SOAS University of London

Japan & Korea Section, Department of East Asian Languages & Culture

Yohei Koyama

BA (University of Utah), MA (Birkbeck, University of London)
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Yohei Koyama
Yohei Koyama
Thesis title:
Life with radiation: ethnography of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima
Internal Supervisors


I was fascinated by the European culture of the interwar years such as Surrealism and Dada, and psychoanalysis during my undergraduate study in History. My fascination sprang from the sense of anxiety, loneliness and neurosis within this particular moment of history. However, the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in March 2011, especially experiencing the disaster and its aftermath in my hometown in Fukushima, has changed many things including my research interests. Since “Fukushima” has confronted me with a number of questions that I cannot disregard, I have decided to take them to my PhD research.

PhD Research

In today’s Fukushima, checking “today’s background radiation level” on television and newspaper has become an everyday routine, a number of radiological monitors outside show us the background radiation level in real time, and the word “radiation” and other terminologies are now commonly used in the course of the present nuclear crisis. When invisible radioactive rays have been thus visualised and verbalised as part of everyday reality, one is urged to imagine “the impossible” in a Freud-Lacanian sense – his own death. Speaking for the residents who have chosen to stay in Fukushima, Gen’yu Sokyu – the chief priest of the Fukuju-ji Zen Buddhist temple in Fukushima as well as the Akutagawa Prize winning novelist – has stated that the most pressing question for them in the nuclear accident aftermath is not where they wish to live, but where they wish to die. He is no longer afraid of living in Fukushima after making peace with the reality that he cannot leave due to his family and his obligations to his temple. In a similar way, the residents themselves seem to have already answered the most pressing question.

In my research project, I will suggest life with radiation (a life in death) as something beyond our conventional reality, and which arguably represents the traumatic Real in a Lacanian sense. The Real is not simply opposed to the Imaginary but located beyond the Symbolic – the Real is the impossible to imagine, impossible to integrate into the symbolic order, and impossible to attain. Therefore,  “to live with radiation” is to encounter with the Real. But then, why do the residents choose to do so? What is uncanny is the residents’ willingness to live with radiation. It is a paradox, but this paradox can be understood as repetition compulsion which is a Freud-Lacanian interpretation of trauma.

I will conduct ethnographic fieldwork in order to collect testimonies of how the Fukushima residents encounter with radiation, how they embrace their own death, and how they repeat the trauma in everyday life after the nuclear accident. Perhaps, repetition compulsion is their willing recollection of a traumatic past and projecting it into the future, which means Nietzschean radicalization of the repetition compulsion (the Eternal Recurrence of the Same) into the will (the Will to Power). Even if not following Nietzsche, I would like to emphasize the positive agency of the Fukushima residents.