Fukushima Needs a Hero: Responsibility and Democracy in Japan


Read this article in Japanese.


By Akio Matsumura



Yastel Yamada is 73 years old. He seems a little tired after weeks on the road in the United States. He is trying to save Japan.

Yastel Yamada is center.

One of the first people I have met who can tell the inside story of the Fukushima accident, Yamada is concerned that work is not being done on the three nuclear reactors that melted down last year because the high radiation levels are still keeping TEPCO workers away. The crippled buildings are unstable, still contain nuclear assemblies, and present a long term threat to the people in the area. The cooling systems especially are a cause for concern. Mr. Yamada, founder and president of the Skilled Veterans Corps for Fukushima (Fukushima Genpatsu Kodotai), along with 700 members, want to help clean up the site.


The rationale behind the Skilled Veterans Corps is that even if the workers get cancer from the radiation, it may take 20 years to develop, wherein average life expectancy only gives them 12 to 15 years to live anyway. He doesn’t believe they should risk young lives to do work that his group can happily and capably handle. On his current tour of the United States he is gaining support for Americans to pressure the Japanese government into taking a more responsible route with the disaster: his group, as well as an international assessment team, should be let in.


Beyond cleanup of the site, Mr. Yamada doesn’t believe TEPCO has the technological capabilities to deal with the long term issues. TEPCO, he says, doesn’t believe this either. TEPCO’s plan, according to Yamada, is to contain the radiation in the next 40 years. He estimates they will need 50 years or perhaps much longer.


Cancer from direct radiation poisoning is not the only concern. Even taking the TEPCO estimate, 40 years of radiation contamination in the food chain will have sizeable effects in Japan and perhaps in neighboring countries. The public debate in Japan has shifted to restarting power plants across the country, and little is said about the long term effects of the accident.


Mr. Yamada’s approach in seeking U.S. support is the same one I undertook early this year. Regrettably I do not expect much of an outcome. After 17 months, the situation is worsening and unless Japan requests the independent assessment team and guarantees a huge budget to carry out the team’s technical advice, the US government will not step in. Even though it is sympathetic to nuclear waste storage issues and recently imposed a new ban on new reactor construction and licensing renewals, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, under new chair Allison MacFarlane, will not extend itself to tackle non-essential issues, especially with a presidential election in sight.


I feel sorry to see his disappoint reaction and at the same time I have growing concerns about the management of the national crisis where the central government, local government, TEPCO and media have barriers to speak out about the worsening situation.  This political and social culture is described by Mr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, chairman of the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Accident Independent Investigation Commission:   


THE EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI of March 11, 2011 were natural disasters of a magnitude that shocked the entire world. Although triggered by these cataclysmic events, the subsequent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cannot be regarded as a natural disaster. It was a profoundly manmade disaster – that could and should have been foreseen and prevented. And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.

How could such an accident occur in Japan, a nation that takes such great pride in its global

reputation for excellence in engineering and technology? This Commission believes the

Japanese people – and the global community – deserve a full, honest and transparent answer to this question. What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster “Made in Japan.”

Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.


Japanese culture may have played a role in the accident, but it is not a helpful indictment. It gives an easy and inexcusable break to those individuals who are responsible. We need individuals to champion the health and security of Japan’s residents.


Mr. Yamada is willing to put his country first and make a large sacrifice on its behalf. I am encouraged by his efforts but imagine his exasperation as he lobbies the Japanese cautious establishment.


On the other end of the spectrum, in age at least, are the three girls of Soma High School who staged a play about the suicide of a friend in the wake of the accident. Young colleagues in the United States, calling themselves Friends of Fukushima, admired their courage and created English captions that allowed it to be watched around the world.


Friends of Fukushima has been offered by their friends in Pakistan, Germany, France and others to translate it into their languages. In democratic countries, those old enough are able to express our opinions with our vote. If you’re too young, this opportunity—the focal point of democracy—is lost. However, YouTube provided a place to grieve and call for something different. Their message was of despair tinged with hope. It is hard for me to understand why Soma High School had YouTube remove the video. (They claim there is a copyright issue). They should be encouraging their students’ brave messages, not censoring them.


It is a fundamental issue for democracy that the freedom of speech for those too young to vote is guaranteed.
Mr. Yamada is a hero of the older generation. The three actresses are heroines of the young. I am ashamed that those in the middle generation, those who have the power to tackle the largest issues, are weak, cowering behind the excuse of a stoic culture. Hiding in the anonymity of bureaucracy. Bowing to an unshakeable status quo. Fearing for their careers and reputation while their country’s health is at stake.


Fukushima needs a hero. Where are the champions of this current generation?


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