As Japan inches toward recovery from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear calamity, critics say the government should heed lessons from an incident in the Pacific 62 years ago that also affected Japanese fishermen operating in the area.
The incident has taken its name from the tuna boat Fukuryu Maru No. 5, which was hit by radioactive fallout after a U.S. hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands on March 1, 1954, resulting in one of its 23 crew members dying from acute radiation poisoning.
But the full impact of the incident on Japanese fishermen is still unclear because the government did not conduct follow-up health studies on ship crews other than that of the Fukuryu Maru.
In all, hundreds of Japanese vessels were said to have been in the vicinity of the blast that March and in the following months when the U.S. continued to carry out nuclear tests.
Masatoshi Yamashita, who has studied the issue for some 30 years, told a recent gathering in Tokyo that crews from ships other than the Fukuryu Maru were “abandoned” by the government, which closed the case after reaching a political settlement with the United States over reparations in January 1955.
“This was a criminal act, taking advantage of the elusive nature of radiation effects,” added the 71-year-old former school teacher from Kochi Prefecture who led a study from 1985 on some 350 former crew members of possibly exposed vessels. The study found many had died young or suffered from illnesses.
The struggle of the unrecognized victims continues to this day, with six former sailors from Kochi and four relatives of deceased crewmen recently applying for workers’ compensation due to cancer and other diseases they attribute to radiation from the nuclear tests.
Dr. Hajime Kikima, 71, of Shizuoka Prefecture, who has supported the compensation claim, said in a different gathering in Osaka Prefecture that the case was another example of how radiation-affected victims had been “left behind.”
“It is a complicated process to discern who the victims are and it is difficult to grasp a precise picture of the damage. . . . All-in-all, relief for the victims is delayed,” said Kikima, who has also been involved in medical examinations of survivors from the 1945 U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
There has been a mix of explanations given as to why many possibly exposed fishermen were left out in the cold for such a long time.
Following revelations of the Fukuryu Maru’s exposure and the contamination of its tuna catch, a radiation scare gripped Japan and hundreds of vessels returning from the same fishing grounds were forced to dispose of their toxic catches through December 1954.
But even though the tuna were examined carefully, crew members were often only ordered to “take a bath and wash (their heads),” Yamashita said. Ordinary people knew little about the risks of radiation at the time.
Kikima said former fishermen often appeared to lack “a solid sense” of having been exposed to radiation because they did not witness the nuclear fallout or the flash from the nuclear test, as the Fukuryu Maru crew had.
“More than a few were surprised to find themselves being checked by Geiger counters at ports (where radiation checks were implemented). . . . With no instructions to undergo health checks later on, a lot of people (remained) ignorant of future health problems they could face due to radiation,” Kikima said.
The Fukuryu Maru, known in English as the Lucky Dragon, eventually became the only ship embedded in the public’s memory, with many other fishermen becoming tight-lipped about their experiences to avoid being associated with the incident, fearing they might lose their jobs or their children may face discrimination.
“The existence of some 10,000 affected fishermen vanished somewhere along the way,” Kikima said.
Seeing how the impact of the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests was trivialized in Japan, Kikima said he is worried the Fukushima crisis might also be treated similarly if the public becomes complacent as time passes.
“Like in the Bikini incident, I think many Fukushima people are not aware of how radioactive material actually fell on them, leaving them to wonder whether they were really exposed or not. . . . And if you see your family doing fine five years after the accident, people may gradually pay less attention to possible future problems,” he said.
A U.N. scientific committee on radiation effects said in its 2013 report that the general public’s exposure to radioactive fallout, including the dose received during the first year of the Fukushima disaster and the amount estimated over a lifetime, was “generally low” and that “no discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public or their descendants.”
But Kikima said it was important for disaster-affected residents to continue to undergo health studies, including thyroid gland checks, because epidemiological statistics were key to proving causal links between exposure and diseases that develop down the road.
“I do not mean to fan fear . . . but when I go to Fukushima I tell people to be aware that they bear some sort of risks throughout their life now, and no one can tell whether (adverse impacts) will show up or not. . . . So I call on them to face up to the radiation effects, rather than turning their back (to) them, or keeping their mouths shut,” Kikima said.
Yamashita, meanwhile, said there was hope that the ongoing moves to highlight the broader consequences of the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests may serve as a wake-up call with regard to the Fukushima situation.
“A family member of a deceased former ship crew member (who applied for workers’ compensation) said this is also a fight to show people in Fukushima that they should do what they can now so as not to allow the state to obscure the situation,” he said.