Rebuilding a Region: Tōhoku Five Years Later

Telling the Story of Fukushima


Five years after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami touched off a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the disaster is no longer just a current event—it is also a part of Japan’s history. But how should that history be told? Government and civil society groups have different answers, and they are starting to emerge in a battle of museums.

A Tale of Two Museums

In a flurry of caption writing and message tweaking, Fukushima prefectural government officials are currently putting the finishing touches on a major new exhibit about the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Starting this summer, the exhibit will be permanently displayed at the ¥20 billion Fukushima Prefectural Environmental Creation Center in the town of Miharu. Plans are in the works to send every fifth-grade student in the prefecture on a field trip to view it. The goal, according to the organizers, is to “address the worries and concerns of Fukushima residents, further understanding of radiation and environmental problems, and deepen awareness of environmental recovery.”

Some 40 kilometers away, in a small post-and-beam hall in the city of Shirakawa, a group of local citizens are planning a very different kind of exhibit. Their displays focus on the ways in which the government exacerbated the disaster and disregarded the rights of Fukushima residents in its aftermath. They will be exhibited at the Nuclear Disaster Information Center, which was built in 2013 using ¥30 million yen in donations from the public, with the goal of ensuring Fukushima and its lessons are not forgotten.

These two projects represent divergent understandings of how the Fukushima nuclear disaster should be remembered. Given their vastly unequal resources and reach, they also raise questions about the appropriate role of government in memorializing the disaster that rocked Japan and the world five years ago.

“People who have suffered from the Fukushima disaster have doubts about whether a public facility like the Environmental Creation Center can truly communicate the lessons of an accident for which the national and prefectural governments bear partial responsibility,” says Gotō Shinobu, an associate professor at Fukushima University, who is involved in planning the alternative exhibit in Shirakawa.

A Familiar Story

The quiet battle over historical interpretation that is playing out in Fukushima has a precedent in the seaside city of Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, the site of one of the most devastating industrial disasters in world history. Thousands of people living in the area were killed or severely sickened by mercury after Chisso Corporation dumped industrial waste from its chemical plant into the bay over the course of several decades, contaminating fish and shellfish and poisoning the people who ate them. Fifty years later, public and private museums in the area are still telling different versions of that history.

One version can be found at the Minamata Disease Municipal Museum, which was established in 1993 with the goal of “handing down the lessons and experiences of Minamata Disease,” according to its mission statement. Videos and panels in the ¥6 billion facility relate the history and science of the disaster, and victims are on hand to share their personal experiences. But Endō Kunio, a board member and employee of the nonprofit victims’ support organization Sōshisha, says the museum fails to communicate the disaster’s true lessons. “Simply lining up events does not equate to history,” he says. “The facts of what happened are there, but the museum doesn’t say much about their meaning.”

Since 1988, Sōshisha has run its own museum, which displays fishing gear, protest flags, and other artifacts in a converted mushroom-cultivation shed. Among its founding principles is the goal of recording the struggles of the victims and the culpability of government and industry. “Our starting point is the perspective that Minamata Disease resulted from criminal activities on the part of Chisso Corporation and the national government,” says Endō. That perspective has shaped the low-budget museum into a symbol of resistance against the sanitization of painful historical events.

Fukushima Fault Lines

The divide in Fukushima falls along similar lines. The exhibit at the prefectural center will include a timeline of events since the meltdowns, a “radiation lab” explaining the science of radiation and measures to reduce exposure, and a large display on efforts to increase renewable energy and sustainability in the prefecture, according to an overview released last year. Although the exhibit advocates for a “Fukushima that does not depend on nuclear power,” reporting by the Tokyo Shimbun has pointed out that its planning board included several members with close ties to the nuclear industry.

In 2014, shortly after planning began, a citizen’s group with antinuclear leanings called the Fukushima Action Project sent a letter to the prefectural authorities expressing concern over the exhibit. The group requested, among other things, that the center not minimize the health risks of radiation. Since then, FAP representatives have met eight times with prefectural officials to discuss the content of the exhibits. According to meeting transcripts posted on the group’s website, they expressed concerns this January that the exhibit still does not adequately address the severe and ongoing water pollution caused by the disaster or the huge amounts of radioactive waste generated by the cleanup.

Fukushima prefectural officials, meanwhile, note that the exhibit does not touch on government or industry culpability, the fact that radiation exposure limits were raised after the disaster, or the pollution and waste problems because “these issues are not pertinent to the goals of the exhibit.” The facility’s goal, they explain, is “supporting educational activities related to radiation and the environment”; in response to public concerns about the exhibit, they state only that the exhibit content was determined by a panel of experts.

Nagamine Takafumi, the director of the Nuclear Disaster Information Center, is also deeply skeptical about the public museum. “We believe the goal of the Fukushima Prefectural Environmental Creation Center is to create a myth of radiation safety,” he said. He and his colleagues are currently planning two permanent exhibits for their center. One, designed by Fukushima University’s Gotō, will compare global teaching materials on nuclear power and highlight the Ministry of Education’s pronuclear bias before the disaster. The other will examine the failure of all but a few municipalities in Fukushima to distribute potassium iodide pills immediately after the accident, which would have lowered residents’ risk of developing thyroid cancer.

A Third Perspective

Another private, but less politically driven, museum operates from an outbuilding at an abandoned school in the village of Kawauchi, about 25 kilometers inland from the nuclear plant. Called the Kangaeru Shirōkan, which translates roughly to “a museum for feeling, thinking, and understanding,” the free facility displays protective bodysuits, radiation meters, photographs, town newsletters, and other artifacts of the meltdown.

The museum was founded in 2012 by Nishimaki Hiroshi, a local journalist who moved to the area from Saitama Prefecture nine years ago. He says that in the months following the disaster, he wanted to do something constructive, but felt immobilized by the scale and complexity of the meltdown’s aftermath. When novelist and longtime friend Taguchi Randy suggested he open a museum, he acted on the idea.

The displays include scant explanatory text, and Nishimaki is rarely on site to act as a guide. His says his goal is simply to present the reality as locals have experienced it so that it will not be forgotten. “The government does bear some responsibility for what happened, but I don’t think of the displays as a way to attack them,” he says. Still, he has avoided government funding in order to maintain complete freedom in what he exhibits.

An Inevitable but Unequal Divide

It is hardly surprising that views of environmental catastrophe differ in private and public museums. Government actors partially responsible for a disaster are unlikely to be objective in planning a museum to memorialize it, and civic organizations that include disaster victims are equally unlikely to put aside their own experiences when interpreting the same events. In the case of the Fukushima disaster, divergent views on nuclear power further shape the messages presented in museums.

Public and private projects of historical interpretation can in this sense complement one another. Yet there is little chance the majority of the public will be exposed to both perspectives. As Gotō points out, the budget of the public museum is over 600 times that of the private one he is involved with, and visits to the private museum are not a part of any official school curriculum.

Last year, national and local officials met to discuss another large, government-funded museum focused on the nuclear disaster, this one planned to open on the prefecture’s coast some time in the coming decade. Although they haven’t asked, Minamata’s Endō has a piece of advice for them.

“It is all-important that the story of what happened be told by the people who live in that place,” he says. “When government officials and civil society groups interpret for them, it becomes something different.”

(Originally written in English. Banner photo: Fukushima Prefecture’s fields and mountains stretch away behind the stricken Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. © Jiji.)

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