After years of silence, a Japanese former fisherman exposed to radiation during the 1954 U.S. hydrogen bomb test on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific has written a book that tells his own story of that almost forgotten incident.
“I can’t avoid writing about it, now that half of my fellow crew members have quietly passed away because of exposure to radiation,” said Matashichi Oishi, one of 23 former crew members of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5), which was showered with radioactive ash in the wake of the test.
“The incident has been forgotten all too soon,” Oishi said. “I feel very sorry for them because their miserable deaths were largely ignored by society.”
Oishi, 69, was among the first people to be accidentally exposed to radioactive fallout from a nuclear weapon and made up his mind to write his book ahead of the 50th anniversary of the bomb test.
He said it was also important for him to put his experiences in writing so that younger generations could hear the truth from someone who was actually on the boat.
On March 1, 1954, Oishi, then 20, and fellow crew members aboard the wooden trawler were showered by a cloud of radioactive ash while tuna fishing 160 km east of the thermonuclear bomb test site on Bikini Atoll.
“A light like a lurid sunset suddenly appeared in complete darkness. Then white ash continued to fall for several hours. I did not know what was going on,” Oishi said, adding that he has never forgotten the sight.
It was later confirmed that not only were the Fukuryu Maru and its crew contaminated by ash but also the tuna they brought back to Japan and fish caught by many other ships in the area.
The ship, from Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, is believed to have been in international waters about 60 km outside the prohibited zone, but the crew had no knowledge that the bomb — code-named “Bravo” — would be detonated in the predawn hours of that day, a bomb 1,000 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
Six months after Bikini Atoll, radio operator Aikichi Kuboyama became the world’s first hydrogen bomb victim. His death marked the effective start of Japan’s antinuclear movement, leading to the first world conference on atomic weapons in Hiroshima in August 1955.
But when Oishi and the others were released from a Tokyo hospital in May of that year, they felt they never wanted to be in the public spotlight again.
“We believed that saying we had been bombed would not bring us any long-term benefit,” he said. of being branded as a victim of radiation from then on, we wanted to start a new life.
“To protect our lives and families from social discrimination against bomb survivors, we had no choice but to maintain a distance from the incident,” he said.
He also said that the then-whopping $2 million the U.S. offered each crew member as a gesture of sympathy stirred envy among local people.
Oishi, who wanted to remain incognito, finally left Yaizu for Tokyo in November 1955. For the next 30 years, he maintained his silence.
Unlike atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the government has not recognized the 23 fishermen as victims of a nuclear bomb and has continued to exclude them from relief measures under a domestic law.
The number of publications about Bikini Atoll is also incomparably smaller than those that deal with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were also not written by people who were on the ship, and the majority only cover the short period between when the blast took place and when a political settlement was reached in January 1955.
Oishi’s book — “The Truth of the Bikini Incident,” grecently published by Misuzu Shobo Publishing Co. — sheds light on both his personal history and developments since the political settlement. At 263 pages, it is rich in detail and also reproduces diplomatic documents showing how Japan and the U.S. dealt with the incident tactically in the context of the Cold War.
“My anger is not only directed at the U.S. but also at the Japanese government,” Oishi said. “I really detested the U.S. when I was exposed to the bomb’s radiation. But that doesn’t mean that I hate the American people.
“What has irritated me more all these years is the way I and my fellow crew members were neglected by the Japanese government in its handling of the incident,” he said. “Japanese authorities did their best to go hand-in-hand with U.S. officials to hush up the incident and maintain cordial relations with Washington.”
Oishi, who runs a laundry at his home in Tokyo’s Ota Ward, started jotting down notes for the book about five years ago while still working at his business.
He said he came to feel he had to write a book that would give a comprehensive overview of the incident, particularly after he had begun to give talks to schoolchildren. The more he spoke about the incident, the more he realized people knew almost nothing about it.
“Children, of course, did not know anything. But their parents and teachers were also not so familiar with the incident,” he said.
After being treated successfully for liver cancer in 1993, Oishi started to feel he had a mission to pass down as much knowledge as possible about the incident to future generations, given that many of the crew members could not now talk about their experiences.