In the days of uncertainty immediately following the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, documentary filmmaker Masako Sakata turned to a book written by her late mother, an anti-nuclear campaigner, to try to make sense of what was happening.
The book, “Please Listen,” is a collection of newsletters in which Shizuko Sakata continued to warn of the dangers of nuclear power as an ordinary person living in the quiet city of Suzaka, Nagano Prefecture.
The 3/11 disaster “prompted me to think back about what my mother had tried to tell her neighbors,” Sakata said.
While rereading her mother’s words, Sakata repeatedly visited Fukushima with her camera to record the catastrophic situation developing there, bringing with her the old radiation detector her mother used.
It was during one visit, with the detector’s alarm ringing loudly in her ears, that she came up with the idea of visiting the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, where many residents have been unable to return to their homes for decades due to U.S. atomic and hydrogen bomb tests.
“I thought I could find clues to the future of Fukushima’s people by researching the history and current situation facing the islanders,” Sakata said.
In search of footage, she also traveled to Kazakhstan, where the Soviet Union conducted 470 nuclear tests throughout the Cold War, and Cap de la Hague, France, home to a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, where she met residents opposed to nuclear power.
The round-the-world trip evolved into her latest film, “Journey Without End.”
In the Marshall Islands, some displaced people have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government to seek compensation and decontamination of their homeland.
“We spent a lot of time dreaming about our homeland,” an islander say in the film. “But negative feelings always surge up within us, telling us that we will never see our islands again.”
The March 1954 hydrogen bomb test on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands also involved a Japanese tuna fishing boat.
Matashichi Oishi, one of the 23 crew members of the Fukuryu Maru No. 5, says in the film that “white flakes that looked like snow fell heavily” after the explosion. He called it “death ash.”
“They fell on our bodies. They were not hot, and they had no smell. We licked some that fell around our mouth, but they had no taste.”
Six months later, chief radio operator Aikichi Kuboyama died at the age of 40.
“When the Bikini incident happened, all of us should have learned more about nuclear energy. Then there would not have been 54 nuclear reactors built in Japan,” Oishi says.
“We were repeatedly told it is safe, no need to worry, we’ll have lots of power. . . . Not knowing the danger, people wanted nuclear plants in their towns and villages,” he says. “We could have found a different way had we all studied more about the Bikini incident then. I regret it very much.”
In a village in Kazakhstan around 50 km from the epicenter of a nuclear test, many people die before reaching the age of 60, while in a city around 150 km from another test site, researchers are studying the effects of low-dose radiation exposure, given that the cancer death rate there is higher than in other areas.
“We are paying attention to the effects carried over to the next generation,” a doctor in the city is quoted in the movie as saying. “Our ancestors were stronger. People today have much weaker immune systems.”
Sakata’s mother, Shizuko, issued her first mimeographed newsletter in May 1977 after receiving a letter from her eldest daughter, Yuko, who was living with her British husband on an island in the English Channel and had reported local concerns over radioactive pollution due to the spent fuel reprocessing plant in Cap de la Hague on the nearby French coast.
In the first issue, Shizuko argued that accumulating radioactive waste should not be left to future generations to deal with, calling for people today “not to make our children and grandchildren lament.”
She handed out her newsletter on the streets of her hometown to passers-by, asking them, “Could you listen to me?”
Members of an anti-nuclear NGO in la Hague who regularly measure radioactivity density expressed concerns in the film that radioactive contamination may be spreading widely in Northern Europe.
“Imagine if we had found radioactive elements in the pyramids in Egypt,” the NGO’s leader says to draw attention to the exceptionally long half-life of the buried uranium and the burden it will impose on future generations.
Another NGO member tells Sakata that people in la Hague remain unwilling to confront the danger of radiation as nuclear facilities have brought employment as well as a lot of money to build roads, a big swimming pool and even a planetarium.
The film shows Shizuko attending a roundtable discussion on nuclear power policy organized by the Japanese government in May 1996, 2½ years before her death. She expressed her views there following a sodium coolant leak leading to a fire at the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in 1995.
“When nuclear power was first introduced, the future looked bright, but now we see the negative side clearly,” she said at the forum. “Nuclear power has been a national policy, but circumstances have changed. National policy can be misguided, as we learned during the war.”
Looking back on her travels around the world, Sakata said her “journey to inquire about the nuclear age has just begun,” noting that the development of both nuclear energy and weapons continues “despite the wartime disasters faced by Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the Fukushima accident.”
Sakata previously made two award-winning documentaries: “Agent Orange — A Personal Requiem,” in 2007, focusing on the damage caused by Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War, and “Living the Silent Spring” in 2011, about the danger chemical agents pose to humanity.
Her latest film will be screened at a Tokyo theater in March before being shown nationwide. A version in which Sakata provides an English narration has also been created to present at international film festivals and other occasions.
For further information, call the film’s distributor, Siglo Ltd., at 03-5343-3101.