Over the past three years, the atomic bombing anniversaries in August have increasingly become a time to ask new questions.
How did the only country to experience nuclear bombings come to embrace nuclear power, a decision that ultimately led to the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 plant? Does Japan have the capability or political will to create its own nuclear arsenal? Is it morally acceptable to export nuclear technology to countries that are prone to natural disasters or may later decide to manufacture atomic weapons?
And what about censorship? Based in large part on its attempts at withholding or manipulating information related to the Fukushima disaster, the country has seen itself spiral down the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, falling a staggering 31 places between 2012 and 2013.
The situation can only worsen with the recent passage of the state secrets law. Will the law be used to keep important information regarding radiation and the safety of power plants secret? What impact will it have on anti-nuclear activism? And how do the new law, the overall lack of transparency and the handling of Fukushima compare to U.S. Occupation policies — especially those that squashed discussions of the atomic bombings?
One way history has repeated itself is in the way in which individuals and agencies have rushed to assure the public that radiation levels posed little or no threat to health.
Scholars Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell note that after a team of scientists toured Hiroshima in September 1945, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, “announced to the press that if any Japanese had died from exposure to radiation, ‘the number was very small.’ . . . Vegetation was growing in Hiroshima, and radiation levels were so low, ‘you could live there forever.’ ” The U.S. public image took priority over the reporting of facts.
Skip ahead to 2011: Dr. Shunichi Yamashita, the head of Fukushima Medical University, makes controversial remarks suggesting that an exposure limit of 100 millisieverts per year is acceptable. The comments, which made international headlines, were contested. Referring to the remarks, The Japan Times’ Eric Johnston wrote, “According to a 2006 study by the U.S. National Academy of Science, an exposure of 20 millisieverts will produce 2,270 cancer cases per 1 million people annually.”
Jump to spring 2014: On April 14, the Mainichi Shimbun reports that in an effort to collect data on internal radiation exposure, the Foreign Ministry sent an email to municipalities that “suggested the data could be used to play down the radiation effects from the disaster.” The data was to be used by the International Atomic Energy Agency, but “the email suggested that the IAEA report is expected to evaluate radiation exposure among residents at lower levels than reports by other international organizations.”
Much debate, of course, has taken place regarding the safety of Fukushima since March 2011. I do not cite the above examples to make any claims about the current degree of danger in the area surrounding the No. 1 plant, but merely to draw attention to historical parallels in terms of irresponsible and misleading communication with the public.
We see a similar parallel in the ways in which the U.S. Occupation and Japanese governmental bodies have interfered with medical research.
During the U.S. Occupation it was extremely difficult for Japanese medical doctors to conduct and publish research. Monica Braw, a scholar of U.S. Occupation censorship, relays a conversation she had with Dr. Issei Nishimori, who intended to study the effects of the bomb on humans. Nishimori recounted all the difficulties the medical establishment faced: lack of funds, restrictions, being required by the Allied authorities to translate all reports into English, and not having access to autopsy materials that were shipped to the U.S. or the results of research conducted by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission set up by the Americans.
Censorship was another factor. Braw informs us that medical journals were censored for various types of undesirable content, such as criticism of the Allied authorities and wartime nationalist propaganda (occurring in material written before the conclusion of the war) as well as any mention of censorship, which itself was supposed to be a secret. Two articles were censored for discussions of the effects of the atomic bombs.
All in all, around 50 reports about the atomic bombings appeared in medical journals between 1945 and 1949, but the bulk of these reports didn’t appear until 1947. In 1948 and ’49, the last two years of censorship, the number of published articles about the issue dropped significantly.
Academic Sey Nishimura argues that self-censorship was behind the decline: “Voluntary restraint may have played a part, since the year 1947 marked the change from prepublication censorship, when deletions were made at the galley-proof stage, to post-publication censorship, where notification of disapproval occurred after publication.”
As for the situation in Fukushima, the government hasn’t always been enthusiastic about radiation-related medical research. On Dec. 19, 2012, the Mainichi reported, “The Fukushima prefectural government has tried to kill a proposal by a local assemblyperson to store local children’s milk teeth to examine their internal radiation exposure stemming from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it has been learned.” Fortunately, more recently, plans for a large-scale study to test milk teeth for cesium, strontium-90 and other isotopes were revealed to the public. But, understandably, the public has grown very suspicious of government involvement in research.
There are also parallels between the suppression of protests against the use of the atomic bomb by the U.S. and the potential for the state secrecy law to negatively impact upon the anti-nuclear movement.
In September 1945, a Japanese film crew visited Nagasaki with the intention of documenting the destruction and to “appeal against the inhumanity of the bomb to the Red Cross in Geneva.” The crew, however, was arrested by U.S. military police and their footage was confiscated. And so began a U.S. effort to render invisible images of destruction and the victims’ suffering in order to protect the official narrative that the bombs were justifiably necessary to end the war swiftly and save American lives. When the Smithsonian was planning an exhibition to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in 1995, U.S. veterans protested over what they saw as too much emphasis on Japanese casualties.
How will the Fukushima disaster be remembered? What narratives will be constructed? Archived newspaper articles and footage always play a vital role in the telling of any history. Those in authority need censorship and policies encouraging self-censorship in order to construct what they deem to be acceptable presentations of news not only for tomorrow’s readers, but also for the students, scholars and general public of the future. Activists challenging the construction of such narratives are deemed dangerous by governments. An indisputably clear case of this is the passage of the state secrecy law, which threatens bureaucrats leaking information to the public and journalists seeking that information with jail time.
The law is primarily concerned with national security. However, skeptics are concerned that information related to nuclear power plants may be classified in the name of preventing terrorism.
Others are worried about what impact the law may have on anti-nuclear activism. Johnston writes, “Receiving less attention is the question of whether ordinary citizens who are involved in anti-nuclear protests might be targeted and investigated under the new law.”
Koichi Nakano, professor of political science at Sophia University, is also concerned.
“You find a similar power with the Japanese government as existed during the U.S. Occupation,” Nakano said in an interview. “Self-censorship will become more prevalent. Journalists will censor themselves before asking questions. The activists who try to find out information about the nuclear industry may get in trouble, they may not, but they’ll worry about what they otherwise wouldn’t.”
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