The Taboo of Radiation Exposure in Japan: The Social Effects of Fukushima
10 Dec 2015 – It is understood that radiation is physically harmful to those who are exposed to it. However, it is also harmful on a social level. Those who become exposed to radiation form a new class within society, one that is discriminated against and even feared by many ordinary people. This has certainly been the case with the Fukushima nuclear incident. This discrimination is worsened by the government and mainstream media’s treatment of the incident. This essay will discuss the social effects of the Fukushima incident by comparing it with the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It will also explain how the media play into this discrimination and attempt to understand why Japanese society is reacting in such a way.
From “the A-bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki” came “a new group of human beings – hibakusha, literally ‘A-bombed persons’”. Hibakusha not only had to deal with radiation sickness and other health-related effects of the bomb(s), but they were also subject to much social discrimination. They lost “educational and professional opportunities”, received “discrimination in marriage and in the workplace”, and became “targets of bullying”. Because they could not get work, they also often found themselves in poverty and many lived in hibakusha slums, physically separated from the rest of society. This discrimination was due to their perception as ‘contaminated’. They were seen as unfit to work and as potentially producing deformed children (a worry which the hibakusha themselves had to shoulder, with many too afraid to reproduce). But beyond this, there was the fear that contact with hibakusha would result in contamination, perhaps a natural response due to the “still ‘mysterious’” nature of radiation. Furthermore, due to its ‘invisible’ nature, even those who displayed no signs of radiation poisoning were discriminated against in exactly the same way.
We will see that victims of the Fukushima incident have experienced very similar social effects, despite the difference in time of over 60 years. Many Fukushima victims were forced to leave their homes because of radioactive contamination. In many cases, this may have meant leaving the place where their family has resided for generations, meaning “one’s identity may be deeply connected to the home and the land around the home”. They have lost their connection to their ancestors; they can no longer visit the graves of their loved ones or properly observe rituals such as Obon. They also lose their sense of community, and their ability to participate in community life. With this comes a loss of their way of making a living. “Tohoku is among Japan’s poorest areas, one that has industrialised and urbanised less quickly than has much of Western Japan. It is a region notable for the existence of farms and fishing communities, some already marginal and depopulated before the earthquake and tsunami. Many of the displaced people come from families that have been farming the same land or living in the same community for generations.” Thus, those evacuated from Fukushima have lost the only way they had to make a living. This means they become dependent on state subsidies and are usually placed into temporary housing, which is generally “shoddy and cramped”. However, with no real means to get themselves out, this housing becomes permanent; like the Hiroshima/Nagasaki hibakusha, the victims of Fukushima often live in poverty.
To add to this, Fukushima victims have received social discrimination in their new homes. Children have been bullied at their new schools, and cars with Fukushima license plates have been found scratched or have been denied service at gas stations. The same attitude of fear of contamination (resulting in a desire to separate oneself from the contaminated) that surrounded the Atomic bombings can also be seen here.
The treatment of the Fukushima Incident by the Japanese media compounds the negative impact on Fukushima victims. Just as it was with the atomic bombings – the history of which “is itself the history of U.S. military censorship and propaganda” – an air of secrecy and cover-up has pervaded the media treatment of Fukushima. It took months for the government to evacuate the most at risk area of Fukushima (meaning many would have received a large dose of radiation), claiming they did so to avoid instilling “panic”. They have since refused to discuss radiation, give no information about the harms of radiation, and have even gone so far as to say radiation is healthy. Dr. Shunichi Yamashita ended his public presentation with the conclusion: “a small dose of radiation is good for your health”;
He framed his statements as efforts to support public health, claiming that, ‘The mood of the people was really depressed. From animal experiments with rats we clearly know that animals who are very susceptible to stress will be more affected by radiation. Stress is not good at all for people who are subjected to radiation. Besides, mental-state stress also suppresses the immune system and therefore may promote some cancer and non-cancer diseases. That is why I told people that they also have to relax.’
There is absolutely no negative discussion of radiation exposure in the mainstream media, to the point where journalists risk being fired if they discuss radiation exposure in their articles, and even liberal newspapers refuse to print articles discussing this topic. All this suppression and misinformation creates a great deal of anxiety for the victims of the incident. They cannot be sure to what extent they were exposed to radiation, what effect this radiation will have on them and their children, or how soon these effects will come into play. We know from Chernobyl that psychological distress is a serious effect of nuclear incidents:
In 2006, the UN Chernobyl Forum report concluded that the accident’s most serious public health issue was the adverse effects on mental health, an effect made worse by poor communication about the health risks associated with reported radiation levels.
Furthermore, the victims have surely lost all sense of trust in the government, leading to further uncertainty about the world around them. As Robert Jacobs says: “Left in place while high levels of radioactivity from the three melted nuclear cores exposed them to ever larger doses, are the residents who lived near the plants supposed to comfort themselves that their exposures were done in order ‘not to panic’ people?”
The media also uses the technique of claiming ‘radiophobia’ in order to make it appear that radiation poses no real threat; only an imagined one. This technique frames “any health problems caused by the crisis as the fault of the victims and antinuclear critics”, suggesting that they are suffering from ‘radiophobia’ – essentially, the irrational fear of radiation exposure. By painting this fear as ‘irrational’, it implies that there is no reason to fear radiation, and thus suggests there is nothing wrong. However, this “subtly places blame on the victims of the disaster. It paints disaster victims in a way that portrays them as irrational or hysterical”. They are “dismissed as having [an] undue fear of radiation, and are often told that their health problems are the result of their own anxieties.” Essentially, “their anxieties are belittled”, and this “dismissal of their anxieties by medical and governmental authorities only compounds their anxiety.” This also occurred with victims of the Atomic bombings, whereby their ailments and worries were dismissed as ‘A-bomb neurosis’; an unhealthy “preoccupation with the bomb…that created problems where they did not exist”.
The lack of information provided about radiation exposure by the government and in the media not only creates anxiety among the victims, but it also serves to compound the discrimination they receive. The aforementioned discrimination happens because those unaffected by the incident are afraid of the victims, afraid that they may somehow be contaminated by coming into contact with them. Fear is created by the unknown; it is human to fear what we do not understand. It is because of this that the lack of information creates fear and prevents empathy; it allows the victims to be seen as an ‘other’, creating a social stigma against them.
With the Atomic bombings such a horrible memory in the minds of the Japanese people, it seems strange that Japanese society is reacting to the Fukushima incident in an extremely similar way. So, why is society reacting in such a way? In order to attempt to answer this question, let us break society into two groups: the government/nuclear power companies, and the ordinary Japanese people. The level of intensity with which the former group have tried to diminish the seriousness of the incident and divert blame from themselves – by appealing to public well-being (avoiding panic), ‘radiophobia’, and the supposed harmlessness of radiation – leads to the obvious conclusion that they are acting to protect their own interests. Companies such as TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) wish to continue running so they can continue making money. It appears the government also wants to continue the use of nuclear power. This may be to do with nuclear power’s close relationship to war and military power, due to its association with nuclear weapons. It is no secret that the current government are in favour of restoring Japan’s military status, as evidenced by the recent changes to Article 9, which essentially render it meaningless.
The down-playing of the catastrophe of Fukushima is crucial not only for economic reasons (the issue of the continuing operation of the remaining 54 nuclear power plants); it is also vital for the implementation of the state’s military plans for the future.
In order to keep these plans, it is necessary to make everything feel normal, meaning there will be no questioning of nuclear power or of the government’s policies towards it. Information about radiation exposure would breed more empathy with the victims of Fukushima among the public, thus bringing the issue to a more personal level. This empathy could potentially cause a much larger number of people to become angry at the government and wish for the nuclear power companies to be held responsible. It is to avoid this situation that radiation exposure is intentionally not discussed in mainstream Japanese media.
What about the ordinary Japanese people; what is it that makes many so quick to discriminate against the Fukushima victims? (Here, of course, I am generalising, and I do not intend to imply that each individual Japanese person is discriminatory.) One factor is, of course, the fear created by lack of knowledge, which we have already discussed. Another factor could be the fear of pollution which has a long history within Japanese society. Todeschini discusses how discrimination towards atomic bomb victims played into “a larger system of beliefs about purity and pollution which are highly developed and systemised in Japanese society and rooted in Shinto and Buddhist conceptions”. Because of this way of thinking, A-bomb victims (and the Fukushima victims of today) came to be regarded in a similar way as Burakumin, “who are perceived as ‘impure’ because of their traditional association with ‘defiling’ professions”. Thirdly, there is also an element of the bystander effect, and a ‘not-in-my-backyard’ way of thinking. In order to break past the social stigmas and question the government and nuclear power companies’ actions, people need to start speaking out. But this is an extremely risky and frightening thing to do, especially in light of the treatment journalists may face if they discuss radiation exposure. At the end of the day, people need to make a living, put food on the table and protect their families. Thus, it is much easier to keep your head down and look the other way.
As we have seen, the social effects of the Fukushima nuclear incident are many, including displacement, poverty, depression, anxiety and social discrimination. These effects are all compounded by the media treatment of the incident: lack of information breeds fear and encourages discrimination, victims’ fears are dismissed as irrational, and the actions of the government and nuclear power companies are not questioned because it is made to appear as if everything is fine. The reason for such a reaction can be understood as the government and nuclear power companies protecting their own interests, both economically and militarily. Traditional conceptions of impurity combined with a general by-stander effect within Japanese society, also encourage discrimination and allow the status-quo to be maintained. In this way, we can see that the social effects on Fukushima victims are complex and interwoven, and that their lives have been changed, perhaps irreversibly; “Their lives will be divided into two parts: before and after Fukushima.”
 Maya Todeschini, ‘IIllegitimate Sufferers: A-bomb Victims, Medical Science, and the Government,’ Daedalus 128, no. 2 (1999): 67.
 Ibid., 68.
 Robert Jacobs, ‘Radiation makes people invisible,’ Simply Info: The Fukushima Project, accessed October 16, 2015 http://www.fukuleaks.org/web/?p=12245
 Todeschini, ‘Illegitimate Sufferers,’ 68.
 Ibid., 94.
 Jacobs, ‘Radiation makes people invisible.’
 Robert Jacobs, ‘Social Fallout: Marginalisation After the Fukushima Nuclear Meltdown,’ The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, accessed October 25, 2015 http://japanfocus.org/-Robert-Jacobs/3562/article.html
 Jacobs, ‘Radiation makes people invisible.’
 Jacobs, ‘Social Fallout.’
 Amy Goodman, ‘From Hiroshima to Fukushima: Japan’s Atomic Tragedies,’ Democracy Now!, accessed October 16, 2015 http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2011/8/10/from_hiroshima_to_fukushima_japans_atomic_tragedies
 Robert Jacobs, ‘Fukushima Victimisation,’ DiaNuke.org: Dialogue and Resources on Nuclear, Nature and Society, accessed October 25, 2015 http://www.dianuke.org/fukushima-victimization-2-0/
 ‘Issues of Radioactive Exposure are Considered Taboo on Japanese Media,’ YouTube, accessed October 16, 2015 https://youtu.be/NHtbi1Q4aZ8
 Retry Chhem and Gregory Clancy, ‘From Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Fukushima: Long-term psychological impact of nuclear disasters,’ The Lancet 386, no. 9992 (2015): 405, accessed October 16, 2015, http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(15)61414-3/fulltext
 Jacobs, ‘Social Fallout.’
 Jacobs, ‘Fukushima Victimisation.’
 ‘Radiophobia: A New Game of Blame the Victim,’ Simply Info: The Fukushima Project, accessed October 25, 2015, http://www.fukuleaks.org/web/?p=3566
 Jacobs, ‘Radiation makes people invisible.’
 Todeschini, ‘Illegitimate Sufferers,’ 72.
 Linda Seig and Kiyoshi Takenaka, ‘Japan takes historic step from post-war pacifism, OKs fighting for allies,’ Reuters, U.S. Edition, accessed November 30, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/02/us-japan-defense-idUSKBN0F52S120140702#sR4WqHWUY9YAcp08.99
 ‘From Hiroshima to Fukushima: The political background to the nuclear disaster in Japan (Part Two),’ World Socialist Website, accessed October 16, 2015, https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2011/06/fuku-j24.html
 Todeschini, ‘Illegitimate Sufferers,’ 71.
 Natalia Manzurova quoted in Jacobs, ‘Radiation makes people invisible.’
Chhem, Retry and Gregory Clancy. “From Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Fukushima: Long-term psychological impact of nuclear disasters.” The Lancet 386, no. 9992 (2015): 405-6. Accessed October 16, 2015. http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(15)61414-3/fulltext
Goodman, Amy. “From Hiroshima to Fukushima: Japan’s Atomic Tragedies.” Democracy Now! Accessed October 16, 2015. http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2011/8/10/from_hiroshima_to_fukushima_japans_atomic_tragedies
Jacobs, Robert. ‘Fukushima Victimisation.’ DiaNuke.org: Dialogue and Resources on Nuclear, Nature and Society. Accessed October 25, 2015. http://www.dianuke.org/fukushima-victimization-2-0/
——— ‘Radiation makes people invisible.’ Simply Info: The Fukushima Project. Accessed October 16, 2015. http://www.fukuleaks.org/web/?p=12245
——— ‘Social Fallout: Marginalisation After the Fukushima Nuclear Meltdown.’ The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. Accessed October 25, 2015. http://japanfocus.org/-Robert-Jacobs/3562/article.html
Seig, Linda and Kiyoshi Takenaka. ‘Japan takes historic step from post-war pacifism, OKs fighting for allies.’ Reuters, U.S. Edition. Accessed November 30, 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/02/us-japan-defense-idUSKBN0F52S120140702#sR4WqHWUY9YAcp08.99
Todeschini, Maya. “IIllegitimate Sufferers: A-bomb Victims, Medical Science, and the Government.” Daedalus 128, no. 2 (1999): 67-100.
‘From Hiroshima to Fukushima: The political background to the nuclear disaster in Japan (Part Two).’ World Socialist Website. Accessed October 16, 2015. https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2011/06/fuku-j24.html
‘Issues of Radioactive Exposure are Considered Taboo on Japanese Media.’ YouTube. Accessed October 16, 2015. https://youtu.be/NHtbi1Q4aZ8
‘Radiophobia: A New Game of Blame the Victim.’ Simply Info: The Fukushima Project. Accessed October 25, 2015. http://www.fukuleaks.org/web/?p=3566
Erin O’Flaherty is an undergraduate student majoring in English and Japanese at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Currently she is in a yearlong exchange programme at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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