Yellow Blood: Hepatitis C and the Modernist Settlement in Japan via Japan Focus

Of course, hepatitis C virus had nowhere to go from the leprosy sanatoria; like its human hosts, it was incarcerated there, but beyond the sanatoria, the modernist settlement in Japan meant that the HCV introduced as a corollary of programs to eradicate schistosomiasis leaked all over Japan between 1940 and 1980, forming a huge bolus of infections that would not be seen until the last years of the 20th century. Yet, once the different parts of this bolus came to light, they could all be tracked back to elements of the modernist settlement and modernization in Japan. Take for example, the story of the Daigo Fukuryū Maru. On March 1, 1954 the United States detonated a hydrogen bomb at Bikini, an atoll of 23 islands circled around a 230 square mile lagoon in the western Pacific region of Micronesia. The explosion turned out to be considerably larger and more powerful than anticipated.
Radioactive contamination spread widely in the region and a plume of lethal fallout swept over a Japanese tuna fishing boat trawling about 100 miles east of Bikini: Daigo Fukuryū Maru or Lucky Dragon No. 5. For hours, sandy radioactive ash rained down on the 23 crewmen aboard Daigo Fukuryū Maru. By the next day most of them were ill, nauseated, vomiting, in pain and with inflamed skin: all symptoms of acute radiation sickness. By the time the trawler returned to its homeport at Yaizu in the Shizuoka area, the crew were acutely ill with radiation disease. One died in September 1954. The others were hospitalized, treated, and survived. By 2004, however, more than half of these surviving Daigo Fukuryū Maru crewmen were dead from liver cancer or cirrhosis caused by chronic HCV infection. At first, their diseases were put down to alcohol abuse, but by 2010 it was clear that Japanese doctors had used blood transfusions to treat the leukopenia caused by the crewmen’s radiation sickness and that the donated blood had been contaminated with hepatitis C virus.22 As Dr. Akashi Makoto, director of Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences, remarks, “Exposure to American nuclear fallout and exposure to HCV are not directly tied, but the hepatitis C virus infections originated as part of the Lucky Dragon No. 5 incident.”23
Akashi is on the right track here: the HCV infections of the Daigo Fukuryū Maru crewmen do indeed refer us to the Cold War. Beyond its conflict of ideas, the Cold War was a battle between two infrastructures. Infrastructure provides the wide-ranging techno-scientific modernist solution to the fragmentation of “macro, meso, and micro scales of time, space, and social organization” in modern societies; it forms “the stable foundation of modern social worlds.”24 Yet, the Daigo Fukuryū Maru HCV infections and deaths were also consequences of the late Meiji and Taishō modernist settlement within Japan which had blindly delivered an HCV epidemic in its solution to schistosomiasis, itself both a clinical and a political problem. From the schistosomiasis solution, HCV entered the blood supply of postwar Japan. But the trajectory of the virus from prewar schistosomiasis programs to the blood banks and plasma processing factories of Japan in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s passed through another techno-scientific modernist solution to a political problem that amplified the endemic spread of the virus: methamphetamine.

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One Response to Yellow Blood: Hepatitis C and the Modernist Settlement in Japan via Japan Focus

  1. norma field says:

    This is an article not about radiation but history whereby Heptatis C became distinctively significant in Japan. That this story intersects with the plight of the crew of the Lucky Dragon No. 5 helps us see the intersections of modern medicine, radiological science, and cold war history.

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