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Japan’s Nuclear Question - Part I: Historical Background - Hikmet Can Çakan

Despite the painful memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan’s commitment to nuclear energy dates back quite early to the 1950s. In the year 1954, the first budget for nuclear researches was approved in the diet, two years later, in 1956, the law called ‘Long-Term Basic Plan for Nuclear Power Development’ was passed, and finally, in 1958, the first nuclear power plant started to operate.

From then on, the utilization of nuclear power has steadily increased. This short series of essays aims to give an idea about Japan’s use of nuclear energy with a particular focus on pro and anti-nuclear actors in domestic politics. It will examine the arguments of both camps and the debates revolving around the concepts of energy security and nuclear risk. This part starts with the projection of a brief historical background.

The first anti-nuclear sentiments appeared in the face of Hibakusha (survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) had been campaigning against nuclear weapons from the victim’s perspective discourse. However, interestingly, anti-nuclear discourse in Japan gained momentum as a result of the emergence of consumerist and materialist-oriented opposition to the nuclear bombs. In 1954, twenty-three fishermen aboard the vessel named Lucky Dragon No.5 were exposed to radioactive fall-out caused by a US hydrogen bomb test in Bikini Atoll. In the aftermath of the Bikini Atoll Incident -the first global environmental crisis of the Cold War era-, contaminated water, and fish caused panic in the fishing industry and the household.

Especially the prices in the tuna fish markets plummeted after the publication of the radiation spread and contaminated the Pacific ocean where most tuna fishers operate. The profit loss of the fishing industry frustrated the people who make their livelihoods, the anger towards both the US government who tested the hydrogen bombs and the Japanese government that had been unable to protect fishermen’s interests had grown.

On the other end of the chain, consumers -overwhelmingly housewives- were alarmed by the ‘contaminated fish.’ The traditional role of the women in Japanese society had been articulated as ‘good wives and wise mothers’ who had to take care of consumption and health issues at home for their husbands and children. These housewives thus felt threatened by the ‘contaminated fish’ in their kitchen. The growing discomfort with the contamination of livelihoods and food, as Higuchi verbalized as ‘trouble of fishermen and housewives,’ led the emergence of much inclusive anti-nuclear grass-roots activism than that of the traditional discourse voiced by Hibakusha, left-wing and the anti-US nationalists.

During the 1980s, the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents worried many Japanese. However, the LDP reassured them by confidently saying that these would never take place in Japan, relying on technical superiority, skillful and motivated staff, and in-depth safety controls. Expansion of nuclear energy continued nearly three decades with full-speed until the 2011 Great Eastern Japanese Earthquake that comes along with a devastating tsunami that damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The amount of radioactive materials spread into the atmosphere is ten times higher than Chernobyl and at least one hundred times that of the Hiroshima bombing. On the eve of the 3/11, Japan had the third largest commercial nuclear power program worldwide, with 54 active power plants operating nationwide that generate nearly one-third of its electricity.


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