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Okinawa’s Fukushima Connection: Nuclear Workers at Risk via Japan Focus

Jun. 14, 2011
Matthew Penney

Of Japan’s prefectures, Okinawa lies farthest from Fukushima Daiichi. At over 1000 miles from the plant, even Seoul is closer. Okinawa also has no nuclear plant and seems to be distanced from the consequences of Japan’s nuclear policies, but is this really the case?

Since the 1970s, Japanese academics and social commentators have highlighted the government and energy industry’s targeting of peripheral and impoverished areas for nuclear development. Large subsidies to impoverished communities undermined resistance to nuclear power plants, fierce in the 1970s, as local populations fragmented between groups that considered atomic energy an existential threat and those that saw it the only hope to bring the type of prosperity promised by Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei’s Nihon retto kaizoron (On Remodeling the Japanese Archipelago). In this vision, infrastructure development, ranging from big dams to hydropower and nuclear power plants, was posited as the best way for the declining hinterland to share in the high growth prosperity of Japan’s major cities and the Pacific industrial belt. Tanaka made these arguments just as the “oil shock” was shaking Japanese energy policy, heralding the shift to nuclear power as an answer to dependence on Middle East oil.

It was not just peripheral areas that were targeted, however, but also peripheral groups. Coal mining regions, where livelihoods collapsed from the 1960s as the nation shifted to primary reliance on oil, were a fertile ground for recruiting nuclear workers. Also, as outlined in books like Genbatsu ha sabetsu de ugoku (Nuclear is Powered by Discrimination), burakumin – Japanese who faced discrimination because the jobs of their ancestors were held to be “unclean” professions such as tanning and graveyard work – were also targeted by recruiters at a time when discrimination in mainstream society made even dangerous unskilled work in the nuclear industry attractive.

What then of Okinawa? Okinawa is Japan’s poorest prefecture. Okinawan children score the lowest on nation-wide standardized tests. The area has Japan’s highest unemployment along with one of the lowest minimum wage levels and one of the highest rates of welfare dependency (statistics here and here). Discriminatory attitudes among some mainlanders hold these figures to be a result of “prefectural characteristics” such as poor work ethic and alcoholism. Kevin Maher, a top Japan-hand at the US State Department, echoed crude but unfortunately common patterns of denigration of Okinawans when he accused the people of the prefecture of being “lazy” and “masters of manipulation and extortion”.

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