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Decontamination worker in Fukushima

PIcture by: Lydia Matzka-Saboi

Victims of Fukushima still pay for failures of Japan’s government

A decade of injustice has passed since the preventable meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant

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On the 11th of March 2011, Japan’s Triple Disaster occurred after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck the eastern coastal region of Japan. It was so powerful that it not only shifted the Earth’s axis by 10 to 25 centimetres, but also triggered a deadly tsunami which destroyed the coastal areas of Tohoku and southern Hokkaido; claiming the lives of nearly 20,000 people, 70,000 homes and devastating communities. The prefecture of Miyagi alone lost 7% of its population.

Although fewer than 2,000 residents of Fukushima died from the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, lethal radiation spread across Japan’s third largest prefecture following the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The meltdown was primarily due to a power loss in the aftermath of the natural disaster.

Despite the government’s initial response to the nuclear accident being labelled ‘exemplary’ by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the events which followed were catastrophic. On the 12th of March, over 109,000 people within a 20 kilometre radius of the disaster were forced to evacuate. However, because the government issued poorly organised evacuation orders containing no sense of proper direction, residents soon found themselves in worse situations than they were already in. Eventually, circumstances became so dire, and the lack of government support became so apparent that aid was sought for the victims of Fukushima through social media where citizens would help locate displaced and deceased family members and friends.

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Adding to the blame that was placed on the government, the fact that the nuclear meltdown had occurred was largely due to both its own and Tokyo Electric Power’s (TEPCO), the company operating the power plant, poor crisis management. Based on these facts, it is obvious that the meltdown was preventable.

The company was not equipped or trained to handle emergencies, which became apparent from the staff’s muddled response to the problems; with the cooling systems of reactors 1 and 3. Furthermore, the government’s nuclear regulatory body did not even require the company to enforce specific safety measures. This included the additional construction to ensure their facilities’ safety against tsunamis following simulation results from 2008 and early 2011 regarding the impacts of natural disasters on the plants.

Subsequently, in September 2020, the ineffective response to the disaster resulted in the Sendai High Court ruling the Japanese government was primarily responsible for the event. It also ordered the state and TEPCO to pay approximately $9.5 million in damages to 3,500 plaintiffs despite the fact that they had originally sought $265 million in the form of monthly compensation.

However, it is not just the residents of Fukushima that were appalled. According to the Pew Research Centre, nearly two thirds of the Japanese public disapproved of the government’s recovery efforts.

Victims suffered not only as a result of relocation but the widespread fear of radiation, especially after the government announced radioactive caesium had been found in every prefecture following the event. Residents of Fukushima were left jobless, homeless and hopeless after most were unable to find work. Many women were unable to wed or have children since they were regarded as ‘tainted’, and relocated children were being shunned by peers at school.

Residents did not only have to endure any harmful side effects of radiation, but also the stress from relocation and the ongoing uncertainty of unseen toxicants manifesting themselves as physical ailments. Moreover, there was a spike in suicides by those who had lost their families and livelihoods. In the three prefectures of Iwate, Fukushima and Miyagi, there were 151 suicides in May 2011 alone.

Unfortunately up till this day in 2021, ten years later, a majority of the Japanese in the Tohoku region have been unable to move back home and carry on with their lives. Evacuation orders are still in effect for the 340 square kilometres of “difficult-to-return” zones and impacting over 35,000 people. All that remain are ghost towns. The decommissioning of the plant itself is expected to take over 30 years.

Although currently visiting the safe zones of Fukushima in order to actively take steps towards helping the affected communities is nearly impossible during a global pandemic, what we can do is educate ourselves and recognise the efforts of residents instead of “pitying from afar and avoiding up close”, therefore shifting societal attitudes for the better.

Written by:


Jinn Ong

Deputy editor-in-chief

Politics & Society Section Editor

Singapore | London, United Kingdom

Co-founder of Harbingers' Magazine

Born in 2006 in Singapore, Jinn studies in the United Kingdom. She speaks English and Mandarin and is currently learning Spanish and Latin. Some of her interests include history, social justice and culture studies.

Jinn was part of the team that launched the magazine, working primarily on a journalistic project about Singaporean Paralympians, where she analysed why economically robust societies cannot quickly progress in terms of inclusivity.

In the second year, Jinn combined the role of a feature writer with the responsibilities of the Society Section Editor.

In September 2023, she was promoted to the role of deputy editor-in-chief and the editor for the Politics & Society Section.


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