Reorganizing Cultural Memories through the 3/11 Disaster
“Gareki (waste) again!” exclaimed a young boy, pointing at the disaster “waste” on a TV screen, in a temporary housing facility in Ōfunato, Iwate prefecture, one of the sites of the earthquake-tsunami disaster in March 2011. This rather innocent remark caused tremendous discomfort for the volunteers who were pausing from their effort to “katazukeru” (cleanup or reorganize). The night before, the local non-profit organization’s (NPO) orientation leader had explained: “Everything we are handling are memory tokens of people who owned them. Never shall we refer to them as gareki.” These two conflicting perceptions represent the confused and culturally-charged orientations toward the unexpected presence of large amounts of waste. As such, the boy’s comment reflects the irreversibility of these objects’ destruction, while the volunteer and NPO’s sentiments’ demonstrate the efforts to restore “the ordinary” through their act of cleaning up. The stuff produced by the recent disasters in Japan signifies beyond the physical presence (or absence) to which it refers.
Memories in the Stuff
Under capitalism, objects serve some end and can be replaced, upgraded and trashed at will. However, beyond the objects’ use-value, lie the users’ memories embedded within those objects. As the objects are lost, so too are the taken-for-granted assumptions of the worldview associated with them. One elder man I met in Kamaishi, Iwate, told me about his lost house. “See,” he said, gesturing to an empty field where weeds were growing wildly, “this is where my house used to be. You see the concrete structure dividing sections right there? That was the living room where I watched TV with this nice sofa,” gesturing again to hint at its size. “I could just lay on that sofa all day and feel comfortable,” he continued. “That’s what I used to do…Now they are all gareki: no TV, and no sofa.” Against his will, he not only lost those objects, but the world he used to live in with them, now present only in his immaterial memory. His sorrow represents the need to re-construct habits still grounded in the now-absent objects.
Tim Edensor elaborates on this embeddedness in the world of objects succinctly: “…the whole schema of material order confounds expectations grounded in habit, even mundane fixtures such as traffic signs and everyday commodities in shops” (2005: 311–12). Extending Edensor’s observation, we can ask what the sudden destruction of a habituated world of objects means to people. Thus, analyzing what disaster has enabled people to “waste” (or fail to waste) reveals a set of interpretative habits or codified “deep social grammar” (Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 2002: 10) vis-à-vis the organization of material culture. Which objects are to be saved or wasted in order to bring back “the ordinary”? One possible answer can be found in the second meaning of katazukeru: to re-organize in an attempt to recover some semblance of order.
Beyond the physical causalities, what the triple disasters destroyed was a cultural system: “the organization of conscious experience that is not itself consciously experienced” (Sahlins 1999: 413). The disasters, for all that they destroyed, created the space for such a (re)organization to be consciously, though retrospectively, experienced, like a phantom limb after an amputation. To katazukeru, then, is to make conscious decisions about handing down particular things in order for a set of meaningful habits to be continued.
The Times article by Patricia Cohen on a 9/11 museum discusses how different objects can differently represent the past event, and the importance of the process of selecting objects in the historicization of memories. As a result of a long debate regarding whether or not to keep a public object as “the site of memory” (Nora 1995), the giant fishery can, symbolizing the city’s economic capital and now the power of the tsunami, was disassembled in July 2012 in Ishinomaki, Sendai. Many local victims responded favorably to its destruction, as it reminded them of the horror they faced. In the end, their opinion was honored over and above others’ hope to have some form of a signpost. However, other residues such as photographs, thought uniquely to be resilient to hibaku (radiation poisoning), were carefully preserved and protected for their potential role as a mnemonic of the destruction, as well as an imagined, disaster-resilient future for the country.
According to the estimation by the Ministry of the Environment in Japan, the total volume of gareki produced is at around 25 million tons. Although waste management has elicited some inter-prefectural collaboration, the distribution of the waste outside the disaster-damaged regions has been met with much resistance, due to the heightened anxiety of hibaku, historically linked to A-bombs. This phobic reaction, which persists despite scientific evidence against contamination, classifies the might-be-contaminated gareki as untouchable. Igor Kopytoff argues that the classification and reclassification of objects “into culturally constituted categories” is a process that all objects, as “culturally constructed entities, endowed with culturally specific meanings” continually undergo (1986: 68). However, in the case of Japan, the double meanings of gareki, mnemonic for the past devastations and material indicator for the future hibaku, are intricately inter-linked with the ongoing reorganization of memory tokens. The case suggests the investigation not only of the biography of particular objects, but also their mnemonic value that comes to be augmented through the process of intertexualization with other events and objects in the past for calibrating the future.
A careful observation of disaster waste reveals that a certain set of materials is always consciously selected, first to preserve a version or versions of the past; second to retrieve the memory of an event in the present; and finally to project certain memories—certain mnemonic signals—onto the future, through a series of careful decisions made in the present (Bryan-Wilson 2003; Hastrup 2011). Disaster waste can be an index of the continuous act of handing down, an act which is wrapped up in the convoluted relationship between the object and subject and the sudden re-organization of the two. Disaster itself reveals, through its copious production of waste, that objects and subjects are intrinsically and non-arbitrarily chained, articulating the resiliency of certain chains of meanings over others.
Recirculating the Stuff
I have been saving this article as I write it on a newly-purchased wooden flashdrive, made from a now-shattered forest of pine trees which once stood to protect an area of Rikuzentakata, Iwate from the tsunami. The forest has been reincarnated to carry digital memories of futures-being-written, protecting its user from the mental waves of forgetting. On the surface is imprinted “yui” [to tie], and inside it contains a series of before- and –after the disaster pictures taken by victims in the area. This is an object that has both the use-value in and of itself, and an additional, mnemonic value that can be elaborated by continuous (re)writing in the future. In the re-circulation of “waste”—trees, “trash,” giant cans—resisting to be wasteful, the network of memories and meanings are activated with and reactivated by wasted objects in people’s effort to hand them down across time and space, making new links between a past and future. “Symbols,” as Charles Pierce has said, “grow” (1894).
In describing his book on the intercultural contemplation of the relationship between economy and trash, the Japanese journalist Hiroaki Seto asserts that “if things can be reused in whatever form, there is no longer trash,” in as much as trash is “the death of a material object” (personal communication; cf Seto 2012). Although forgetting and remembering are selective, just as all those disaster-gareki will eventually, and selectively, be saved, recycled or demolished, there is no memory to be wasted. No act of handing down aims at a wasteful end. There is instead, as Haruki Murakami pronounces in 1Q84, “an endless battle of contrasting memories” through which those consciously restored objects from the piles of gareki become transformed into and re-circulated as acculturated stuff: non-contaminable, imperishable, and meaningful.
Ryo Morimoto is a doctoral student in sociocultural anthropology at Brandeis University. His research concerns with the intricate mnemo-politics of cultural memory in co-memorating the triple disasters in Japan from the perspective of semiotic anthropology. His incoming article in Semiotica is entitled, “Shaking Grounds, Unearthing Palimpsests: Semiotic Anthropology of Disaster.”