Tokyo H-bomb fallout museum turns 40, keeps alive memory of Bikini Atoll test

by Miya Tanaka


A Tokyo museum housing a tuna boat that was coated with radioactive fallout from an American hydrogen bomb test in 1954 is fighting quietly to remind people about the horror of nuclear weapons.

Crew members of the Fukuryu Maru No. 5 who sickened and died are memorialized at the museum, which marks its 40th anniversary on Friday.

Only five of the 23 former crew members are still alive, and 82-year-old Matashichi Oishi, who has been the most active in recounting what happened, is now frail.

“We’re really running out of time,” said Mari Ichida, 48. Ichida is one of the curators of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall. She has in recent years worked closely with Oishi to help him deliver his messages to schools and other audiences.

The boat was fishing for tuna about 160 km east of where the United States detonated a hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands on March 1, 1954. The bomb was 1,000 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima.

Showered with radioactive fallout, the crew suffered acute radiation poisoning and one of them died six months later. The incident triggered a surge of anti-nuclear sentiment in Japan.

Oishi moved to Tokyo from Shizuoka Prefecture after the incident and started a laundry business, hoping that in the crowded capital he would be able to hide his past as someone exposed to radiation. Stigma ran strong in society at that time.

But dismayed at the birth of his first child stillborn and deformed — which he attributes to radiation exposure — and seeing former crew members die in their 40s and 50s, he refused to stay silent.

“Someone has to speak, or otherwise it will just be forgotten as if nothing happened,” Oishi told a peace study event in Tokyo in March. He has told his story to audiences over 700 times.

As one of Oishi’s closest supporters, Ichida has been urging others to help keep his memories alive.

“Anyone who has gained firsthand experience of this incident — either by listening to Mr. Oishi or coming to the museum to see the boat — is qualified to pass on the stories,” Ichida said in a recent interview.

A native of Hokkaido, Ichida visited Hiroshima in her mid-20s. It proved to be transformative, as a resident she met there made her recognize the consequences of the atomic bombing, which had killed an estimated 140,000 in Hiroshima by the end of 1945.

“I was told that the death of 100,000 people meant 100,000 different lives that were supposed to have been lived. . . . I was so shocked to hear that and realized my ignorance on this issue,” Ichida said.

Ichida began examining photographs and the written accounts of survivors. She worked on the 1997 publication of a photo collection that showed victims of nuclear tests and atomic power around the world.

In 2001, she began working at the museum, which is run by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

Ichida is now one of the three members of the secretariat. Her duties include writing newsletters and sorting out documents.

In 2012, when Oishi suffered a stroke and lost his speech for a period, it sharpened Ichida’s sense of responsibility.

“I decided to accept my fate at that point. . . . I prefer doing background work, and speaking in front of others really steps out of my character, but I thought, ‘If he cannot speak, who else can speak but me?’ “

Oishi was half paralyzed by the stroke but underwent rehabilitation and resumed lecturing in January 2013. Ichida has often assisted him, with briefings on the incident and supplementary explanations.

Ichida said her words might not be as powerful as those of Oishi, but she hopes to play a part in spreading his stories through her “own filter,” such as by touching on how the Bikini nuclear test not only affected Japanese fishermen but the people of the Marshall Islands.

Kazuya Yasuda, 63, chief of the secretariat, said visitors showed stronger interest in the exhibition following the triple meltdowns in 2011 at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

However, visitor numbers hit a high of 300,000 in fiscal 1992 and are now just a third of that.

Ichida says the museum needs more documents in English and other languages to attract foreign visitors.

She also hopes to encourage Oishi to continue speaking, even to only small gatherings, although recently he was hospitalized with a lumbar compression fracture.

On May 27, when U.S. President Barack Obama made his historic visit to Hiroshima, Ichida was telling a group of students at the museum that mere words by a national leader will not change the world.

“Anyone can say this phrase: ‘Toward a nuclear-free world.’ But it’s me and all of you who actually have to work to create a world free of nuclear weapons,” she said.

Coronavirus banner