Kazuto Tatsuta’s Ichi-F: A Worker’s Graphic Memoir of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant occupies a unique position in the history of comics. It is probably the first work of journalistic comics in the world to supersede its prose counterparts as the most popular source on its topic. In the case of Ichi-F, that topic is the cleanup and decommissioning work at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the local name of which (“F-1,” flipped to “1-F”) gives the book its title.
The publisher of the English edition, Kodansha Comics, however, has opted to call this 550-page tome of dry, detailed reportage a “graphic memoir,” presumably because autobiography seems the easiest way to sell literary-minded comics outside the young-adult market these days. The original Japanese subtitle describes the manga instead as a “rōdōki,” literally a “record of labor,” putting more emphasis on the work itself than the person doing the work. The difference might seem trivial, but it speaks to many of the things that Ichi-F both succeeds and fails in doing.
With clear, diagrammatic visuals and plenty of worksite chatter, Tatsuta narrates the typically long days of menial janitorial and construction work, as well as the tedious but necessary safety measures—from the different types of protective suits, gloves, and masks that have to be worn depending on where one works, to the constant monitoring of one’s radiation exposure to ensure, not just health, but access to the maximum number of work hours. He also explains the subcontracting system that has efficiently recruited enough men (3,000 to 7,500 were on site on any given day in the years Tatsuta was there, with a high rate of turnover) to stabilize the plant, but has been widely criticized for diverting two-thirds or more of worker pay to middlemen.
Tatsuta starts the book suspicious of antinuclear critics and protests; not a hundred pages in, he’s convinced they spout hogwash, at least on the subject of what is happening at ground zero. He likewise comes to the conclusion that media exposés about exploitative contracts, suicidally radioactive work conditions, and unreported worksite deaths are not only largely unfounded, but also detrimental to the progress of both the cleanup operations and the economic recovery of the surrounding region.
Though Tatsuta’s manga is not the only first-hand worker’s description of what has gone on in Fukushima (there are a handful of prose accounts), it is the one that gets referenced most frequently in Japan as a counterpoint to the many reports of worksite deaths (which are few, and none of which have had to do with radiation), worksite dangers (as Tatsuta shows, safety protocols are stringent and, with some exceptions in the immediate post-meltdown years, have been strictly enforced, such that heatstroke is today the biggest health concern), and worker exploitation through the subcontracting system. But Tatsuta’s nonchalance can be hard to swallow, especially given the long latency periods of radiation illnesses, the scandals involving underreported exposure doses, and a number of documented cases of companies abusing the subcontracting system to steal hazard pay and avoid government meddling in the event of workplace injuries. As important as worker safety and satisfaction are, Tatsuta’s singular focus on them tends to distract from some of the larger issues that surround Fukushima Daiichi.
Paternalism is a serious problem when it comes to nuclear matters in Japan, as in other countries. It was, and continues to be, a central trait of the corporatist state that insisted on nuclear power against strong regional resistance (often led by women), and created the conditions for the meltdowns by cutting corners and ignoring warnings in the first place. You have to look hard for the women in Ichi-F. There’s one, a female reporter, on page 320: “Wow, what a looker!” says Tatsuta’s coworker. Meanwhile, his colleagues circulate unnerving rumors of women in TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company, operator of the Daiichi facility) uniforms, in managerial positions no less—this in a chapter set as late as 2014. Tatsuta criticizes anti-nuclear hysteria, but that is hardly the only ideology that skews perception of what is going on in Fukushima.
Tatsuta clearly doesn’t care where the money goes (back to the nuclear and construction industry) or where it originally came from (taxpayers and energy consumers). He fails to see that, when Japan signed up for nuclear power in the 1950s, it made a deal with the devil; because of the technical complexity, security issues, political interests, and capital-intensiveness involved in nuclear power, the country now has no choice but to ask its jailor for deliverance. No amount of masculine sweat and good-natured smile will change that. When the decommissioning at Daiichi is due to take at least until 2050 and cost at least 21.5 trillion yen (189 billion USD), should the radiation exposure doses of individual workers—a subject that takes up a good chunk of Ichi-F—really be the only numbers we’re concerned with? And with fifty-some aging and halted reactors in Japan, Fukushima itself is just the beginning.
Ichi-F has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Japan and been celebrated extensively in the press. American, French, German, and other foreign reporters interviewed Tatsuta even before translations of his manga appeared. Despite this fame, the public knows little about the artist beyond the restricted window he provides in Ichi-F. “Kazuto Tatsuta” is a pseudonym, and all photographs show him disguised in a Mexican wrestling mask. He claims that he originally hid his identity so that he would be able to work at the plant again. But this shroud of secrecy, along with Tatsuta’s tendency to dismiss antinuclear voices while giving TEPCO and the Japanese government a free pass, has led some to suspect the author of being a lackey of the nuclear industry.
Read more at Fukushima from Within