03.26.11

The Human Fallout for Japan

The nuclear crisis has rallied a weary nation, but also risks spurring discrimination against the contaminated. Peter Wynn Kirby on the test the disaster poses for Japanese society.

The nuclear crisis has rallied a weary nation, but also risks spurring discrimination against the contaminated. Peter Wynn Kirby on the test the disaster poses for Japanese society.  Plus, full coverage of Japan.

Forests are nothing if not resilient. Whatever happens at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in the coming weeks, no matter how tragic the challenging rescue operation in the aftermath of the colossal Tohoku earthquake and tsunami becomes, the vast woodlands of Japan will burst into flower more or less like last year. Along with Japan’s famous cherry blossoms, tracts of industrial cedar—planted decades ago for use in construction and then abandoned in favor of far cheaper timber imports—will release pollen that causes hay fever across the nation. But this year, the minor affliction will combine with a severe recurrence of Japan’s “nuclear allergy.”  

In the wake of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese often proclaimed their society to be “allergic” to nuclear technology—particularly nuclear weapons. What has been far less acknowledged in Japan is a persistent pattern of discrimination against those deemed “contaminated” (including atomic-bomb survivors, descendants of the customary “untouchable” outcaste, certain foreigners, and other stigmatized groups). One potentially explosive question in the aftermath of the tsunami and nuclear crisis is whether the shock of the disaster will continue to encourage cohesion and altruism—or whether, in time, the taint of radiation will lead to exclusion in a society fixated on purity.  

First, though, the energy question. The story of how Japan fueled its dramatic rise from the irradiated rubble of defeat in 1945 into an economic powerhouse with a sprawling nuclear power industry is a nuclear fable that can help frame the challenges post-tsunami Japan faces.  

Japanese leaders have long promoted intensive energy resource development to furnish the BTUs to power Japanese industry. For much of the 20th century, Japan’s single-minded pursuit of growth and modernization depended largely on fossil-fuel resources to produce energy—resources that Japan generally lacked. The deprivation ushered in by the end of World War II helped trigger a desperate campaign to provide stable and abundant domestic energy sources as an alternative to expensive oil imports. The marriage of a politically powerful (and corrupt) construction industry and the nation’s energy needs led to aggressive hydropower projects and, later, blueprints for nuclear power plants. The 1973 “oil shock” only intensified the drive to create dependable alternatives. 

One potentially explosive question in the aftermath of the tsunami and nuclear crisis is whether the shock of the disaster will continue to encourage cohesion and altruism—or whether, in time, the taint of radiation will lead to exclusion in a society fixated on purity.

Of course, Japan’s traumatic nuclear history presented a considerable hurdle to the erection of a large-scale nuclear-industrial complex, but in time even this became surmountable. Japan’s leaders and corporations leveraged financial incentives, favors, junkets, infrastructure, and other inducements to create pro-nuclear sentiment in communities that eventually accepted (or even sometimes requested) nuclear facilities. To this was added a mighty—and cynical—pro-nuclear propaganda campaign. Politicians and others shrewdly appropriated rhetoric from Shinto religion to sanitize and package the nuclear juggernaut, as Martin Dusinberre explains. Nuclear power’s uptake across Japan has led to enduring divisions in a number of communities, but as Daniel P. Aldrich’s cogent Site Fights illustrates, the strategy was largely successful in cognitively divorcing the energy of nuclear power from the potential dangers that nuclear plants present. Japan now ranks third in the world in terms of nuclear energy output—albeit with an appalling safety record, partly due to lack of transparency and too-cozy relations between regulators and operators.  

The nuclear industry was able to suppress the symptoms of Japan’s “nuclear allergy” in the absence of clear evidence of fallout from power plants, but with the cat now seriously out of the bag, one problem is how Japanese people will react to the new reality of radiation in everyday life. History gives pause here. Japanese people all over the risk zone have demonstrated great courage, cooperation, and sacrifice in helping others affected by the disaster.

But Japan is also a groupist, purity-fixated society in which avoidance of contamination can sometimes lead to cruel exclusion of designated “pariahs.” 

For example, atomic-bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 received enormous help from some, but faced acute discrimination from others. The stigma of radiation—even suspicion of radiation—was enough to damage marriage prospects, ruin livelihoods, and cause unnecessary hardship. In 1954 after the Japanese tuna trawler Lucky Dragon No. 5 was blanketed in deadly fallout from the test of an American thermonuclear weapon in the South Pacific, crewmembers returned home to face discrimination as well. One crewman, Misaki Susumu, contaminated his home’s Japanese-style bath upon his return, and the irradiated bath was later used by family and neighbors. When news of this spread to others in the community, his family found itself shunned. A woman who had promised to marry another crewmember broke off the engagement after the Lucky Dragon incident, due to the stigma of contamination.  

Contemporary Japanese can still react viscerally to perceived pollution or contagion. Descendants of customary “untouchables,” for example, have faced towering hurdles against integrating into mainstream Japan in recent decades—illegally filtered job applications to prestigious companies, or barriers to intermarriage with bigoted families who hire private investigators. Furthermore, victims of toxic pollution and people suffering certain kinds of illnesses or disabilities can experience discrimination. Tragically, some recuperating victims of the 1995 sarin-gas attacks on the Tokyo subway faced bullying, stigmatization, and exclusion as they tried to return to their previous lives, as Haruki Murakami describes in his chilling oral history Underground.  

Different cultures clearly have different avoidance thresholds. Yet the nuclear fallout billows over a nation with a long history of managing contamination in these distinctive ways. Given that radiation will plume out of the damaged Fukushima reactors for some time, it is legitimate to ask whether Japan will band together and embrace victims and evacuees or, in time, revert to the old patterns of division and exclusion. Japanese have proven throughout their nation’s turbulent modern history that they respond with impressive solidarity to dire situations such as this. There are also promising signs from my own research that some forms of “avoidance” behavior are on the wane. But as for Japan’s newly rediscovered “nuclear allergy,” chances are that the Japanese public will be extremely ambivalent toward nuclear power plants and the specter of nuclear waste for some time to come.

Peter Wynn Kirby is a researcher with the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Oxford and a research fellow at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris. His latest book is Troubled Natures: Waste, Environment, Japan. He recently contributed a piece on Godzilla and nuclear disaster to The New York Times Opinionator blog.