’70s activist foresaw nuclear disaster

Alarm fueled by daughter's fears of cross-border radiation fallout



When the late Shizuko Sakata started distributing the newsletters she wrote in Nagano Prefecture more than 30 years ago to campaign against nuclear power, her daughter, Masako, was not fully supportive.

“I thought her doubts over nuclear power plant safety might have been fair, but I had more belief in comments by scientists saying that safety issues had been sufficiently examined,” said Masako Sakata, 63.

But amid the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, she recently reread the newsletters, called “Please Listen,” and realized that the fears of her mother, who died in 1998 at age 74, had actually come true.

Since issuing the first newsletter in May 1977, Sakata had warned about the danger of radioactive contamination affecting nuclear plant workers and people living in the vicinity of plants, as well as the risks for later generations and the environment. She also pointed out the dangers involved in reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.

In a Sept. 18, 1979, newsletter she asked people to carefully question the authorities’ policy, writing, “The government policy to promote nuclear generation in a high-handed manner by ignoring public concerns looks identical to that when Japan rushed into the Pacific War.

“In those days, people were involved in the war without being informed of anything, and they were hurt themselves while hurting people in other countries,” she wrote.

Tamotsu Muraishi, an editor at Nagano-based publisher Office Emu, has also been impressed with Sakata’s foresight.

“She predicted the current situation in Japan decades ago,” he said. “As a publisher, I wanted to hand down her writings to the next generation.”

To do so, Muraishi reprinted some of the newsletters and articles Sakata contributed to a local newspaper in a recently published book, also titled “Please Listen,” which “has sold well through word of mouth,” he said.

Sakata was involved in managing a family-run pharmacy in the Nagano town of Suzaka, a prefecture without nuclear plants. Her interest in the dangers of nuclear power developed after receiving a letter from her oldest daughter, Yuko, in February 1977.

Her daughter, who is now 65 and lives with her British husband on an island in the English Channel, informed her mother of rising local concerns over radioactive pollution from a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant on the French side of the channel, at Cap de la Hague.

The daughter’s second child had been born in 1976 with severe disabilities and died just a few hours after birth, although it remained unclear whether the child’s ailments were connected with the French reprocessing plant.

The letter made Sakata worry about the fate of her daughter’s first child, then a 3-year-old boy. She started collecting books and literature about nuclear energy and devoted herself to warning of the risks of nuclear energy through the newsletter.

“Whenever I visited my mother, I found her bookshelves expanding with nuclear-related documents,” said Masako Sakata, her second daughter.

In the first issue, May 29, 1977, Sakata wrote: “Who will take responsibility for the accumulating radioactive waste? How can our descendents live with such an evil legacy? We need to think about it right away so we will not make our children and grandchildren lament.”

Takako Hondo in the city of Nagano was involved with Sakata in a fundraising campaign for victims of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, as well as campaigns to collect signatures opposing nuclear power.

“Ms. Sakata talked to passersby on the street, saying: ‘Do you have a minute? Could you listen to me?’ And she politely and seriously explained her points to them,” Hondo, 66, said. “Thanks to her inspiration, our monthly workshop on nuclear plants and renewable energies still continues even after her death.”

On the Chernobyl catastrophe, Sakata noted in July 1986, “We must take it seriously as the last warning about the arrogance of human beings.”

Masako Sakata is now a documentary film maker who has focused on the damage caused by Agent Orange sprayed by the U.S. during the Vietnam War.

Her latest film, “Living the Silent Spring,” which will be released soon, shows that the damage caused by the chemical agent has spread not only among the Vietnamese but also to U.S. Vietnam veterans and to their children and grandchildren.

“It is a surprise to me that what I’m doing now overlaps with what my mother started more than 30 years ago, although I am focusing on the chemical agent while she focused on radiation,” Masako Sakata said.

In her latest film project, she aims to cover the areas affected by the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

In a letter dated Dec. 22, 1979, her mother wrote that a plan to build a nuclear reprocessing plant “is a very important future issue for the people of Japan, (and) we need to make efforts to look carefully at what is less visible.”

“After all,” Masako Sakata said, “I’m trying to see, as my mother was, what is being hidden from public attention.”

On Jan. 20, 1979, Sakata noted: “I sometimes feel a sense of powerlessness when seeing the rush to build nuclear power plants, but I think to myself, ‘Even ants can defeat an elephant if they are brought together.’ We can change history if we can have a strong common will.”

“I hope many ants in this society will reach for this book,” Masako Sakata said.

The 254-page book, called “Please Listen,” is priced at ¥1,365. Call Office Emu at (026) 237-8100, or send an email to order@o-emu.net