After the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, much of the foreign press focused on what it dubbed the “Fukushima 50” — a small band of workers whose life-or-death actions prevented a catastrophic meltdown.
KURODAHAN PRESS, Nonfiction.
Author Ryusho Kadota interviewed many of these frontline workers (which he found to number 69, not 50). He also spoke with Fukushima No. 1 plant manager Masao Yoshida, who headed the emergency response team, and former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who took an active — and controversial — role in the government’s reaction to the disaster.
Based on his reporting, Kadota wrote the 2012 nonfiction novel “Shi no Fuchi o Mita Otoko,” published in translation as “On the Brink: The Inside Story of Fukushima Daiichi.” Filled with drama, such as the desperate struggle of workers to open plant vents to avoid radiation-spewing explosions, “On the Brink” has since become a feature film, “Fukushima 50,” that stars Ken Watanabe as Yoshida.
In a recent interview at the Tokyo headquarters of publisher Kadokawa, Kadota says he told the filmmakers to “adapt (the book) freely.”
“In fact, when I first read the script, I told them that there wasn’t enough drama in it,” Kadota says. “I wanted them to add more.”
The film departs from the book most notably in the matter of names: The only character with the name of a real person is Watanabe’s Yoshida.
“The book (in Japanese) is quite long — 400-some pages — and the movie is only two hours, so they made composite characters out of two or three actual people,” Kadota explains. “But Yoshida, I thought, should be Yoshida. And the film as a whole is close to the truth.”
And the truth, as the film graphically illustrates, is that Japan came terrifyingly close to nuclear apocalypse, narrowly averted by the heroic efforts of frontline workers, as well as Yoshida’s decision to ignore orders from officials at Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant’s owner, to stop cooling the reactors with seawater. They were concerned about damage to the reactors, but with nothing else to adequately cool them, Yoshida knew it was either seawater — or a Chernobyl-like disaster.
Domestic media, Kadota says, were less aggressive than their foreign counterparts in ferreting out the facts.
“They didn’t report on what was actually happening,” he says.
Instead, he says, domestic coverage became divided into two camps, with one bashing nuclear power and other supporting it. The bashers, he says, “didn’t know what was going on inside (the plant) — and that motivated me. I knew I had to find out. I’m not in one camp or the other. I believe our mission as journalists is to report the truth, wherever it leads.”
To this end, Kadota spent 16 months interviewing more than 90 subjects. His conclusion: “Japan is what it is today because they were successful in opening the vents in the No. 1 plant. If they hadn’t succeeded, we would be doing this interview in Osaka. You wouldn’t be able to live in eastern Japan — the middle third of the country.”
The reason for that success, Kadota believes, is that workers were willing to risk their lives to save the plant — and their communities.
Some similarities are apparent with the situation in Japan at present, as doctors, nurses and other medical workers are battling the novel coronavirus. The government has come under criticism for its response to the crisis, as had Kan and Tepco in the wake of the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
“I have to write a book about this crisis as well,” Kadota says. “The government’s response has been terrible, just as it was back then.”
He refers to the passengers aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, who became infected in large numbers after government health officials decided to enforce an onboard quarantine.
“I feel sorry for them,” Kadota says. “The way they were treated was problematic to say the least.”
He mentions infectious disease specialist Kentaro Iwata, whose video about his inspection of conditions aboard the Diamond Princess went viral after he posted it online on Feb. 18 (he has since deleted the upload).
“(Iwata) said he wasn’t afraid when he dealt with Ebola in Africa because protective measures there were perfect, but he was deathly afraid aboard the Diamond Princess because it was so chaotic,” Kadota says. “I can totally relate to that.”
But Kadota is most angry, he says, at what he describes as “Japan’s lack of a national security mind-set.”
“Yoshida knew he had to cool the reactors with seawater to protect the lives of the Japanese people and avoid the destruction of eastern Japan,” Kadota says. “But the Prime Minister’s Office didn’t see it that way.” A Tepco adviser to Kan told Yoshida to stop injecting seawater into the reactors, since the prime minister was concerned that seawater might cause the melted fuel rods to resume criticality. Kan later denied interfering with Yoshida’s decision to cool the reactors with seawater.
“We have much the same situation now,” Kadota says. “We have (Prime Minsiter Shinzo) Abe, not someone like Masao Yoshida, as prime minister.
“The prime minister’s most important duty is to protect the citizens of the nation,” Kadota says. “That’s first and foremost. But some people forget that.”
One who does have that sense, Kadota notes, is Masahisa Sato, an outspoken member of the Upper House and a former state minister for foreign affairs.
“He’s been saying from the start of this that Japan should prohibit entry to anyone from China,” Kadota says. “And I’ve been saying it myself.”
Kadota also says Japan needs an equivalent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. government agency in charge of public health.
“They have a staff of 14,000 with a national mission to keep infections from spreading,” he says. “Japan has nothing like it.”
What it does have now, he notes, is a shortage of face masks and other supplies for protection against the coronavirus.
“Yesterday I retweeted a post from a friend who said someone had sneezed on his neck in a crowded train,” Kadota says. “What can you do? You can’t get rid of the crowded trains and you can’t find masks anywhere in the city. So people are on crowded trains, morning after morning.
“Doesn’t all this make you angry?” he asks. I tell him it does.
However, the big takeaway from “On the Brink” is not that Japanese officialdom has an enraging habit of bumbling in major disasters; it’s that heroes do exist here and can make a huge, life-saving difference, especially if officialdom supports them rather than stymies them. Kadota has yet to find many heroes in the current crisis, but he’s only just begun.
“Fukushima 50,” the film adaptation of Ryusho Kadota’s “On the Brink,” was released in Japan on March 6.