Japan's Nuclear Half-Century


As news from the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdowns looks more and more ominous, it is worth remembering that much of Japan’s contemporary history has been shaped by nuclear power and debates around its use. This history will frame how Japan responds to its latest nuclear crisis.

The twin US destructions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 brought the end of World War Two and the onset of a half decade where fears of nuclear annihilation haunted much of the globe. In Japan, these fears were particularly stark as the nation struggled to deal with the over 200,000 hibakusha, or victims of the atomic bombings. Hibakusha struggles for recognition, medical care and financial support continued well after 1945.

They were not, however, the only victims of nuclear bombs. 

In 1954, the Lucky Dragon 5 trawler was fishing near the Marshall Islands, outside the potential danger zone for a US nuclear test at the Bikini atoll. The explosion was significantly larger than expected and fallout blew over the vessel, contaminating the 23 crew members and their haul of fish. On their return to Japan, the fishermen were hospitalised, with radio operator Aikichi Kuboyama becoming Japan’s first victim of a hydrogen bomb. On his deathbed he was reported to have said, "I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb." Unfortunately his prayers were not answered: hundreds of Marshall Islanders died or continue to suffer the effects of US testing in the Pacific.

The so-called Lucky Dragon Incident, alongside memories of the atomic bombs of 1945, acted as a catalyst for the emergence of a vibrant anti-nuclear movement in Japan, which continues to this day. This anti-nuclear movement has been spearheaded by regular citizens, who defend the post-war adoption of the Three Non-Nuclear Principles: non-possession, non-production, and non-introduction of nuclear weapons. The maintenance of these principles, alongside a peaceful nuclear energy program, remains highly popular in Japan.

Elected officials, particularly the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have also played prominent roles in these social movements. In some cases, their prominence has led to reactionary responses from the right. Hitoshi Motoshima, who served four terms as mayor of Nagasaski from 1979, was shot by a member of a radical right-wing group in 1990 after making claims about the emperor’s war responsibility. He survived. His successor Itô Itchô was not so lucky: shot and killed by a member of the prominent yakuza gang, Yamaguchi-gumi, in 2007.

Japan’s history of civilian nuclear power generation is also littered with problems, particularly as its large number of nuclear plants ages. Since 1999 there have been several accidents that have marred what was perceived as a safe industry. In 1999 in the town of Tokaimura in northern Ibaraki prefecture, three workers suffered severe radiation exposure as a result of inadequate training and safety measures, with two of them dying. The area around the Tokaimura plant was also evacuated.

Five people also died in an accident at Mihama plant in western Fukui prefecture in 2004, at a site with a long history of problems

The last decade has also revealed serious shortcomings in Japan’s safety, construction and equipment inspection systems. For a period in 2003, TEPCO, a major nuclear operator and the one responsible for the Fukushima plants at risk this week, was forced to shut down all 17 of its reactors for inspections. Investigations revealed potentially serious incidents that had not been reported in 1999 and 1978. 

The risk of earthquake damage to nuclear plants was also highlighted in 2007, when the Niigata Chuetsu-Oki earthquake caused ground acceleration exceeding the design limitations of a major nuclear plant in the region. This was not the first time that the earth’s movement had outpaced design specifications, although in this case, significant damage was caused to the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. The quake prompted a major investigation by the government in conjunction with the International Atomic Energy Association. The initial reports from Fukushima suggest that similar failings may be revealed in the planning and construction of these plants.

There are visible contradictions in Japan about nuclear energy. Mass opposition to nuclear weapons — but mass reliance on nuclear power. Mass support for non-proliferation — but mass ignorance of Japan’s position under the US nuclear umbrella. Even as the extent of the meltdown in Fukushima becomes clear, this catastrophe is simply the latest reminder that nuclear energy is far from safe — particularly in a land at such risk of seismic shock.


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