History of Hiroshima : 1945-1995

History of Hiroshima: 1945-1995 (Part 18, Article 1)

Radiation exposure at Bikini Atoll

by Masami Nishimoto, Staff Writer

Note: This article was originally published in 1995.

The campaign against atomic and hydrogen bombs, which fueled the peace movement in postwar Japan, arose as a nationwide, grassroots effort in 1954 in the wake of a U.S. hydrogen bomb test at the Bikini Atoll. A Japanese fishing boat known as the “Daigo Fukuryu Maru,” or “Lucky Dragon No. 5,” was exposed to the radioactive fallout from this nuclear blast.

A signature drive appealing for a ban on hydrogen bombs, launched by Tokyo housewives and fishmongers, spread swiftly. It also generated public interest in the A-bomb damage in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a subject which had been taboo under the U.S. occupation. Against the backdrop of the nuclear arms race unfolding between the United States and the Soviet Union, Japan’s peace movement began to take shape. Focusing on relief measures for A-bomb survivors, the movement demanded that there be no more incidents like Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Bikini anywhere else in the world.

How did the A-bomb experience and this experience of radiation exposure grow into the “nation’s experience and memory” through the campaign against atomic and hydrogen bombs, which was sparked by the Bikini Incident? The Chugoku Shimbun will take a fresh look at this history. Unlike today’s peace movement, which has hardened into factions along party lines, the movement in those years was imbued with the freewheeling force of life and the great energy of the postwar period.

Former crew member of stricken boat says horror of “radioactive fallout” persists

Every two weeks, Matashichi Oishi, 61, receives a checkup, through the use of ultrasound, at the Toho University Hospital in Ota Ward, Tokyo. The regular checkup is performed to examine the condition of his liver, from which a tumor was removed at the end of 1993.

“I suffered the same disease as the other crew members,” Mr. Oishi explained. “I prepared myself for it, but I was told my risk of a relapse was 50 percent greater than those who were not exposed to radiation. If the illness returns, I don’t know if I’ll survive...” Mr. Oishi has returned from the brink of death two times, yet remains haunted by the horror of the radioactive fallout experienced that day at the Bikini Atoll.

On January 22, 1954, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, a tuna fishing boat with 23 crew members aboard, departed from Yaizu Port in Shizuoka Prefecture. As the wooden vessel of 140 tons creaked beneath their feet, the crew pursued their fishing operations in the Pacific Ocean, round after round. In the midst of the 14th round, a ball of light filled the sky.

“All of a sudden, the whole world was yellow,” Mr. Oishi recalled. “The light quickly grew and gradually turned red.” At the time, he was in a cabin in the bow of the ship.

According to the ship’s log, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru was at a latitude of 11 degrees (53 minutes) north and a longitude of 166 degrees (34 minutes) east at approximately 3:50 a.m. on March 1, 1954. Cruising in the central Pacific Ocean, the boat was sailing about 160 kilometers east of the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

Seven or eight minutes after this ball of light lit up the sky, a great roar struck the boat. The crew, alarmed that the boat might be lifted right out of the water, went to work, hauling in the main line used in their longline fishing. A huge dark cloud then filled the western sky.

Soon after, white ash fell, like powdery snow. Unlike snow, however, it did not brush off easily when swiped with a hand. “When I squeezed it, it made a crunching sound,” Mr. Oishi recalled. “And when it got into my eyes or my nose, it stung.” Shortly before 11 a.m., the crew members finished hauling in the fishing line.

“On our way back to Yaizu, Mr. Kuboyama (Aikichi Kuboyama, the chief radio operator) took out an article about the atomic bombings and said that it might have been an atomic bomb,” Mr. Oishi continued. “But, at the time, we knew next to nothing about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

No one imagined that the ashes, lightly covering the deck, were in fact “ashes of death,” or radioactive fallout, from a hydrogen bomb test. And they never could have dreamed that they would be haunted by the horror of these ashes for the rest of their lives.

The hydrogen bomb, which the United States had dubbed “Bravo,” was the most powerful bomb ever produced up to that time. Exploding 15 meters above the surface of the Bikini Atoll, it unleashed a force equivalent to 1,000 times the might of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and spread radioactive fallout over an area of 17,000 square kilometers.

When the people of Japan learned that the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, which returned to Yaizu 13 days later, had been exposed to radiation while fishing in the waters of the Bikini Atoll, there was an outcry. The public buzzed with fears over “A-bombed tuna.” Radioactive materials were also detected in the rainfall in Japan.

The nation’s shock reached its peak in September when Aikichi Kuboyama, who had been hospitalized in the First Tokyo National Hospital, died of his exposure to the hydrogen bomb test. He was just 40 years old. By the end of that year, it was confirmed that 856 Japanese fishing boats had been exposed to radiation as a result of the blast, and 486 tons of tuna were destroyed.

Voices calling for a ban on atomic and hydrogen bombs erupted among the public. The Japanese government, however, was still constrained by the lingering influence of the U.S. occupation.

Even Katsuo Okazaki, the foreign minister of Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida’s administration and the point man in talks over the incident with the United States, went so far as to say in a speech at the American-Japan Society on April 9 that he had no intention of calling for a halt to nuclear testing, and that such tests were necessary for the security of free nations.

The governments of Japan and the United States swept aside the question of legal responsibility for the radiation exposure suffered by the Daigo Fukuryu Maru in international waters as a result of the hydrogen bomb test. Instead, in January of the following year, they “settled” the Bikini Incident with a U.S. payment of “consolation money” in the amount of two million dollars (72 million yen at the time).

Given the context of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Japanese government put priority on the U.S. position. The diplomatic document involving the Bikini Incident, finally disclosed in 1991, conveys the mindset of the United States, which was more concerned with the confidentiality of its hydrogen bombs than the lives of the Japanese fishermen.

The document raises fears that the information involving a hydrogen bomb and radioactive fallout could fall into the hands of unfriendly nations. It goes on to request that Japan examine and censor material that the outside world would see.

The issue of nuclear damage, on the heels of the nuclear damage suffered by the A-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was subverted by the Japanese and U.S. governments into an issue involving “consolation money” to the Daigo Fukuryu Maru crew. The 22 men, who were horrified by the death of Mr. Kuboyama and were forced to linger in the hospital for a year and two months, each received two million yen in compensation.

Mr. Oishi left his life as a fisherman, which he had begun at the age of 14, and became an apprentice at a laundry in Tokyo. “To be honest,” he said, “I just wanted to hide among the crowds of a big city. So I moved to Tokyo.” After appearing to have regained his health, he was looked upon with envy when he received his share of the money.

He opened his own laundry in a residential area in Ota Ward, Toyko, then married at the age of 25. But the memory of the “ashes of death,” which he had tried to forget, surged back into awareness when his first child arrived stillborn. To contend with the pain, he poured himself into his work, standing there in front of his ironing board. He consciously paid no attention to the campaign against atomic and hydrogen bombs.

Later, blessed with a son and a daughter, Mr. Oishi would enjoy family outings fishing in the sea. Time went on in this way until the Daigo Fukuryu Maru again captured the public’s attention. In 1967, the boat was found scrapped at Yumenoshima, a dumping ground.

Following the Bikini Incident, the Japanese government, in talks with the United States, pledged to purchase the Daigo Fukuryu Maru with funds from the academic research budget of the Education Ministry. The boat was then moored in a corner of the port far from residential areas. After the decontamination work was completed, the boat served as a training ship for the Tokyo University of Fisheries. However, it finally fell into the hands of a scrap dealer who sold the engine and abandoned the boat at Yumenoshima.

Efforts to preserve the boat bore fruit, and the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall opened in 1976. “The ship was found and preserved in Tokyo, where I had intended to hide out,” Mr. Oishi explained. “Since around that time, the others in the crew have passed away one by one. All this gradually changed my way of thinking. I began to feel that I shouldn’t hide, I should speak out about the horror and suffering that nuclear weapons bring.”

In his off hours from work, he started sharing his story of the Bikini Incident at the exhibition hall. Since undergoing surgery in 1993, he says he has been driven by a fresh sense of urgency.

Masayoshi Kawashima, who served as a boatswain, died of liver cancer at the age of 46 in 1975. In 1979, Sanjiro Masuda, a deck hand passed away of the same illness at 53. The death toll among the crew, starting with Mr. Kuboyama, now stands at eight. Apart from one who was killed in a traffic accident, all were felled by liver disorders.

The former crew members of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru undergo “health checkups” every year at the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in the city of Chiba. Mr. Oishi cannot help but think that these examinations are not really designed to discover the cause-and-effect relationship between their health and their experience of radiation exposure.

He holds the growing suspicion that “They probably aren’t conducting detailed examinations because the findings would create a political problem.” The Japanese and American governments' efforts to preserve secrecy, which blocked a probe into the truth of the Bikini Incident, crosses his mind. He also feels some frustration over the fact that other former members of the crew have told him to simply “forget what happened.”

Mr. Oishi was also involved in the power struggle that ultimately split a group campaigning against atomic and hydrogen bombs. He is painfully aware of the feelings of fellow crew members who have chosen not to speak out in order to live a quiet life untroubled by the thoughtless remarks of others.

However, another emotion wells in his heart, too. “If we, the lucky ones who have made it this far, don’t speak out about it, who will convey the feelings of our dead comrades?” he said. “Even when people are in good health, once they’re exposed to radiation, they’ll be haunted by the horror of radiation until the day they die.”

Mr. Oishi’s first encounter with a resident from the Marshall Islands, a meeting that took place at the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall this past spring, has strengthened this conviction.

Residents of the Rongelap Atoll, located downwind of the hydrogen bomb blast in the Bikini Atoll, were forced to evacuate from the island and have yet to return to their ancestral land.

The movie monster “Godzilla” is born after the Bikini Incident

Eight months after the Bikini Incident, the movie “Godzilla” was released and advertised as “a film of imagination about a huge hydrogen bomb monster.” According to Toho Studios, which produced and released the movie, 9.61 million people turned out to see it. The first “Godzilla” movie, which spawned the subsequent boom in monster movies and remains a long-running series to this day, was inspired by the story of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru.

A simple story, a hydrogen bomb test rouses Godzilla from a deep-sea slumber and the monster attacks Tokyo. A young scientist invents a device called the “Oxygen Destroyer” and risks his life to slay the creature with it. The movie, which runs one hour and 37 minutes, is readily available on video.

When I viewed the movie again, I found that the dark monochrome images had a strong documentary feel. A siren roars to warn the public of Godzilla’s arrival; flames rage in Tokyo and the night sky is dyed an ominous hue; the wounded crowd into hospitals. At the time the movie was released, only nine years had passed since Tokyo was hit by Allied air raids.

At the same time, the movie includes such lines as “A-bombed tuna, radioactive rain, and now, Godzilla.” A Geiger counter, used to detect radiation, appears in the film when health checks are made of the wounded. In one scene, some female students sing out prayers for peace. Without question, the movie stirs reminders of the Bikini Incident and the A-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Tomoyuki Tanaka, 85, who served as the president of Toho Studios until April of this year, hit upon the idea for the movie. After his plans to co-produce a film with an Indonesian partner fell through, he made up his mind to bring “Godzilla” to life, a decision prompted by the Bikini Incident. On behalf of Mr. Tanaka, who is now suffering from poor health, Shogo Tomiyama, 43, a head producer, said, “Godzilla was created by the nuclear weapons produced by human beings, so it isn’t Godzilla that needs to change, it’s us. This has been Mr. Tanaka’s message throughout these action movies involving monsters.”

The late director Ishiro Honda, who directed the first installment of the Godzilla series, often described, in interviews, the A-bomb devastation he saw in Hiroshima on his way home from China after being discharged from the military. Mr. Honda also wrote the screenplay for the film. In the final scene, the main character known as “Dr. Yamane,” played by Takashi Shimura, murmurs the following line: “If hydrogen bomb tests continue to take place, we may see the likes of Godzilla again, somewhere in the world...”

The next Godzilla movie, the 22nd feature film in the series, will be released this winter.

(Originally published on May 21, 1995)