Interview with Kazuya Yasuda, chief curator of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall

60 years after the H-bomb test on Bikini: Desire to convey lasting effects of radiation

by Yumi Kanazaki, Editorial Writer

Sixty years ago, on March 1, 1954, the United States conducted a test of a hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. As a result, the 23 crewmembers of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5), a Japanese tuna fishing boat based in Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, were exposed to radiation. How should the harm caused by radiation, which has continued in the postwar years, be viewed through the prism of this incident? The Chugoku Shimbun spoke with Kazuya Yasuda, 61, chief curator of the Tokyo Metropolitan Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall, where the boat is preserved, about this and other issues.

When I visited the exhibition hall, I was amazed that that the fishermen had traveled to equatorial waters in that wooden boat.
At the time the boat was built in 1947, the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces (GHQ) had imposed restrictions on fishing in the waters around Japan and placed limits on the building of boats other than wooden boats for use in coastal waters. In 1952, when Japan regained its independence, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru and many similar boats were put to use for deep-sea tuna fishing. It is believed there were about 800 such boats, but the Daigo Fukuryu Maru is the only one left.

The public must have been shocked when they learned what had happened to the Daigo Fukuryu Maru.
Aikichi Kuboyama, the boat’s chief radio operator, was showered with the “ashes of death” [radioactive fallout] and died six months later, and the crew members who overcame acute disorders suffered terribly. The public’s fears reached a peak when some of the tuna landed by other fishing boats was found to be contaminated. By the end of the year, 20 million signatures had been collected on petitions calling for a ban on the testing of hydrogen bombs, and the signatures collected in Hiroshima were sent to the United Nations. This petition drive led to the movement to ban atomic and hydrogen bombs. It was also the basis for the public’s call for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

So, problems related to the Daigo Fukuryu Maru are still going on.
It is not accurate to say that they were limited to the Daigo Fukuryu Maru. That year alone the U.S. conducted six tests of hydrogen bombs. The residents of nearby Rongelap Atoll were treated like guinea pigs and exposed to large amounts of radiation. Many Japanese fishing boats were exposed to radiation, and the ocean was heavily contaminated. We refer to this collectively as the “Bikini incident.”

So, there is a need to tell people what led up to the boat’s preservation along with the facts about what happened 60 years ago.
I’d like people to know about the link to Hiroshima. After being used as a training ship for the Tokyo University of Fisheries [now the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology], the Daigo Fukuryu Maru was taken out of service, and in 1967 it was abandoned on Yumenoshima, an artificial island in Tokyo Bay that was built using waste landfill. News reports on the condition of the boat led to a movement to preserve it. People felt that we’d saved the A-bomb Dome, so we should preserve the boat too. It was around the time the preservation work was being done on the A-bomb Dome using funds raised by the citizens of Hiroshima. Enthusiasm for the effort inspired the Tokyo metropolitan government, and the facility to house the boat was built 10 years later.

In addition to displaying the ship, what efforts are you making with regard to the accounts of crewmembers?
Matashichi Oishi, one member of the boat’s crew, has worked hard to tell his story. But the harsh reality is that he won’t be able to keep doing that forever. He worked hard to convey to people that exposure to radiation causes tremendous suffering and that nuclear weapons are inhumane and must not be permitted. We must do more to find ways to pass on these thoughts and feelings.

For example?
Local retired teachers who were involved in the effort to preserve the boat work as volunteers and explain the items on display. I’d also like to promote an attempt to bring researchers and local citizens together by sharing the results of research, which are only presented at conferences, with the public through a lecture series.

What sort of visitors do you get at the exhibition hall?
In addition to citizens’ groups, about 500 groups of schoolchildren visit the museum every year. Because the museum is near Tokyo Disneyland, some schools include it in the itinerary for their school trips. Kids who are eager to learn are a blessing. But, whereas we used to get between 130,000 and 140,000 visitors a year, lately we only get about 100,000. I’d like to see our museum included in more peace education programs.

In terms of exposure to radiation, the accident at the nuclear power plant [in Fukushima] was a major turning point. Has there been a change in the reactions of visitors to your exhibition hall?
We get a lot of questions about the effects of radiation. We’re just a small facility run by the Tokyo metropolitan government, so our exhibitions are limited in size, but I’d like to serve as an entry point to broadening interest in nuclear-related issues. The harm caused by radiation and people’s suffering have been going on since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki through the present. I hope as many people as possible will confront that history through the Daigo Fukuryu Maru.


Kazuya Yasuda
Born in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture. Earned a degree in sociology from Hosei University in 1976. After working in the offices of the Japan Council against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs (Gensuikyo), became director-general of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Foundation in 2000. Simultaneously assumed the post of curator of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall in Tokyo, which is operated by the foundation. Part-time instructor at Chuo University and Keisen University. Co-author of Suibaku Burabo (The H-bomb Bravo).

(Originally published on February 5, 2014)