Photo by IAEA, licensed under CC BY SA.

Radiation as a sort of contagion is doing a number of things here in Japan—some old and familiar; others quite new. Ritual pollution is well-known in Japan, pointing back to a time of seriated spaces and disciplinary boundaries (of insides and outsides in uchi/soto, of fronts and backs in omote and ura), when governmentality and subjectification were both coherent and effective processes; to a time when Mary Douglas and Takeo Doi could show us how transgression across these boundaries was dangerous, dirty, and thus to be avoided; back to a time when paranoid states sought to manage populations and extract surplus through such boundedness; when liminality was stigmatized and paradigms were stable enough to allow us to obscure the contradictions between capital and politics.

In these first months after 3.11, in an attempt to give the impression of control, we behave as if we can control this new radiation contagion in the old way: grim men in flimsy white paper suits hosing the radiation off of crying children with panicked mothers standing on the margins of the frame. One problem with our modern purification rituals is that their efficacy is no longer assumed from their performative enactment. Something else is needed, we feel, some sort of science, but we do not know what it is and are starting to lose confidence that it even exists. Regular people are not fooled: children evacuated into new schools are bullied as "radiation kids," and trucks with Fukushima license plates are not allowed into food distribution centers. Matter out of place—but sometimes matter has no place to be anymore.

We are starting to see the contagion of radiation as something different: a modulation strong enough to ionize an atom, destabilize cells, and cause cancers. We are told that radiation is everywhere anyway, so not to worry. But we worry because it is free-flowing, invasive, unimpeded by the boundaries we set up. As if to teach us this lesson early on, every TV station showed the same clip, taken from a helicopter and run on an endless loop, of cattle—the most domesticated of animals—running away from the camera across open, washed-out ground, out of control, both icons and indexes of the danger running rampant around us. Of course, we had to kill all of the horses. Some were burned, cremated so to speak; others left to starve in their enclosures. Is it worse to die in manmade structures—pens and barns, building, houses, shelters—or in attempts to escape? Two symbolically different ways to die, neither any less gruesome. The message it sends? You can run or hide—it does not really matter. Japan is doing both.

We are starting to see that the contagion of radiation is about instantaneous connections, not division and segregation. Radiation is a contaminant well-suited to today’s neoliberal world because it is without borders, temporal or spatial. It is privatized stigma, unconnected to institutionalized features; it is opportunistic and entrepreneurial, uncontained, and hugely powerful—productive (not just limiting, like the old pollution) of lifestyle and increasingly of life itself. It is also out of control in Japan—out of the control of the ritual operators—the state, the scientists beholden to the nuclear industry (御用学者, goyou-gakusha), and of course, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). Their greed in trying to protect their investment, especially during the first few days, probably cost millions of dollars and put thousands of lives in jeopardy. But, if we let TEPCO go bankrupt, that won't be the reason. If they can just bring it all back online, all will be forgotten, and the collusive state will probably bail them out with our tax dollars.

Radiation does still more in its refusal to be contained; it is also creating a new sort of politics, a politics of critique. Even the mainstream media have begun to link disaster and sacrifice to, of all things, protection of surplus profit. This is not just the realization that disaster was compounded by the greed of poorly managed containment efforts, but also news stories about irregular labors being sacrificed to clean up the mess—hence, the sentiments of many in Tohoku that they should not have to sacrifice for the extravagant consumption of a Tokyo-centric Japan. Uncontrolled radiation prevents the state and industry from obscuring their own incompetence and negligence, forcing us to question the sacrifices that they ask of us, and ultimately, exposing the deep circuits of capital flow under these fault lines.

Finally, radiation is creating a politics of connection and common cause. It is connecting rather than separating, moving through and out of Japan in a way that is linking Fukushima to the rest of the world. Radiation is denying Tokyo’s attempt to localize disaster as either a Tohoku or a Japanese problem. If the cause of contamination can be identified—dare we call it by its real name, capitalism?—then these radioactive connections can link different spaces and become part of a larger citizen’s movement both inside and outside of Japan. Through the connective contagion of radiation, new alliances are being built across age, class, gender and geography—not among victims who must share common hardship and sacrifice, but as a wider alliance that might begin to fight for survival.