Soup top

Would you eat a bowl of soup made mainly with vegetables grown in Fukushima Prefecture? What if the cook swore to you that everything that went into the soup had been tested and was safe for human consumption? Would you be able to push all thoughts of Fukushima Daiichi, contaminated groundwater and Blinky the three-eyed fish out of your mind long enough to risk a spoonful?

A pair of artists from Japan recently gave visitors to the Frieze Art Fair in London just such a decision to make, presenting them with a homemade broth made with Fukushima-grown produce and asking them to give it a try, if they dared.

Does This Soup Taste Ambivalent?

Going by the name of United Brothers, artists Ei and Tomoo Arakawa hail from the coastal city of Iwaki, barely an hour’s drive south of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. Unlike the other artists at this year’s Frieze Art Fair, however, the pair travelled to London not to present a piece of work but to offer cups of soup to visitors, made by their mother whom they flew out just for the occasion.

The soup was offered completely free of charge and all were welcome to try it, but there was one small catch: its main ingredient was daikon radish grown not too far from Fukushima’s stricken nuclear power plant, which has been leaking radioactive material since it went into meltdown in March 2011.

The piece, which was presented under the suitably artsy title “Does This Soup Taste Ambivalent?”, caused quite a stir in the weeks leading up to the fair, with the term “nuclear soup” appearing in headlines and being used on Twitter to describe the pair’s unusual offering. Whether the piece has any true artistic merit–and indeed whether serving bowls of soup in a gallery could ever be considered “art” to begin with–is still very much open to debate, but the stunt nevertheless served to highlight an issue that millions of people in Fukushima, and Japan as a whole, have been facing for the past three years and will no doubt continue to do so for many years to come.

Loss of appetite

A couple of months after the events of March 11, 2011, a few friends and I, then all residents of some Fukushima town or other, got together for dinner. This was something we did frequently in the months prior to the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown catastrophe, and after weeks of stress, speculation and frequent aftershocks, was one of the first things we did together as a group in an effort to draw a line under the traumatic events and get back to normal.

When a trip to kaitenzushi (conveyor-belt sushi) was first suggested, though, I have to admit I wasn’t exactly overjoyed. After seeing the multitude of maps, charts and speculative images examining the possible spread of nuclear material from Fukushima Daiichi, the thought of eating fish that had, potentially, been caught off that same coast wasn’t especially appealing. I knew that the Japanese government, then still very much under the media spotlight, had put a stop to the sale of a number of products from the Fukushima area and that tests were being run on pretty much everything else to ensure that it was safe to eat, but somehow the meal just didn’t appeal to me. Sushi after talk of leaking radiative material was like sitting down to dinner while watching a wildlife documentary or a zombie movie; no matter how well-made the meal is, the images alone are enough to put you off a bit.

But after resolving that an evening with friends would be far better for me than sitting alone in my apartment for the Nth night on the run, not to mention the fact that the fish served at our usual 100-yen sushi joint was most likely either imported or had never been so much as taken to the seaside for a day out, I headed over to the restaurant. After sipping on a few cups of complimentary green tea, I took a couple of plates off the belt and started eating. By the end of our meal, I had just four brightly coloured plastic plates stacked in front of me; roughly half the height of a typical tower I’d build on one of our visits.

It really is incredible how much power even the tiniest seed of doubt can have over a grown man’s stomach.

▼ The United Brothers’ “Nuclear Soup”

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 1.52.29 PMPhoto via Greentea

Nuclear soup

All of the ingredients that went into the United Brothers’ soup had been put through the same tests that food sold within the country is subjected to. It was, by Japan’s notably high food safety standards, safe for consumption. But the artists are clearly more than aware of the effect the mere mention of Fukushima can have on a person’s appetite.

“They are flying in vegetables,” Frieze director Matthew Slotover told The Independent when asked about the Fukushima duo’s unusual art installation in the run up to the fair. “They’ve been tested, they’re safe, but there’s clearly a psychological barrier. It’s one of those projects where you don’t know if there is going to be a huge queue or whether no one is going to go near it.”

But go near it they did. Patrons were informed of where the soup’s ingredients came from and were free to refuse it, but midway through the day the soup was not only all gone, but had apparently been quite tasty. “I agree to one sip to appease the photographer,” The Guardian’s Sophie Heawood wrote the day after the art fair, “But wait. This stuff is delicious. I neck the whole thing. At the time of going to print, I am not yet dead.”

No doubt spurred on by the desire to show their solidarity with the people of Fukushima (the artists’ elderly mother was, after all, standing right there in front of them) and feeling a little braver than usual after spending the day surrounded by so many pieces of inspiring and perception-challenging art, visitors to the fair were reportedly more than happy to accept a bowl of the broth. But one has to wonder how the same dish would go down if sold on the street, or indeed made at home for one’s own friends, if they knew where the ingredients came from. The barrier here, as Slotover suggests, is purely psychological; it’s almost laughable that we should eye food which in light of contamination fears has been tested specifically to ensure its safety with more suspicion than something our great-aunt Mary got from her next-door neighbour. But that’s how the human mind works. It’s the same reason you were that little bit on edge the first time you went swimming after watching Jaws or still check behind the shower curtain for knife wielding maniacs. We know that the chances of getting attacked by a shark are miniscule (less than being hurt in an accident involving a toilet, apparently); we know that the chances of a man silently entering our home, climbing into the bath tub and waiting patiently behind the shower curtain with a knife (apologies if I just put that one in you head) are slim to none. Yet these tiny seeds of doubt, these “yeah, but what if…” moments override our normal logic and have tremendous power over our actions, so it’s little wonder that so many Japanese shoppers routinely pass over Fukushima-grown vegetables in favour of another prefecture’s or that my Japanese coworkers respond with deep concern when I tell them that I’m planning a trip to the prefecture next month.

The United Brothers’ installation at the Frieze Art Fair may seem like a bit of a head-scratcher on the surface, but regardless of its artistic value, they have succeeded in starting a much-needed dialogue about Fukushima and food safety in general, and as someone who holds the prefecture very dear to his heart, for that I cannot commend them enough. The stigma around Fukushima isn’t going to go away any time soon, and it may take more than a few makeshift soup kitchens to change the thinking of the many Japanese who, defying all reason, wouldn’t dream of going anywhere near the prefecture, but so long as there are people who are devoted to keeping the daily plight of the Fukushima people in our consciousness, there is hope that things might one day be better for them.

Feature image © RocketNews24