CHICAGO – I remember quite vividly the televised news of the 2011 earthquake that hit the Tohoku region. Like most of the world, I watched in horror at the destructive force of the tsunami that swept away whole regions of the Japanese coast.
My first thoughts went to relatives in Fukushima City some distance away, whom I had been able to reconnect with just the previous year. Yet, when news came of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant’s reactor meltdowns, I was struck with an even deeper sense of sorrow arising from personal outrage that, once again on Japanese soil, a new generation of hibakusha had been born.
It may be surprising to many people that there are in fact two major categories of “hibakusha” and this is a subtlety that is not captured in the English use of the word. Typically when one hears the word hibakusha in English, one thinks of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II and those people, such as my own paternal grandparents, who survived the nuclear bomb blasts.
However, when written in kanji, slightly different combinations are used depending on whether one is a survivor of nuclear weapon blasts or whether one is a survivor of exposure to nuclear radiation. I think that it is important for us to bear this distinction in mind so that we can begin to open up our definition to be more inclusive of survivors of the effects of both nuclear weapons and nuclear radiation.
In addition to the survivors of the nuclear weapons blasts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who live in Japan, it is also important for us to recognize the hibakusha who live around the world, especially the many who live in places like the United States and South Korea. Koreans in particular, some of whom were brought to Japan as wartime laborers, have often been excluded from popular depictions of survivor literature.
There are also the hibakusha who had been exposed to nuclear radiation from nuclear bomb testing, especially in places such as the Marshall Islands, where whole communities were used as unwitting test subjects for studies of nuclear radiation effects and were forcibly relocated from their indigenous lands.
A corollary to the nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands was the unfortunate Japanese crew members of the Lucky Dragon (Fukuryu Maru) No. 5 tuna fishing boat who unexpectedly got caught in the test of a thermonuclear bomb in 1954 and exposed to nuclear fallout.
In the U.S., there are also many cases involving U.S. service members who were exposed to nuclear bomb tests without being fully informed of the possible effects. Added to this number are the many “downwinders” in places like the Nevada Test Site and Hanford, Washington, who had been exposed to drifting nuclear radiation during nuclear weapons manufacturing and testing from the 1940s through the 1960s.
These downwinders have received scant recognition from the general public and negligible compensation for the continuing health effects that they suffered.
Yet, as for the second definition of the term “hibakusha,” referring to survivors of exposure to nuclear radiation, there are also numerous other examples. The first and often most ignored were those people impacted by the uranium mining that produced both the ingredients for nuclear weapons and the fuel for nuclear power plants. Prominent examples were cases involving the Navajo people living in the American Southwest, many of whom continue to experience lingering aftereffects of air, soil and water contamination.
Higher-profile cases, involving meltdowns at the nuclear power plants at Three Mile Island in 1979 and at Chernobyl in 1986 showed the truth to the fallacy that nuclear power plants were a safe, clean method of generating energy. And now, following the meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, a new generation of hibakusha has been created out of those people in the Tohoku region who have found that their air, lands and fisheries have been contaminated by nuclear radiation. This dire situation has yet to fully unfold, as news of unreported leaks continues to come to light. It is hard to tell when we will be able to fully understand the scale of the radioactive contamination that occurred.
Previously, in Japan and around the world, the slogan of “No More Hibakusha!” has been used as a rallying cry to bring attention to the insanity of nuclear weapons and the threat of mutually assured destruction that defined the postwar present. Since the end of the Cold War such issues have tended to fall to the background and the focus has shifted from arms control between the U.S. and Russia towards nonproliferation.
And yet, as the historical pattern of nuclear power plant meltdowns demonstrates, it seems that in the midst of declaring our continued opposition to nuclear weapons, we should expand our demands to include both sides of the definition of hibakusha in our appeals.
The inability of energy companies to produce completely fail-safe nuclear power plants, coupled with the impacts of both the mining of radioactive fuels and the severe inadequacies of radioactive waste disposal policies, has shown that nuclear power is not the promised solution to our energy needs. In fact, the problems that nuclear power creates are measurable in radioactive half-lives sometimes of tens of thousands of years, a scale of measure that few of us really comprehend.
In sum, we must make our “No More Hibakusha!” appeal more comprehensive in our approach not only to nuclear weapons but also to our opposition to nuclear power plants, which continue to create new hibakusha. It is my opinion that the very future of our standing as a human race depends on how we address these critical questions today.
Ryan Masaaki Yokota is a Japanese/Okinawan American who is a current Ph.D. candidate in Japanese history at the University of Chicago.