The stickers went up a few months after Japan’s triple disaster in 2011—an earthquake and tsunami that took twenty thousand lives, and an ongoing nuclear crisis that threatens more. They first appeared along the shabby backstreets of Shibuya, in downtown Tokyo, a place that offers some of the very few canvasses for graffiti in a city not given to celebrating street art. The British expat photographer and filmmaker Adrian Storey couldn’t ignore them. “Being a foreigner, there was a sort of brief period after 3/11 when there was this sense of community in Tokyo that I haven’t felt before,” Storey says. “Then it kind of went away, and people just went back to shopping. I was drawn to the stickers because I realized it was a Japanese person behind them, and they actually cared about what was happening. I started photographing every sticker I found.”
Some stickers are small, eight inches or so in height. Others are the size of a stunted adult or a large child. In fact, children are featured in many of them, especially the motif of a young girl in a raincoat above the caption “I hate rain,” with the trefoil symbol for radiation stamped between “hate” and “rain.” On other stickers, silhouettes of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are suspended in white space beside the logo for the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the government-allied conglomerate responsible for the operation and maintenance of the severely damaged Fukushima nuclear power plants. Sometimes the stark black lines and blotches resemble Rorschach tests. You look and see nothing, then look again and see Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s face, his mouth suffocated by an American flag.
The artist behind them calls himself 281_Anti Nuke, and he has become a cult phenomenon among Tokyo locals. The numerals refer to an athletic jersey he wore in high school. “It’s just nostalgia,” he says. “Memories of my happier times.” Tagged as the “Japanese Banksy,” he is an unlikely manifestation of Japan’s shredded identity: a contemporary artist of dissent in a country that rarely tolerates protest and barely supports modern art. His real name is Kenta Matsuyama, though few Japanese know that, since it appears only in the fine print on his manager’s English-language Web site. He is a fortysomething father born and raised near Fukushima, the site of Japan’s most pressing nuclear disaster. We meet in the heart of Shibuya, in a second-story café overlooking the most famous intersection in Japan—a crowded network of diagonal crosswalks that is featured in nearly every film set in Tokyo.
We are hiding in plain sight. “These people,” he says, gesturing toward the window and the masses below, “they only vote for the winner; they only think about the winner. They have no concept of real strength. They feel satisfied just knowing that the party they voted for won.” (That party, the archconservative, U.S.-friendly, and pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party, crows about a mandate after sweeping recent elections.) He is wearing a tight-fitting gray hoodie, pitch-black jeans and sunglasses, and a white surgical mask. It’s not always easy to hear him through the mask, so he tugs it down a bit when his speech quickens in anger. “Maybe it’s true that there’s no political party you can count on, but it’s more than that. It’s fear. It’s Japanese people never doubting their leaders. Looking out at Shibuya, I’m sure that nobody out there remembers the idea of radiation anymore. People abroad know more about the crisis in Fukushima than the Japanese. The Japanese are trying to forget. I want to make them remember.”
Anti Nuke is an active Twitter user, but when he first started posting his art, he received death threats so virulent that last year he temporarily took down his Twitter and Facebook accounts and started hiding all of his personal information. Even now, his Web site is often hacked. In public, when he is not cloaked by hoodie, sunglasses, and mask, he wears a full-body hazmat suit. As for his method: “Stickers are better than graffiti,” he says, “because they are faster to apply. You just stick them on and run off. And I use very simple English to be direct, without nuances. Like, ‘I hate rain.’ In Japanese, it’s ‘Watashi wa ame ga kirai.’ So in Japanese, you really need to talk about who hates rain, and why, and in what context. But in English it’s more iconic. There’s more room for the imagination, and that’s powerful.”
281_Anti Nuke’s work is about to reach more people via exhibitions in the New York and Los Angeles, and a documentary film about his art directed by Storey will début in festivals next year. “His mission is personal,” says Storey. “He wants people to think about the same things he’s thinking about, but, like he said to me many times, it’s about the future of his children. It’s the future of everybody’s children in Japan. He doesn’t want to make a name for himself.”
Perhaps. But donning hoodies, shades, and surgical masks, not to mention the occasional hazmat suit, is an odd strategy for anonymity. “It’s fine if I become famous if it helps communicate this huge problem,” Anti Nuke concedes. “There are bigger problems in Fukushima than we know now. I’m sure of that. I’ve communicated with people there. I have family there. The Japanese government will not save them, and since the survivors cannot escape, Fukushima people hate Tokyo people for the electricity they use and cannot conserve.”
He insists that he is not anti-American, just pro-truth. “I love the American people, but I want them to help save Japan. This time, it’s the Japanese people who are to blame. We’re not aware, and we are actively trying to forget. We need foreigners to save us from ourselves.”
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the United States.” He divides his time between New York and Tokyo.
Art by 281_Anti Nuke, courtesy of Roth Management. Photograph by Bellamy Hunt, courtesy of Roth Management.
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