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Documentation of Inhabiting Distant Ghosts, 2021

Inhabiting Distant Ghosts
Single-channel video installation, canvas, inkjet print, 24” x 16”
1:30 min loop

There has always been a ghost that haunts those who forget and those who leave rice in their bowls.
Perhaps it is Japan.

I feel its presence.

In the morning, the teacups are clean,

the dust on the shelves is wiped,

and the garbage is neatly put away.

At night, I can hear the click-clack of footsteps

echoing as if something is walking through a hectic station.

Sometimes, it leaves the floor drenched,

the shelves overturned.

It makes the doors rattle

when there is no wind

and occasionally shakes the ground.

Maari Sugawara, January 27, 2020

The substanceless-ness of “Japaneseness” follows me around like a ghost. Here, I visualize the “collective, biological fear” of earthquakes, tsunamis, and radioactive substances released into the sea. Such are the fears that haunt the Japanese people. It is perhaps, the strongest biological bond I have with Japan. The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake (3.11)—the largest earthquake ever recorded in Japan—killed over ten thousand people. From that point on, the collective “memory” of 3.11 was added to the “collective, biological fear” of being Japanese; and for me, of being.

After 3.11, the media embraced nationalist narratives. Soft nationalism has been coerced to overwrite our “memory,”[1]  our “collective, biological fear.”[3]

At the time of 3.11, I was sent to boarding school in England. Back home, my father—originally from the Sendai Prefecture—was, at the time the tsunami hit, in the affected area. On the news, hundred of evacuation sites were washed away, along with cars and even houses. Though my father is now safe, my family, for a week, could not contact him. For almost a decade, I’ve felt a sense of ownership over the “memory” of 3.11. Some would consider me a person who “abandoned Japan.” Yet 3.11, through time, has become a link—an indirect trauma that connects me, someone who was outside of Japan at the time of the incident and is still situated outside of Japan, with Japan.

The sociologist Kiyoshi Kanebishi documents ghost stories, the relationship between those whose loved ones passed away and the dead. Because the official record of the 3.11 disaster is largely “male-dominated,” Kanebishi resorted to studying the letters survivors write to the dead and the dreams of women and children.

“Just like Noh plays, where the world of the dead and the living are woven together,” Kanebishi suggests—amidst this strong sociopolitical pressure for Japan to erase the past of trauma in the name of reconstruction— that we “not bury the dead, but live in eternity, and move forward in time with the dead at our own pace.”

The diptych consists of photographs taken outside of Japan: one on a ferry and the other on a beach—moments when I was reminded of Japan. Here, the visceral nature in photography’s subjectivity becomes an invitation for viewers to be sympathetic for my reflection of what has happened. I have an indirect experience of 3.11; the viewers are now looking at me reflecting on my indirect relationship (connection) with 3.11 (Japan).


[1] Cassandra L Jones, "Memory and Resistance: Doro's Empire, Mary's Rebellion, and Anyanwu as Lieu De Mémoire in Octavia E. Butler's Mind of My Mind and Wild Seed," Women's Studies, vol. 47, no. 7 (2018): 700.

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