A Month for Remembering Nuclear Harms

The worst thing in 1954 was the Bikini

See the girl on TV dressed in a Bikini

She doesn’t think so but she’s dressed for the H-bomb

‘I Found That Essence Rare’, Gang of Four

This month marked eight years since the Great East Japan Earthquake triggered a tsunami and a major nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Anniversaries such as this one provoke considerable reflection. Coverage of the anniversary in the Japan Times focused on the Abe government’s problematic promotion of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as the ‘Recovery Games’ while most residents in the Tōhoku region of northeast Japan, where most of the damage was done, feel a palpable lack of progress on recovery. A few days earlier the newspaper reported on the ongoing crisis of waste water management at the ruined plant. Every day tonnes of groundwater water flow into the site where it mixes with the water that is used for cooling the damaged reactor cores and becomes contaminated . After filtration, this contaminated water is stored in large tanks on site but with no end in sight the issue of what is to be done with this waste water remains unresolved. The leading idea for how to deal with it once storage runs out: flush it into the sea.

Of course, huge quantities of radioactive water have already been released into the Pacific Ocean since the disaster. It is worth remembering in this context the other important anniversary that took place in the Pacific on 1 March 65 years ago when the United States began conducting a major round of nuclear bomb tests, codenamed Operation Castle, over Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The Bikini tests were intended to demonstrate the United States’ nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union. However, the Japanese tuna fishing trawler Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon No 5) was caught in the fallout from the tests despite being outside the designated fallout zone.

Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon No 5)

Upon returning to its home port of Yaizu, the trawler’s crew were hospitalised with symptoms of acute radiation poisoning. The radio operator subsequently died and fears of radioactive tuna spread throughout Japan. In September a nation-wide petition drive against atomic and hydrogen bombs was initiated by the fishmongers of Suginami in central Tokyo. By August the following year the petition had garnered more than 20 million signatures and is often credited with laying the ground for subsequent citizen movements against the renewal of the US-Japan Security Treat (Anpo) in 1960.

This year memorial events for the Bikini incident were held in the port of Yaizu and in Tokyo, where the fishing trawler is preserved at the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall. Activists from the museum organised a special screening programme of films related to the incident. The headliner for these screenings was Day of the Western Sunrise, a new film by Daliborka Films that features interviews with three of the survivors from the ship.

Day of the Western Sunrise Documentary Teaser Trailer from DALIBORKAfilms on Vimeo.

I attended another related event on Wednesday 27 February at the Tokyo headquarters of Peace Boat, a Japan-based Non-Profit Organisation (NPO) which is active in contemporary movements against nuclear weapons and nuclear power and for peace and social justice. Last year the organisation’s flagship cruise liner conducted the Making Waves tour, which visited five ports around Australia with a group of nuclear survivors from Japan and Australia. Nuclear survivors are known in Japanese as hibakuasha. At each port the group gave public talks and took part in protest actions in support of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Making Waves banner
Making Waves, ICAN

On Wednesday night in Tokyo, a weekly study group meeting heard from Okamura Keisuke, a photographer and activist with the Pacific Nuclear Disaster Assistance Center (太平洋核被災支援センター) in Kōchi prefecture in the south-western island of Kyushu. Okamura has recently published a photo book which highlights a little-known aspect of the Bikini nuclear tests.

While the irradiation of the Lucky Dragon during the Bikini tests is quite widely known in Japan and around the world, Okamura revealed that there were actually more than 1,000 Japanese fishing trawlers in the Bikini area during the bomb tests. A large numbers of fishermen on these boats were subject to irradiation. The book, No Nukes: Never Forget the Bikini Atoll Nuclear Tests features photographs of some of the survivors, rural fisherfolk who remained silent about their experiences until the 1980s.

Local high school students in Kōchi discovered this large hidden hibakusha community when they interviewed local older people for a school project in 1985. As awareness about the existence of this group of hibakusha grew, more people became involved including radiation health scientists who were able to calculate accurately the radiation doses received by the fishermen through studying their teeth. These investigations revealed that some of these fishermen experience dose-rates comparable to those experienced by people in Hiroshima who were located 1.5 km from the epicentre of the explosion.

When initial reports of the Kōchi hibakusha surfaced, the Japanese government denied any knowledge of the incident. However, subsequent research and legal action led to the discovery of extensive records of the incident and of a government cover-up that occurred at the time in collusion with the United States. Now older and no longer cowed by the poverty and fear that kept them silent in the early 1950s, the survivors have launched legal action to bring their experiences to light. In July 2018 the Kōchi District Court rejected the former fishermen’s claim for damages arising from the Japanese state’s complicity in hiding key records of the Bikini tests. Nevertheless, the judgement did acknowledge that the fishermen had been exposed to radiation from the Bikini tests – the first official acknowledgement that vessels other than the Lucky Dragon No 5 were involved. Okamura highlighted the role of a group of scientists in the cover-up who were former members of the infamous Imperial Japanese Army Unit 731 who conducted biological and chemical warfare experiments on human beings in Japanese-occupied Manchuria and were later rehabilitated, with the complicity of the American Occupation authorities, after the war.

As Okamura brought his talk to a close, he discussed the wider implications of the Bikini incident and subsequent cover-up for the establishment of Japan’s nuclear power programme in the 1950s. In general, anti-nuclear activists recognise a strong connection between the military and civilian uses of nuclear power. The civilian technology is military in origin and critics often point to the fact that nuclear power generation produces plutonium, increasing the risk of nuclear proliferation. Okamura outlined the way the US and Japanese government complicity in the cover-up of Bikini led directly to the subsequent attempt to reframe civilian nuclear technology as a kind of ‘swords into ploughshares’. He described the way propaganda efforts in favour of nuclear power were ramped up significantly in the wake of the Bikini incident through the newspaper and television empire of rehabilitated war criminal and CIA collaborator Shōriki Mastutarō as well as the 1956 Atoms for Peace exhibitions held to promote nuclear technology’s peaceful use in a war-weary Japan. These exhibitions were attended by thousands of people at a time when mass consumer culture was just starting to take off as Japan’s economy recovered from the devastation of war.

Japan and Australia have both refused to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons advocated for by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning advocacy group the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).

ICAN logo

In justifying their opposition to the treaty, both governments cite their defence relationship with the United States, the only country to have dropped a nuclear bomb on another during wartime. Okamura’s talk not only highlighted the struggle of an ageing group of rural hibakusha to have the truth of their irradiation recognised publicly but connected their struggle with the alliances forged between government and military figures in Japan and the United States in the aftermath of the Asia-Pacific war in order to maintain US hegemony in Asia. The failure of US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to negotiate an end to the ongoing state of war on the Korean peninsula only highlights the way the Cold War structures of militarism in East Asia stand in the way of the peace and reconciliation that might enable the Asia-Pacific war to truly come to a close. In the meantime, grassroots activists like Okamura and the hibakusha survivors of nuclear harms will continue to be the real diplomats, patiently doing the work of peace and bringing to light the hidden harms of the US-Japan relationship.

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