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Commemoration and Meaning: The Case of Fukushima

Robert Jay Lifton and Scott Gabriel Knowles

Abstract: Disaster commemoration serves as a moment to remember victims and honor survivors. In the case of 3.11, commemoration works differently. As a slow disaster, with radiation exposure and evacuation at the center of the story, 3.11 is not yet over. This places special importance on commemoration as a moment for memory, but also for ongoing commitments to research, justice, and health interventions for survivors.

Commemorations of disasters are necessary. They can provide survivors—and the world in general—a sense of where things stand in relation to destruction, the pain caused, and the relief time may have brought. Commemoration can also be a way to give meaning to the disaster itself. But those meanings can be misleading if they minimize the effects of disaster or pronounce shallow claims of recovery.

A case in point is the tenth-year commemoration of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown of 2011. The Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency marked the occasion by claiming that “The equipment reacted just as it was designed to do—it stopped!” He did admit that “the ensuing damage caused nuclides to be released into the environment,” but insisted that “scientists have found no evidence that this caused radiation-induced health effects.”1 The meaning he communicates is that there was a bit of a problem, it was immediately taken care of, some dubious materials might have leaked out, but nothing bad happened. There was no real disaster.

That is not the meaning the event holds for the 37,000 people who had to be evacuated, and have still not returned to Fukushima prefecture.2 Their meaning, and that of most thoughtful outside observers, starts with the vulnerability of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors to the extreme events of earthquake and tsunami. Survivor meaning would also turn on the unknown effects of the recent decision to deposit radioactive materials into the ocean.3 It would focus on the resistance by government and nuclear-industry officials to studies of future dangers from nuclear waste, and from radiation effects that could occur over decades and even centuries. Above all, that survivor meaning would include concerns about prevailing radiation levels as well as danger of future bodily effects on the part of people exposed.

At the heart of this meaning is the fear of what one of us (Lifton) has called “invisible contamination,” a fear of a poison that a survivor cannot see, smell, or feel, and whose effects are so lasting, even if they do not show up in one year—or in one generation—they may well do so in the next. As a Hiroshima survivor put it: “You may look healthy from the outside but all of a sudden something goes wrong and you are sick and you die.”4

Hiroshima survivors described their terror at witnessing and experiencing grotesque radiation symptoms: acute effects of severe diarrhea, bleeding from various bodily orifices, dreaded “purple spots” from bleeding into the skin, extreme weakness and frequent death. Delayed effects including increased incidence of leukemia during early post-bomb years, and later of cancer of the thyroid, stomach, lung, ovary, and uterine cervix. Since it is known that radiation can have genetic effects over the generations, there was much fear in Hiroshima about giving birth to abnormal children.

Hiroshima August 6, 1945

The full panoply of nuclear fear is a constant anywhere radiation danger is involved. Fear of invisible contamination has been widely identified in people exposed in Fukushima, as well as in many living far beyond that province—this includes evacuees, first responders, and doctors and nurses who stayed behind in Fukushima.5 Such fear also emerged at the American Three Mile Island disaster of 1979, where less radiation was released than at Fukushima.6 With the much greater disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, that fear has been pervasive and remains at a considerable level. The same fear occurred in Americans exposed to nuclear radiation in various other places: to plutonium waste at Hanford, Washington, in connection with the production of the Nagasaki bomb; to nuclear testing over decades at Rocky Flats, Colorado; and to Ground Zero at test sites in Nevada, from which G.I.’s were marched shortly after nuclear explosions. None of this should be dismissed as “hysteria” or “exaggerated psychological reactions.” We are speaking of the nuclear fear—the fear of invisible contamination—that results from substantial release of radiation, no matter what the source.

What does it mean to pass the 10th anniversary of 3.11 under such conditions? Disaster anniversaries sit on the calendar, they are predictable. Historians know that they can reliably look back at news coverage one, five, and ten years after any disaster to see how recovery proceeded, how the disaster was framed by different political regimes, and which victim support groups persisted while others disappeared. But history is not a stable element, and as such anniversaries sometimes re-ignite political battles over the meaning of a disaster. The commemoration of a disaster anniversary opens the possibility for cynical revision and exploitation by politicians and industry groups eager to declare that the past is now safely in the past. Commemoration meaning can be falsified by bureaucratic collusion between industry and government, which can contribute to denial, rejection, and cover-up of radioactive consequences. Such collusion is notorious in Japan. There were significant protests in Japan against the use of nuclear energy, but pro-nuclear forces prevailed, in part by insisting that there was a significant difference between the technology of nuclear power and that of nuclear weapons. This illusory distinction is restated by those who use moments of commemoration to promote nuclear energy.

The anniversary also demands a recapitulation of trauma, a command performance for survivors and families still grieving, as well as those who may have truly integrated the disaster into their lives and chosen no longer to publicly engage with it, if they ever did. A disaster like 3.11 has its own special complications, a combination of earthquake, tsunami, and radiation, affecting people of all ages, from fishermen to nuclear power plant workers—spread out over a large area, and with many thousands of bodies never recovered. There is not a coherent 3.11 experience for survivors. The harms were many, and variable, and this makes activism for victim support more complicated. Due to the radiation exclusion zone going into effect, many survivors have found themselves advocating for resources to return to empty towns and shattered homes they aren’t totally sure they want to live in again.

Nowhere is the timescale of disaster memory more unpredictable than in cases of radiation exposure. With Hiroshima survivors, for instance, every year brings new testimonials from survivors who tell their stories of August of 1945 for the first time. Similarly, as STS scholar Kyoko Sato has noted, there will most certainly be Fukushima survivors who will not share their truths for many years to come.7 In this way it may be possible that Fukushima memory could “puncture the nuclear mystique” that has gripped Japan since reactors were built in the 1960s.8 This can occur only if anniversary discussions give way to a greater focus on survivor-based memory. Victims’ families, and activists can find in such anniversaries the opportunity to bring their own memories and demands into discussion once again for new audiences. Memorial ceremonies, the reconvening of dormant support groups, educational outreach to students, even phone calls and emails from distant friends and family all serve positive roles for a disaster affected community, even ten years later. And the anniversary serves as a meeting ground for disasters past and present—any discussion of Fukushima now, for example, must take place in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing need for strong public health measures.

New dynamics are at play now as well that offer hope Fukushima memory might not recede so easily from the public mind once this year is over. Research and public policy insisting on post-traumatic mental health support (in Japan starting after the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake) for survivors has been effective in countering the more traditional idea that disasters end once relief payments are made and buildings are rebuilt.9 We are increasingly recognizing that a disaster is a process, not a single event in time. Victims will suffer on the day, and in the aftermath. As we note in the recently published volume Legacies of Fukushima: 3.11 in Context, “the linked disasters of 3.11 were in crucial ways part of a much longer process, a slow disaster that connected the events of a disastrous era … traumas of the Japanese past: radiation exposure, tsunami flooding, seismic destruction, massive evacuation and loss of home and community.”10 Climate change can also be an important factor in causing and sustaining disasters.

Nuclear disaster commemorations can and must leave space for the new exploration of old harms—and they must be in sync with ongoing strategies of mental health service provision as well. Is this too much to ask in a Fukushima commemorative year marked by pandemic and climate change related disasters around the world? Not if disaster history is to be of any use at all in the struggle to reduce disaster risk and heal survivors. As Liz Maly and Mariko Yamazaki note in their recent review of Japanese disaster memorials, 3.11 demands special attention to the overlapping historical trajectories of loss and trauma in Japan. “Important issues for future consideration,” they note, “include comparisons across not only pre-3.11 museums about disasters caused by natural hazard events, but also Japanese precedents of how experiences and lessons from other human-made disasters are conveyed, including by the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, and Minamata Disease Municipal Museum, which tells the story of industrial pollution and poisoning of the local community.”11

What’s needed now in this year of Fukushima commemoration is a turn towards the fusion of these ideas, grounded in the reality that nuclear fear demands. We should emphasize the healing function of commemoration. That includes enhancing the mourning process of survivors, instead of impairing that process by negating their pain. Survivors and victims’ families can find in such anniversaries the opportunity to bring their own memories and demands into discussion for new audiences. Memorial ceremonies can reintegrate sources of support and provide extensive educational outreach. By confronting painful disaster effects, there can emerge valuable forms of what can be called survivor wisdom. These anniversaries can also connect, psychologically and politically, with disasters past and present.

Commemoration events can serve as moments of collective renewal, with survivors in the vanguard.


COVIDCalls. (2021) Fukushima and the Pandemic: A 3.11 Memorial Episode with Sulfikar Amir, Kohta Juraku, Kyoko Sato, and Ryuma Shineha [Online video]. March 8. Accessed: July 18, 2021).

Cleveland, K, Knowles, S., and Shineha, R. (eds.) (2021) Legacies of Fukushima: 3.11 in Context. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Honda, N., Kelman, I., Kikuchi, S., Kim., Y., Kobayashi, N., Nemoto, H., Seto, M., and Tomita, H. (2019) ‘Post-Disaster Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in the Areas Affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake: A Qualitative Study’, BMC Psychiatry, 19(261). 

International Atomic Energy Agency. (2021) Ten-year Anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Accident: A Decade of Improving Nuclear Safety [Online] Accessed: June 15, 2021. 

Lifton, R. (1968) Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima. 2nd edn. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 

Lifton, R. (1986) ‘Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Hiroshima’, New York Times, May 18 [Online]. Accessed: July 18, 2021). 

Loh, S.L. and Amir, S. (2019) ‘Healing Fukushima: Radiation Hazards and Disaster Medicine in Post-3.11 Japan’, Social Studies of Science, 49(3), pp. 333-354. 

Maly, L. and Yamazaki, M. (2021) ‘Disaster Museums in Japan: Telling the Stories of Disasters Before and After 3.11’, Journal of Disaster Research, 16(2), pp. 146-156. 

Normile, D. (2021a) ‘This Physician Has Studied the Fukushima Disaster for a Decade—and Found a Surprising Health Threat’, Science, March 4 [Online]. Accessed: July 18, 2021. 

Normile, D. (2021b) ‘Japan Plans to Release Fukushima’s Wastewater into the Ocean’, Science, April 13 [Online]. Accessed: July 18, 2021.

Rich, M. and Inoue, M. (2021) ‘Ten Years After Fukushima Disaster, This Nurse May Be the Region’s Best Hope’, New York Times, March 9 [Online]. Accessed: July 18, 2021.



International Atomic Energy Agency, 2021.2

Normile, 2021a.3

Normile, 2021b.4

Lifton, 1991.5

Rich and Inoue, 2021; Amir and Loh, 2019.6

Lifton, 1986.7

COVIDCalls, 2021.8

Lifton in Cleveland, Knowles, and Shineha, 2021.9

Seto, et. al., 2019.10

Cleveland, Knowles, and Shineha, 2021.11

Maly and Yamazaki, 2021.

September 7, 2021 Posted by | Nuclear | , | Leave a comment

Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian writer who won a Nobel Prize for her book on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, visited evacuees in Fukushima Prefecture recently to hear about their experiences.

Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015 for her writing about human suffering through the testimonies of witnesses of the Chernobyl disaster. She has been highly praised for her oral history of that event.

Alexievich was invited to speak at a university in Tokyo.

“It may be impossible to stop nuclear power plants right away, but it’s important to consider what you can and should do,” she said at the event.

Alexievich’s books are written collages of testimonies by ordinary people. Her book, “Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future,” published in 1997, is representative of her work. It’s a collection of statements from the victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster 30 years ago in the former Soviet Union.

About a quarter of the land in Alexievich’s home country of Belarus was contaminated and seriously damaged by radioactive material. Even now, many former residents are not allowed to return to their hometowns.

Alexievich spent more than 10 years interviewing over 300 people, sometimes on camera.

“In the last few days, whenever I lifted my husband’s body, his skin would peel off and stick to my hand,” the wife of one firefighter told her.

She then wrote about their deep shock and continual sadness.

The Nobel Committee described her work as “polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”

“I try to listen to people no one sees or hears,” Alexievich says. “There’s much more power in their emotions than in economic or medical data…. So I think it’s important to remember their lives.”

Alexievich came to Japan to hear what people in Fukushima prefecture have to say, and visited temporary housing to listen to residents’ stories.

She met with a former resident of Iitate village, a town that’s still under an evacuation order.

“I was a dairy farmer in Iitate, but now I’m unemployed,” Kenichi Hasegawa told her.

Before the earthquake, he had about 50 cows, and was living with 7 members of his family that spanned 4 generations. Hasegawa drove Alexievich to his former home, which still stands empty.

After the accident, all of his cows had to be put down or let go. Unable to continue dairy farming due to radiation, Hasegawa decided to demolish the cow shed. His family is now scattered.

“Wasn’t it difficult to leave home?” Alexievich asked him.

Yes, it was… We can’t live the way we did before the accident, because of the radiation,” Hasegawa said.

Government officials say the evacuation order on Iitate will be lifted next March, but Hasegawa is anxious about the future.

“They say we’ll be able to return home, but haven’t mentioned their plans for the village after that,” he says. “My children won’t be returning.”

“In Fukushima, I saw the exact same situation I’d seen in Chernobyl. The destroyed homes, the empty villages and cities, the victims’ despair — they’re all the same,” Alexievich said. “In both countries, governments rushed to develop new technology, but they weren’t able to fulfill their responsibilities. They were irresponsible toward ‘the ordinary people.’”

Alexievich was also told the story of a dairy farmer who committed suicide. A close friend of the farmer took her to the place where he died.

“He left a note saying, ‘I wish there’d been no nuclear power plants here,'” Hasegawa said.

Alexievich has spent years focusing on the suffering of ordinary people and making their voices heard. Visiting the 2 disaster-stricken regions has renewed her sense of determination.

“No one completely understands the horror of nuclear power. Literature should communicate it, and so should philosophers. It’s not a job for politicians alone,” Alexievich said. “In other words, we need to look at what happened in Chernobyl and Fukushima and put them together, to form new knowledge…. I saw the future, not the past, and we need to work on that future.”

It has been 30 years since the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, and 5 years since the one in Fukushima. The future depends on never letting the voices of “the ordinary people” go unheard — that’s the message from Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich.

8 dec 2016.jpg

December 11, 2016 Posted by | Nuclear | , , | Leave a comment

Nobel-winning Belarusian writer Alexievich speaks on nuclear disasters and the future of human hubris

Alexievich: “the wonderful civilization turned into garbage” referring to the Fukushima Triple meltdowns…


Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature, called the nuclear catastrophes at Chernobyl and Fukushima events that people cannot yet fully fathom and warned against the hubris that humans have the power to conquer nature.

The 68-year-old Belarusian writer was in Tokyo at the invitation of researchers at the University of Tokyo, where she gave a lecture on Friday. More than 200 people attended.

The Nobel laureate, who writes in Russian, is known for addressing dramatic and tragic events involving the former Soviet Union World War II, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the 1991 collapse of the communist state.

Her style is distinctive in that she presents the testimonies of ordinary people going through traumatic experiences as they speak, without intruding on their narratives.

Alexievich, who visited the Tomari nuclear power plant in Hokkaido in 2003, recalled a remark by an official there that a catastrophe like Chernobyl would not happen in Japan because “Japanese are well-prepared for quakes and are not drunken, unlike Russians.”

But 10 years later, the wonderful civilization turned into garbage,” she said through a Russian-Japanese interpreter, referring to the 2011 Fukushima core meltdowns.

Humans have occupied a position in nature that they should not. It is impossible for humans to conquer nature.

Nature is now rebelling against humans. We need a philosophy for humans and nature to live together,” she said.

Referring to the policies of Japan and other countries to stick with nuclear power even after Chernobyl and Fukushima, she said: “I think that, unless we change our thinking, nuclear power generation will continue.”

Alexievich also said that documenting catastrophes like Chernobyl and Fukushima, whose effects will last for decades, is a big burden for writers. Listening to the voices of people affected by a catastrophe is like being forced to relive it, she explained.

Yet, pointing out that fictional works on Chernobyl, such as novels and movies, have not been successful, she stressed the importance of collecting the voices of citizens.

A catastrophe has not yet been incorporated into culture. The only language that has been able to convey a catastrophe is testimonies (by people who have experienced it), she said.

She cited the story of a Soviet pilot who died of radiation exposure after splashing sand over the radiation-spewing Chernobyl plant. She remembers him as telling her: “I could not understand what I saw with my eyes. You will not understand, either. But you must record it and hand it down to future generations. Then they may understand it.”

Alexievich acknowledged that people today live in a difficult era.

People are looking to the past to find solutions for today’s problems. This trend is testified to by the rise of conservatism. Never before in the past has the vulnerability of democracy manifested itself so clearly,” she said.

Remembering that even German fascism and Soviet communism are gone, intellectuals need to encourage people so that they will not despair.”

November 28, 2016 Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , , | 1 Comment

Nuclear disasters and “normalization” of contaminated areas

Fukushima 311 forever remembered

Translated by Kingsley Osborn

Political, economic, health, democratic and ethical

The nuclear lobby is beginning to openly assert that the evacuation of populations affected by a major nuclear accident is too expensive, is the source of lots of hassles, accidents, despair families, ruin the local economy.
To some additional cancers it will not be worth it to impose populations.

Sezin TOPÇU is PhD in sociology of science and technology, she is a researcher at the National Scientific Research Centre (CNRS) and teaches at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS). She is the author of “Nuclear France. The art of governing disputed technology “(Le Seuil, 2013) and co-edited the book” Another story of the postwar boom. Modernization and pollution disputes in France after the war “(with Christophe Bonneuil Céline and Pessis, La Découverte, 2013).

Here is the introduction to his analysis:
Minimizing impacts of a catastrophic nuclear accident is set to become a classic of our time, and not only in countries where the presence of nuclear installations is important, such as France, or in countries that have already undergone an accident, such as Japan and Belarus, but also in countries that do not. This minimization, which seems to impose forcefully, is the ability to “resilience” of specialists in nuclear, that is to say, industrialists, nuclear states, and certain regulatory bodies, both national and international.

How the specialists in nuclear-they managed to trivialize the radioactive wrong with that? By what means, strategies and watchwords governing bodies have managed to formulate the problem in terms of evacuation procedures and even its legitimacy, when we should collectively discuss the legitimacy to continue to make use of facilities that have potential for processing and destruction unparalleled in the territories, natural resources, living species, and human body?
from these questions, this paper aims to contribute to the emergence of a political debate and citizen which is long overdue, around the issue of contaminated territories in case of nuclear accident.

Three Mile Island? The French nuclear officials there saw immediately that an “incident” or a “glitch”. Chernobyl? In 1996 again, the World Health Organization (WHO) only accounted for 32 deaths. Fukushima? The disaster paradoxically accelerated the offensive of the Japanese nuclear industry for exports. No other sector causes, accident, such bitter controversy and permanent (with expertise, evidence / no-evidence, observations, assessments and also contrasting and contradictory), on health impacts experienced by affected populations.

Beyond the very serious consequences on the health of populations, whose proof or recognition are made difficult due to the latency that require radiation-induced diseases to manifest itself, but also the secret or active factory ignorance that often surround them, a nuclear accident also means the sacrifice of entire territories.
the challenge for specialists in nuclear, since the 1990s at least, is indeed to minimize the sacrifice in the eyes of public opinion. To ensure that the renunciation of land does not occur, or only take place only temporarily. A instrumentalize, for this suffering, certainly real but no singular evacuees to believe that those who remain on their land, even though they would offer more than enough healthy living conditions, suffer for nothing. A claim that may well “learn to live” with ambient radioactivity.

The first part of this note reviews the genesis of panel discussions, legal arrangements and managerial tools for the management of contaminated territories. This is to recall that the unmanageable nature of damage caused by a major nuclear accident has been recognized by the nuclear experts in the 1950s, which has historically conditioned the doctrine prevailing today, whereby post-accident measures (including the abandonment of contaminated areas) will necessarily be limited or should be optimized.

The second part of the note looks at how the contaminated territories have been effectively treated in post-Chernobyl and post-Fukushima. Socio-economic and geo-political criteria that influence how to design the future of the evacuated areas, their status, and they could not “return to normal” are analyzed here.

The last part of the note stresses the importance of official strategies to psychologizing disasters to minimize abandonment of contaminated land, but also to push into the background the prospect of a fair assessment of the health damage caused in the event accident.

To read the entire article: The Show as PDF (400KB) The view on the EPF website

The website of the Foundation for Political Ecology:

We’ve been warned: the next nuclear accident, we will be strongly urged to stay or return to live on contaminated territories.

Catastrophes nucléaires et « normalisation » des zones contaminées

June 12, 2016 Posted by | Nuclear | , | Leave a comment