Hiroshima was nothing. Nine years later on March 1, 1954, there occurred at Bikini atoll in the Marshall Islands an atomic blast equivalent to 1,000 Hiroshimas.

THE DAY THE SUN ROSE IN THE WEST: Bikini, The Lucky Dragon, and I, by Matashichi Oishi. University of Hawaii Press, 2011, 165 pp., $18 (paper)

Matashichi Oishi, on a fishing boat 150 or so km away, saw, to his astonishment, “flaming sunset colors.” A fellow crewman, equally bewildered, burst out, “The sun rose in the West.” The ensuing silence must have been eerie, for the roar of the blast sounded only much later. Then came the “death ash.” But they only called it that in retrospect. At the time it was merely ash, oddly like snow. “We had no sense that it was dangerous. It wasn’t hot, it had no odor. I took a lick; it was gritty but had no taste.”

The U.S. hydrogen bomb tests in the Marshalls are the forgotten atrocities of the atomic age. There were 67 of them altogether, spanning the years 1952 to 1958. Total up all the megatonnage and you get the equivalent of one Hiroshima every day for 19 years. They left several of the islands uninhabitable for generations to come, and cancer rates elsewhere in the archipelago remain high. Residents nearest the test sites were persuaded to leave. U.S. officials told them their land “was needed for a project that would benefit mankind.” In that case, said a local leader, “my people will be pleased to go elsewhere.”

The Lucky Dragon (the Fukuryu Maru No. 5) was most unlucky. On Jan. 22, 1954 it sailed from its home port in Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, bound for tuna grounds in the South Pacific. Dogged by storms, “strange currents” and poor catches, the crew changed course, proceeding further south than planned, to the calm seas around the Marshalls. It was known that a certain area in the vicinity had been declared off-limits, but the restricted zone was clearly marked on their maps, and they were well outside it.

Oishi, born in 1934, had been left at age 11 the mainstay of a family shattered by the war. He took to sea, learning the ropes as a boy among “veterans back from the war and all kinds of rough fellows.” By 1954 he was an experienced fisherman, but his experience was no preparation for what the Lucky Dragon encountered in the early morning of March 1.

“It’s unreasonable to make such a big deal over the death of a fisherman,” said Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb and architect of the Marshall Island tests. This reminds us that individuals count as naught when great nations, even free ones, forge policy. In 1954 the Cold War was deepening. Communism, the evil invoked to justify all evil, was spreading. The Soviet Union exploded a hydrogen bomb before the U.S. did. It developed commercial nuclear power before the U.S. did. The U.S. was playing desperate catch-up. Actually not one but 11 Lucky Dragon fishermen, nearly half the 23-man crew, died over time of radiation sickness — a detail not likely to have checked Teller’s shrug.

The crew returned to Yaizu suffering symptoms familiar from Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a decade before. Their first instinct was to keep quiet. They had perhaps stumbled on some U.S. military secret. Speaking out could get them in trouble. But a doctor who checked them diagnosed radiation sickness; the story leaked; mass panic broke out as contaminated fish was found to have been sold and consumed; a U.S. Congressman said the fishermen may have been spies and the Japanese government, its alliance with the U.S. all it had to cling to as it rose from the ashes of war and the trauma of occupation, wasn’t about to go out on a limb in defense of a few unfortunate fishermen.

This, in brief, is Oishi’s story. Few readers in this haunted year 2011 will miss the echoes that make Bikini and its aftermath eerily contemporary. Irradiated humans, irradiated food, haphazardly revised safety standards (in December 1954 the Japanese government abruptly “raised the radiation level for designating fish not fit for consumption to 500 counts from 100”); spin-obsessed governments unable to get its facts straight or coherently assess the seriousness of the situation (“The 23 fishermen will recover in a few weeks, a month at most,” said an American medical official) — we’re living it today, as Oishi and his generation lived it nearly 60 years ago.

Wracked by ailments, frequently hospitalized, his first child stillborn and deformed, Oishi moved to Tokyo in pursuit of anonymity, and opened a laundry. No activist by temperament, he became one, he explains, in 1983 when a junior high school invited him to speak and “wouldn’t take no” for an answer. “I’ll never be a good speaker,” he says, but few people have a better or more timely story to tell.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.