Fukushima Rising: Deconstructing the Narrative of the 3/11 Nuclear Disaster



My memory of March 11, 2011 is slowly fading. What I remember is this: It was midafternoon, we were nearing the end of the school day when I heard cracking sounds. Then, the rumbling crescendo of the earth. The violent rattling of doors and lockers in the hallway. My hands gripping the legs of a chair.

In northeastern Japan, the 9.1-magnitude earthquake — one of the most powerful ever recorded — triggered a tsunami that, together, claimed the lives of over 15,000 people. Within days, a triple nuclear meltdown was reported at the Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima, where the 15-meter tsunami had disabled the cooling system of three nuclear reactors, setting off a chain of hydrogen explosions. The government ordered more than 160,000 residents in the plant’s vicinity to evacuate, exacerbating the already dire situation of survivors: millions were left without water and electricity, sleeping on the floors of school gymnasiums and inside cars in near-freezing temperatures.

At the time, I was living in Tokyo, some 350 kilometers south of the epicenter of the earthquake. As a teenager, I witnessed the city I grew up in, a place I had always known to be “too big to fail,” fail: trains stopped, airports closed, roads clogged, networks crashed. We woke up to aftershocks in the middle of the night, spent our days watching aerial footage of white smoke rising from the nuclear reactors. If there was any fear, it was muted by the surreality of what was happening on the screen.

Six years later, the disaster is becoming less and less real for those of us who have the luxury of forgetting. The historic anti-nuclear protests that once saw hundreds of thousands of people gather in front of the Prime Minister’s residence every week have subsided as the collective focus shifts from the disaster in our backyard to the new, external threat of North Korea’s nuclear missile program. The nuclear fallout rarely enters our thoughts, much less our conversations, and if it does, it is in measured tones as to not disrupt our return to normalcy. 

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Plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the Japanese government and TEPCO in front of the Fukushima District Court on October 10, 2017. / Photograph by Lisa Torio.

At this year’s memorial ceremony marking the sixth anniversary of the earthquake, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made no direct mention of the nuclear accident in Fukushima. It was a marked omission compared to his previous speeches; instead, he described the recovery efforts as having entered a “new stage.” “In the past, our nation has suffered countless disasters, but overcame them each time,” Abe said in his address. “We will continue to move forward.” But one need only look at the headlines to find a nation in denial. Six years on, clean-up efforts have continued to flounder: in February 2017, radiation levels inside one of the containment vessels at the Daiichi nuclear power plant reached its highest since the disaster. The situation has become so desperate that in July, the chairman of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) announced plans to dump contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean. The more we pay attention, the more concrete the contours of our false reality become.

Re-construction ///

In Rikuzentakata, a coastal city in Iwate prefecture, rows of prefabricated housing units line the schoolyard at the local middle school. The box-like structures, with their cream-colored walls and folded plate roofs, provide shelter for some 60 families that are waiting to be rehoused after losing their homes in the tsunami. In affected areas along the northeastern coast, such housing units have become near-permanent fixtures since the disaster. Residents of these homes are mostly elderly, many of whom suffer from what’s been dubbed “Kasetsu-byou” or “temporary housing illness.” Cases of headaches, stomachaches, tinnitus, depression and chronic insomnia have been reported among residents across the board, stemming from the perpetual uncertainty that hangs about the confined quarters. Delays in construction and re-housing efforts keep evacuees in limbo, with some 35,000 people still living in temporary homes. “My body can’t take it anymore,” a 73 year-old resident in Rikuzentakata told an NHK reporter. “I want to get out.”

In Fukushima, the situation of survivors is complicated further by the ongoing nuclear disaster in the coastal towns of Okuma and Futaba. While some residents in nearby towns have chosen to stay, many have remained due to lack of money. And even for those who have fled Fukushima after the nuclear meltdown, life beyond temporary housing seems to offer little refuge. Nearly two-thirds of Fukushima evacuees say they have faced discrimination after moving to another prefecture, and bullying against child evacuees are surfacing at alarming rates across the country. As of June 2017, the government has recognized the deaths of 3,591 people — many of them suicides — as related to stress from displacement. Survivors say the number is just the tip of the iceberg.

The ambiguity arising from the scarcity of reliable, official data has not only fueled discrimination, but continued to diminish the prospects of returning home for Fukushima’s residents. Although a government-backed researcher initially denied any harmful radiation exposure linked to the 2011 nuclear disaster, the Japanese government has since paid compensation to an employee who developed leukemia after working at the Daiichi nuclear power plant — it was the first case in which the government recognized a link between cancer and radiation. Last summer, a government report found that at least thirty children living in Fukushima were diagnosed with thyroid cancer, though researchers were reluctant to draw any conclusions. And yet, in April, even as fear and doubt linger over the extent of radiation, the Abe administration lifted a new set of evacuation orders in areas previously designated as “no-go-zones” in Fukushima. For the first time in six years, residents were allowed to return to four municipalities surrounding the Daiichi nuclear power plant. In the same stroke, the government also ended a program that provides subsidized housing to evacuees who had fled their homes in areas not designated evacuation zones, an attempt to return them to their hometowns in Fukushima. “This is the first step toward full-fledged reconstruction,” Abe told newly returned residents during his visit to one of the towns. “We will pool our efforts to make the people’s wish come true as soon as possible.”

In July, the government announced that 57,538 people were still displaced from the disaster, down by more than 30,000 from data released last year. It was a significant drop compared to previous years, but in no way was it a sign of “steady progress.” In fact, the majority of evacuees labeled “voluntary” by the government had not returned; in a recent poll by Mainichi newspaper, more than 80 percent of evacuees said they had no intention of returning given that safety is far from guaranteed. Instead, they were simply omitted from the official count, in much the same way as the nuclear accident was omitted from Abe’ speech. Since taking office in 2012, Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has pushed for reviving Japan’s nuclear energy sector that continues to dwindle following the nuclear fallout in Fukushima. Even as powerful business lobbies are beginning to opt for renewables, Abe has stood behind his claim that Japan “cannot do without” nuclear power. But opposition to restarting the nuclear power plants have persisted since the disaster, with more than half of the population still opposed to bringing them back online. Of the 48 nuclear reactors across the country that were shut down following the nuclear meltdown, only five have resumed commercial operation and twenty-four are awaiting restart approvals in court. For the pro-nuclear prime minister, “full-fledged reconstruction” entails, above all else, a reconstruction of narrative. Just as thousands of evacuees are disappeared from the records, the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima must be reduced to a mere footnote in our collective memory for nuclear energy to make a comeback.

A Litany of “Incidents” ///

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0.448 μSv/h means 4mSv/year, which is 4 times more important than the authorized value by the International Commission on Radiological Protection. The sensor measures
radioactivity one meter above the roadside. This figure would increase drastically if measured in the field, in the forest or closer to the ground. / Photograph by Tadashi Ono (2017).

On February 9, 1991, a pipe burst triggered the emergency cooling system of one of the nuclear reactors at the Mihama power plant in the southwestern prefecture of Fukui. While the LDP, in the midst of constructing 16 new nuclear reactors, assured the public that no radiation had escaped, the accident fueled a growing sentiment that nuclear energy was too much of a risk. It didn’t stop there. In December 1995, a major sodium coolant leak in the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor — which produces deadly plutonium — caused a massive fire less than 20 kilometers away from Tsuruga, a city of 68,000 inhabitants. Four years later, in September 1999, a precipitation tank reached a critical mass of uranium at a nuclear fuel processing plant in Tokaimura, Ibaraki, killing two plant workers and exposing more than 600 people to elevated levels of radiation. The list goes on: in August 2004, a steam explosion from a broken pipe killed five workers and severely burned seven others at the Mihama power plant. In June 2007, nuclear reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant in Niigata shut down after an earthquake, releasing 1,200 liters of radioactive water into the ocean.

But these are only the cases we know of; the actual number and frequency of nuclear accidents are shrouded in secrecy. In 2000, a former plant worker at Fukushima’s Daiichi power plant exposed 29 cases in which TEPCO falsified data about the safety of nuclear reactors — since then, the Japanese government has made it even harder for whistleblowers to come forward. Seen as a direct response to the nuclear fallout in 2011, the Abe administration passed a national secrets law in 2013 that introduced jail time for state employees and journalists who disclose “state-designated secrets,” including details surrounding the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima.

“In Japan, there have been many nuclear accidents comparable to Chernobyl and Three Mile Island,” wrote Norio Hirai, a retired foreman who worked at fourteen different nuclear power plants across the country. “But no matter how severe the accident, the government will call it an ‘incident’ every time.” The string of accidents and cover-ups in the 1990s sparked anti-nuclear resistance across the country; in some cases, local residents successfully blocked power companies from building nuclear power plants in their town through protests and referendums. But it was not enough to put the “safety myth” to rest — in a poll conducted in 1999, nearly 70 percent of respondents supported the existence of nuclear power despite the slew of nuclear accidents.

Before he died of lung cancer in 1997, Hirai left a series of memos exposing the ways in which energy companies used “mind control” to make sure plant workers do not question the safety of their work. “Workers are contaminated every day and they don’t even know it,” wrote Hirai, who spent the later years of his life representing radiation-exposed workers and who himself suffered from radiation. “As a plant supervisor, I don’t know how many people I’ve killed.”

The “Safety Myth” ///

The first commercial nuclear reactor in Japan began operation in 1966. The construction of Tokai Power Station, designed by UK’s General Electric Company, marked the beginning of a building boom in Japan’s nuclear industry. In the 1970s and 1980s, dozens of nuclear reactors, designed by U.S. corporations like General Electric and Westinghouse, were built throughout the country by Hitachi, Toshiba and other Japanese companies — and in a span of just twenty years, Japan became the world’s third largest producer of nuclear power. Which brings us to a most perplexing of paradoxes: Japan, a nuclear giant by all means, is also the only country to have ever come under atomic attacks.

Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the U.S. began promoting civilian nuclear power throughout the world in the 1950s. Given that the U.S. controlled uranium supply and nuclear technology, the proliferation of nuclear energy in postwar Japan became a top priority for U.S. political and economic interests. The problem, however, was that the Japanese people were still deeply traumatized by the two atomic bombings that took place less than a decade before, in which upwards of 130,000 civilians were killed instantly in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In Nuclear Tsunami (Lexington Books, 2015), Richard Krooth, Morris Edelson and Hiroshi Fukurai chronicle the series of “carefully orchestrated psychological propaganda campaigns” by U.S. intelligence agencies to promote nuclear energy in postwar Japan:


To lessen or even remove the image of human nuclear devastation from Japanese memories, a massive propaganda campaign undertook to implant the idea that atomic energy could be used for peaceful purposes that would renew Japan’s economic and social vitality.


One of the key players in constructing this narrative was Matsutaro Shoriki, a former police commissioner and owner of the right-wing Yomiuri newspaper. A classified “Class A” war criminal, Shoriki was among the Japanese imperialists released under a U.S. scheme to turn postwar Japan into a “conservative, anti-communist bastion” at the onset of the Cold War. According to Krooth, Edelson and Fukurai, the media magnate — who became the first chairman of the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission in 1956 — worked with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to disseminate pro-nuclear propaganda in the Yomiuri newspaper and the newly established Nippon Television (NTV). “The result was the nationwide adoption of the belief called the ‘safety myth’ (Anzen Shinwa), that the use of nuclear power and energy in Japan was absolutely safe.”

Only a decade after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan signed the Atomic Energy Agreement, which gave the country access to 20 percent enriched uranium and centralized nuclear technology provided by the United States. For Japan’s far-right elites, the tradeoff was that their nation could build their own nuclear program under the guise of America’s “Atoms for Peace” campaign. Eager to regain their prewar military glory, the adoption of nuclear energy presented the possibility of someday developing a nuclear arsenal. That future may not be so far away.

In an attempt to become an “equal partner” in its military alliance with the U.S., the Abe administration has pushed a right-wing, nationalist agenda to revise the pacifist constitution, which has prevented the country from rebuilding its military since WWII. With tensions rising over North Korea’s ballistic missile tests, Abe has upped his rhetoric calling for Japan’s remilitarization in the name of “national security.” It is perhaps no coincidence then that talks of acquiring nuclear weapons have resurfaced in Japan, with some policy makers calling for “opening up” the debate to revising the country’s non-nuclear pledges. Today, the amount of plutonium contained in various facilities across Japan could produce about 1,000 nuclear warheads. In response to North Korea’s nuclear test in 2016, then Vice President Joe Biden warned Chinese officials that Japan could build nuclear weapons “virtually overnight.” Japan’s nuclear energy policy is steeped in Cold War politics, best summed up by former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara in his interview with The Independent three days before the 2011 nuclear disaster: “All our enemies: China, North Korea and Russia — all close neighbors — have nuclear weapons. Is there another country in the world in a similar situation?”

In the same way that “safety” is manufactured, our sense of danger is constructed according to the interests of Japan’s power elites. Since a North Korean missile flew over Japan’s northernmost prefecture in August, the government has pressured municipalities all across the country to carry out “evacuation drills.” Alerts go off from time to time and a familiar sense of dread has returned — school children crouching under wooden desks, people running to designated evacuation centers amid the clamor of sirens, as though we’ve forgotten who it was that dropped the atomic bomb on us.

“Nariwai wo Kaese!” ///

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Hundreds of plaintiffs in the Nariwai lawsuit and their supporters march to the District
Courthouse in Fukushima city on October 10, 2017. / Photograph by Lisa Torio.

On a humidly overcast afternoon in October, hundreds of people carrying flags and placards marched through the streets of Fukushima city, chanting to a steady drum beat as they made their way to the courthouse. They were among the 3,800 plaintiffs in the largest class action lawsuit brought against the Japanese government and TEPCO over the nuclear disaster in 2011. Arriving outside the courthouse, the plaintiffs — some of whom returned to Fukushima that day from different parts of the country where they live as evacuees — packed both sides of the street in front of the building to wait for the court’s decision. Around 2pm, several lawyers came running out of the courthouse. Surrounded by press, they unfurled white banners bearing the words to which the crowd erupted in cheer: “State and TEPCO convicted.” “Victory.”

The landmark ruling by the Fukushima District Court, which ordered the government and the plant operator to pay 4.4 million dollars in damages, was a culmination of a long legal struggle that was begun by 800 plaintiffs and a group of lawyers in 2013. In the course of four years, the Nariwai lawsuit grew into a vibrant anti-nuclear movement, bringing together the people of Fukushima separated by the nuclear disaster. Although the amount of compensation is not nearly enough, the decision, which found both the Japanese government and TEPCO guilty, makes for a crucial precedent in a series of class-action lawsuits filed across the country since 2011. But for those fighting on the frontlines, the long-awaited victory seemed to be a conflicting one. During the press conference following the court’s ruling, a man who evacuated south to Chiba prefecture with his family broke into tears. “My father and mother both died in Chiba,” he said. “It pains me that they were never able to return home.” That day, the conversations outside the courthouse lingered on those not present — friends who left town, the neighbor who committed suicide, grandchildren diagnosed with thyroid cancer. “Those of us who are here and who can speak up, I feel like we’ve been left with a mission,” Shizuko Kotabe, one of the plaintiffs in the case, told me. “We have to tell the world about what happened to our home.”

What was markedly different about the Nariwai lawsuit filed in Fukushima’s district court was that it sought to reframe the nuclear accident as an environmental disaster. The plaintiffs’ demands extended beyond compensation for damages; the lawsuit became the first of its kind to demand the restoration of “nariwai” (“livelihoods”) and the people’s right to live without radiation. “There are no words to describe what it feels like to be told that anything you grow on your land — rice and vegetables — is toxic,” said Ai Kawa, a grandmother who lives in Koriyama, some 70 kilometers west of the Daiichi nuclear power plant. “This pain can only be understood by people who have had their land taken away.”

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Anti-base demonstrators in Okinawa stage a sit-in in Takae village to oppose the
construction of U.S. military helipads in December 2016. / Photograph by Lisa Torio.

In Okinawa, U.S. military bases have rendered parts of Okinawa, the southernmost island of Japan, uninhabitable — chemical leaks from the military bases have partly contaminated the local water source, and highly toxic waste, including defoliant Agent Orange, have been found throughout the Indigenous islands. During the Cold War, the U.S. military kept stockpiles of nuclear weapons on the islands under a secret deal with the Japanese government, unbeknownst to the Okinawan people. As nuclear reactors were being assembled all across the country in the 1960s, the U.S., in tandem with the Japanese government, build more than 80 military facilities across the Japanese peninsula — 76% of which is disproportionately crammed into Okinawa, colonized by Japan in 1879 — to “contain” China Russia and North Korea. “I know their pain all too well,” Ryuuji Fumoto, a 63-year-old Okinawan man I met during one of the anti-base protests in July, said of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. “The root of the problem is the same.”

In the aftermath of WWII, Japan’s rise to becoming a major global power was achieved through Cold War policies that have always comes at the cost of people’s livelihoods. In building a strong, anti-communist ally in the East, the development of postwar Japan became a top priority for U.S. foreign policy — and nowhere is this legacy more apparent than in the stories of the people of Okinawa and Fukushima. Decades of U.S.-Japanese militarism and neoliberal capitalism are expressed as military bases and nuclear power plants with entire economies built around them. What’s perhaps worse is that these structures are maintained by the complicity of those of us watching from a distance.

While the Japanese government and TEPCO prepare to appeal the latest ruling in the Fukushima District Court, similar “sibling” lawsuits against the nuclear energy industry are being fought in courts all over the country. In Okinawa, anti-base demonstrators are staging daily protests against the construction of a new military base in the northern village of Henoko. As is too often the case, the burden of resistance is thrust on the shoulders of those most vulnerable.War, however, has the ability to destroy all that we call home. As Japan edges toward the brink of another war, this time with North Korea, we’re reminded of the interconnectedness of our liberation. “We have a responsibility to leave a better world for our children,” Akiko Morimatsu, an evacuee and a mother of two, said after the ruling. “Protecting the livelihoods of future generations — that’s our path to peace.”