The Boy in the Picture: A Remembrance
Atomic bomb survivor Sumiteru Taniguchi, giving a speech at the United Nations
in New York in 2010 against the existence of nuclear weapons while holding up
a photo of himself from 1946 in Nagasaki.
A 16-year-old Japanese boy lies face down on a hospital bed, his eyes closed and face partially obscured from view. His back and arms, oozing blood and pus, show the severe radiation burns he suffered during the atomic bombing of his city, Nagasaki, just five months before by the United States. He is still clinging to life and the Japanese doctors keeping him in a bath of penicillin to fight off infection seem amazed that the boy is still alive.
“I shuddered when the lights were turned on to film him,” recalled Herbert Sussan, a U.S. military video specialist assigned to film Japanese survivors of the two atomic-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in January 1946. The youth with the severely burned back was the worst of the cases his U.S. filming team had come across. “None of us expected him to live,” Sussan said, “but the doctors persisted.”
It was that persistence alone by doctors in Nagasaki that saved the life of the youth, and for decades afterward, Sumiteru Taniguchi would go on to publicly display to the world that video image of himself as the boy with the bleeding back, in an appeal for the permanent banning of nuclear weapons.
A New York Times obituary on Taniguchi, who died of cancer in Nagasaki on 30 August at age 88, is indicative of the high status Taniguchi held as one of the more well-known, publicly identifiable of the hibakusha atomic bomb survivors in Japan. News outlets around the world have reported on his passing, and told and retold his story.
Taniguchi was a teenage postal carrier delivering the mail on his bicycle around 11 a.m. that morning of 9 August 1945, and was 1.8 kilometers (about one mile) from the hypocenter when the “Fat Man” plutonium bomb — as it was nicknamed by the U.S. military — was dropped over the city, killing at least 40,000 people instantly, most of whom were civilians. Like many victims of the bomb that day, Taniguchi was subjected to a wall of heat measuring an estimated 4,000 degrees Celsius (more than 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit), hot enough to melt steel.
Those who died instantly in the blast or were simply vaporized into ashes may have been the lucky ones; those who survived faced a hellish reality of death and destruction all around them. Many, like Taniguchi, had their clothing grafted onto their skin by the bomb blast and could not keep their skin from sliding off their bodies. And like many, Taniguchi lived on the border of life and death in the immediate years of medical treatment that ensued.
Taniguchi would go on to say that in surviving the atomic bombing, he grew up with an intense hate for the world of adults that would do such a thing to him as a child. It was perhaps not surprising, then, that Taniguchi would later join, and then lead as chairperson, Nihon Hidankyo, an organization formed by atomic bomb sufferers in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1956 to pressure the Japanese government to improve support for the victims and to lobby governments of the world to abolish nuclear weapons forever.
In interviews and speeches in Japan and overseas over the years, Taniguchi would often hold up that famous film image of himself as the youth with the bleeding back for others to see. He did it less for pity or to accuse than as a stark reminder of what nuclear bombs can do to human beings and as a warning to never let such a horror be repeated. In the 2007 documentary film White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by Japanese-American filmmaker Steven Okazaki (which I encourage you to watch here in its entirety), Taniguchi removes his shirt for the camera and reveals his once-bleeding back as it now looked decades later: still heavily scarred and still prone to infection. Like other survivors of the two atomic bombings, he was constantly plagued by radiation-induced illnesses and ailments through the rest of his life.
In 2010, Taniguchi, representing Japan’s atomic bomb survivors, reiterated his appeal for the banning of nuclear weapons during a review conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at the United Nations in New York City. “I am not a guinea pig, nor am I an exhibit,” he told the audience, once again showing the well-known photo of him as an ailing 16-year-old. “But you who are here today, please don’t turn your eyes away from me. Please look at me again.”
The hibakusha of Japan, over these past seven decades, have had to make sure two governments in particular get that message loud and clear: the United States, as the foremost nuclear power in the world, and Japan, with its increasing moves toward remilitarization as a staunch U.S. ally protected under the American nuclear umbrella.
Have these two governments gotten that message? Apparently not. In July 2017, just a month before Taniguchi died, 122 countries of the world voted to pass the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations in New York. This is the first legally binding international agreement ever to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons; the goal is total elimination of all nuclear weapons on the planet. But the governments of the United States and Japan, among a few others, have essentially boycotted the treaty negotiations from the start for political reasons and will not support its passage.
How supremely ironic it is that today the government of Japan, the only country ever to have been the victim of a nuclear bomb attack during war, will stand on the side of the USA, which dropped those bombs on Japan back in 1945, in opposing a treaty that could very well save us all from nuclear annihilation someday. In any case, with or without American and Japanese government support, the formal signing and enactment of this important treaty will go on as scheduled and take place later this month in New York on 20 September.
Sumiteru Taniguchi, at 88 years of age, did not live long enough to see this long-awaited day come, but his soul can rest peacefully knowing that he did as much as any one person could have done to help bring it about. From that hospital bed in Nagasaki in 1946 as a severely injured boy lingering near death, to his last public anti-nuclear appeal in Malaysia in 2016 as an ailing elder, he kept the hope for a truly peaceful world alive and in front of us, never allowing us to look away or to forget the past.
May we all find it within ourselves to help carry on his final wish from here and see that it becomes a permanent reality for our world, epitomized in the two simple words: “Never again”.
Arigato, Japan, for Thirty Years
The date was 23 December 1986, exactly 30 years ago today. It was the day I first arrived in Japan.
The place was the former Osaka International Airport in the city of Itami in western Japan. I had just come of out of the terminal building on that chilly winter afternoon, and there across the airport parking lot were those big billboards, crammed together in sardine-like fashion, just as everything else in Japan seemed to be. I was mesmerized by all the sights and sounds of the Land of the Rising Sun, taking in all the minutest details.
Memories of that first day are burnt deep into my memory and I guess they will always be there. Which makes this day as good a time as any to look back on the three decades that have passed since then, reflect a bit on the road traveled thus far, and extend thanks where it is due.
I had quit my job as a newspaper editor-in-chief in a small central California town in the United States back in late 1986, with dreams of “making it big” somewhere out there in the world. I yearned to be writing stories about politics, economics and social issues at the international level. Japanese friends from the university I had attended persuaded me to give Japan a try. So I did. I left behind my most prized possession in life — my electric typewriter, what else? — with my girlfriend at the airport in Los Angeles, left behind my beloved Japanese-made Honda Civic car with my mother, and didn’t look back. I never saw the car or the typewriter (or the girlfriend) again.
Once in Japan, I stayed at the home of one of those Japanese university friends for a couple weeks, high up in the mountains overlooking the port city of Kobe. I got busy typing up job résumés on a manual typewriter in a cold, unheated downstairs anteroom of their suburban home, before striking out on my own into Japanese society a couple weeks later. I spoke and read almost no Japanese. But I still had those dreams of making it big, and was determined to do whatever it took to get ahead.
I lived at a gaijin (foreigner) guest house in Kyoto for a while that first winter, bunking together with some young guy from Auckland, New Zealand, who was selling jewelry and other trinkets on the streets of downtown Kyoto — with permission from the local Japanese yakuza underworld syndicate, of course.
It was there at the Greenpeace guest house (no relation to the environmental group) where a phone message first came through to me from Tokyo via the Japan Times, one of the four English-language daily newspapers in the country at the time. They had received one of my job résumés in the mail and were interested in interviewing me for a full-time position as a news reporter — the first full-time staff reporter of theirs, as it turned out, to be permanently based in Japan outside of Tokyo. Was I interested in coming in for an interview? It seemed The Force was with me.
A top priority for me at the time, aside from work, was getting out of Kyoto, a city known as much for its severely cold winters as for its historical charm, as quickly as possible. I soon relocated to warmer climes in the countryside of southern Osaka Prefecture, where rice paddies were everywhere. I stayed as a kind of boarder in the home of some quite unusual Japanese people in exchange for teaching English at their small private language school (which happened to be located just above a pub they also owned).
Their two-story residence where I was boarding — the “Psycho House”, as I called it — resembled something out of an old Alfred Hitchcock horror movie, especially on windy evenings when the old metal gate in front of the house would get to creaking. Also helping the Psycho House to earn its moniker were a couple of other gaijin boarders at the time: an obnoxious guy from Italy, who used to keep everyone in the house awake by cranking up his electric bass guitar amp late into the night, and a dishonest young woman from Australia, who ended up stealing some money from me. In fact, the only “normal” thing about living there in southern Osaka seemed to be the rice paddy just outside the window of my tiny second-floor room, a field that lulled me to sleep every night with the peaceful symphony of a thousand chirping crickets. Ah, Japan. I was falling in love with my new home.
I got hired at the Japan Times Osaka office and was covering international events, just as I had always dreamed of doing. And here I was, only in the country for a few months! I dived head-first into my Japanese-language studies as a matter of survival more than anything else, and kept on pushing ahead. I got an apartment of my own closer to downtown Osaka and was enjoying life as a single, young professional man in a big city full of young available women.
From there, I went on to report as a stringer in Osaka for the Tokyo bureau of the United Press International (UPI) wire service and as a full-time reporter and editor for a couple of other Japan-based English daily newspapers. By the time I had left the newspaper business for good around 1995, after more than a decade in the field, I had reached the top of the mountain, so to speak, by working for the Japanese daily newspaper with the highest-ranking circulation in the world. There was nowhere higher to go.
I was disillusioned with the dirtiness of the daily newspaper grind, both in Japan and the U.S., and had to get out of it for good. But luckily I kept my faith in journalism as an honest source for telling the truth and changing society for the better. I’ve continued working over the years as a so-called independent journalist (versus, I suppose, a “dependent journalist”, as a Japanese corporate media person once described himself to me), and have found opportunities in both journalism and higher education to combine the best of both worlds. It’s a good place to be when you reach middle age and find that you’re hitting your stride as a writer and educator, and that some of your best work still lies ahead of you.
So, would I ever go back to the United States? The short answer: Hell no! The long answer: Maybe just for visiting, but certainly not to live and work. In the Age of Trump that lies ahead of us, I do not envy my fellow U.S. citizens; they’ve got some tough times ahead. We all do, since the reach of the USA is now worldwide and leaves no region or nation untouched. We just carry on the good fight from wherever we happen to be in this world. I intend to contribute to the good fight from right here in Japan through the power of the written word.
Not counting a few detours along the way, the Kansai area of western Japan has been my home continuously for 30 years. I’ve lived, worked, loved and grown here, and married and raised a family of my own here. When it’s my time to leave Planet Earth, I guess I’ll probably depart from right here. But I’ve got many more good years still left in me, with much more work to be done, and I’m looking forward with positivity to the future. And I have Japan to thank for all this. It has been a long, eventful journey indeed, and one I would not have traded for anything else in the world.
To all the acquaintances, friends, family and other connections I have made along the way these past 30 years: The only thing left to do is offer a deep respectful, Japanese bow and convey to you a heart-filled Domo arigato gozaimashita. Thank you so very much for the chance to pursue my dreams through my work, with all the ups and downs that has entailed, for sharing those experiences with me, and in the process, helping to give me a new lease on life. May the next 30 years be even better.
Three Books in the Bag (or, A Year of Living Creatively)
About this time a year ago I started burrowing down into my work — deeply investigating, researching, then writing, rewriting, editing, re-editing. It was a long haul and, I confess, at times I wondered what I had gotten myself into by taking on so much with barely enough time to sleep or to literally exhale.
A year later, and the results are finally in for all to see. The creative spirits, as I like to think of it, kept me productive and busy this past year. I’ve surpassed my own past personal records now by getting not one, not two, but three book projects in the bag this past year. So, naturally, I get to celebrate and share this personal milestone by (how else?) writing even more words for people to read. Such is the life of an impassioned writer….
Putting it to the Tests
As anyone who has spent time living and working in Japan can tell you, the language business is a major industry (some might even call it a racket), with lots of money to be spent by consumers and lots of money to be made, in turn, by publishers, by private and public language schools, by bookstores and on down the line.
Nowhere does that seem more apparent than in the testing field, with its promises of helping Japanese young people to pass the seemingly endless array of exams that will let them open doors and overcome various barriers in society, and ostensibly lead them to find a measure of success in life. And ranking high up there in the royalty of the Japanese testing field is the Test of English for International Communication, or TOEIC.
At any given time, there are literally dozens of TOEIC and other related test books on the shelves of booksellers throughout the Japanese archipelago, so choosing just the perfect study guide to help you pass that big exam on the test day can be a daunting task for any student or learner of a language. That’s where the “racket” part comes in: The educational quality of these kinds of testing books, like any other genre of publication, can range from totally worthless to remarkably high.
I have always consciously aimed for the latter. For several years now I’ve been invited by a few different Japanese university professors writing for various publishing houses to participate in making TOEIC test books to be used at the university level throughout Japan. I’m not a full-time educator, but I do have one hand in the academic field as a university-level instructor of journalism, so naturally I do take great pride in putting out something that will have real meaning for the students and other readers who eventually use them.
Hot off the presses are two new books I’ve co-authored that have just been released by the Tokyo-based Asahi Press, one of the major publishers of educational books in Japan. Step-Up Skills for the TOEIC Listening and Reading Test (Level 2) is an intermediate-level TOEIC book that my fellow authors and I have created from scratch. As with past TOEIC books, I’ve not only done writing and editing on this one, but also some of the graphic design work as well, which means I had some say both in the substance of the book and in its style. And if I may be so humble in saying so, I think this one is our best TOEIC book yet as a team of four authors. The high editorial quality is there, and it really catches the eye as well (though you probably wouldn’t know it by the plain-looking book cover). But trust me — as far as TOEIC books go anyway, this one rocks.
The other book of ours that Asahi Press has just released is Step-Up Skills for the TOEIC Listening and Reading Test (Level 3), an advanced-level book that we had published in the past with a different cover. We have updated the contents to include some of the new changes in the TOEIC testing procedures and polished up the contents with our magic touch as co-authors. The result is an old book of ours being given a new lease on life.
Asahi Press is releasing these two books (and another one to be published later) together as its first-ever foray, I’m told, into the marketing of its TOEIC books as a set series — something they have not done before. So our books will apparently be the test case to see how well this strategy works, and Asahi Press is no doubt counting on the past strong sales of our books as individual projects to continue now that those books are released as a new three-part series. We’ll have to wait and see how it goes, but somehow I’m confident that classroom instructors across Japan and their students will give it a thumbs-up, as they have so graciously done in the past.
I have to give credit here where it is due: We could not have pulled all this off without the teamwork and cooperation of everyone involved. Some publishers can be like plantation owners to work for, but the good folks at Asahi Press have been nothing but flexible and supportive in making sure every that little detail is worked out to our liking as authors. And the efforts of that cooperative partnership have indeed paid off, both sales-wise and in the personal satisfaction that comes with knowing you have put out a damn good book for the people to read.
So, if you are a teacher of the TOEIC test somewhere here in Japan who is looking for substance and style in your lessons, look no further. Our brand-new TOEIC book series is now off and running, and how it does in the long-term future will be determined, of course, by none other than you and your students. Yoroshiku!
Spies and the Media — A Love Story
My third book project for the year is one that I’m especially proud to be a part of. The U.S.-based media watch group Project Censored puts out a book annually on what it deems are the top censored news stories that went unreported or misreported by the esteemed U.S. corporate press, and this year marks the milestone of 40 years for the group.
My contribution to their new book, Censored 2017, is a chapter titled “Played by the Mighty Wurlitzer” about the historically close relationship between the U.S. government’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the institution of the free press in the USA. We all know that the freest press on the planet used to play footsie with the CIA, but what many of us probably don’t know or may not remember is that the relationship between the spies and the journalists never really ended. It was a “tryst” born of shared anti-communist, propagandistic Cold War values in the late 1940s, and continues 70 years later in the digital age in a much more subdued and hidden way. In other words, the two are still fooling around together and keeping it very discreet.
Is this healthy for a democracy? Definitely not, when you consider the finer details of that CIA-press relationship, as I did over the course of several months. There were no naïve notions on my part going into this investigation, of course, since I knew what I was diving into from the start. But as I pored through news archives and databases, public and private documents and all sorts of printed and online sources of information, it became clear that the CIA-news media relationship had gone far deeper than the press itself had ever reported in the past, far deeper than those in academia had ever researched, and certainly far deeper than the U.S. government had ever dared to admit to the public.
The big, influential news companies — the Washington Post and New York Times newspapers, Newsweek magazine and the CBS television network, to name just a few — were the guiltiest parties when it came to cooperating with the CIA in its various clandestine operations and keeping those ties a secret from the public. Journalists worked covertly for the agency as paid (or non-paid) operatives, CIA officers were given press credentials and posed as reporters, and the U.S. Congress just looked the other way until it was forced on a few occasions during the 1970s to hold public hearings on the issue.
I won’t ruin the suspense by naming the names here; you can pick up the new Censored 2017 book and read all about it there. But suffice it to say that you are going to find out more about the CIA and the news media than you probably knew about or cared to remember.
I will add that I noticed a distinct pattern emerging in my investigation, one I hadn’t expected to find so clearly: Starting from about the early 1970s, some big news reports would surface in the media about the CIA and journalists working together, the story would generate controversy (or not) for a short time, the U.S. Congress might investigate it (or not), then the story would die out and the media would conveniently forget about it. Then, a few years later, the same cycle would play out, and then die out again. Over and over that pattern would repeat. And still the news media establishment treats this as an invisible story today. Why the continual memory lapse on the part of the media and the refusal to confront this issue openly and honestly over the course of several decades? What is there to hide? Why not just “come out” and admit that the press has been cooperating with an agency as unlawful as the CIA? Isn’t openness with information what the free press in America is supposed to be about? Or is a “free press” about something else entirely?
The spark for this chapter on the CIA and the press actually came when I was researching the “Dark Alliance” story of the 1990s and the fate of journalist Gary Webb in breaking the big CIA-contra-crack cocaine story back then, in a chapter I was writing for Project Censored’s previous book, Censored 2016. I had dug up so much information on the CIA-press relationship in the course of doing that “Dark Alliance” chapter that I knew I had to devote a whole chapter in itself to the CIA-media story in the future. The good folks at Project Censored were receptive to the idea, and now you have the whole story in your hands in Censored 2017.
This is by far the longest, most substantive piece I’ve ever gotten published, and I can’t think of a better book in which to have it released. Project Censored has been fighting the good fight for 40 years in keeping the media honest and relevant to our daily lives, and I’ve long been a fan of their work. I’ve now contributed essays of my own to five editions of the yearly Censored book (and edited/ghostwritten a couple other Censored book essays by Japanese authors), and it’s been a great experience all the way. Just as I’ve done above with the Japanese books, I have to give credit where it is due: to everyone at Project Censored and at the New York-based Seven Stories Press for their teamwork, cooperation and flexibility in seeing it all through to fruition. I’m convinced that there is great power in joining forces with other like-minded, dedicated people for a common higher good — in our case, the informing of the public and the holding of news media accountable in society.
So, hats off to all those who have worked so hard together to get the 40th anniversary edition of Censored 2017 out to the people. It’s been a long time in coming. We all benefit from the timely and important information the new book provides us, and we will continue to benefit for as long as Project Censored is around and doing its good work. Which is surely more than we can say for certain U.S. government spy agencies and some of their lapdog followers in the American poodle press.
Fukushima, Year 5, and Counting...
It has been an enraging and often saddening five years to watch all of this play out from here in Japan. If Fukushima has underscored anything over these past five years, it is the supreme lesson for countries on how not to handle a nuclear catastrophe. Both the operator of the crippled nuclear power plant, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), and the government of Japan have failed in so many ways to effectively deal with the situation at Fukushima and the failures just seem to keep piling up.
Where do things stand with Fukushima after five years? The outlook is grim at best:
Evacuees — Exact numbers are hard to come by but according to one estimate, around 165,000 Fukushima residents fled their homes immediately after the disaster. Of those, more than 97,000 residents have not yet returned home despite the government’s ongoing push to get them moving back again. The evacuees are living in temporary shelters, with relatives in other parts of Japan, or simply on their own in places that are not familiar to them. The evacuees seem to be unmoved by the continuous assurances of the government that radiation levels are low enough now for them to go back home. Plans are also afoot for the Japanese government to begin cutting off social welfare support for immediate victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Decommissioning — The uranium fuel in three of Fukushima’s six reactors had melted down in the accident, and the resulting explosions blew open the roofs of three reactor buildings. This released radioactive cesium, iodine and other fission elements over the sea and land around the Fukushima plant. Water was poured into the damaged reactor buildings using fire hoses, and the highly radioactive water flowed directly into the Pacific Ocean. So, sea, sky and land have all been hit hard by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
TEPCO has managed to clean up the Fukushima accident site to some degree by capping the exposed roofs, removing the spent fuel from a damaged reactor and putting experimental “ice walls” in the ground to block the flow of groundwater that was washing contamination from the site into the Pacific Ocean. TEPCO is still pumping massive amounts of water through the highly radioactive and overheated reactor buildings, and collecting as much of that water as possible and storing the water on site in about 1,000 tanks. But the available space for those tanks is running out and there is a big question of what will be done when the space is gone — not to mention the problem of contaminated water leaking from some of those storage tanks.
The biggest problem, however, remains the issue of how to locate the molten nuclear fuel and other debris at the site that melted down in the accident — and how to get it out of there eventually. The core remains so radioactive and so hot today, five years after the initial meltdown, that no human can go near it; efforts to use robots to do the job have not been wholly successful either.
Conservative estimates place the full decommissioning of the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant as being completed some time around the year 2060, well beyond most of our lifetimes. As for the molten nuclear fuel at the Fukushima site, prospects for that being completely removed by the expected date of 2020, four years from now, are looking increasingly slim. But if it can be accomplished, it will be just in time for the 2020 Summer Olympics to be hosted in Tokyo.
Olympics — The world’s most populated city, Tokyo, is located just 240 kilometers (150 miles) from the Fukushima nuclear accident site. Plans are underway for some of the Olympic-related facilities to be based in areas around Fukushima Prefecture where the government insists radiation levels are no longer a problem. One Japanese government minister even recently announced his hope that some of the actual Olympic sporting events will be held in Fukushima. Whether or not Olympic athletes from around the world, like Japanese evacuees, will have a problem with spending time in the Fukushima area remains to be seen.
Decontamination — The cleanup of evacuated areas around the Fukushima accident site has not gone smoothly either. Massive amounts of radioactive topsoil and other solid waste resulting from the disaster needed to be gathered and hauled away from homes, schools, streets and playgrounds in the evacuation zone, which extends about 50 kilometers or so northwest of the Fukushima accident site.
The result: millions of big garbage bags full of contaminated soil and debris. For now, those garbage bags are being stored out in the open and near roadsides in neatly arranged piles, exposed to the elements. A permanent storage area for all this contaminated waste has not yet been found; most Japanese residents in the area do not want such a radioactive storage site anywhere near their backyards. As if that were not bad enough, about 800 bags of radioactive waste got carried off by a typhoon in 2015 and were deposited miles away by river currents. Hundreds more of the bags of contaminated waste reportedly went missing and unaccounted for in the typhoon.
Court cases — There has been no shortage of lawsuits of various kinds against TEPCO and the government since the Fukushima accident, mostly by citizens directly affected by the Fukushima nuclear accident and the resulting evacuation. But perhaps the most significant of the court cases since then was the indictment in late February 2016 of three former TEPCO officials for failing to take the proper safety measures that might have prevented the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011. The indictments, initially rejected by prosecutors, were forced through by a civilian judicial panel, marking the first time that TEPCO officials were held legally responsible for the Fukushima nuclear accident. The trial is expected to start sometime in 2017 and the three indicted officials will most likely plead not guilty.
Operation Tomodachi — One lawsuit against TEPCO that has received comparatively less exposure in Japan’s news media is one filed by U.S. military personnel involved in disaster relief efforts and humanitarian assistance to Japan soon after the 2011 nuclear accident in Japan. As part of that effort, dubbed “Operation Tomodachi” (tomodachi being the Japanese word for “friend”), U.S. sailors aboard the battleship USS Ronald Reagan, situated off the coast of Fukushima, were exposed to high levels of radiation that were carried by the wind out to sea.
Some of those U.S. sailors eventually filed a lawsuit against TEPCO, claiming that radiation from Fukushima has caused them severe health problems, including cancers, tumors and brain defects. As of 2015, the number of U.S. sailors who had joined the class-action lawsuit against TEPCO stood at around 200. TEPCO has denied any responsibility for the sailors’ health issues, and the Pentagon, for its part, has also dismissed any link between the sailors’ health problems and the Fukushima nuclear accident. The lawsuit continues making its way through the legal system in the U.S. as of this writing.
Health impacts — The impact of the Fukushima nuclear accident on the health of people and nature in Japan has been a subject of great concern as well. Some studies of the effects of radiation from the Fukushima accident have found symptoms of radiation effects in Japanese forests where fallout from Fukushima was spread through the air, including genetic defects in some birds, insects, plants and trees.
The health effects on humans have been a lot more controversial: Some studies in and outside Japan have linked a rise in cancer rates with Fukushima, while other studies — including one by the United Nations — have downplayed the radiation effects from Fukushima on people.
One fact that seems to be beyond dispute at this point is a detectable rise in thyroid cancer rates among Japanese children from the Fukushima area. That cancer rate is certain to keep rising in the future as the radiation symptoms appear more clearly. But for now, there is a hesitancy — some say due to official pressure from the authorities — for medical doctors in Japan to make a clear and decisive link between Fukushima and human health effects.
So, that is where we stand with Fukushima after five saddening, enraging years: still taking the first steps on a road that will continue on long after most of us reading this are dead and gone.
The tragedy of Fukushima will, for all the progress made in dealing with it so far, be passed on to the next generation and the next and the next down the line. It will become their problem to deal with, and if future generations someday look back to 2011 and harshly blame us for what we have done to this planet, they will be fully within their rights to do so.
Fukushima has been nothing less than a crime against humanity, against nature, and indeed, a crime against the perpetuation of life itself. And no apologies or excuses on our parts will ever change that.
No Room for Hate Speech in Japan
Never mind that many of these Koreans were born and raised in Japan, yet not allowed to vote under Japanese law or even to obtain Japanese citizenship. They were a kind of stateless minority in Japan, and were tired of being treated that way.
Some westerners living in Japan at that time were joining the Koreans in breaking the law by refusing to be fingerprinted, and a number of major cases were being fought in the courts to challenge Japan’s discriminatory policies against ethnic Koreans. The Kansai (western) area of Japan, where I lived, was ground zero for the anti-fingerprinting movement, and I was right in the center of the hurricane, reporting on the related issues as often as I possibly could. (See the ARCHIVES page of this website for a few of those fingerprinting stories.)
So when, a few years later as a bachelor living in Japan, it came time for me to move and find another place to live, the obvious choice for me was the downtown district of Ikuno Ward, home to the largest of the many Korean communities scattered around Japan, with a Korean population of about 90,000.
Why there? Well, because for me, Ikuno was to Japan what Harlem is to America: the part of a major city with a long history representing a people’s struggle for freedom and deferred dreams, yes, but also the people’s deeply rich cultural roots and pride in their heritage. In much the same way that Harlem is America, likewise Ikuno was Japan for me.
The blatant housing discrimination that I faced as a foreign resident as I searched for an apartment in the Korean community — my first encounter with such illegal discrimination in Japan — made me even more determined to live there. Some Japanese would view the Ikuno area of Osaka an inner-city “slum” to be avoided at all costs. Not me. I knew the Korean community well from having covered it as a reporter and felt right at home. The spirit of resistance I felt in the Korean community inspired me in the few years that followed as I churned out some of my best work as a journalist.
So, when I recently saw some video footage online that was taken this summer of a demonstration of anti-Korean hate speech in downtown Osaka, I instantly recognized where it was taken: the shops, the buildings, the flow of traffic and pedestrians — and yes, I could even smell the familiar scents of spicy Korean kimchi pickles and yakiniku grilled beef that waft through the neighborhood.
In that particular video clip, taken in front of Tsuruhashi Station on the JR Railways’ Osaka Loop Line, just a couple minutes’ walk from where I used to live, a young Japanese woman is shown joining one such anti-Korean demonstration and spewing a bunch of hate-filled garbage over a loudspeaker about exterminating all Koreans and insisting they all go back to “their country”. It is truly sickening. These Japanese demonstrators had chosen the heart of the culturally rich Korean community to declare war against the “arrogant” and cheeky minorities, and would put them in their place on their own home turf.
That demonstration was one of many that arose around Japan this past summer, with a special focus on Koreans and the so-called “special privileges” they receive as minorities in this country (that is, if you call being treated like dirt the equivalent of special treatment). Japan is a society with a long history of prejudice and discrimination against minority groups both within and beyond its borders, but as reported in this video news segment, we are now witnessing a relatively new phenomenon: ordinary Japanese protesting in the streets and literally calling for blood and the return of Japan’s former World War II glory.
The neo-fascist-leaning prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, himself no slouch when it comes to discriminating against fellow Asians, has been conveniently slow in condemning this rising serpent of hate that we now see raising its head in Japan. Unlike in the U.S. and other countries, Japan has not ratified laws that prohibit such speech. And it needs to ratify them — and soon.
Many Japanese have empathy with Rev. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the U.S., and deservedly so. But as one young Korean-Japanese university student correctly told me at a guest speech I gave a few years ago at a local college: “America has its discrimination against Blacks, but in Japan there is discrimination against Koreans”. And not only Koreans, I might add: Also suffering the brunt of discrimination in Japan are ethnic Chinese residents, the indigenous Ainu people of the north and the native Okinawan people of the south, the buraku caste minority, and so many others. But that student was absolutely right: Japan’s anti-Korean prejudice and discrimination need to be seen and dealt with at the same level as discrimination against African Americans in the U.S.
But why Koreans in this recent rising of hate speech in Japan? Koreans are, after all, brothers to the Japanese on the genealogical spectrum.
It might help if we understand it this way: Japan is to Asia what England is to Europe — a society that considers itself to be better, more superior to its own brethren. Just as the Irish, with their long and rich Celtic heritage, have been historically treated as little more than stray dogs by the more “civilized” British, so it is with Koreans and Japanese here in Asia. In other words, there is a special kind of despising that is reserved for the ethnic family members that are closest to you. That, and a need generally to scapegoat someone else for one's own domestic problems, especially in economically tough times. Some kind of strange, twisted human logic indeed.
As a minority myself in Japan, I witness and experience racism and prejudice every time I go outside — we all do, those of us from various cultures and countries and races living throughout Japan — and the darker one’s skin is, the worse the discrimination seems to get. (Take a look at an article I wrote some years ago, “Racism in Japan”, for an overview.) I have always looked particularly to the Korean community in Japan for “Survival 101” lessons on how to live under brutal oppression, for they have truly put up with a lot and still thrived.
But we are seeing a new kind of rage, similar in many ways to so-called “white rage” in the U.S., that is potentially violent and life threatening. And just like we speak out against it in other societies, we must speak out against it here in Japan as well.
I have stood up and spoke out against racism when I was living in the U.S., and I stand side by side today with the Korean brothers and sisters in this fight against Japanese hate speech and racism, and will increasingly be doing so in the future as well. It has been a long time since I reported on these kinds of issues concerning Koreans in Japan, an era I look back on today with some sense of nostalgia. But there is actually nothing nostalgic about people’s ignorance, fear and hate of other people, and we need to confront this new brand of ugliness head on.
Koreans, along with all other minorities in this country, make up a vital part of Japan as a wonderfully diverse, multicultural society. When Japan can see this mixing of cultures as something positive rather than negative, then we will be making real progress. And let us hope and pray that that day comes sooner rather than later.
If we are going to get there sooner, we should be clear that there is no room in Japanese society for hate speech. Like this editorial says in a newspaper for which I used to work and report on Korean issues, we should not tolerate hate speech in this country. Let’s get some real hate-speech laws on the books in Japan, and then start prosecuting a few of these loudmouthed Japanese citizens for breaking the laws when they dare to call for Korean “massacres” in the streets. Then maybe the message will get out there that such speech has no place in this society or this world.
It’s worth remembering that when all is said and done, today it is Koreans; tomorrow it could be you and me.