The Unsteady Earth: Geological Kinships in Post-Fukushima Japan


Emily Sekine

PhD defended at: 

The New School


In contemporary Japan – a place where seismic activity is unusually frequent and often devastating – geological processes tend to be regarded as threats to be constantly monitored and managed. However, communities are increasingly aware of the constraints of this risk-management approach, especially after the powerful earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear disaster that hit the northeast region of the archipelago in 2011. This dissertation, based on extensive fieldwork in Tokyo and on the Izu Peninsula, combines ethnographic stories, multi-scalar histories, and thinking alongside and across literature from anthropology and other fields in order to explore the wide variety of ways that people in post-Fukushima Japan are grappling with the uncertainties of life on a dynamic planet. The chapters explore different ways that people understand tectonic and volcanic forces not only in terms of disaster, but also as necessary and beneficial forces that create landscapes, provide mineral-rich soil and water, and make possible particular ways of living and existing.

The dissertation also considers how the field of anthropology might be unsteadied by thinking and acting alongside earth processes. It asks, what might an anthropology of the earth entail? What sorts of concepts, methods, modes of attention, and histories might such an inquiry draw upon? This effort requires a particular attentiveness to scale-making, along with questions about how we make comparisons, how we imagine the past and the future, and how we conceptualize all sorts of complex relations between the moving earth and different forms of life. One of the main aims, then, is to consider not only how human activities profoundly shape the planet, but how, in turn, the physical instability of the earth might also compel and reconfigure practices of observing, sensing, and knowing nature itself.