6 years after the Fukushima disaster, its victims are still suffering

March 10
Washington Post

Saturday marks the sixth anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear accident, the worst recorded since the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. How did Fukushima affect the lives of those touched by its radioactivity?

One narrative used by the media in its Fukushima reporting described those who volunteered to return to the dangerous site as “samurai,” “kamikaze,” or simply “Fukushima heroes.”

But my research with Japanese people who have survived radioactive exposure — first from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and then from Fukushima — suggests that they bear the burden of discrimination and shame. In Japan, these survivors are known as the hibakusha. Although pronounced the same way, depending on the characters used, the term can either refer to atomic bomb survivors (被爆者) or victims of radiation after a nuclear power plant accident (被曝者). Both face continuing difficulties in Japanese society.

According to Shuntaro Hida, a Hiroshima eyewitness who later became the director of the Hibakusha Counseling Center, about 80 percent of atomic bomb survivors chose to hide their status as survivors — from anyone, including spouses — for fear of being discriminated against.

Being a hibakusha is a heavy burden that can undermine opportunities to find a spouse. Lee Jong Keun, a Korean-Japanese hibakusha from Hiroshima, married but did not reveal to his wife and three daughters that he was a survivor until 2012. That is because, he said, “being a victim of the bomb was so shameful.”

In a letter to her sister published by the Asahi Shimbun in 2010, Kazue Inoue wrote that she was turned down by many potential marriage partners explicitly because she was a Nagasaki hibakusha. Finally, she chose not to disclose her status to the matchmaker — and wed in the 1960s. But when her mother-in-law found out that Inoue was a hibakusha, she would not accept the idea of her bearing children: “What if you give birth to a freak of nature?” Inoue’s marriage did not last long after that. In her letter, she wrote, “How could anyone blame my former mother-in-law? I understand her feelings.”

The hibakusha often have to hide their arms even in the summer, because keloid scars are considered contagious. Although there is no official ban against them, the hibakusha, as Hiroshima survivor Masaya Kutsunai now recalls, still shy away from going to sentō (public baths) for fear of being treated with suspicion and disgust.

As all this suggests, the World War II hibakusha have become more and more vocal about their ordeals in Japanese society.

Fast forward, and the Fukushima hibakusha are now facing the same stress and discomfort. According to a 2017 survey by Akira Imai, a professor at Fukushima University, and the Asahi Shimbun, 62 percent of the 348 Fukushima evacuees interviewed have experienced or witnessed bullying and discrimination for having been exposed.

The Fukushima Kodomo Kenkō Project also reports that the accident has significantly destabilized the lifestyle of the inhabitants of the area. Their anxiety over information, fear of discrimination, as well as other changes in their everyday lives are often intertwined. As Masae Yuasa, a professor at Hiroshima City University, explains, the “evacuees at home” (i.e. those who chose to stay in contaminated areas while paying constant attention to radiation exposure) buy bottled water and vegetables from other parts of Japan, and spend significant sums to take their children away from contaminated areas during weekends or holidays. To minimize the risk of radiation, these inhabitants must constantly trade off between the financial burden against anxiety over radiation’s health consequences.

Those who fled from Fukushima to start a new life elsewhere grapple with incomprehension and discrimination. Teachers, scientists and university professors often say hateful things. Consider tweets by a geology professor at Gunma University Yukio Hayakawa, who said, among other things:

I could not care less about farmers from Fukushima. I don’t care if they all die. It’s literally not my problem. All I care about is me and my family: I could not stand the idea that these people are poisoning us with their products.

In November 2016, the Asahi Shimbun reported that a 13-year-old boy who moved from Fukushima to Yokohama in 2011 was severely bullied at school. The bullies called him kin (bacteria) and extorted money from him because “people from Fukushima receive compensation.” The child explained to the police that he kept quiet because “people from Fukushima are bound to be bullied.”

Why are these costs of nuclear weapons and power so invisible?

It is difficult to determine how many were affected by the Fukushima spill — and there is no clear definition of who counts as “affected.” The loosely used term “evacuee” supposes a temporary status. When official counts of “evacuees” are released, they are tallying only people receiving aid.

First, the government distinguishes between two affected groups. One group is those whom the government required to evacuate officially designated disaster areas, called “forced evacuees” (kyōsei hinansha), who are eligible for government financial aid and compensation from Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the company that operated the nuclear plant. The other group comprises people from outside those government-specified areas who nevertheless had to evacuate because of the dramatic changes in their lifestyles and consequences on their psychological health. They are called “voluntary evacuees” (jishu hinansha), who do not qualify for government aid and for whom the prefecture covers costs only in part.

This distinction renders one portion of the Fukushima survivors invisible. Although there is a list of conditions under which someone can obtain the hibakusha kenkō techō (certification as an atomic bomb survivor, making one eligible for government health support), many of the actual survivors never applied for one. One reason: fear of lifelong discrimination.

Further, the government’s definition of “atomic bomb-related illnesses” is very limited. Although the list was expanded in 2009, many radiation-related illnesses are not recognized. As a result, many ongoing legal battles, such as the “black rain lawsuit” (kuroi ame soshō), reflect attempts to have these medical consequences recognized.

For a long time after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, Japanese citizens had no clear and reliable information on the health effects of the bomb. That opacity continues in the secretive and contradictory way information is coming out about the Fukushima nuclear accident.

Finally, as Imai explained, “because the question of the responsibility of the nuclear accident is still very blurry, there is no shared understanding among the Japanese that the Fukushima evacuees are in fact the victims of the accident.” The lack of transparency over responsibility is in fact the main obstacle that hinders feelings of sympathy and empathy toward the Fukushima survivors.

People often regard Hiroshima and Nagasaki as infamous tragedies that killed and scarred thousands and thousands of people, while seeing Fukushima as a shocking event that, like the Chernobyl accident, reminded the world of nuclear risks.

But within Japan, at least, the survivors’ struggles are neglected, thereby hiding some of the costs of a nuclear world.

Sayuri Romei is a nuclear security pre-doctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and a PhD candidate at Roma Tre University. 

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