by Erin O'Flaherty
December 10, 2015
Erin O'Flaherty is a student
from Auckland, New Zealand. She is studying towards a Bachelor of
Arts at the University of Auckland, majoring in English and
Japanese. Currently, however, she is engaged in a year-long exchange
programme in Tokyo, and is studying at Tokyo University of Foreign
Studies. She can be reached at
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
This discrimination is worsened by the
mainstream media's treatment of the incident.
This essay will discuss the social
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.
"the A-bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki" came
"a new group of human beings -
hibakusha, literally 'A-bombed
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.
"educational and professional opportunities"
received "discrimination in
marriage and in the workplace" 
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.
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
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,
"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 industrialized and urbanized 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
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.
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
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
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
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,
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.
"subtly places blame on the victims
of the disaster. It paints disaster victims in a way that
portrays them as irrational or hysterical". 
"dismissed as having [an] undue fear
of radiation, and are often told that their health problems are
the result of their own anxieties."
"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
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
In order to attempt to answer this
question, let us break society into two groups: the
government/nuclear power companies, and the ordinary Japanese
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
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 favor 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
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 generalizing, 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.
Maya Todeschini discusses how discrimination
towards atomic bomb victims played into,
"a larger system of beliefs about
purity and pollution which are highly developed and systemized
in Japanese society and rooted in Shinto and Buddhist
Because of this way of thinking, A-bomb
victims (and the Fukushima victims of today) came to be regarded in
a similar way as
"who are perceived as 'impure'
because of their traditional association with 'defiling'
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,
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
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, 'Illegitimate
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
 Todeschini, 'Illegitimate Sufferers,' 68.
 Ibid., 94.
 Jacobs, 'Radiation makes people invisible.'
 Robert Jacobs, 'Social Fallout: Marginalization After the
Fukushima Nuclear Meltdown,' The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan
Focus, accessed October 25, 2015
 Jacobs, 'Radiation makes people invisible.'
 Jacobs, 'Social Fallout.'
 Amy Goodman, 'From Hiroshima to Fukushima: Japan's Atomic
Tragedies,' Democracy Now!, accessed October 16, 2015
 Robert Jacobs, 'Fukushima Victimization,' DiaNuke.org:
Dialogue and Resources on Nuclear, Nature and Society, accessed
October 25, 2015
 'Issues of Radioactive Exposure are Considered Taboo on
Japanese Media,' YouTube, accessed October 16, 2015
 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,
 Jacobs, 'Social Fallout.'
 Jacobs, 'Fukushima Victimization.'
 'Radiophobia: A New Game of Blame the Victim,' Simply Info:
The Fukushima Project, accessed October 25, 2015,
 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,
 'From Hiroshima to Fukushima: The political background to
the nuclear disaster in Japan (Part Two),' World Socialist
Website, accessed October 16, 2015,
 Todeschini, 'Illegitimate Sufferers,' 71.
 Natalia Manzurova quoted in Jacobs, 'Radiation makes people
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.
Goodman, Amy. "From Hiroshima to
Fukushima: Japan's Atomic Tragedies." Democracy Now!
Accessed October 16, 2015.
Jacobs, Robert. 'Fukushima
Victimization.' DiaNuke.org: Dialogue and Resources on
Nuclear, Nature and Society. Accessed October 25, 2015.
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.
Todeschini, Maya. "Illegitimate
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,
'Issues of Radioactive Exposure
are Considered Taboo on Japanese Media.' YouTube. Accessed
October 16, 2015.
'Radiophobia: A New Game of
Blame the Victim.' Simply Info: The Fukushima Project.
Accessed October 25, 2015.