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By Dr. Alex Rosen

Yin and Yang – why Japan accepted nuclear energy despite Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Hiroshima Memorial in Berlin 2014, Photo: IPPNW

On August 6th, 1945, the nuclear bomb “Little Boy” exploded over Hiroshima and turned the city into a burning inferno. Three days later, on August 9th, Nagasaki suffered the same fate. Tens of thousands died the day of the explosions, nearly 200,000 until the end of the year, hundreds of thousands more were marked for their whole life – by injuries, burns, the consequences of radiation exposure, the loss of loved ones, traumatization and stigmatization.

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whose 70th anniversary we commemorate this August, were burned into Japan´s collective memory more than perhaps any other historical event. The survivors of the bombing, the so-called Hibakusha, and together with them the majority of Japanese, have been strong proponents of the prohibition and abolition of nuclear weapons and have shown their solidarity with the victims of more than 2,000 nuclear weapons tests all over the world. For the first time, a “Nuclear Victims` Forum” will  take place in Hiroshima this November, which gives a platform to all those who have suffered from the nuclear chain, including the inhabitants of uranium mining regions and those affected of civil and military nuclear accidents.
With this high sensitivity for nuclear issues, it is all the more astonishing that Japan has one of the biggest and most powerful  nuclear industries in the world today. The so-called “Nuclear Village”, the term used for the Japanese nuclear lobby, wields significant influence over politics and society in Japan, has intimate connections to the governing party and is probably the most influential economic lobby group in this country. It is surprising that a country which suffered massively under the consequences of military nuclear technology decided to make civil nuclear industry the backbone of its economy. We have asked several of our experts how this came to be.
Dr. Robert Jacobs, who works with the Hiroshima Peace Institute, explains that after 1945, the Japanese initially rejected nuclear technology completely. The US, allied with Japan after the war, even reported an “irrational fear of all things nuclear" on the part of the Japanese public. The majority of people around the world probably felt the same, having learned about the destructive powers of nuclear fission in August 1945.

But the US was interested in countering this global rejection. The American nuclear weapons arsenal developed into the main pillar of its military doctrine with the beginning of the Cold War, and nuclear missile sites were planned in the Pacific, also in Japan, to shorten the flight distance to the USSR at much as possible. So it was deemed necessary to change the “irrational fear" of the Japanese into acceptance. For this purpose, US president Eisenhower initiated the programme “Atoms for Peace” in 1953. In the process of producing weapons-grade plutonium, huge amounts of energy were generated – energy which could be used to produce electricity. The worldwide promotion of “peaceful” nuclear energy was intended to whitewash the bad image of nuclear technology and clear the way for a broad public acceptance.
In Japan, this idea was taken up as well– especially by politicians and companies anticipating influence, power and big profits. In Japan, politics and economy were traditionally closely connected. In the case of nuclear power, however, the proximity between companies, politicians and comptrollers soon exceeded every acceptable limit. But first, public scepticism had to be placated. The proponents of nuclear energy knew about the importance of semantics in Japanese thinking, and therefore first modified the language: While the word “nuclear” in "nuclear bomb" had been translated with the Japanese word “kaku” (“core”), the word “genshi-ryoku” (“nuclear power”) was chosen for "peaceful" nuclear energy. Only due to this linguistic differentiation was it possible to contextually separate the civil from the military nuclear industry in the heads of many Japanese, even though both industries were closely enmeshed in reality.
The next symbolic step was the construction of a Japanese nuclear power plant. Authorities in the US proposed the rebuilt city of Hiroshima as a first possible site – a symbol that after the “bad” atom which had destroyed the city and so many lives, now the “good” atom would follow, which would help to rebuild the city and give new life to Japan and its economy. This Yin and Yang thinking should have found favour with many Japanese and should have been an answer even to several Hibakusha's question: “Why did this have to happen?”. But the predominant majority of Hibakusha und of Hiroshima`s population stuck to the rejection of nuclear technology.  So the plans for a nuclear power plant in Hiroshima were prevented by vehement resistance from the local community. According to a new study by the newspaper Asahi Shimbun, two thirds of all Hibakusha still reject nuclear energy today.
In order to establish civil nuclear energy in Japan nonetheless, the US financed a major public campaign entitled “Atoms for Peace”  and set up a tour through 10 Japanese cities between 1955 and 1957. For several years, this campaign was even featured in Hiroshima's Peace Museum, causing great resentment among many Hibakusha, who had to witness the removal of artefacts of the nuclear bomb attacks and parts of the permanent exhibition to make way for nuclear energy advertisement. This intense propaganda of the nuclear lobby was supported by euphoric reports in governmental TV programs and newspapers. The slogan “Peaceful nuclear power will strengthen our economy” was soon omnipresent and did not fail to impress the Japanese population. From then on, the Japanese term “kaku” was associated with the terrible mass murders of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the word “genshi-ryoku” with economic growth and progress.

In the small city of Tokai-mura, north-east of Tokyo, the Japanese Atomic Energy Research Institute was founded in 1956, followed by factories for the production of nuclear fuel and Japan`s first nuclear power plant. Tokai-mura became not only the heart of the Japanese nuclear industry, but also the symbol for a corrupt, underregulated and accident-prone industry, which ran 58 nuclear reactors at more than 20 sites before the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima. Numerous leaks, explosions and fires, each leading to radioactive contamination,  characterized the image of the Japanese nuclear industry long before the multiple meltdowns in Fukushima. According to Dr. Jacobs from the Hiroshima Peace Institute, today “many individual  Japanese wonder how they could have so unquestioningly accepted nuclear power into a land plagued with earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes" and have begun to question "the economic and political forces that, with clear minds, ignored those very dangers from the start.” In addition, a culture of turning a blind eye and the collusion between politics, industry and controlling authorities led to the nuclear catastrophies of Tokai-mura and Fukushima. Even the Independent Investigation Commission of the Japanese parliament concluded in June 2012 that the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima was less the consequence of a natural catastrophe than a “man-made disaster”, caused by the "the  regulators’  negligence  and  failure  over  the  years  to  implement  adequate measures  against  a  nuclear  disaster,  as  well  as  a  lack  of  action  by  previous  governments  and regulators  focused  on  crisis  management."
The awareness that this time, not an attack by a foreign enemy but the failure of their own government had exposed the population to huge amounts of radioactivity, has led to resignation and confusion among many Hibakusha. According to Jacobs, the Hibakusha crave for an end to the nuclear era, an abolition of nuclear weapons and a world, where nobody must ever suffer from the nuclear threat again. Instead, now they see themselves confronted with pictures of women, children and elderly living in refugee camps as their homes were irradiated. The Hibakusha see children visiting school, wearing dosimeters, having to undergo medical examinations for the rest of their lives and fearing - exactly as the Hibakusha - increased cancer rates, effects on their genes and social stigmatization. These images are exactly the opposite of the future they are actually working towards. The psychologist Prof. Norika Kubota from the Iwaki Meisei University in Fukushima added: “Hiroshima  struggled  with  the  aftermath  of radiation  exposure  over  the  past  70  years.  So  it  must  have  a  special  sentiment  to Fukushima which currently  deals  with  it.  Hiroshima  will  be a model  as  well  as  comrade  for  Fukushima which  has  just started a long journey of recovery. ”

Read on:

·   Robert Jacobs: „How Nuclear Power Followed Nuclear Weaponry into Japan“
·   Noriko Kubota: „Hiroshima and Fukushima“
·   Hibakusha Worldwide: „Tokai-mura“ ( in English )

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