Kiskadee: Living Debris

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By Mandy-Suzanne Wong

Welcome to Kiskadee, a yellow-breasted, black-masked, ruffling and squawking celebration of nonhuman vitalities. In this column, you’ll find true stories of nonhuman beings living extraordinary lives, defying human comprehension, and inspiring masterpieces.

The convulsion measured 9.1 on the Richter scale; the wave of agony and fury, a shriek in water, 9 meters huge off the coast of the Tōhoku region 9 years ago; the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant couldn’t bear it and had a meltdown. Almost 16,000 dead humans, more than 100,000 dispossessed, ruined; and since 2011, almost 200 human children from the region have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Every survivor within a 20 km radius of the Daiichi Power Plant was ordered to evacuate. 

“We can’t go home! You have houses to return to, places to work. But we can’t return to Namie. Our town is ruined, our lives our crushed,” Masami Yoshizawa, a rancher, screamed at homebound employees outside TEPCO’s headquarters in 2017.

In the thick of the evacuation zone were 70,000 farms and dairies. But the evacuation order only applied to humans. The government told farmers to kill their livestock. Many couldn’t bring themselves to do it. Their animals were nonhuman people; they were family. The farmers thought they’d just come back. Within a matter of days, the farmers thought, they’d be able to come back, feed everyone, bring water to everyone. They left their cows, horses, pigs, chickens in their barns and fled the irradiated zone for temporary housing. But of course they couldn’t come back. Nuclear radiation takes generations to dissipate. Altogether more than 22,000 pets and 660,000 livestock animals were “culled” or died of starvation as a result of the Tōhoku disaster.

But Yoshizawa did go back. Refusing to exterminate his cows, calves, and bulls, he turned his Namie ranch into a safe haven for abandoned cattle from all over the evacuation zone. All the animals had radiation poisoning from the cesium that fouled the air invisibly and unstoppably from the crippled nuclear reactor. 

A native of the port city of Hachinohe, a fishing hub devastated by the tsunami, Yusuke Kimura volunteered at Yoshizawa’s ranch. Based on his experiences, Kimura wrote the novella Sacred Cesium Ground, of which Doug Slaymaker’s English translation appeared in 2019. In the novella, Yoshizawa’s Ranch of Hope, Kibō no Bokujō, becomes Kimura’s Fortress of Hope. It is in many details a mirror of Yoshizawa’s sanctuary except that its new name, Fortress, reflects the besieged and lonely, set-upon and isolated fury of a place at war with everyone around it. 

Such has ever been Tōhoku’s situation as Kimura sees it. The Tōhoku region produces Tokyo’s electricity, Tōhoku is the pumping heart that powers the glitzy capital’s rushing and haggling; but when nuclear meltdown struck, Kimura says, the central authorities “abandoned” Tōhoku’s residents, providing insufficient aid and really no lasting solutions for the fishers and farmers who lost their homes and livelihoods—instead disseminating lies, “preaching self-help and self-reliance,” reducing electricity consumption not at all, and ignoring or exterminating the disaster’s nonhuman victims. 

In Sacred Cesium Ground, Hiromi Nishino arrives at Fortress of Hope to the blipping of a Geiger counter as it sniffs out airborne radiation at levels up to 100 times higher than it detected in Nishino’s Tokyo home. Joining the farm’s thin handful of volunteers, Nishino learns “this farm, abandoned by the state, getting by with donations,” couldn’t even afford proper food for the animals. The cattle subsist on abandoned, radioactive hay from abandoned, radioactive farms. The volunteers come from several hours’ drive away. Most, like Nishino, are “just your basic housewife” who happens to hear about the farm on social media and lacks all relevant training. The cattle number too many for the farm to manage. Politicians come around to take pictures with two-legged calves. They use the pictures to pump up their own public profiles, not to “get this farm recognition by the country and the government.”

In real-life Tōhoku, other farmers have joined the effort to care for abandoned, irradiated cows, of which in 2018 there numbered about 430. The sanctuaries are owned, like Kimura’s Fortress of Hope, by individuals who have themselves lost their livelihoods and may have no choice but to live in contaminated zones. Officially disavowed, they depend on scant volunteers and virtually no institutional assistance. In Sacred Cesium Ground, Kimura wonders why. Why abandon suffering innocents to starve to death? Kimura’s answer to this question reveals how misguided and contradictory are the dominant priorities—not only in Japan but in all capitalist societies.

What’s valued today above all else is capital. Resources. Things that can be used: consumed in one way or another by humans. Radioactive cows cannot be used as meat or to make milk. They do not make good pets or zoo exhibits. They’re useless, in fact, from society’s anthropocentric point of view. 

“Even the guys at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, whose job it is to take care of livestock after all, were talking about the irradiated cattle as ‘living debris,’” Kimura writes. Debris is the doppelganger of Capital, another word for which is “resources.” 

“Whether fish, or forests, or stuff from mines, anything other than humans are all just ‘resources’ to those people,” grumbles a Fortress volunteer. 

Privately Nishino realizes that this is only the half of it. It isn’t just “anything other than humans” that humans reduce to tools and ingredients. Other humans “are all just ‘resources’” even to their conspecifics. In Tokyo’s corporate culture, which even after Nishino leaves it continues to make her miserable: “We were always talking about ‘human resources’ or ‘human capital,’ but these were actual people.” 

One had impossible sales quotas to meet, “all-night mandatory unpaid overtime,” no sympathy from colleagues; and now Nishino’s husband is furious that she has given up her job because it means he cannot give up his. Humiliated and abused at work, he abuses and humiliates his wife at home. His favorite weapons are accusations of uselessness, which he follows up with physical beatings “because it’s fun.” 

Having escaped to the Fortress of Hope, Nishino realizes her husband thinks of her in the same way as humans generally think of cattle: she is “just resources.”

A punching bag, a toy, an outlet for her husband’s fury, an ingredient of the superiority complex which he constructs out of thin air, and of course a copy machine. For Nishino to voluntarily expose herself to radiation by volunteering at Fortress of Hope “would be a waste,” her husband says, “during the years when you can still give birth, be a real woman and all.” Yes, this man is really saying that a woman who doesn’t reproduce is not a woman and in fact is altogether useless. “

You’re useless,” he tells Nishino, “no good for anything. You’re hopeless as a wife. Why are you even alive? I mean, really. You should just quit this living business.” Revolting as it is, this husband’s view of women is far from uncommon. Even US tennis star Serena Williams wrote in 2017 that she wouldn’t be a woman until she’d done a stint as a baby maker. 

Rare is the author who dares to bear witness to the obvious parallel between this capitalistic, production-oriented attitude towards human women and humans’ general attitude towards cows. A dairy cow must be pregnant all the time in order to make milk. Artificial insemination forces it on her, one pregnancy after another. If ever she fails to become pregnant, she becomes “waste,” and it’s the slaughterhouse for her. “Same as me,” Nishino says whenever she looks contaminated cows in the eye. “Same as me.” In patriarchal, capitalist societies, “a structure of overlapping but [seemingly] absent [cultural and linguistic] referents links violence against women and animals,” wrote the activist Carol Adams in The Sexual Politics of Meat. People’s tendency is to “distance ourselves” from this hard truth by reducing milk to its use-value: a mere resource that’s simply there, there for the taking, rather than an aspect of a living, sentient body and a consequence of a pregnancy which to that body could be a physical torment.

In 2020, scientists extracted healthy eggs from abandoned Tōhoku cows and raised at least one healthy calf therefrom; but those cows’ radioactive milk and meat cannot be marketed to humans, which means the abandoned ones are trapped forever in their “uselessness.” It hasn’t yet been proven whether or not Tōhoku’s radiation will cause birth defects in humans, but that’s beside the point. Reductively considering human and nonhuman animals solely in terms of their use value as “resources” disregards their relentless desire to live, a desire that each one of us knows very well. And this hard-hearted ideological devaluation of life to capital contaminates humans’ relationships with all other animals including our conspecifics—even those closest to us, as Nishino’s story demonstrates. 

“What was huddled together over there [at Fortress of Hope] was not, for example, simply masses of meat to be slaughtered, not dull living beings unable to feel pain, not any of these things we had decided was true for ‘cows,’” Nishino says. “Rather, I felt that what was there were beings [the] same as me that emit heat, that feel love and also fear and also pain, that were just trying to get on with the business of living….Yes, here I am in this world, just like them, here I am with this physical body, same as them…they too are living, which means I too am living; they help me see it.”

The desire of “living debris” to go on living even with missing legs, radiation poisoning, dead mothers, and never enough to eat: this desire stronger than a world’s indifference, a national government’s orders of execution, stronger than the deadly force of nuclear power—though the cows cannot speak of it in human words, Nishino feels it in the air just as her tingling stomach feels the invisible presence of cesium radiation. 

She feels the “disposable” animals’ will to live, feels it simply in their presence as they stand before her wanting hay. She feels in their mere presence that their helplessness is not total, and neither is her own. That feeling gives her the courage not to end her life as her husband suggested but to leave that man for good and start a life of her own.

When asked why he doesn’t dispose of his sick, starving, contaminated, and above all useless cattle, from whom he himself will contract radiation poisoning; the owner of Fortress of Hope personally identifies with the cows’ situation even though he’s not a woman. Like the cattle, like many of Tōhoku’s people, he is now without a livelihood, without purpose, and would be without a home had he not disobeyed the order to evacuate his irradiated farm. That so many have fallen victim to dispossession because of humans’ obsession with use-value must be made known, Kimura believes. The Fortress of Hope exists in part to bear witness to the lives of living garbage.

“The fact that our town has disappeared; the fact that a huge number of living have starved to death.…The whole thing is something that everyone, the country, all the people in charge, all of them, want to banish from their sight. I mean, who else tells us to dispose of all the cattle? That way they can have all of this, all this proof, have all of it wiped clean away…[so everyone can say:] Nothing to worry about! Look how we have recovered!…And that’s why, that’s the reason I cannot give this up. I am not gonna allow it to be as though this never was.”

Bearing witness is important, is critical, yes, but for the owner of the Fortress to keep the contaminated cows only so he can show their suffering to others would amount to using them, reducing them to their anthropocentrically political and psychological use value. 

But there’s another, better reason for not killing cows who can’t be eaten. We owe it to them, Kimura writes: “To say, ‘Since we have no more use for them it is okay to just kill them off’ shows a real lack of respect for life. It is precisely because there is [in these cows] no more use value, [that] we who have been using them all this time have a responsibility to look after them now.” 

For Kimura, it’s “Simple: keep them alive. Because they are living, that’s the reason.”

Bermudian author Mandy-Suzanne Wong’s award-winning books include the fiction chapbook Awabi (Digging, 2019); the nonfiction chapbook Artificial Wilderness (Selcouth, 2020); the essay collection Listen, we all bleed (New Rivers, 2021); and the internationally acclaimed novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal House, 2019), which was a top finalist for American Book Fest’s Best Book Award for Fiction, an Eyelands Book Award finalist, a Permafrost Book Prize finalist, a Conium Review Book Prize semifinalist, and a PEN Open Book Award nominee. She is also the author of the collection Animals Across Discipline, Time and Space (McMaster Museum of Art, 2020). She holds a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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