Editorial: Japanese government must adopt relief measures immediately for victims of nuclear fallout at Bikini Atoll

How many more years will the Japanese government leave victims of radiation exposure without redress? Many Japanese fishing boats were sailing near the Bikini Atoll, located in the central Pacific Ocean, when a hydrogen bomb test was carried out by the United States in 1954. A lawsuit was filed by 45 former crew members of those boats and family members of deceased crew members seeking compensation from the government. But the ruling handed down by the Kochi District Court completely rejects the plaintiffs’ claim.

The ruling is in line with the national government’s view that the case is a “settled matter,” that the damage the crew members suffered to their health can simply be forgotten and the slate can be swept clean. But this is cannot be accepted.

The Daigo Fukuryu Maru (The Lucky Dragon No. 5), a tuna fishing boat from Shizuoka Prefecture, was not the only boat exposed to nuclear fallout from the hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll. Some 1,000 Japanese fishing boats were around the area when the test was conducted. The “ashes of death” (nuclear fallout) from the test fell over a vast area, and a large quantity of fish suspected of having been exposed to and contaminated by radiation had to be destroyed.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs argued that they were deprived of their opportunity to seek redress from the United States because the Japanese government concealed the results of the investigation into the damage inflicted on the fishing boats and their crew for a long time. The plaintiffs demanded that each former crew member receive 2 million yen in compensation.

The news of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru’s exposure to nuclear fallout sent shock waves across Japan. The death of the boat’s chief radio operator then led to the movement to ban A- and H-bombs. But before long, the problem was obscured by a “political settlement” as the government sought to keep anti-American sentiment from growing stronger.

Instead of holding the United States legally responsible, the Japanese government received a consolation payment of 2 million dollars (then 720 million yen) from the U.S. government and tried to bring this issue to a close, with the exception of the continuing investigation into the crew members of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru. The damage done to crew members of other fishing boats was ignored.

The government persisted in saying that records on the levels of radiation exposure of the fishing boats and crew members could not be found. But in 2014, after a support group for the former crew members doggedly demanded that the government disclose the information, documents covering a total of 556 boats were made public. And twelve of these boats were found to have been exposed to some level of radiation. This disclosure, though, was made 60 years after the hydrogen bomb test and clearly shows the government’s insincere attitude toward the victims of this event. It is only natural that the plaintiffs would criticize the government for its “intentional cover-up” of the information.

In its ruling, the district court acknowledged that the crew members, with the exception of one, were exposed to radiation, but said it could not affirm that the national government intentionally covered up the information. In addition, it concluded that it was difficult for the former crew members to receive redress because the time period for demanding national reparations, which is 20 years, had already passed.

The plaintiffs wanted to make the national government’s responsibility clear and to have it adopt relief measures for crew members of fishing boats other than the Daigo Fukuryu Maru. The ruling did not even clarify why the government did not disclose the information for so many years. This is absolutely unacceptable for them.

Even though their exposure to radiation has been recognized, it is not easy to establish a causal relationship between this radiation exposure and their illnesses. Along with the lawsuit, 11 of the plaintiffs claimed worker-related accident compensation for seamen, but their applications were dismissed by the Japan Health Insurance Association at the end of last year. The association said their exposure doses were not deemed high enough to impact their health.

But the former crew members said that they were not interviewed. The decision could not have been made with consideration of the actual health damage they suffered. It is likely that more former crew members from all over the country were exposed to nuclear fallout while they were working around the test site, even though this fact has been buried. More than 60 years after the hydrogen bomb test, they have grown old. Many of them may have died without knowing that they were exposed to radiation. The Japanese government did not make efforts to comprehend the health damage they suffered or conduct follow-up research. The government’s responsibility for its nonfeasance is grave. Whatever the court ruling said, the government must begin providing relief to the victims at once.

(Originally published on July 21, 2018)