Response to “Women of Fukushima” Documentary

by Miranda Solly

The idea behind “Women of Fukushima” is one that you can see everywhere in charity and aid appeals. You take an issue, like drought, homelessness, or radiation, and you link it to ordinary people. Appeals in the UK for aid during a drought do not just tell you the facts of how many children starve every day; they often tell you about a single child and how much of a struggle they are facing, putting a name and a face to that statistic. This human link is supposed to build empathy between the target of the campaign and the people the campaign is aiming to help. Although it is shameful to admit it, people do not seem to care if they are told that thousands of civilians have died in a war, but are more likely to if they are given just a few names and faces. That being said, I have grown up surrounded by calls to action, so much so that I couldn’t possibly participate in every one, and perhaps the idea has become overused. I’ve found that even such a technique crafted to evoke empathy has lost most of its impact. That is why I was surprised when the documentary “Women of Fukushima” affected me as much as it did. In this blog post, I would like to explore why.

Perhaps one of the more effective parts of the documentary was the way in which it showed just how ordinary these women are. When you first see their faces, they are flashed up onto the screen to the beat of the protest song, almost like the heroes of an action film. That brings how ordinary they look into sharp relief. The documentary also allowed space for the women’s personalities to come through. In other documentaries I have seen, the viewer is faced with a barrage of how awful the situation is, but this allowed you to see how sometimes people make light of their situation. Take, for example, the way Setsuko Kida talked with wonder about attending her first protest at the age of 57, or Yukiko Takahashi joked about turning up dressed as a pregnant woman. The way they perceive their situation as somewhat absurd makes the women far more relatable, which then drives me to imagine how it would feel to end up in the kind of situation where I, too, would be driven to something so outside of my comfort zone.

The other significant difference I found with this documentary was the space it allowed for the viewer to draw their own conclusions. The opening sequence presents you with the ominous clicks of a Geiger counter, without comment. The viewer is left to recognise what they are hearing, how the clicks increase, and how frightening that is. The women talk about how playgrounds are no longer safe for children, or how a friend stays inside concrete buildings to protect her child. Even before they tell us explicitly how dangerous the situation is for children, we have felt it through the anxiety the woman are feeling.

While the film has won awards internationally, the lack of attention in the Japanese media means that we can only imagine the impact the film might have if a larger number of Japanese people saw it. But from the way it affected me, I do think that we could take lessons from it about how to frame issues to gather support. We live in a world where the richest could make a huge difference to the lives of the poorest, only they rarely do. When calls for aid come from halfway across the globe, we can find it especially difficult to relate to the suffering described. If instead of merely telling a target audience about others’ pain, we represented things in a way that allows the target audience to feel their pain, maybe we would prompt more people to try to make a difference in the world.

References:

http://www.women-of-fukushima.com/

Ryan and Gamson, “The Art of Reframing Political Debates” Contexts Issue 1, 2006, pp. 13-18 (University of California Press)

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