- The Day the Sun Rose in the West: Bikini, the Lucky Dragon, and I
This riveting account of Ōishi Matashichi's exposure to radioactive fallout is accessible to both academic and general audiences. As a twenty-year-old fisherman, Matashichi was one of twenty-three crewmembers aboard the Lucky Dragon, which strayed within eighty-seven miles of the Bravo thermonuclear bomb test that was conducted on 1 March 1954. The Japanese vessel's twenty-two-year-old captain had known that Enewetak was off-limits but not that the US government had expanded the danger zone to include Bikini Atoll, which was ground zero for the Bravo test. Bravo remains the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated by the United States, 1,000 times more powerful than either of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The devastation of those two cities had provided ample evidence of the [End Page 223] horrors of nuclear weapons during wartime, but the Lucky Dragon's voyage exposed the dangers of these weapons in all contexts when its crew returned displaying evidence of radiation sickness and with "death ash" from the detonation still coating the vessel. Matashichi's account vividly details how the "Bikini Incident" catalyzed a Japanese movement to abolish nuclear weapons. (The monstrosity of damages unleashed by nuclear weapons would mythically come to life in Japanese films in the form of Godzilla, who rose from the ocean's depths as a consequence of a detonation on Bikini Atoll.) Reawakened to the horrors of nuclear weapons, thirty-two million Japanese people signed a petition to abolish nuclear weapons the year after the Lucky Dragon's voyage.
One of the most disturbing story lines to emerge from Matashichi's account is the political horse trading between the United States and Japan in the aftermath of the Bikini Incident. In an effort to discredit the fishermen and to divert the public's attention from the physical trauma of radiation exposure experienced by the crew, the US government accused the Lucky Dragon of having been on a spy mission. The United States downplayed the radiation sickness of the fishermen and, not acknowledging any liability, offered Japan a $2 million "goodwill" settlement. Matashichi includes extensive passages from US government documents showing that the United States was offering enriched uranium to Japan just one week after the Bikini Incident. The Lucky Dragon became a bargaining chip for nuclear energy, and in 1956 Japan received its first nuclear reactor from the United States, to aid in postwar reconstruction. In exchange, the United States asked Japan to stop measuring radiation in the area and to refrain from criticism about US nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific.
Matashichi's book, published shortly before the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that ravaged Japan and damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, seems prophetic at times. The author discusses the links between postwar Japan and the risks of nuclear energy, pointing out that "nuclear power plants are controlled by computers, and these computers become obsolete. The greater their intricacy, the more likely the breakdowns or accidents. On top of that, Japan is prone to earthquakes. Geological faults crisscross the country. With so many nuclear power plants, it wouldn't be a surprise if an earthquake occurred with its epicenter directly below one of them" (71).
The perceived need to keep information from the public for political reasons described by Matashichi in the 1950s extends to the present, as evident in post-tsunami Japan. On 9 August 2011, the New York Times reported that "some current and former government officials have admitted that Japanese authorities engaged in a pattern of withholding damaging information and denying facts of the nuclear disaster—in order, some of them said, to limit the size of costly and disruptive evacuations in land-scarce Japan and to avoid public questioning of...