Fishermen exposed to H-bomb test warn of dangers of radiation after Fukushima
February 26, 2014
THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
For decades, former crew members of a Japanese fishing boat exposed to a U.S. thermonuclear hydrogen bomb test kept quiet about their experiences, fearing discrimination from a public with little knowledge about the dangers of radiation.
But as the 60th anniversary nears of their exposure to the hydrogen bomb blast, surviving crew members, many now over 80 years old, have begun passing on their experiences in the waters near Bikini Atoll.
The Fukushima nuclear accident, triggered by the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, thrust the dangers of radiation exposure back into the spotlight, just like 60 years ago.
At the time, during the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union were engaged in a nuclear arms race. In the first test of the U.S. Castle Bravo project, the 15-megaton bomb detonated on March 1, 1954, was 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945.
The men aboard the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, a tuna fishing boat based in Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, were exposed to the fallout from the blast. Of the 23 crew members, only seven are still alive.
Masaho Ikeda, 81, remembers an exchange among older crew members on deck at the moment the bomb was detonated at dawn on March 1.
“The sun has risen!” a crew member shouted.
“The sun never rises in the west,” replied a perplexed shipmate.
Ikeda was a 21-year-old engineer who was checking machinery in the engine room when the blast occurred. He quickly started up the engine when someone yelled, “Let’s get out of here.”
Ikeda and the other crew members who were exposed to the fallout were hospitalized. He would later return to his home in Yaizu, only to face discrimination. People were afraid to approach him, concerned that radiation was contagious. Not wanting to trouble his family, he rarely spoke about his experiences to an audience.
However, in September 2013, he began speaking at schools and other locations in response to a request from a local citizens group.
“I may not have much longer to live,” Ikeda says. “After seeing the Fukushima nuclear accident, I strongly felt I had to pass on my own experience of being exposed to radiation.”
Although he eventually underwent surgery for stomach cancer, Ikeda worked as a truck driver until reaching retirement age. There is still a scar on the back of his left hand where fallout from the sky landed that March morning 60 years ago.
“I feel as though I have always been ill, but I want to continue talking as long as I am alive,” Ikeda says.
Another former crew member who has begun talking about his experiences is Susumu Misaki. Last September, the 87-year-old invited about a dozen senior high school students to his home in Shimada, Shizuoka Prefecture, also in response to a request from the same citizens group.
He talked about what it was like when he first returned home to Yaizu from Bikini Atoll.
“Once, when I was taking a bath, I used a dosimeter to measure the bathwater and the needle went beyond its limit,” Misaki says.
Misaki spent 14 months in the hospital. After being discharged, he opened a tofu shop. On more than one occasion, he heard insensitive people joke about “nuclear bomb tofu.” He chose to ignore their comments, realizing it would be useless to get into arguments over it.
The tuna caught by the Daigo Fukuryu Maru on that fateful fishing expedition had to be destroyed. Yaizu also suffered for a long time from the negative publicity associated with the incident.
Misaki feels sorry for the fishing ports in Fukushima Prefecture that are now facing a similar fate because of the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
“Radiation is dangerous,” he says. “Fukushima is going through the same thing we faced.”
One crew member who has been relating his experiences for many years is 80-year-old Matashichi Oishi.
In late January, Oishi spoke at a junior high school in Tokyo.
“I want to talk about what happened when the ‘ash of death’ was created,” he tells the students. “Unlike Hiroshima, there was no black rain, but we were showered by white rain. It had no smell or taste.”
The black rain that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the 1945 atomic bombings was fallout composed of dust, ash and debris.
The white rain that Oishi referred to was fallout made up of pulverized coral that was blown into the sky by the hydrogen bomb. The fallout caused dizziness and nausea among the exposed crew members. Blisters formed on their skin where the white ash landed. About 10 days later, the hair of many crew members began falling out.
A fisherman since he was 14 years old, Oishi was 20 when the hydrogen bomb was detonated. After facing discrimination and prejudice, Oishi also had to deal with jealousy among those who learned that he and other crew members received about 2 million yen ($19,550) in compensation from the U.S. government.
He moved from Shizuoka to Tokyo and ran a laundry shop while keeping secret his experience on the Daigo Fukuryu Maru.
Oishi married, but their first child was stillborn. He also was diagnosed with liver cancer. Still, no additional support was provided because the compensation from the U.S. government was considered the final settlement. His former crewmates began dying
when they were still in their 40s and 50s.
That led Oishi to begin speaking about his experiences when he was about 50.
“Politicians are hiding the dangers of radiation,” he says.
While the United States and Soviet Union were building up their nuclear weapon stockpiles during the Cold War, Japan began constructing nuclear power plants in earnest.
“Even though we went through frustrating times, we were all but forgotten,” Oishi says. “It was as if the term ‘Bikini Atoll’ itself no longer existed.”
However, after the Fukushima nuclear accident, Oishi was flooded with lecture requests.
“What happened on Bikini Atoll 60 years ago is being quietly repeated in Fukushima,” he says.
Oishi could not help but link the evacuees from Fukushima Prefecture with the residents of the Marshall Islands, many of whom could not return to their homes after they were exposed to radiation. The United States conducted 67 tests of nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands, the site of the U.S. Pacific Proving Grounds, between 1946 and 1958.
Oishi temporarily suspended his speaking engagements after suffering a brain hemorrhage in 2012. He still finds it difficult to speak because of the aftereffects. He has resumed speaking, but now relies on the assistance of Mari Ichida, a curator at the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall in Tokyo’s Koto Ward, where the fishing boat is on display.
On Feb. 25, Oishi left for the Marshall Islands to attend a meeting to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the fishing boat’s exposure to fallout that is planned for March 1.
It will be his first visit to the Marshall Islands in 10 years. Although he may not be in the best of health, Oishi said he wants to continue speaking out to remind people that mankind cannot exist alongside nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants.
(This article was compiled from reports by Sokichi Kuroda, Koichi Tokonami and Masato Tainaka.)
Posted under Fair Use Rules, with deep appreciation to Asahi Shimbun for publicizing this important issue.