The invisible people – the Hibakusha – victims of atomic radiation

HibakushaThe Radiation That Makes People Invisible: A Global Hibakusha Perspective Robert Jacobs The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 12, Issue 30, No. 1, August 3, 2014.

Radiation makes people invisible. We know that exposure to radiation can be deleterious to one’s health; can cause sickness and even death when received in high doses. But it does more. People who have been exposed to radiation, or even those who suspect that they have been exposed to radiation, including those who never experience radiation-related illnesses, may find that their lives are forever changed – that they have assumed a kind of second class citizenship. They may find that their relationships to their families, to their communities, to their hometowns, to their traditional diets and even traditional knowledge systems have been broken. They often spend the remainder of their lives wishing that they could go back, that things would become normal. They slowly realize that they have become expendable and that their government and even their society is no longer invested in their wellbeing.

As a historian of the social and cultural aspects of nuclear technologies, I have spent years working in radiation-affected communities around the world. Many of these people have experienced exposure to radiation from nuclear weapons testing, from nuclear weapons production, from nuclear power plant accidents, from nuclear power production or storage, or, like the people in the community where I live, Hiroshima, from being subjected to direct nuclear attack. For the last five years I have been working with Dr. Mick Broderick of Murdoch University in Perth, Australia on the Global Hibakusha Project. We have been working with victims in radiation-affected communities all around the world. Our research has revealed a powerful continuity to the experience of radiation exposure across a broad range of cultures, geographies, and populations. About half way between beginning this study and today the triple disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant occurred in Japan. One of the most distressing things (among so many) since this crisis began is to hear people, often people in positions of political power and influence, say that the future for those affected by the nuclear disaster is uncertain. I wish that it were so, but actually, deep historical precedents suggest that the future for the people who lived near the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns is predictable.

Here I will outline some continuities in the experiences of radiation-affected people. Most of the following also holds true for people who merely suspect that they have been exposed to radiation, even if they never suffer any health effects. Many have already become a part of the experiences of those affected by the Fukushima disaster. There are, of course, many differences and specificities to each community, but there is also profound continuity……..

Conclusion–Radiation makes people invisible. It makes them second class citizens who no longer have the expectation of being treated with dignity by their government, by those overseeing nuclear facilities near them, by the military and nuclear industry engaged in practices that expose people to radiation, and often by their new neighbors when they become refugees. People exposed to radiation often lose their homes, at times permanently, either through forced removal or through contamination that makes living in them dangerous. They lose their livelihoods, their diets, their communities, and their traditions. They can lose the knowledge base that connects them to their land and insures their wellbeing.

Radiation can cause health problems and death, and even when it doesn’t it can cause anxiety and uncertainty that can become crippling. Often those exposed to radiation are blamed for all of the problems that follow their exposures. After a nuclear disaster we count the victims in terms of those who died but they are only a small fraction of the people who are truly victimized by the event. Countless more suffer the destruction of their communities, their families, and their wellbeing. The full scale of devastation that a nuclear disaster wreaks is unknowable.

The lives of those exposed to radiation, or those in areas affected by radiation but uncertain about their exposure, will never be the same. As Natalia Manzurova, one of the “liquidators” at Chernobyl said in an interview published two months after the Fukushima triple meltdowns: “Their lives will be divided into two parts: before and after Fukushima. They’ll worry about their health and their children’s health. The government will probably say there was not that much radiation and that it didn’t harm them. And the government will probably not compensate them for all that they’ve lost. What they lost can’t be calculated.”10

(This article is expanded from an article originally published on the SimplyInfowebsite. Original can be seen here)

Robert Jacobs is an associate professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University in Japan and an Asia-Pacific Journal Associate. He is the author of The Dragon’s Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age (2010), the editor of Filling the Hole in the Nuclear Future: Art and Popular Culture Respond to the Bomb (2010), and co-editor of Images of Rupture in Civilization Between East and West: The Iconography of Auschwitz and Hiroshima in Eastern European Arts and Media (2012). His book, The Dragon’s Tail, is available in a Japanese language edition by Gaifu. apanese language edition by Gaifu. He is the principal investigator of the Global Hibakusha Project.  http://japanfocus.org/-Robert-Jacobs/4157

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