A teenager’s account of the Fukushima ordeal
By Linda Pentz Gunter
Ten years after the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, how has the Japanese government responded and what is it like for the people affected, still struggling to return their lives to some semblance of normality? Here is how things look:
- Manuals are being distributed in schools explaining that radioactivity exists in nature and is therefore not something to be afraid of.
- The government is considering getting rid of radiation monitoring posts as these send the wrong message at a time of “reconstruction”.
- The Oversight Committee for Fukushima Prefecture Health Management Survey is discussing the possibility of stopping thyroid inspections at schools because they stress children out and overburden teachers and staff.
- Depression and suicide rates among young people from Fukushima are likely to be triggered by being called “germs” and by being seen as “contaminated”.
- Those who speak out about radiation are more stigmatized today than they were 10 years ago.
- Those who “voluntarily” evacuated, recognizing that the so-called protection standards were not adequate for their region, are often ostracized from their new communities. They are seen as selfish for abandoning their homeland, friends and families “just to save themselves” and are bullied as parasites living on compensation funds, even though the “auto-evacuees” as they are known, received none.
- Those forced to evacuate are also bullied if they do not now return, accused of not trusting the government and its assertions that it is safe to do so.
- The taboo against speaking out for proper radiation protection and for compensation has grown worse as the rescheduled Olympics loom for this summer and Japan is determined to prove to the world it has fixed the radiation problem and beaten Covid-19.
- On March 1, 2021, it took three judges all of 30 seconds to dismiss a case brought by 160 parents and children who lived in Fukushima prefecture at the time of the nuclear accident, and known as the Children’s Trial Against Radiation Exposure. The class action suit sought 100,000 yen per person in damages from the government and the prefecture, due to the psychological stress brought on by the lack of measures to avoid radiation exposure after the accident.
These are some of the realities uncovered by France-based Japanese activist, Kurumi Sugita, as she interviewed those affected and began to compile a graphic short story about her findings, entitled Fukushima 3.11 and illustrated by French artist, Damien Vidal. The booklet is produced by the French NGO, Nos Voisins Lontains 3.11 (Our Distant Neighbors 3.11).
Fukushima 3.11, a long-form cartoon strip, is told in the first person by the youngest of Sugita’s interview subjects, Fukushima evacuee, Suguru Yokota, who was 13 at the time of the nuclear disaster.
Suguru was also one of the plaintiffs in the Children’s Trial, and noted after the devastating dismissal, just days before the Fukushima disaster’s 10th anniversary, that “we cannot give up” and that “the court hasn’t issued a legitimate verdict.”
In 2012, Sugita had traveled to Japan with a research project she helped create, financed by the French National Centre for Scientific Research where she worked, to set up an investigation into Japan’s nuclear victims. A list of 70 interview candidates was put together.
“I met Suguru in 2013 in Sapporo where he was living alone after he moved there from Fukushima,” said Sugita. “I also interviewed his mother and they were interviewed once a year over six years.”
A schoolboy at the time of the accident, the book follows Suguru’s account of his experiences. He encounters the refusal by his uncle to believe the dangers in the early days of the accident, “a typical denial case,” says Sugita, and he is ostracized at school where he is the only pupil to wear a mask.
Suguru’s only respite comes when his mother, who is equally alert to the radiation risks, sends him on a “radiation vacation” to Hokkaido, the first time he encounters peers who share his concerns.
Back at school and feeling isolated and alone, Suguru studies at home instead, eventually leaving the region for a different high school and then college.
The book weaves in essential information about radiation risks, and the clampdowns by the Japanese government, which withdrew support for auto-evacuees claiming, as Suguru relates it, that “these families are not victims. They are responsible for their fate.”
The book was first published in the magazine, TOPO, whose audience is predominantly teenagers and which reports on topics of current interest.
“It appealed to us to address an audience interested in world events, but not exclusively the nuclear issue,” said illustrator Vidal. “We thought our comic strip could be read by all those — and not necessarily just teenagers — who want to understand what the consequences of the nuclear accident were, and how it affected the inhabitants of Fukushima Prefecture.”
The book vividly brings home the psychological and emotional pain suffered by those who chose to recognize the true dangers posed by the Fukushima disaster, as well as the financial hardships and fracturing of families. And it exposes the depths of deliberate denial by authorities, more interested in heightened normalization of radiation exposure in the name of commerce and reputation.
Even as early as October 2011, an announcement is made that “rice produced in Fukushima Prefecture will supply school canteens again.” We see Suguru and his mother watching this news on their television, then the name-calling Suguru faces in school for bringing his own lunch. He is shown in the strip being called a “hikokumin”, which, explains Suguru, “is a really insulting word, used during the Second World War. It refers to people who are not worthy of being Japanese citizens.”
But that stigma has only become worse with time, Sugita says.
These days people are name-called “hoshano”. “Hoshano”（放射能) means radioactivity, but with a different Chinese character（放射脳) it means “radioactive brain – or brain contaminated by the fear of radioactivity”, she explains. And that is the slur in common circulation now.
Nevertheless, the book ends on a hopeful note. “Today,” concludes Suguru on the closing page, “I know I’m not alone. I hope other voices will be heard in Japan and around the world.”
It’s easy to say “never again.” But in order to ensure it, we must all continue to raise our voices, joining Suguru’s and others yearning to be heard.
Read the English language version of Fukushima 3.11 on line for free. A version is also available in French. Hard copies (in French only), may be ordered from Nos Voisins Lontains 3.11 for 8€ plus shipping costs.