Nuclear Woes

Several times within the last century, Japan came close to national annihilation, or so it must have seemed to many in Japan. The 1923 Kanto Earthquake that devastated Tokyo, Yokohama and a number of surrounding prefectures, killed 140,000 people. The atomic bombs dropped onto Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945 obliterated the cities, immediately killed between 150,000 to 250,000 combined, and left legions severely injured and ill with radiation sickness. In the firebombing of Tokyo earlier that same year in which 1700 tons of incendiary bombs were dropped, 50% of the city was destroyed, and according to a very conservative estimate, 100,000 died.  The recent triple-disaster, the Tōhoku earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis was “apocalyptic,” in the words of German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.  Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan acknowledged that it was the worst national disaster since the World War II. Indeed, this latest chain of disaster is Japan’s worst nightmares combined.

Scholars of Japanese pop culture have long pointed out the relationship between Japan’s collective anxiety and the apocalyptic scenarios repeated over and over again in different fiction, anime and manga manifestations, starting from Bare Foot Gen, a manga series that began in 1945, to the iconic 1988 anime movie, Akira, to the 2006 movie, Japan Sinks, based on the novel of the same title. Godzilla (Gojira), however, is perhaps the singularly most well-known and potent metaphor of this psychic trauma. In the movie directed by Ishirō Honda and released by Toho Studios in 1954, Godzilla was a creature from the deep, awoken by the Bikini Atoll detonation test of the world’s first hydrogen bomb conducted by the United States.  Mutated by the radiation, the enraged Godzilla charged at Japan with the ferocity of earthquakes and tsunamis combined, utterly destroying Tokyo and the nearby fishing villages. Impervious to the entire arsenal of the Japanese Defense force, it ultimately succumbed to a new weapon even more powerful than the Hydrogen bomb–the Oxygen Destroyer. Though Godzilla is finally killed, the film left the audience unnerved about what worse nightmares this new weapon might have evoked.

In this Bikini Atoll bomb test, the Japanese public learned, twenty-three Japanese fisherman on a tuna fishing boat called The Lucky Dragon was sickened by the radioactive fallout. This incident coincided with the establishment of the Institute of Nuclear Study (INS) in Tanashi, Tokyo, with a budget of 230 million yen for the research and development of nuclear energy. Suspecting the Japanese government’s support of the INS had something to do with the US bomb tests in the Pacific, the creation of INS came under huge public protest. This suspicion was not baseless. On July 28, 1955, the Eisenhower Administration announced that it had been preparing to equip the military bases in Japan with Honest Johns missiles that could be fitted with atomic warheads. The public outrage at this betrayal led to the adoption by the Japanese Diet, the Atomic Energy Basic Law, which restricts the development and utilization of atomic energy to “peaceful purposes.” The Americans also made assurances that no nuclear warhead was to be fitted on Japanese soil. It is perhaps a cruel twist of fate that one of the first international rescue teams to arrive in Japan after the March 11, 2011 disaster came on the nuclear powered supercarrier, USS Ronald Reagan.

It is more than an understatement to say that Japan has an ambivalent relationship to nuclear technology. According to a study by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in 2006, Japan imported 96% of its energy resources.  To remedy this situation, 55 nuclear power plants are now in commercial operation. While the Japanese public has had much misgivings about the use of nuclear energy and especially the siting of plants and facilities, the majority of the population understands how critical nuclear energy is to Japan’s continued economic development and daily needs. In another IAEA survey, “Global Public Opinion on Nuclear Issues and the IAEA” conducted in 2005, Japan’s complicated relationship toward nuclear technology is made even more evident.  50% of the Japanese respondents to the survey believed that IAEA inspections of nuclear facilities were effective in safe-guarding operations of nuclear plants.  Compared to the 24% among the US respondents, Japan had a reasonably trusting relationship with the IAEA.  48% of the Japanese respondents supported the peaceful application of nuclear technology, compared to 39% of the US respondents. In the rather positive results in several other categories as well, one might conclude that the Japan public is by and large favorable toward nuclear technologies. However, this positive support was greatly diluted by one particular issue: “View on Nuclear Security.” 79% of Japanese respondents (compared to 56% from the post-9/11 US) expressed concerns about nuclear terrorism. This brought down the overall support for nuclear power to a mere 21% in Japan (the lowest 5th among the 18 countries surveyed). By contrast, though expressing skepticism in almost every category of the survey, the general acceptance of nuclear energy of the US respondents was 40%, the second highest among the surveyed, after South Korea.

As the only nation in the world that has suffered the effects of, not one, but two atomic bombs, Japanese attitude toward nuclear energy is indelibly tied to a fear of nuclear power’s military application. This study shows that the Japanese public’s greatest anxiety about nuclear technology is not about accidents, but the possibility of weaponization. It can further be argued that this anxiety is of nuclear weaponization specifically on Japanese soil. Many nuclear authorities have recognized that in fact, given the highly developed nuclear infrastructure, Japan is but a “screwdriver’s turn away from having nuclear capabilities.” Indeed, more than a few Japanese prime ministers over the last few decades have tried to justify the possibility of a Japanese nuclear weapons program, despite the Atomic Energy Basic Law, and despite the “Peace Constitution” (Article 9) that ban militarization. The Japanese public is aware of this gradual slide of their nation toward becoming a nuclear state as well. Some even support it, especially in light of North Korea’s antics in recent years. However, for most, with the lessons of the World War II still looming large, they believe nuclearization will only lead to unspeakable catastrophe.  The recent nuclear meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi plant only makes this so much clearer.

Godzilla, a pre-historic beast was conjured from the depths in 1954, the year Japan began its nuclear program.  Summoning dramatic storms and crashing waves, Godzilla provoked conditions all too familiar to those who have lived through even just one of the catastrophes in the 20th century. Despite its vengefulness, in the end, Godzilla is a tragic figure. It was created and killed by human’s awesome technological prowess and ever-increasing lust for even more destructive weaponry. If Japan is a victim of the successive generations of Godzillas, these Godzillas are also the conscience of Japan that continuously rises from the depths to rail against this unstoppable human capacity for destruction and technological hubris. In an interview given to Le Monde, the Japanese literary Nobel Laureate, Ōe Kenzaburō, who had written extensively about the suffering of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims, and is an outspoken critic against the nuclearization of Japan, pointed out the connection between the devastation of the Tōhoku Earthquake and Hiroshima: “The people of Japan, who have been burned by the nuclear fire, must not think of nuclear energy in terms of industrial productivity, they must not try to devise a ‘recipe’ for economic growth from the tragic experience of Hiroshima.” He further added, “Hiroshima must be engraved in our memories: It’s a catastrophe even more dramatic than natural disasters, because it’s man-made.  To repeat it, by showing the same disregard for human life in nuclear power stations, is the worst betrayal of the memory of the victims of Hiroshima.”1

Janet Ng is Professor of East Asian Literatures in the Department of English, College of Staten Island, City University of New York. Her books include Paradigm City: Space, Culture and Capitalism in Hong Kong (New York: SUNY Press, 2009); The Experience of Modernity: Early Twentieth Century Chinese Autobiographical Writings (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003); and Modern Chinese Women Memoirs(translations with introduction), co-editor Janice Wickeri (Hong Kong: Renditions Paperback, Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 1996.) She has also published many articles on Hong Kong and Taiwan literatures and urban culture in various academic journals.

Photo caption: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, Hiroshima.


1 Quoted from the Wall Street Journal blog, Japan Realtime,, retrieved on 2011/03/23

Related Posts

Nuclear Power/Knowledge The ongoing crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant intensified today, with worrying news emerging of radioactive iodine in Tokyo's water supply. The entire infrastructure of one of the world's most modern and cohesive societies seems to be threatened with collapse. Seen from outside...

Janet Ng