One morning, about a month after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, I was reading the newspaper while eating my breakfast. At the time more than 12,000 people were dead or missing as a result of the tsunami that the earthquake had caused. In addition, hydrogen gas explosions had damaged or destroyed buildings at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, and it was widely suspected that reactors at the plant had suffered meltdown. The steady flow of bad news from the Tohoku area, where the earthquake and tsunami were centered, was saddening, but I felt little actual fear since my home is more than 400 km (250 miles) from the worst-affected areas.
A story on the front page of that day’s newspaper described various hardships that evacuees from Tohoku were facing. These hardships were not directly related to the loss of their homes and loved ones, nor directly caused by the earthquake, tsunami, or nuclear disaster. Rather, the story detailed how evacuees were being ostracized by people’s vague fears of Tohoku, and especially Fukushima. School children were bullied, companies lost business, and municipal landfills received protests from people who feared that “Fukushima” represented something unwholesome and dangerous.
I was immediately reminded of the hibakusha “bombed people”, the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Like the Fukushima evacuees described in the newspaper article, survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were harmed once by the bombing and then again by discrimination stemming from people’s fears that association with the bombing made them somehow untouchable.
My colleague, Akiyo Maruyama Cantrell, had written an outstanding dissertation about survivors in Hiroshima, and how their work at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum contributes to collective memorialization of the bombing and its after-effects (Cantrell 2006). It seems that Akiyo, too, was noticing a parallel between these rumors; she also noted comments from hibakusha in Hiroshima worried about the possible effects of fear.
Akiyo and I produced a paper comparing news coverage of evacuees’ experiences in 2011 with survivors’ stories from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (Cantrell and Nilep 2012). In it, we suggest that ignorance and fear can compound the suffering of disaster victims, and we hope that more reasoned understandings can spare victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake from discrimination like that seen after World War II.
Sadly, I see continuing distrust in recent news coverage about tsunami flotsam arriving in North America and the reluctance of Japanese communities to help dispose of tsunami debris. I cannot really call distrust of government or industry assurances irrational, given that government reports have been confusing and corporate announcements may be self-serving. But I do hope that people in Japan and around the world can overcome their fear and suspicion in order to embrace survivors from Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi, and other areas affected by the disasters.
I don’t know how much academic papers or personal blog postings can contribute to Japan’s recovery, but I sincerely hope that we are helping to move in the right direction.
Cantrell, Akiyo Maruyama. 2006. Hiroshima Stories: The Construction of Collective Memorialization in Survivors’ Narratives. PhD Dissertation. Department of Linguistics, University of California, Santa Barbara. AAT 3238784.
Cantrell, Akiyo, and Chad Nilep. 2012. “You are contagious”: When talk of radiation fears overwrites the truth. NU Ideas 1(1), 10-14.