Will Fukushima Survivors Be Doubly Victimized With Radiation Sickness and Stigmatization?

Watching ARS: Fukushima, the sequel to Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS): Hiroshima and Nagasaki, play out on the world stage spurred me to view an actual drama about radiation sickness. Black Rain, the 1988 film by Shohei Imamura, begins with, and occasionally flashes back to, the bombing of Hiroshima. It depicts the lives of a group of survivors five years later when they begin to succumb to ARS.

As you may be aware, radiation sickness was a stigma to many in post-war Japan. A primitive response, to be sure, but one which served as a coping mechanism. Film reviewer Roger Ebert provided some insight into how it works shortly after Black Rain was released in the United States (emphasis added).

The immediate impulse of the Japanese in the aftermath of such a cataclysm, Imamura shows in his film, is to re-establish the rhythms and values of traditional life. By returning to old ways, the wound can be healed and even denied. That’s the act that metastasizes the illness by guaranteeing its perpetuation as an infection on society.…

Imamura’s anger in “Black Rain” is directed not so much at those who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima as at the way his Japanese characters immediately started behaving as if somehow it has been their own fault. [They] seem almost to be apologizing for having been beneath the fallout.

This syndrome is embodied in the inability of an attractive young woman, Yasuko, to hold on to suitors when they learn that she was exposed to the nuclear fallout encapsulated in the grimy raindrops that fell on her shortly after the bomb dropped. It resurfaced in a story originally thought to be an Internet myth. On June 11, at the Australian, Rick Wallace reported:

It was supposed to be a lifetime highlight, but the wedding plans of a bride-to-be from Fukushima have turned into a nightmare thanks to the new post-crisis phenomenon of radiation discrimination. her plans turned to ashes when her future mother-in-law blurted out: “What if we don’t have a healthy child because of the radiation?”

Among other such incidents

The government of the city of Tsukuba, just northeast of Tokyo, was forced to apologise after forcing Fukushima area refugees who had sought shelter to obtain “radiation-free” certificates or undergo screening. The Mayor of Minamisoma, a town of 71,000 that lies 25km from the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, said this week … “I was told by a mother with some children that when they went to a different area of Japan, they were warned by other children: ‘You are contaminated don’t come near me.’

But Wallace reminds us that, for the most part, “Japanese society’s cohesion and strength has shone through during this disaster.”

Though still a somewhat insular society, especially considering its international status, Japan has become far too modern to regress to the kind of prejudice it demonstrated against the radiation sickness victims of World War II. But visions of racial purity, dormant since World War II, may re-emerge. In addition, radiation sickness may be responded to as HIV often is, with the attendant fears about contact with bodily fluid. One just hopes that the vast majority of Japanese swallow those fears and leave them unvoiced in polite company. And God knows – stereotype alert – the Japanese are polite.