The Long Arm of the IRS (Irrational Radiation Stigma) all the way from Japan

April 14, 2011

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

This April 15, consider a different IRS, one Made in Japan.

Will an additional burden be imposed on Japan in the form of irrational fears and suspicions being attached to the affected people, Japanese goods, and perhaps to all persons and things Japanese?  We are in a window where only information and images from Fukushima have had any impact on our day-to-day lives. In a few months, there might be a rational basis for concern that some Japanese imports from Fukushima or downwind of that area may have unacceptable levels of radioactive contaminants. Radioactivity is invisible, but it can be detected, measured, and often removed by simple procedures like removal of dust, or washing of exposed surfaces. Not as easily contained may be an irrational stigma which appears to be on the rise related to radiation “from abroad”. Steve Crane of the BBC reports that the Japanese government will pay trade insurance benefits to industries negatively affected by radiation concerns in response to some countries refusing deliveries of goods that could not be contaminated by radiation. Feels like the IRS is already raiding the till. Every sign of Chinese coal smog and any hint to the fifth decimal place of Fukushima radiation floating this way over the Pacific are likely to fan smouldering anxieties into live coals of suspicion and fear, potentially igniting the bonfires of prejudice and resentment.

We have solid historical evidence of a kind of IRS within Japan itself. Sarah Boesveld of the National Post, in her article, “Stigmatized by No Fault of Their Own”, warns of the possibility of recapitulating  the fate of the 227,565 people recognised by the Japanese government as hibakusha, “radiation affected people,” survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. The hibakusha and their decedents, according to Boesveld, were seen in post-war Japan as having “a mark of shame, a sign that one is potentially damaged; impure by no fault of one’s own.” a stigma that narrowed life’s prospects, from employment to marital partners. The response to survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki stemmed from a traditional Japanese value of misogi, or all-encompassing purity, Boesvelt explains: “The Shinto religion holds moral, spiritual and physical purity as one of the most treasured traits in people and so it was thought that those exposed to harmful radioactive chemicals could not achieve that purity.” The hibakusha of WWII also suffered self-imposed penalties stemming from their expectation of discrimination and rejection, a self-rejection evidenced in self-denials such as not claiming medical benefits that would require having documentation of exposure to radiation. Perhaps there is no line between guilt and shame in the self-loathing that is spawned by a stigma that reaches into one’s DNA. Perhaps these feelings were almost natural in an era that saw race as a determinative human characteristic, that largely framed the war with the Japanese as not just a duelling of nationalisms but as a war between “peoples.” Both the marred and the visibly untouched bodies of those exposed to the nuclear blasts and lingering radiation served as emblems of the defeat of a whole people.

According to Radiation Effects Research Foundation, a joint US-Japan organization, after the nuclear bombing, the radioactivity at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was over 90% depleted in one week and returned to  less than the background level within a year. The half-life of the stigma was probably 25 years. The hibakusha ultimately transformed their victimization and stigma into heroism, both by their actions and the evolution and healing of Japanese society, partially aided by American support. The Japanese are in a moral position to be able to encompass blamelessness within misogi. Will it prove to be the case that the rest of the West is equally enlightened? (I say the rest, since here in the third millennium, Japan is integral to the West). The label “Made in Japan” has transformed over the decades from meaning cheap goods made by cheap labor to shoddy and derivative knock-offs to reminders of the rust encroaching on our industrial heartland (recall how Japanese autos were pummelled and even burned in public), to envy-provoking, high-tech, leanly designed, and profitable consumer goods.

Will the subliminal baiting of death that comes with riding a Suzuki motorbike become more of a scary turn-off than an exhilarating turn-on?  Is there a danger that “Made in Japan” will become a reminder of our self-poisoning presence as contemporary consumers, of our world-destructive lifestyles, and our inevitable mortality?


One comment

  1. Thanks for the inciteful summary of Japanese culture and the victimization of people suffering from nuclear radiation. After visiting the victims of Agent Orange/dioxin in Vietnam at the end of 2008, I went home and pulled out Escape From Evil to review sacrifice, scapgoat, etc since I saw that the war also sacrificed not only the “enemy” but its own military and allies to the scourge. I’m still studying Escape From Evil as other issues pile up.

    The radiation escaping from Fukushima is not only the short-lived Cessium type, but also includes the most lethal of all plutonium among others. If only we could trust the “people in charge” to share an accurate and truthful story.

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