Auckland Festival of Photography

I feel very honoured to have been invited to participate in the 2014 Auckland Festival of Photography. Photos from my suicide forest story are included in the exhibition, a part of which deals with the theme of “Memory.” There was even a write up in L’Oeil de la Photographie magazine — very humbling.

The festival this year includes quite an eclectic array of styles, from Bronek Kozka’s “Auschwitz Revisited” to Ayala Gazit’s “Was It A Dream”, the latter centering around a portrait of a brother the photographer never knew.

A noose made from neck ties dangles from a tree

A noose made from neck ties dangles from a tree. Rob Gilhooly Photo. All rights reserved

This from the review: “One of the most profound exhibitions in this year’s Festival is British photographer Rob Gilhooly’s “Suicide Forest”.  This is a beautifully composed photo essay of what may be one of the loneliest places on earth for this forest is where an inordinate number of Japanese people have chosen to end their lives. In the densely populated bush amidst the solitude of nature, men and women who have lost hope make their final communion. This is one of the most powerful and moving exhibitions I’ve seen and points to an unspoken plague of modern life. The suicide rate in Japan is the highest in the world, more than double other developed nations including the US and UK.”

While on the theme of the suicide forest this year has once more seen a massive number of inquiries from students and researchers around the globe — most notably from the US — requesting interview for a project, thesis, and so on. I make it a point to reply to each of these, though there are occasions where I am not sure if I should have done so.

One of the requests came from a US student and partly due to the slightly rude emailed request  and followup mail but mostly because I was genuinely busy, I decided to turn it down (though not before posting a very detailed entry on this blog about the subject, toward which I pointed the student.) Incredibly, I had also been told that I would have to sign and date a form stating that I give the information voluntarily and that I agree that my name not be associated with any information I give in accordance with university requirements (over 100 students have requested information to date and not one has requested I sign such a document).

Of course I said I would not sign it and I forwarded a standard agreement for the student and her professor to sign. That should have been the end of it of course but I them received a pretty rude mail from her professor basically saying I should be ashamed of myself for not seeing “this opportunity as one to help a student learn the ins-and-outs of the research method.” I replied that I thought that was her job, not mine.

In the end I decided that the student herself was actually too industrious and committed and as I had already spent some time scribbling down some answers to her questions during a train journey spent an evening completing those answers and mailed them off to her.

The truth is, I have benefited hugely over the years from some very busy people who just happen to be very decent people as well. So it seems only right that I too should try and pay something back, and I have tried on may occasions.

But, it gets harder when for example a student who you have invited along to a photo shoot never shows up (and doesn’t even bother to call to say he isn’t coming), or another one sends you an interview request like the following: “Hi Rob, Fill out the answers to the following questions …” (in the case of the latter there was not even an indication that the sender was a student or to which university she attends.)

But the clincher for me is that I just remember how I was as a student …. And they ain’t half bad really — relatively speaking!

Groups Take Action Against Taiji Discrimination

Sydney-based organisation Australia for Dolphins has filed a first-ever lawsuit against Taiji, the fishing town in Wakayama Prefecture know for its dolphin hunts.

Visitors enjoy a dolphin show at a dolphinarium inside the grounds of the whaling museum in Taiji, Japan on 10 September  2009. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly.

Visitors enjoy a dolphin show at the dolphinarium inside the  whaling museum grounds in Taiji, Japan on 10 September 2009. Photographer: Rob Gilhooly.

Taiji came under the spotlight globally following the release of the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove in 2009. The lawsuit, which is being jointly filed by AFD and Save Japan Dolphins, run by a key figure in The Cove, Ric O’Barry, relates to the “appalling conditions” for dolphins being kept at the Taiji Whale Museum, according to organisers.
What’s more, the museum is denying entrance to law-abiding people based on their appearance, they add. “People of foreign appearance are deemed to be ‘anti-whalers’ and not allowed to enter,” said AFD’s Sarah Lucas. The lawsuit asserts that this is in violation of Article 14 of the Japanese Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race and Article 19 which protects freedom of thought, she added.

A pod of what appear to be pilot whale dolphins swim in a sealed off area known as "killer cove" just after the first dolphin cull of the season has taken place in Taiji,  a small fishing village in central western Japan on 10 September  2009. Floating upside-down at top right of the picture, where the rocky cliff meets the water and the yellow inflatable floats, is the discarded body of a baby bottle nose dolphin..Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

A pod of dolphins swim in a sealed off area known as “killer cove” just after the first dolphin cull of the season  in Taiji, Japan on 10 September 2009. Photographer: Rob Gilhooly

Lawyers representing the groups believe they have a strong case, she said. “If we win, it will bring public scrutiny to the museum, and hopefully help improve the conditions of the dolphins.”

One of the dolphins causing particular concern for the organisations is an albino calf that O’Barry has named Angel. “As Angel has become a symbol for all the dolphins caught in Taiji, hopefully shining a spotlight on her will bring another wave of interest in the issue,” Lucas said.

O’Barry says he is determined to one day return Angel to a more natural habitat.

“They don’t want people like me to go into the Taiji Whale Museum to monitor Angel,” O’Barry said during an interview Thursday in Tokyo following a trip to Taiji, made a protest to the aquarium but was denied entry — an lambasts on discriminatory grounds.

According to news reports, the facility frequently denies access to foreign activists, such as O’Barry and Sea Shepherd.

O’Barry is among many protestors, dolphin protection groups and researchers worldwide that have long been calling for an end to the culling method employed by fishermen at Taiji, calling it inhumane and against international codes governing the capture of the cetaceans. The method employed involves impaling the dolphins behind the blowhole to sever the spinal cord. While this  seems barbaric, Japanese researchers claim it is more humane than the more random hurling of harpoons from boats employed previously in Taiji’s drive hunts.

A study by scientists in Britain and the U.S. last year refuted those claims, saying that analysis had indicated the method does not “fulfill the internationally recognized requirement for immediacy.” “It would not be tolerated or permitted in any regulated slaughterhouse process in the developed world,” said University of Bristol Veterinary School professor Andrew Butterworth, lead author of the paper. The culls have continued regardless, causing outrage among concerned groups. “From a scientific, humane and ethical perspective, the treatment of dolphins in the (Taiji) drive hunts sharply contradict current animal welfare standards employed in most modern and technologically advanced societies,” said Diana Reiss of Hunter College at the City University of New York.

Japan Suicide Forest

By Rob Gilhooly
I am walking through Aokigahara Jukai forest, the light rapidly fading on a mid-winter afternoon, when I am stopped dead in my tracks by a blood-curdling scream. The natural reaction would be to run, but the forest floor is a maze of roots and slippery rocks and, truth be told, I am lost in this vast woodland whose name, in part, translates as “Sea of Trees.”
Inexplicably, I find myself moving toward the sound, searching for signs of life.
Instead, I find death.
The source of that scream remains a mystery as, across a clearing, I see what looks like a pile of clothes. But as I approach, it becomes apparent it’s more than just clothes I’ve spotted.
In a small hollow, just below a tree, and curled up like a baby on a thick bed of dead leaves, lies a man, his thinning gray hair matted across his balding cranium. His pasty upper torso is shirtless, while his legs are covered only by black long johns — with blue-striped boxers sticking out above the waistband — and a pair of woolly socks.
Under his bent legs a pair of slacks, a white shirt and a jacket have been spread out as a cushion at his final resting place. Scattered around are innumerable documents, a briefcase and other remnants of a former life. Nearer to him are items more closely related to his demise: empty packets of prescription pills, beer cans and bottles of liquor.
Seemingly this man, who looks to be in his 50s, had drawn his last breath before I heard that unsourced, chilling cry.
That I came across a body in this forest was a shock, but not a surprise. For over half a century, thousands of life-weary Japanese have made one-way trips to this sprawling, 30-sq.-km tract of woodland on the northwest flank of Mount Fuji, at 3,776-meters the nation’s highest peak. It’s a dark place of stark beauty, long associated with demons in Japanese mythology — and one that has earned itself the unfortunate appellation of “Suicide Forest.”

Continue Reading >>

Renewable village offers lifeline to Fukushima farmers

I had a story published in New Scientist (in the magazine print edition in late December and in the online edition on Jan. 6) about a community-run project that promotes renewable energy generation and the reuse of farmland in Fukushima. Below is a slightly longer version of the story, which I think demonstrates once more how some local residents are showing initiative in the face of adversity.

 

By Rob Gilhooly

Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture.

It seems like the last place to find a Utopian blueprint. Yet, on an idyllic patch of Fukushima land blighted by nuclear fallout 33 months ago stands the foundations of a model village of the future.

Kenro Okumura stands by the PV panels that form part of the Renewable Energy Village in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture. ©Rob Gilhooly Photo. All rights reserved

The farmland in this coastal city is currently home to 120 photovoltaic panels bolted atop a 3-meter-high frame. Upon completion, however, the “Renewable Energy Village” will also feature a wind farm, farmland for radioresistant crops, educational and recreational facilities and an astronomical observatory.

One crop that has already been planted, namely rapeseed, was chosen, say project organisers, because its oil is free of contaminants even though the plants themselves take in some radioisotopes such as those of caesium.

The community-run project was launched in an attempt to protect the area’s farming industry, which was devastated by the triple meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in March 2011.

People evacuated from areas closer to the plant have given up ever farming their fields again,” said project leader Ryozo Hakozaki. “There might be an amusement park feel to the project, but we’re trying to show them what the future could hold.”

Around 65 percent of Minamisoma’s 8,500 hectares of farmland lies within the nuclear evacuation zone, a 1,256 sq. km area – around half of which is land – that includes parts of Minamisoma. The remainder was flooded by tsunami waves and showered with radionuclides, but in December permission was granted to plant rice there, despite tests revealing cesium levels exceeding the official 100 becquerels per kg limit.

Some farmers see the move as facile, says local assemblyman Kenro Okumura, a local assemblyman and farmer who donated farmland for the project. “It’s three years since the accident, but still there’s no guarantee that crops can be sold,” he said. “At worst our plan protects farmland.”

Central to the project is “solar sharing”– erecting solar panels above farmland and growing crops underneath. Complementing the idea is a government initiative encouraging enterprises to sell solar energy to utilities companies.

That initiative, which was introduced in July 2012, centers around generous feed-in tariffs, which are among the highest in the world. As a result, they have triggered the development large-scale solar parks – though none uses solar sharing. Most have solar panels resting on the ground itself, which makes growing crops impossible. One will be the country’s largest solar park, also in Minamisoma.

Largely thanks to these, shipments of solar more than tripled in the second quarter of 2013, according the Japan Photovoltaic Energy Association.

Hakozaki says such large-scale ventures have a major drawback in that they threaten Minamisoma’s farming industry. “If farmers decide to sell up their land to megasolar parks … entire communities will be wiped off the map.”

The Renewable Energy Village model offers a way around this issue, said project chairman Sohei Takahashi, whose radionuclide decontamination research organization is also developing new, radioresistant produce.

Through the project we can protect farmland and communities and with two parallel revenues create increased prosperity compared with before the disasters.”

 

Thin fault zone, slippery clay behind gravity distorting quake

Had a story published in New Scientist about research at the quake subduction zone revealing weak geological factors at the fault zone being behind the massive quake that hit Japan’s northeast in 2011. It sounds as though this is one of those “duh” moments, but methods used to come to this conclusion are truly groundbreaking, involving deep-sea drilling more than

Photo shows the Chikyu (Earth) deep sea research vessel docked at Shimizu port in Shimizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan on 11 Sept. 2013. Photographer: Rob Gilhooly. All rights reserved.

800 meters below the seabed at the subduction site, which itself is over 7 km below the water.

The research was conducted aboard the Chikyu deep-sea research vessel (pictured right), which I recently boarded when it docked a couple of months ago — a fascinating experience in itself and one I shall be writing about.

 

Using the data collected from the site during research that began in early 2012, three papers were published in the peer-reviewed Science journal by a team of international scientists.

The first is about the geology of the fault zone and the main result found there is that the fault zone is only about 5 meters or less thick. “That’s fairly unusual and different from what we have observed in other subduction zones. Usually in the 10s of meters or more,” researcher James Mori told me.

The second paper is about measuring the friction of the fault using the core sample of the fault zone material and putting it in a machine that simulates an earthquake and measures the friction. The main result from that paper is the friction is very low due to a huge presence of called smectite — a a slippery clay that is often found to be at the centre of large landslides in Europe. “That means the fault slips very easily during the big earthquake,” Mori added. “Essentially this is the first time such material has been taken from a big subduction zone earthquake so it’s really a brand new result.”

The third paper relates to temperature measurement taken using devices that were placed in the boreholes earlier this year. This too was designed to measure friction. Essentially the same results were found as from other core sample experiment, meaning researchers had two very different ways of estimating the friction. Both  gave about the same level of what is called the “coefficient of friction”. In this case the COF was about 0.1, which is very low — most rocks slip at a COF of about 0.5 or 0.6.

“So one of the ways of applying this is to say that subduction zones that have especially thin fault zones with a lot of smectite potentially can produce these very large slips of 50 meters and potentially could produce very large tsunamis,” said Mori. “That’s not to say that … if there is no smectite there is not going to be big tsunamis — that’s not a good conclusion.”

A separate report utilised data taken from the European Space Agency’s GOCE satellite that showed the March 2011 quake had been “felt” in space and distorted gravity over time.

6000 demonstrators voice disapproval of Japan state secrets bill

By Rob Gilhooly

Over 6,000 people gathered to form a human chain around Japan’s National Diet in Tokyo Wednesday to protest against the controversial state secrets protection bill that is expected to become law this Friday.

Despite the inevitability of the bill being rubber stamped before the 185th extraordinary session of the Diet comes to a close on Dec. 6, opponents continue to voice their concerns that the bill is being unnecessarily rushed through Parliament.

If passed, the bill could  impose hefty penalties on leaks of any information deemed sensitive, opponents say. It will also inhibit media coverage and be used to conceal official wrongdoings, they add.

If ratified the law would give ministries the freedom to declare as classified just about anything they want, said Upper House member Takashi Esaki.

The longer (the bill’s enactment) can be delayed, the bigger public opinion will grow and can be heard,” he said. “If that were allowed to happen, the bill could be repealed. (Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe knows that, which is why he’s pushing the bill through so quickly.”

This has led some leading figures to question Abe’s true intentions, with a group of academics headed by Nobel Prize winners Toshihide Masakawa and Hideki Shirakawa stating that the issue was the “biggest threat to democracy since World War II.”

During Wednesday’s demonstrations, banners accused Abe of “steamrollering,” while chants from spirited demonstrators referred to the prime minister and ruling Liberal Democratic Party secretary general Shigeru Ishiba as “terrorists” and “facists.”

Ishiba has incited vitriolic criticism since writing in his blog last Friday that citizens who demonstrate against the state secrets bill are committing “an act of terrorism”.

Even though the bill enactment is pretty much a done deal, I decided to come out here today to voice my objection, but also to take a look at what a terrorist looks like,” said Hiroshi Satomi. “What I have seen is ordinary people shouting and singing about something they are wholeheartedly against. The real terrorists are inside that building over there,” he added pointing at parliament across the road.

People like Ishiba are not interested in democracy, said another protestor, Toshiko Miwa. “They call their party the Liberal Democratic Party, but there is nothing liberal or democratic about Ishiba or Abe,” she said. “I have started to see posters and so on showing Abe’s face superimposed over those of Nazis. I think that’s absolutely true.”

Another protestor, Naoki Takahashi expressed fear of a bill that by its nature is given excessive leeway when it comes to transparency. “It seems almost unconstitutional that lawmakers should be able to rush through a secrecy bill that does not clearly define what constitutes sensitive state secrets or even what acts would be deemed punishable” under the bill, he said.

The bill also does not bode well for the media industry, said a Tokyo union organiser and journalist Chie Matsumoto during a separate rally held by around 600 Japan newspapers’ union members. “It could mean information is less easy to obtain and even information that is not even sensitive may not be given out by officials due to a fear that it might land them in trouble,” she said.

Upper House member Esaki said the bill is a flashback to a pre-war, Imperial times and undemocratic laws that gave authorities the right to arrest anyone who voiced disapproval of the government.

We are now a step closer to Abe’s ultimate plan, which is constitutional amendment and in particular an amendment to article 9 (which outlaws war as a means of settling international disputes involving the state),” the Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker said. “He is targeting the right of self defence … this is part of Abe’s life work, something that he started in his first stint as Prime Minister.

He is a politician who wants to return to the way things were before the war — a stronger nation, a nation that worships the emperor, a nation that above civilian rights to know demands a unified, national commitment. In other words, a country that is some distance away from being either liberal or democratic.”

 

 

Japan to start new nuclear regulations

DR. Shunchi Tanaka, chairman of Japan's Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA), speaks during a press conference at the Foreign Press Center in Tokyo, Japan on 04 July, 2013. Tanaka said that while operators of Japan's 48 reactors would be eligible to recommence operations should they meet the NRA's new guidelines, they would ultimately need to gain the cooperation of local governments and people of the communities in which those reactors are located. Photographer: Rob Gilhooly

 

Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority has given the go ahead for the nation’s two reactors currently online to remain in service without further inspections following the announcement of NRA’s new safety standards, which will come into force July 7.

NRA chairman Shunichi Tanaka said during a news conference July 4 that Japan’s 48 other reactors, offline since the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, would need to comply to “strict and stringent” new regulations before they could be considered for re-start approval.
The NRA has even wider-reaching power than previous watch-dog bodies to ensure the regulations are met, Tanaka said Friday. A new “back-fit” system will be implemented to ensure that any aspects of plant inspections previously left at the discretion of operators will now be independently monitored. The upgrade would turn a previously B-ranked regulatory system into “one that at last comes into line with international standards,” the nuclear watchdog’s chair added.
Meanwhile, Tokyo Electric Power Co., the troubled utilities operator of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, has said it will ask the government to allow it to restart two of its reactors at another facility in Niigata as they meet the new NRA safety guidelines.
Niigata Gov. Hirohiko Izumida has expressed dismay at Tepco’s request to restart two of the seven reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, which was completely shutdown following an earthquake in 2007.
NRA chairman Tanaka said even should utilities companies satisfy the new regulations they would need to win over local people. “The resumption of reactors will come only after operators and political leaders gain the understanding and cooperation of host communities,” he said.
He also believed that due to the severity of the new regulations a new safety awareness culture would grow, superseding the tendency previously seen within utilities companies to undertake the legally allowed bare minimum measures.
Tanaka also commented on the Fukushima power plant saying he did not feel a sarcophagus of the type used to enshroud Chernobyl’s reactor 4 was appropriate for the three damaged Fukushima reactors, which went into meltdown after massive earthquakes and tsunami hit the plant in March 2011.
At Fukushima Daiichi heat would continue to be emitted for tens or possibly hundreds of years, meaning countermeasures will still need to be taken. Rather than enshrouding the leaking reactors it was better to continue efforts to decommission the plants, he said.

Visit to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant

It has been quite some time since I added anything to this blog, though quite a lot has happened in the intervening weeks and months. In March I spent the best part of three weeks covering a trial for an Irish newspaper, which related to the murder last May (2012) of an Irish student in Tokyo. There are a few other projects I have been working and hopefully I will get around to adding posts to update this blog in the near future.

On to more recent assignments, on June 12 I  part in a tour of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant, which suffered triple meltdowns following the March 2011  earthquake and tsunami in Japan’s northeast. My plan is to write up a more personal account of the experience but for the time being here is the story that I wrote up for the New Scientist, which appeared in the magazine last week.

Photo shows the steel canopy arching over Unit 4 of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The now completed structure will be used to support a overhead crane strong enough to lift 100-ton vessels into which will be placed the 1533 pent fuel assemblies that are still residing inside the unit's spent fuel pool on the 3rd floor. they will be moved to a common spent fuel pool

 

 

By Rob Gilhooly at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant

 

An alarm lets off a shrill beep as a dosimeter on the bus hits 1500 microsieverts of radiation. “Do not open the windows,” an official warns. We are inside the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, driving by one of the three reactors that went into meltdown following the earthquake and tsunami that struck north-eastern Japan on 11 March 2011.

The place is a mess, with mangled containers and vehicles scattered around crumbling buildings – but the fact that I’m even here is testament to the now relative safety of the plant. However, much remains to be done and the clean-up operation is starting to look never-ending.

The group I’m with is ushered into a quake-proof building, the plant’s nerve centre since the disaster, by staff from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the plant’s operator. Inside, the only sign of the post-disaster panic and stabilisation operations, undertaken by 3,000 workers a day, is a line of unmade bunk beds, indicating that the clean-up operation is still a round-the-clock affair.

The walls are decorated with messages of encouragement to embattled workers from school children. “We’re rooting for you,” reads one, a bright red heart drawn above. Many of the messages were penned during more ominous times, when tens of thousands of residents living near the plant were evacuated from their homes, and plant workers struggled to secure  water to cool the compromised containment vessels housing the reactor fuel.

Water shortages are no longer the problem – quite the opposite. Today, the main issue is what to do with all the water used to cool the fuel that melted through the containment vessels. This is exacerbated by the 400 tonnes of groundwater that are flooding into the basements of the cracked reactors every day and mingling with leaked nuclides.

rest of story available at New Scientist website here

 

Taiji dolphin slaughter “inhumane”: Study

Grasping a steel spear in his right hand and the fin of a dolphin (obscured by tarpaulin) in the other, a fisheries worker smiles as he prepares to sever the animal's spinal cord in the bloody waters of 'killer cove' in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, in September 2009. ROB GILHOOLY PHOTO. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

I have neglected this blog of late — always seem to have too many other things to do. So I shall attempt to play  a bit of catchup.

I had a story published in the Japan Times here about a peer-reviewed study that contests a previous (non peer-reviewed) study claiming that the method used to kill dolphins in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, was more humane than the method used previously.

First snowfall in 2013 for Tokyo

A woman walks through the snow in Tokyo on 14 Jan 2013. Rob Gilhooly photo. All rights reserved.

 

Jan 14 saw the first snow fall of the winter in Tokyo and it was pretty treacherous. From my apartment I got a view of people passing along the street blow and dozens of vehicles struggling to climb the icy road that runs past on the other side. Cars were basically stopping at lights and then sliding back down the hill – a couple of minor accidents resulting. The meteorological agency estimates more than 40 cm will have fallen around Tokyo by 6 pm today. I’m staying in!