FUKUSHIMA – Sixty years have passed since the U.S. detonated a hydrogen bomb in a test on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in 1954, but for one former resident of a town near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the hardships the islanders faced are all too easy to imagine.
Keiko Takahashi, 21, and three other Japanese university students visited the Marshall Islands for the March 1 anniversary of the test. In the lead-up to the weeklong trip, they studied footage and interviewed experts in Japan about the nuclear tests.
The more they studied, the more they saw similarities between how radioactive fallout had affected the islanders and their own communities — residents forced to give up hope of returning to their contaminated hometowns, communities broken apart, and long-lasting health concerns, to name just a few.
In the case of Takahashi’s hometown, Okuma, which hosted the nuclear plant, the entire population of about 11,000 remains evacuated almost three years since the Tokyo Electric Power Co. nuclear power plant was crippled in the magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.
While Takahashi lives in a dormitory at Fukushima University, in the city of Fukushima, her five family members currently reside in Iwaki, another city in the prefecture.
Prior to the nuclear plant disaster, her family worked in the forestry industry in Okuma for three generations. As a young child, Takahashi used to stroll around the town with her father, a local history lover, and research local water sources and bridge names for holiday projects in elementary school, she recalled.
“I know it’s highly (unlikely) we’ll ever go back to Okuma,” Takahashi said. “But even though our livelihoods there are gone, we as human beings who have lived there have memories and feelings for the place.
“I want to make sure the history and culture of Okuma are recorded and passed on, so that it will not become just a ‘sad town,’ ” she said.
Through the visit to the Marshall Islands, Takahashi said she wanted to hear the experiences of former residents of the Bikini and Rongelap atolls, whose hometowns are still uninhabitable due to nuclear contamination even six decades later. She says she wants to know how they maintain their bonds and sense of belonging as well as how to pass such relationships on to the younger generation.
Kaede Nagashima, 18, from the city of Fukushima, said she hopes to learn how the local people dealt with concerns about exposure to radiation, given her own struggles over the past three years since the nuclear crisis started.
Another participant, 25-year-old Kai Sato, said, “I want to contemplate what role education can play in order for us to survive and live on, leaving our hometowns behind.” Sato, a second-year student at the graduate school of Fukushima University, aims to become an elementary school teacher.
The fourth member of the group, Motoi Aizawa, 22, a first-year student at the graduate school of Waseda University in Tokyo, is not from the disaster-struck area around the Tepco plant but from Shizuoka Prefecture, where the Fukuryu Maru No. 5 — a tuna trawler that was exposed to the 1954 fallout while fishing near Bikini Atoll — came from.
Aizawa said she used to know very little about the Bikini Atoll incident but that since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, she has started researching how tons of tuna caught in the ocean near Bikini in the immediate aftermath of the Fukuryu Maru radiation exposure were sold, despite fears of contamination.
“I want to learn about the current situation regarding nuclear damage on a global scale,” she said of the purpose of the trip.
Hiroko Aihara, a freelance journalist from the city of Fukushima who accompanied the students to the Marshall Islands, said, “If we look at history, (the Bikini Atoll incident) 60 years ago and Fukushima are connected along the same lines.”
She said she hopes to establish a bond with others around the world who have suffered from nuclear-related incidents by meeting them in person.