Disaster Tourism in Fukushima: Respectful or Dark?

In Oliver’s Friday Food For Thought, he wrote of a call from some Fukushima residents to turn ruins of the tsunami into a heritage site, similar to the Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima. The disaster should certainly be remembered, but what is the right way to do so?

In 2018, CNN described Fukushima’s tourism “comeback”, citing its potential as an alternative to crowded Kyoto. The Japanese government is also keen to show Fukushima’s recovery, and it is the starting point for the Tokyo Olympics’ forthcoming torch relay. Visitors may return to the region, but will it be because of the disaster? Last week, on 11 March, Japan Today published an article about a hotel in Minamisanriku, Miyagi, that has been giving bus tours of tsunami-affected areas for the past ten years. Clearly, people want to see the impacts of the disaster for themselves. Is it thus comparable to Hiroshima as a tourism destination?

While many visitors will want to go to these areas to better understand the events that transpired and to pay respects for those that died, such as the tourists that travel to Hiroshima and Nagasaki each year, there are also those that are attracted to it for the purpose of “dark tourism”. Dark tourism is a type of travel that involves visiting places associated with death and suffering. As an article in the National Geographic explains, dark tourism is not inherently problematic, but it depends on the intention of the traveller: “Are we traveling to a place to heighten our understanding, or simply to show off or indulge some morbid curiosity?”

While most travellers will fall into the former category, there is no denying that some tourists are motivated by the latter. In the case of Japan, it is easy to find websites suggesting “exhilarating” locations to visit. One site that has caught the imagination of foreign visitors in particular is Aokigahara Forest, which has become known as a place where people commit suicide. In January 2018, YouTuber Logan Paul was heavily criticised for a video he posted in December 2017 in which he visited the forest, during which he finds a body and includes footage in his video. It was only after YouTube took action that the video was removed, but not before it had had 6 million views.

In 2018, Japan’s Reconstruction Agency and Fukushima Prefectural Government considered taking legal action against Netflix for its series Dark Tourist. In the second episode of the series, “Japan”, the host travels to Fukushima to see the impact of the disaster before visiting Aokigahara. The agencies felt that the programme was highly damaging, as it made assertations that radiation levels were dangerous (without specifying where) and that Fukushima produce was unsafe to eat.

In the economic recovery of the affected region, tourism could provide a much needed sources of income, but there has been debate as to whether “dark tourism” should be part of this. While no one wants to forget the disaster, many argue that the focus should be on the positives.

What do you think? Is there a place for “dark tourism”? Is it misunderstood? Let us know in the comments.

Image: Iide Mountains in Fukushima Prefecture

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