In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, author and essayist Rebecca Solnit says of the color blue: “The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away.” Writers, poets and artists have associated blue with infinity, eternity, vastness and open spaces. It is fitting then that YInMn blue—the pigment discovered in 2009 by Oregon State University chemist Mas Subramanian—has become a part of new beginnings in northeastern Japan that was rocked by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Two beaches along the Tohoku coast in Soma City, located close to the Fukushima nuclear power plant, reopened after seven years on July 21, 2018. Tests conducted by Soma officials since 2015 have shown the amount of radioactive material in the ocean to be at safe levels. A city always known for a close relationship with its beautiful beaches and ocean, Soma was finally ready to reopen its beaches to the public this year.
The opening featured a resplendent concert stage decorated with beach flags and artwork by children that were painted with an exact replica of YInMn blue created by the Japanese paint company Holbein and christened Soma Blue.
Heralding a new chapter in the life of Soma City, the beach’s opening festivities also included a prayer by Shinto priests, food, balloons, airplanes and children joyously rushing to the sea. A blue flag on the stage said “Never Fading Blue,” alluding to some of the striking aspects of Subramanian’s discovery that have turned YInMn—the first inorganic blue pigment in 200 years— into a scientific tour de force and an inspiring symbol of humanity and hope.
The pigment possesses stability, durability, compatibility with oil and water, heat reflectivity and the ability to absorb ultraviolet radiation. The unique crystal structure of YInMn lends it an intense blue color and prevents the color from fading when exposed to oil or water—all of these attributes coalesce to broadcast an uplifting message of optimism and reassuring permanence to the people of Soma, whose world shifted in 2011.
“I am delighted and gratified that a scientific discovery can impact social causes globally. It is a great honor that Yin Mn blue had a role to play in this beautiful journey of inspiration, and will be used to help the children of Fukushima affected by the nuclear disaster,” said Subramanian.
Rebuilding Soma with the new blue from Oregon
How YInMn blue turned into Soma blue is an incredible tale of the humanitarian impact of a scientific discovery across geographical and cultural distances.
Soma Blue is the brainchild of Tokyo-based singer-songwriter and guitarist Fukiko Nakamura, who goes by her stage name Love. For the last seven years, Love has organized annual concerts in Osaka and Tokyo to support the children of Fukushima affected by the nuclear disaster. Proceeds from the concerts go toward supplying notebooks and pencils to elementary school students in Fukushima.
Elementary school in Japan lasts six years. Nearly 6,800 elementary students have benefited from Love’s music festivals over the years. Now that they have graduated to middle school, Love plans to have a concert in Soma for the next three years to continue to support them through their middle school years. She held her first concert in Soma in April 2018 and plans to have the final one in 2020, the same year as the Tokyo Summer Olympics.
At her concert in a renovated sports arena, Love introduced Soma Blue to Japan. Her announcement elicited “endless applause” from a crowd of 1,500. She also played her new song “Soma Blue,” recorded with a Soma high school band. A small exhibition at the music festival displayed glass accessories, art, and beautiful ceramics donated by Matsunaga pottery shop that were painted with Soma Blue. Holbein manufactured 30 grams of Soma Blue test tubes for the occasion.
Following the festival, a crowdfunding page set up to raise money for Holbein to create Soma Blue on a larger scale yielded tremendous success. More than 200 people contributed a total of 3,108,000 yen ($27,887) exceeding the target of 2,000,000 yen.
“I want to celebrate the opening of the ocean of Soma with this new blue. I would like children to draw a picture with this blue. Through this blue, we can send long-lasting hope from Soma to the whole of Fukushima and the whole of Japan,” wrote Love on her crowdfunding site.
According to Love, “The local people of Soma are ready to start rebuilding their city and collaborate with outsiders. They encouraged me to bring my concert to Soma for the next three years.” Her music festivals will be supported by the Soma Education Department.
And YinMn blue, or Soma Blue, is poised to become a part of the new Soma landscape in a significant way. Over the next three years, Love will collaborate with Soma officials to use the blue pigment to color the parks, playgrounds, walls and buildings that will be rebuilt on the beach.
“Hopefully it will be a big project that will let the world see that it is an eternal blue and that it came from America,” said Love.
Love went to Soma for the first time because of a promise she made to a schoolgirl who was visiting Tokyo to raise funds for her city two months after the earthquake. She was excited to meet the famous singer who hosts the Tokyo FM show “Love Connection,” and invited her to visit Soma. Love went to Soma and thence was born her dream to take action on behalf of the children of Fukushima.
She first heard of YInMn thanks to Crayola’s 2017 worldwide naming contest for its new blue crayon that was inspired by Subramanian’s pigment. Immediately hooked by the beautiful, radiant blue, the singer decided to have a drawing workshop for children where they could draw with the new Bluetiful crayon.
Keenly interested in launching a larger artistic paint project, Love reached out to Shepherd Paint Company in the United States, and they suggested getting the paint produced in Japan by Holbein. Her dream was to have the paint ready for the beach opening event in Fukushima.
“I wanted to share with more people the beautiful feelings of surprise and rising hope that I experienced when I saw YInMn blue for the first time,” said Love.
Fukushima beachgoers ecstatically greeted the new blue pigment, and the hashtag #SomaBlue lit up Twitter and Instagram.
According to Love, while the Fukushima disaster cleanup continues to pose monumental challenges and obstacles, due to its unique scientific qualities, YInMn blue sends a strong message of hope and promise in the city’s battle against the devastating nuclear meltdown.
“I was looking for something very realistic and eternal in a very positive way to galvanize people and spur them to action. YInMn blue reflects ultraviolet light 100 percent which makes it safe, eternal and perfect for Soma—a never fading blue. I am thankful to Mas for inspiring me with his great discovery” observed Love.