By RYAN MASAAKI YOKOTA
I remember quite vividly when I first saw the news of the 2011 earthquake that hit the Tōhoku region, and like most of the world I watched in horror at the destructive force of the tsunami that swept away whole regions of the Japanese coast. My first thoughts went to my relatives in Fukushima City some distance away who I had been able to reconnect with just that previous year.
And yet when the news came of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant meltdown, I was struck with an even deeper sense of sorrow, arising out of my outrage that once again, on Japanese soil, a new generation of “hibakusha” had been born.
It may be surprising to many people that there are in fact two major categories of “hibakusha” and this is a subtlety that is not captured in the English use of the word. Typically when one hears the word “hibakusha,” one thinks of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II and those people, such as my own paternal grandparents, that survived the nuclear bomb blasts.
However, when written in Japanese kanji, slightly different combinations are used depending on whether one is a survivor of nuclear weapon blasts (被爆者) or whether one is a survivor of exposure to nuclear radiation (被曝者). I think that it is important for us to bear this distinction in mind so that we can begin to open up our definition to be more inclusive of survivors of the effects of both nuclear weapons and nuclear radiation.
In terms of the survivors of the nuclear weapons blasts (被爆者), aside from the many survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and who live in Japan, it is important for us to recognize the additional hibakusha that live around the world, especially the many that live in places like the U.S. and South Korea. Koreans in particular, some of whom were brought to Japan as wartime laborers, have often been excluded from popular depictions of survivor literature.
Additionally, there are also the hibakusha that had been exposed to nuclear radiation from nuclear bomb testing, especially in places such as the Marshall Islands, where whole communities were used as unwitting test subjects for studies of nuclear radiation effects and were forcibly relocated from their indigenous lands. As a corollary to the nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands were the unfortunate Japanese crewmembers of the Lucky Dragon No. 5 tuna fishing boat, who were unexpectedly caught in thermonuclear bomb testing in 1954.
In the U.S. there are also many cases involving U.S. service members who were exposed to nuclear bomb tests without being fully informed of the possible effects. And there are also the many “downwinders” in places like the Nevada Test Site and Hanford, Washington who had been exposed to drifting nuclear radiation during nuclear weapons manufacturing and testing from the 1940s through the 1960s. These downwinders have received scant recognition from the general public and negligible compensation for the continuing health effects that they suffered.
Yet in terms of the second definition of the term “hibakusha,” referring to the survivors of exposure to nuclear radiation (被曝者), there are also numerous other examples. The first and often most ignored were those people impacted by the uranium mining that produced the fuel for both nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants in the first place. Prominent examples were cases involving the Navajo people living in the American Southwest, many of whom continue to experience lingering after-effects of air, soil, and water contamination.
Higher-profile cases, involving meltdowns at the nuclear power plants at Three Mile Island in 1979 and at Chernobyl in 1986 showed the truth to the fallacy that nuclear power plants were a safe, clean method of generating energy. And now, following the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, a new generation of hibakusha has been created out of those people in the Tōhoku region who have found that their air, lands, and fisheries have been contaminated by nuclear radiation.
This dire situation has yet to fully unfold, as news of unreported leaks continues to come to light. It is hard to tell when we will be able to fully understand the scale of the radioactive contamination that occurred.
Previously, in Japan and around the world, the slogan of “No More Hibakusha!” has been used as a rallying cry to bring attention to the insanity of nuclear weapons and the threat of mutually assured destruction that defined the post-World War II present. Since the end of the Cold War, such issues have tended to fall to the background and the focus has shifted from arms control between the U.S. and Russia towards non-proliferation.
And yet, as the historical pattern of nuclear power plant meltdowns demonstrate, it seems that in the midst of declaring our continued opposition to nuclear weapons, we should expand our demands to include both sides of the definition of “hibakusha” in our appeals. The inability of energy companies to produce completely fail-safe nuclear power plants, coupled with the impacts of both the mining of radioactive fuels and the severe inadequacies of radioactive waste disposal policies, have shown that nuclear power is not the promised solution to our energy needs. In fact, the problems that nuclear power creates are measurable in radioactive half-lives sometimes of tens of thousands of years, the scale of which few of us can measure.
In sum, we must expand our appeal of “No More Hibakusha!” to not only be more comprehensive in our approach to nuclear weapons, but also to oppose nuclear power plants and the hibakusha that they continue to create. It is my opinion that the very future of our standing as a human race depends on how we address these critical questions today.
Ryan Masaaki Yokota is a Yonsei/Shin-Nisei Nikkei of Japanese and Okinawan descent who is a current Ph.D. candidate in Japanese history at the University of Chicago. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.