despised city-dwellers as though they are the animal reflection of Chim↑Pom themselves. Initially, most of their works emerged out of their frequent use of video and performance but in recent years, their activities have begun to encompass publications and curatorial projects. Don’t Follow the Wind is within these expanded interests, but the methodological and conceptual basis for the exhibition can be seen running through many of their previous works, most notably through two interventionist artworks, Making the Sky of Hiroshima “PIKA!” from 2008 and Real Times from 2011.

[Image 11. Making the Sky of Hiroshima “PIKA!”, 2008, single-channel video (5 minutes 35 seconds) and lambda print (26 1/4 x 39 1/3 in.), courtesy of Chim↑Pom.]

[Image 11. Making the Sky of Hiroshima “PIKA!”, 2008, single-channel video (5 minutes 35 seconds) and lambda print (26 1/4 x 39 1/3 in.), courtesy of Chim↑Pom.]

Making the Sky of Hiroshima “PIKA!” was a project in which Chim↑Pom hired a skywriter to write the word “pika” in the sky directly above the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima. The two-character onomatopoeic word, which means “flash,” is a well-established word that denotes the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima: a particularly sensitive issue for the people living there. The letters appeared rudimentary in style, as if to simulate a childish tone. Gradually erased by the wind, the word seems to reenact the very destruction of the city of Hiroshima brought on by the event it denotes. According to Chim↑Pom, its gradual disappearance was to symbolize “the sense of peace” prevalent in today’s pacifist Japan.[7] But the project also elucidated the agonizing ephemerality of historical memory and the nonchalant handling of postwar peace by contemporary society. Just as the city was wiped away by the blast, the memory was blown away by the promotion of peace without enough reflection on wartime history. The work sparked a controversy, which began when a handful of local people, unaware of the purpose of the sign in the sky, called a local newspaper inquiring about it. The media latched onto the story for about a week, with multiple reports playing up the controversy. The disturbance that the work caused led to the cancellation of the Chim↑Pom exhibition that was planned to open in a month’s time at the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art. Perhaps the true value of this work was born in its aftermath, when Chim↑Pom and various organizations of atomic bomb survivors made efforts to build a cross-generational relationship through numerous meetings and conversations. Without initially intending to do so, Chim↑Pom came to recognize the predicament of the victims, that is, the coexisting desire of “wanting to forget and wanting to remember” the history that is never fully past and forever real to them.[8] Through the relationship established with the survivors’ community, the artists gained an understanding of the potential of art to make a lasting and nuanced reference to history. Since the initial encounter and the dialogue that followed, some individuals from those organizations remain steadfast supporters of Chim↑Pom, seeing them not as eccentric outsiders but as “tōjisha”.[9]

The members of Chim↑Pom faced a steep learning curve in Making the Sky of Hiroshima “PIKA!”, as the complexity of deeply invested human and social relations unique to that locality erupted very suddenly. The project also incentivized the group to tackle the complex nuclear issues vis-à-vis Japan’s past and more recent history as it unveiled itself in the post-3.11 situation. Ryūta Ushiro, the leader of Chim↑Pom, stated that this previous experience trained their artistic “reflex” to see and react urgently to the disasters of 3.11 and their incumbent devastating effects on society without letting the feeling of hopelessness cause inertia, something which many artists experienced. Within one month after the earthquake, Chim↑Pom was already working in the area that had been closed to public access, i.e., inside the 12.5-mile radius around Fukuichi. Right after the disaster, Ellie, one of the group members, made a passionate appeal to artists on YouTube, saying it was “nonsense not to do anything.” With this call to action, on April 11, 2011, the one-month anniversary of the earthquake, Chim↑Pom trekked into the restricted area around Fukuichi wearing coverall suits and goggles, to create a new version of the Japanese flag. They video-documented the whole process as they spray painted three red “wings” around the red circle of the Japanese flag to turn the symbol of the rising sun into a radiation warning symbol.

[Image 12. Real Times, 2011, single-channel video (11 minutes 11 seconds),, courtesy of Chim↑Pom.]

[Image 12. Real Times, 2011, single-channel video (11 minutes 11 seconds),, courtesy of Chim↑Pom.]

This video recording became the work entitled Real Times. The title is a triple-entendre: first, it captures the reality of the deserted landscape witnessed through the video camera; secondly, it alludes to the satirical intent of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 movie Modern Times; and lastly, it appropriates the title of a news media outlet, such as the New York Times or the Japan Times.   

Don’t Follow the Wind, the Exhibition

Despite the enormity of the triple disasters, as time passed a sense of everyday normalcy returned in most places, even to places close to the Difficult-to-Return Zone. This sense of normalcy was enforced by the general urge to repress anxiety and fear of invisible dangers, difficult to measure or predict, in the area around Fukushima. Just like the internalized feeling of the Hiroshima atomic bomb survivors, the desire to remember, and yet, also to forget about Fukushima has become the paradoxical reality of the post-3.11 psyche of the people directly affected by the disaster. Nearing the first anniversary in early 2012, Chim↑Pom conceived the idea of creating an exhibition inside the restricted area. Exhibitions are, by nature, ephemeral events. But Chim↑Pom thought the situation of its site and its duration should be thoroughly integral to the exhibition. It would be inaccessible, would exist for the unforeseeable future, and would be publicized minimally until the real troubles in the area were resolved and the residents returned. Most importantly to them, the team needed to become “tōjisha,” working together with former residents to realize the project.

The organizational work began in earnest in 2013; artists were selected for creating new works for the project and the specific venues within the restricted area were secured. For the latter process, the team relied on the help of former residents. However, when the team approached various people from the area with the project proposal for the first time, they did not understand contemporary art or the modes of the cultural projects and cultural work that were being proposed. Some of them were surprised that anyone, i.e. an outsider, would care about what was a local problem in their minds. While some people were appreciative of the proposal, seeing it as an advocacy movement, there were others who were wary of introducing an unorthodox activity to their townships. A handful among those who were approached became key collaborators, helping to find venues through word-of-mouth, locating vacant buildings of various types that were safe to enter, and helping to get permission from the buildings’ owners who had been relocated.

None of these collaborating locals had been particularly interested in art or activism in the past. The artists and curators spent a great deal of time with them, not in a formal setting but through informal conversations, searching for affinities and familiarities. According to Jason Waite, as the trans-local dialogue continued, surprises abounded for the organizers and the artists; they were constantly challenged and enlightened by the degree of social, political, and psychological complexity among the locality and the displaced people. While the identities of the collaborating locals are strictly secret, the organizing team and the artists learned many of their personal anecdotes, histories of the buildings, the sites, and the larger region of Fukushima.[10] They learned about the postwar development of Fukushima Prefecture as a generator of electricity under the control of the nation’s capital, Tokyo; about the economic power relation between the two; and about the divided feelings of indebtedness and resentment toward Tokyo among the Fukushima residents. This “trans-local relationship-building” has been a “continually mutual unfolding of and deepening of understanding of each other.”[11]

Respecting the involved local individuals and taking responsibility to gradually establish trust, while ensuring the safekeeping of the buildings as well as installed artworks have become the utmost concerns of the organizing team. Today, because they make more regular maintenance visits to the Difficult-to-Return Zone than do the former residents, they have become the surrogate caretakers of the various properties left at the sites.[12] The custodianship deepened far more than the team initially expected and the relationship continues to evolve to this day. One of the participating artists, in fact, relocated to a town near the restricted zone and became a direct line of communication between the team in urban areas and the collaborating former residents. The ongoing close communication among the different parties makes Don’t Follow the Wind—for an unforeseeable future—an ongoing socially engaged project that uniquely skews the distinction between the insider and the outsider by exposing the circumstantial nature of such a distinction.

Don’t Follow the Wind, the Story       

For a one-time visitor like myself, even after actually experiencing the restricted zone, there remains a sense of distance from the displaced residents. This gap is even more pronounced because the residents, without whose collaboration the exhibition could never have been possible, are invisible. I will never know who they are. But their reality can be imagined and thus remembered when one’s curiosity is triggered. I am sharing shreds of guarded information. As partial as it may be, I am certain that this fragmentary light cast on secrets works to spark human curiosity, and that curiosity is at the core of the formation of folklore, remembered and passed on from generation to generation. This form of imagined remembrance is at the heart of the activist element within the exhibition. We expect there are some truths behind long-lasting folklore and legends but the line between the real and the imagined is blurred, confused, and misinterpreted. Incredible as they are, the stories acquire the persistence of myths. I believe this mythological approach in Don’t Follow the Wind was consciously chosen by Chim↑Pom and their collaborating curators because it was the only logic effective in the post-3.11 psyche of “wanting to forget and wanting to remember.”

One of these stories is the basis for the title Don’t Follow the Wind; it is an anecdote told by one of the collaborating former residents. He was an amateur fisherman who had developed the skill of reading the oft-changing wind in the area. After the Fukuichi explosion, his friend who was working at the power plant called to tell him to evacuate in the opposite direction of the wind to avoid highly irradiated fallout material. The government was directing area residents to flee based on the official wind forecast, but hearing the urgency in his friend’s voice, he changed course midway as he sensed the wind changing direction. He and his family escaped the heaviest contamination because he followed his own observation and not the official advisory.[13] The “wind” reference has literal meaning in this situation, but the title is a more general reminder to assert independent critical thinking. In the months following the nuclear disaster, it acquired many more poignant reference points. As fear of nuclear pollution, fueled by its invisibility, spread throughout the country, everything associated with Fukushima, including produce and evacuees themselves, began suffering from fūhyō higai, which means “damage caused by rumors.” The word for rumor, fūhyō, is made up of characters meaning “reputation carried by the wind.” Many people found it easier to eliminate any signs of Fukushima from their daily life and consciousness, and for them, reminders in the form of people and things from Fukushima were unpleasant disruptions of that strained insistence on normalcy. Don’t Follow the Wind was thus also an ardent wake-up call to the unconcerned.

The exhibition organizers and the selected twelve artists share the urgency of the matter. The major news media have been slow to pursue the complete facts about the aftermath of the nuclear disaster and have been, for the most part, releasing only the partial information sanctioned by the authorities, allegedly for the sake of keeping the public calm and deterring panic.[14] If direct challenge and outward criticism would not work effectively in a society in which confrontation is generally avoided, and in which people tend to shut out bad news they feel they can do nothing about, the exhibition needed an alternative route of communicationit needed to become something of a myth that could sow the seeds of curiosity quietly but surely. Don’t Follow the Wind launched on the fourth anniversary of the disaster, March 11, 2015, with no flashy opening, but instead, with a modest on-site “sneak preview” for a limited number of invited journalists, just enough to start a ripple effect. The team also provided special access to the Creators Project, VICE’s arts and culture platform, which had been working to feature the exhibition in their online news video coverage.[15] To date, the Creators Project video is one of the most visually illustrated reports on the exhibition, and it has reached a wide audience, largely composed of millennials.

In addition, from September 19 to November 3, 2015, the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo held the exhibition entitled Don’t Follow the Wind Non-Visitor Center. It was “an exhibition developed to run parallel to ‘Don’t Follow the Wind’” and as “a migrating outpost to host ‘interpretations’ of the projects in Fukushima made by the [twelve commissioned] artists.” Although the existence of Don’t Follow the Wind was announced to the public, the Non-Visitor Center exhibition focused on presenting a sense of distance from it by setting up a barrier between the visitors and the exhibits in the gallery space. Visitors could only peek at the space from a temporary platform placed too far away to see the details of the works.[16]

Then came my visit, arranged eight months after the launch in November as I joined one of the regular maintenance trips. The uncomfortable truth that I faced in this situation was an undeniable excitement that came with the exclusivity of the experience—something not uncommon in the world of art in general. At the same time, I felt it was my mission to report back from this rare experience for the sake of some of the brilliant artworks and to raise awareness about the ongoing issues in Fukushima that each work integrates into its form and content. Along with this sense of urgency, I also vaguely sensed that I was going to be participating in the myth-making process. Artist and writer Philip Brophy, writing for Frieze magazine in 2015, reported thoughts similar to mine when he visited the exhibition:

It’s impossible to extricate the artworks from their site-specificity, especially considering the overloaded ‘disaster aesthetic’ I experienced when standing inside a dilapidated house, dressed in a radiation-protection suit and mask. Normally, I regard these curatorial conceits with suspicion. However, Don’t Follow the Wind deliberately implicates you as a participant—firstly, by confronting you with the current state of life in Fukushima post-3/11; secondly, by presenting work sited in the once-vibrant locations of what is now deemed the ‘Difficult-to-Return Zone’.[17]

Not all the images of works installed in the exhibition are made available to the public. In the words of the organizers, “in solidarity with the residents who are displaced,” the works are to remain invisible according to the principle of not-till-they-return. As I saw in the roadside blue tarp sign inside the restricted zone that stated “kaerō”, many former residents made a promise to themselves to return home someday

Because of this credo, the exhibition thus far exists as art that rejects the traditional heavy reliance on vision. Its uniqueness lies in the superimposition of this situation onto the ultimate target subject, the invisible nuclear radiation. As such, the works by the select artists stand as dark monuments to the radiation, in forms that have to be imagined by those who have no access to the area.[18] For me, who actually saw the installations, this focus on the invisible was most clearly and poignantly addressed in the sound work by Meirō Koizumi (b. 1976).

[Image 13. Meirō Koizumi, Home, 2015, collapsing house, audio track, headphones, solar panel. Installation view, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, courtesy of Don’t Follow the Wind.]

[Image 13. Meirō Koizumi, Home, 2015, collapsing house, audio track, headphones, solar panel. Installation view, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, courtesy of Don’t Follow the Wind.]

Entitled Home, Koizumi’s work is one of several pieces that utilize solar power to operate, in this case powering sets of headphones wirelessly connected to a sound source that keeps playing a man’s voice reciting a conversation between a man and a woman. The work is installed at one of the four exhibition venues—a house in a typical Japanese architectural style with a tiled roof and tatami-matted rooms. The headsets are placed in what appears to be the living room. The wrecked state of the house was overwhelmingly eerie. Both the interior and exterior are falling apart; windows are broken; roof tiles are loose; and the yard is unkempt with overgrowth and randomly scattered debris. It is not just the earthquake of 2011 that destroyed the house; it is also the passage of time that is destroying it, erasing the touch of human care and presence.

Koizumi understood the enormity of the scene of this site and believed that there was nothing that could be either added to or detracted from it visually. Instead, he added something audible in the form of sound art. While he was researching the location, tasked with a commission to make art in some relation to the devastation, he interviewed the former residents of the house who had been in exile since the event. The soft-spoken man related his experience to the artist, someone who would never be able to fully identify with him (no one can). Rather than attempting to create a formal oral history, Koizumi asked him to imagine a conversation he might have when he and his wife finally returned to this house, one day in the vague future. In the recording, the man starts to recite the dialogue as he imagines it; it is an improvisation not by an actor but by this ordinary person and, as such, rather timorous in tone, and anticlimactic and ordinary as a conversation. But, because his imagined conversation lacks drama, it is imbued with honesty; this normalcy may be what he genuinely seeks. The dialogue remains in my mind as an increasingly faint and fragmentary memory under the influence of passing time. My memory goes something like this:

Man: Tadaima (I’m home). Tadaima. Tadaima. It was cold today.

Woman (narrated by Man): Okaerinasai (welcome home). Yes, it was. What would you like for dinner tonight? I’m thinking tonjiru (pork miso soup).

Man: Oh, that sounds good.

Woman (narrated by Man): It’s the first time we’ll be having it at home since we came back.

Man: Is that so? Hum, I guess, yes.

[Image 14. Meirō Koizumi, Home, 2015. Installation view, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, courtesy of Don’t Follow the Wind.]

[Image 14. Meirō Koizumi, Home, 2015. Installation view, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, courtesy of Don’t Follow the Wind.]

The “viewer” listens to this imaginary conversation standing by the house. There is no didactic or emotional tone in the voice but the viewer cannot help but detect a sense of sadness and hope both at the same time. There are varying reactions among the evacuees toward living away from home. Some do long to return, and others would rather stay away. But to return to some form of the boring everyday is a common desire in their psychological matrix. Everyone, even non-tōjisha, can understand that boredom, but perhaps now with slightly more gratitude.

Don’t Follow the Wind, the Collective Imaginary

What other positions can a person have besides being a single entity, and what relations does the position of being a single entity have with other positions?

—Takaaki Yoshimoto, Kyōdō gensōron (A Theory of Collective Imaginary)[19] 

When considering the kind of general effects generated by various specificities—temporal and spatial—of the exhibition Don’t Follow the Wind, the analysis of The Legends of Tōno (Tōno monogatari) as presented in A Theory of Collective Imaginary (Kyōdō gensōron) by Takaaki YOSHIMOTO (1924–2012) may shed light on their structural makeup.[20] This work was Yoshimoto’s seminal study of the origin of the idea of a nation and as such, it critiqued the binary thinking that Yoshimoto saw as affecting many intellectuals, such as Marxism versus anti-Marxism, realism versus abstraction, liberalism versus conservatism, and so forth. Yoshimoto’s caution against draconian reliance on an ideological interpretive model (which he identified most strongly with the Japan Communist Party) and his attention to the emotive and subconscious aspect of storytelling and the subsequent formation of the collective imaginary (kyōdō gensō) encourage reading Don’t Follow the Wind as objective and, at the same time, human.

Yoshimoto’s analysis of The Legends of Tōno in Kyodō gensōron first appeared in the monthly journal Bungei, from November 1966 to April 1967, at the dawn of what would be several years of explosive political protest movements against the Vietnam War and the state. Yoshimoto pointed out in many of his other polemical writings that any dogmatic ideology by itself would not have a chance to take firm root in a society like Japan where the idea of subjective autonomy, or shutaisei, did not evolve based on a self-conscious philosophy, like Cartesian philosophy in the west.[21] After all, he had witnessed the failure of subjective autonomy during the 1960 anti-US-Japan Security Treaty struggle. Instead of understanding ideology as a binding agent of society, he laid out the notion of “collective imaginary” (kyōdō gensō) as the modality of senses through which people form a social connection.[22] According to his interpretation, there are three spheres of “the imaginary” (gensō) that together shape a society, according to the reality in the principle of the masses (taishū no genri ni motozuita genjitsu): the first is the individual internal imaginary which manifests as art, literature, poetry, and so on; the second is the interpersonal imaginary that forms relations such as the self and the other, man and woman, and family; the last sphere is the collective imaginary that configures a community and, in its most regal manifestation, a nation. In probing the effects of the collective imaginary, he turned to the collection of folktales, The Legends of Tōno, written in 1910 by scholar of Japanese folklore Kunio YANAGITA (1875–1962), but he chose an approach different to Yanagita’s somewhat romantic reading. While Yanagita interpreted the collected tales as generally symbolic expressions of people’s religious beliefs and spiritualism, Yoshimoto utilized a psychoanalytic approach. He argued that those folk beliefs and stories were generated from people’s experiences, real or imagined. Particularly fertile were those experiences that could not be explained away by the hegemonic culture of the time, so the stories continued to be told by anonymous voices, whispered from generation to generation. They ultimately gave contours to the collective imaginary, the reality in the principle of the masses. And, like a rumor, the collective imaginary inherently carried a sense of secrecy and anomaly, ever so subtly agitating the status quo, which ultimately led to its censure as a taboo or a sin; since it created an area that was real yet awe-inspiringly untouchable.

Yoshimoto’s final objective in the theory was to identify this collective imaginary as the structural basis of nationhood and, in turn, Japan’s emperor system, whereby the emperor became a human deity (arahitogami) and a taboo subject, literally and figuratively. As such, the collective imaginary could not be replaced by the modern revolutionary zeal of the proletarian movements in late 1920s and early 1930s Japan, leading to a disconnect between intellectuals and the general populace. When those intellectuals were forced to recant their belief in Marxism or liberalism it cleared the way for the ultra-nationalism of wartime Japan. In its core, Kyōdō gensōron was Yoshimoto’s attempt to avoid the same mistake of disconnection. While becoming ever more influential among the rising new-left movement in the late 1960s, Yoshimoto kept his own intellectualism in check so as to keep his ears and eyes open to the oft-dismissed principle of the masses.

[Image 15. Naohiro Ukawa, flag design for Don’t Follow the Wind, 2015, courtesy of Don’t Follow the Wind.]

[Image 15. Naohiro Ukawa, flag design for Don’t Follow the Wind, 2015, courtesy of Don’t Follow the Wind.]

So how does the inaccessible exhibition Don’t Follow the Wind, and a series of works by Chim↑Pom for that matter, relate to the collective imaginary? The element of storytelling, the formation of rumors and myths, and their persistence even in the absence of a clear ideological doctrine or message are all invoked by Yoshimoto’s theory. As he explained, a historical memory is bound by finite temporality but a myth is regenerative.[23] Perhaps the affinity found in the recognition of the remaining power of myths by Yoshimoto and by Don’t Follow the Wind is most revealing in the context of the post-3.11 society in which, as the emergency called for, the perfect myth-making mechanism of social media was in the hands of not only the tech-savvy young generation but also those outside that demographic. While Yoshimoto found the example of the lasting power of the collective imaginary in the orally transmitted folktales compiled by Yanagita, Chim↑Pom and the collaborators in Don’t Follow the Wind found it fully operative in the present in the world of social media.

As co-curator Kenji Kubota stated, the artists who are participating in the invisible exhibition can navigate “between speculation and memory, and pique the collective imaginary” from which the reality of the displaced residents can be conjured. Especially in the age of interminable digital communication, they created art that becomes a myth beyond the material presence, constantly growing through online chatter. Chim↑Pom states: “art making is always for the future audience.” In essence, Don’t Follow the Wind was and is the creation of the collective imaginary appropriately timed and spaced in post-3.11, social media-filled Japan that will continue for the unforeseeable future.

Miwako TEZUKA is Co-Director of PoNJA-GenKon (Post-Nineteen-forty-five Japanese Art Discussion Group), a global online network of scholars, curators, and artists. She is also Consulting Curator of the Reversible Destiny Foundation, a conceptual artist foundation established in New York by Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins. Formerly Director of the Gallery, Japan Society, New York (2012–15) and Curator of Contemporary Art, Asia Society, New York (2005–2012), she has curated numerous exhibitions, including: Garden of Unearthly Delights: Works by Ikeda, Tenmyouya & teamLab (2014), Rebirth: Recent Work by Mariko Mori (2013), and Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool (2010), among many others.


[1] For example, at the end of March 2017, the national government lifted the no-entry restriction from one of eleven municipalities near Fukuichi. See “Nuclear evacuation zone revised in Fukushima’s Tomioka,” Japan Times (Mar 26, 2017),

[2] Adorno’s poignant sentence in full reads: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.” Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, originally published in 1966, English trans. by E. B. Ashton (London; New York: Routledge, 1973), p. 362.

[3] The figure is according to Japan’s Reconstruction Agency as of May 27, 2016, cited by Kōta Kawasaki in his article, “Fukushima josen, fukkō seisaku no tenkanki ni okeru josen, fukkō ni kansuru kadai—genpatsu hinansha no shōmetsu to genpatsu hinanmondai no shūen o maenishite” (Tasks related to the decontamination and rebuilding during the transitional period of the policies on the decontamination and rebuilding of Fukushima), Japan Operations Research Society,

[4] Kenji Kubota as quoted in Hyperallergic’s review of the exhibition. See, Claire Voon, “On the Fourth Anniversary of Fukushima, Artists Install an Exhibition Amid the Radiation,” Hyperallergic (August 3, 2015),

[5] For more information, see

[6] Chim↑Pom often describes their position in relation to their art projects as “tōjisha.” See, for example, Chim↑Pom, Geijutsu jikkōhan (Art as Action) (Tokyo: Asahi Press, 2012), pp. 72–6.

[7] Chim↑Pom, Naze Hiroshima no sora o PIKA! to sasetewa ikenainoka (Why Can’t We Make the Sky of Hiroshima “PIKA!”?), ed. Ken’ichi Abe (Tokyo: MUJIN-TO Production, 2009), p. 28–9.

[8] Chim↑Pom, Geijutsu jikkōhan, p. 54.

[9] A detailed account of the project and its aftermath can be found in Chim↑Pom, Naze Hiroshima no sora o PIKA! to sasetewa ikenainoka (Why Can’t We Make the Sky of Hiroshima “PIKA!”?), ed. Ken’ichi Abe (Tokyo: MUJIN-TO Production, 2009).

[10] Most of the artists in the exhibition visited the sites for conception, preparation, and installation of their works between 2013 and the spring of 2015, except for Ai Weiwei who was unable to travel abroad due to the confiscation of his passport by the Chinese authorities until the summer of 2015. Ai sent his assistant to Japan for the site survey and research. His work was conceived through additional remote communication between him and the exhibition organizers in Japan and installed on site by the exhibition organizers following his instruction.

[11] Author’s telephone interview with Jason Waite, March 15, 2017.

[12] The entire project relies on trust. There is no formal contractual bond between the involved former residents and the organizing team.

[13] Don’t Follow the Wind press release, March 2015.

[14] It was not until June 2016 that the news broke that TEPCO covered up the severity of the meltdowns. See, for example, the coverage by the Yomiuri Shimbun (

[15] The Creators Project video coverage “The Radioactive Art Exhibit You Can’t See / Don’t Follow the Wind” was released online on September 23, 2015 at–dont-follow-the-wind.

[16] For more information, visit the museum website at The Non-Visitor Center exhibition has an accompanying catalogue with a curatorial statement and biographies of the participating artists, but the description pages of the works installed inside the Difficult-to-Return Zone are left blank.

[17] Philip Brophy, “Don’t Follow the Wind: Various Venues, Fukushima & Watari Museum, Tokyo, Japan,” Frieze (Oct. 2015),

[18] Such an approach has received some harsh criticisms as well. For example, Jonathan Jones writes in The Guardian, “Artists are installing work in the poisoned nuclear landscape devastated in 2011’s tsunami—and of course, no one can visit it. I can’t think of a more fatuous plan.” Jonathan Jones, “Apocalypse No! Why Artists Should Not Go into the Fukushima Exclusion Zone,” The Guardian (Monday, July 20, 2015). However, within the broader context of “dark monuments” that memorialize tragic historical events and incidents, there are similar cases in which the visitor’s imagination takes primary importance over physical viewing or any other manner of interaction with the monuments due to their very absence, such as the Aschrott Fountain in Kassel, Germany. I would like to thank Justin Jesty for bringing this affinity to my attention. 

[19] Takaaki Yoshimoto, Kyōdō gensōron (A Theory of Collective Imaginary), originally published in 1968, (Tokyo: Kadokawa shoten, 1982), p. 16.

[20] The word “gensō” in the original Japanese title has been variously translated as “illusion,” “fantasy,” “imagination,” and so forth. I chose the translation “imaginary” to reflect Yoshimoto’s psychoanalytic approach and particularly its affinity to Lacanian psychoanalysis, which lays out the structure of the psyche in triple strata of “the real,” “the symbolic,” and “the imaginary”. I would like to thank Michio Hayashi, William Marotti, and David d’Heilly for providing me with translation possibilities. In this text, I only focus on Yoshimoto’s study of The Legends of Tōno, which constitutes the first half of the theory, for its relevance to my thesis. The other key textual material he utilizes in the second half is Records of Ancient Matters (Kojiki) from the eighth century CE, and it is in this second half of the book where Yoshimoto connects what he extracts from the folktales (the magico-religious aspect of the collective imaginary) and the ideologically motivated aspect of the collective imaginary which manifests as, among other things, the idea of a nation (kokka).       

[21] For example, see Takaaki Yoshimoto’s “On Tenkō, or Ideological Conversion,” trans. by Hisaaki Wake, in Review of Japanese Culture and Society, Vol. 20 (December 2008), pp. 99–119.

[22] Takaaki Yoshimoto, Kyōdō gensōron, p. 16.

[23] Ibid., p. 197.