Rebuilding Human Bonds amidst Japan’s Disconnected Society PART II

A Shingon Monk brings “Light” to the Structural Discrimination of Laborers & the Victims of Nuclear Contamination

The ancient Japanese heartland of Yamato centered in the open plane of present-day Nara is surrounded by mountains except to east where it rolls down to the Bay of Osaka. After the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in the late 500s, these mountains became increasingly populated with itinerant, wandering monks known as hijiri 聖. Two of the most revered were Saicho and Kukai, who established their great mountain communities of the Tendai on Mt. Hiei to the north and the Shingon on Mt. Koya to the south. Before these centers were even established, a renowned warrior named Saka-no-ue Tamuramaro 坂上田村麻呂established in the year 806 a temple to venerate the healing powers of the Medicine Buddha (Yakushi Nyorai 薬師如来) in the mountains above the town of Obama on the northern coast of Wakasa, a strategically important area for it being the closest ocean harbor to Kyoto. From this temple, named Myotsu-ji 明通寺, and the numerous others that mushroomed in the region, Buddhist monks began developing relationships with the local people, offering rituals of healing and good fortune, as Buddhism slowly penetrated into the rural communities of Japan.

The beautiful grounds of Myotsu-ji Temple in Fukui

A millennium later, a young monk from this same Myotsu-ji temple named Tetsuen Nakajima brought a new spin to the traditional practice of going door to door begging for alms while reciting the Mantra of Light (komyo-shingon 光明真言). This mantra was traditionally part of a ritual to free those who at death had accumulated bad karma to allow them to be reborn in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha 阿弥陀仏. For Nakajima, this practice became part of a direct campaign to address the “bad karma” of nuclear power in Japan. The Mantra of Light was a prayer for the workers from the growing number of nuclear power plants in Japan who were becoming gravely ill from radiation exposure in the same exact ways that the surviving residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have after the American nuclear bombings. In 1968, at the age of twenty-six, Nakajima began this practice going on alms twice a month in his local area while handing out his newsletter, Suzukoe, on religious topics and nuclear problems. Nakajima recounts this time, “Meeting with radioactive poisoned workers and listening to their experience changed my life. I first met them when I was a university student at Tokyo National University of the Arts. Before meeting them, I was not interested at all in doing social work. However, I was moved by listening to how they have suffered. They suffer from various health problems. In addition, they are mentally damaged by prejudice and misunderstanding.”[1]

The first nuclear power plant in Japan was the Tokai plant commissioned in 1965 and located about halfway between Tokyo and the infamous Fukushima #1 plant that was commissioned shortly after in 1970. The two other earliest plants were the Tsuruga, commissioned in 1969, and the Mihama, commissioned in 1970. These became part of a sprawling network of reactors, numbering sixteen at its peak, built along the Wakasa coastline that became known as the Nuclear Ginza—an unfortunate metaphor alluding to the way the reactors were lined up like the fancy boutiques in the upscale Tokyo shopping district of Ginza. For Nakajima and his town of Obama, 1968 marked the year their own community became the target of a reactor project. At this time, he became a leading member of the Obama Citizen’s Association Against Nuclear Proliferation. Their petition movement against these reactors by fishermen, labor union members, and citizens was able gain enough support to force the mayor of Obama to turn down the “invitation” to host a reactor that he had initially accepted. The citizens of Obama have fought off further such invitations over the decades, and Obama remains the only community in Wakasa to reject nuclear energy through the will of its citizens. As Nakajima notes, however, “The ironic fate is that we are now besieged on all sides by a crowd of reactors.”[2]

The Mihama Reactor just north of Obama

Beyond the obvious threat of nuclear meltdown, which was eventually played out at the Fukushima #1 reactor far away, the hazards of daily life living near nuclear power plants remained an ongoing concern for Nakajima and his community. While few studies have been carried out in Japan, those in the United States found that from 1987 to 1998 infant mortality rates around nuclear reactors that had been shut down decreased, in some cases up to 15-20%.[3] The German government also released data in 2007 showing that the risk of children five years or younger getting leukemia while living within five kilometers of nuclear power plants is twice as high as those living beyond that distance.[4] One of the first ways the Nakajima and his community began to notice such problems were some of the locals in region who became ill after doing short term maintenance work in the nearby reactors.

Since the start of the nuclear boom in the 1970s, Japan’s monopoly of regional electrical utility companies has relied on such part-time workers for maintenance and plant repair work. However, due to the hazards of such work, these companies knew they could not expose their regular employees—who were part of the “secure” corporate family of modern Japan—and so turned to a class of cheap, “disposable” labor. These laborers were not just local men searching for kasegi as their traditional ways of living, such as from fisheries in Wakasa, were dying. A major source of such labor was coming from men who had already immigrated to the city, had not returned, and found themselves living in “day laborer ghettos” (yoseba 寄せ場), such as the infamous Kamagasaki neighborhood of Osaka. Labor activist Hiroshi Inagaki comments, “Kamagasaki is a place that companies have always come for workers that they can use and then throw away.”[5] These workers are paid in cash with little training and no follow-up health screening. Kunio Horie, who worked at nuclear plants including Fukushima #1 in the late 1970s, wrote about his experiences in the book Nuclear Gypsy noting, “I can only think that to the power companies, contract workers are just disposable pieces of equipment.”[6] The documentary Nuclear Ginza[7], shot in the mid 1990s at the peak of Japan’s nuclear boom, brings to the eye the harrowing lives of these workers, involved in such work like scrubbing the walls inside of reactors with brushes and rags to clean off the radiation, often reaching the daily limit of exposure within 20 minutes.

May 21, 2014: Fukui court blocks Oi nuclear reactor restart in landmark ruling as Rev. Tetsuen Nakajima acts as citizens’ group spokesperson

The other “security” for firms using such irregular labor is that these workers have neither the education nor means to bring proper legal suits against the utility companies since their working conditions go undocumented. In 2010, it was estimated that of roughly 83,000 workers at Japan’s 18 commercial nuclear power plants which included 54 individual reactors, 88 percent were contract workers. At the stricken Fukushima #1 plant, 89 percent of the 10,303 workers during that period were contract workers.[8] In an interview in June 2011, some three months after the Fukushima meltdown, Junichi Matsumoto, a spokesman for the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) which has been managing the Fukushima #1 plant, said the utility could not confirm what kind of training the smaller firms hired by TEPCO to recruit and manage such workers were providing. “The subcontractors have a responsibility as well … I don’t know what kind of briefing they are getting.” TEPCO has also said it had no access to the worker records kept by its subcontractors. [9]

In the early 1980s, Nakajima helped found the country’s first union for day workers at nuclear plants. Although more than 180 workers belonged to the union at its peak, its leaders have been threatened and intimidated by members of the Japanese mafia that run many of the subcontractor companies that supply these laborers.[10] In June 2011, Nakajima wrote a scathing essay in the national Buddhist press identifying the three structures of discrimination of the nuclear power industry: the exploitation of rural communities to host these reactors, the exposure of untrained laborers to nuclear contamination, and the elevated health risk to children in these areas. He noted, “Over forty years, there have been a total of 450,000 people forced to work amidst nuclear contamination. Regulations on the over exposure to radiation have been routinely dismissed. Labor has been used and discarded in a structure of wretched subcontracting … These many sacrifices have foremost been to secure our present way of living. This is just like the suicide kamikaze pilots at the end of World War II … At all times, there has been the demand for quantification, speed and pleasure, and economism. This kind of awareness supported ‘The Myth of Need’ at its roots.”[11]

When Nakajima speaks of discrimination, he also points out the way not only these laborers but also the victims of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and now even Fukushima have been discriminated against by their own people. Despite the fact there is no statistically demonstratable evidence of increased birth defects amongst survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who had children in later years, these people, called hibakusha, and their descendents have been routinely discriminated against in gaining employment and also finding marriage partners. Even 65 years later, the children of Fukushima who evacuated to other parts of Japan have suffered bullying and cruelty at new schools based on lingering superstitions that radioactive illness is communicable. Such discrimination follows a long historical arc in Japan from ancient notions of impurity (kegare 汚れ) developed in the Shinto tradition around death and blood, specifically menstrual blood, to associated beliefs reinforced by Buddhism in the Edo period about the impurity of the burakumin outcaste class who engaged in such polluting work related to death. These beliefs were carried into the modern period through the eugenics movement brought from the United States and Germany that were used in the new Meiji fundamentalism around the Emperor and the racial superiority of the Japanese. Until 1996, eugenics continued to be practiced in Japan with the compulsory sterilization of women with certain genetic disorders who were seen as unfit to procreate. The victims of nuclear disasters have also been deemed unfit to procreate, and many victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as contaminated power plant workers have chosen themselves not to raise families. This mentality and cultural value seem to carry over to other groups, such as the homeless, the suicidal and mentally ill, and members of the LGBT community who have faced such discrimination and even ostracization from their own families and burial plots. Nakajima and his colleagues in the Interfaith Forum for the Review of National Nuclear Policy have since 1992 been fighting against both the structures and culture of nuclear discrimination. However, it is now time to shift our gaze to the full urban experience of Tokyo and other Buddhist groups working to support such discriminated persons, who are the first victims of the Disconnected Society.

GO TO Part III: Interlude: The Spread of Economic Discrimination and Social Disparity in Urban Japan


[1] Ishikawa, Mai. “A Priest’s Work Amidst the Nuclear Ginza: A Profile of Rev. Tetsuen Nakajima”. In This Precious Life: Buddhist Tsunami Relief and Anti-Nuclear Activism in Post 3/11 Japan. 2nd Edition.Ed. Jonathan S. Watts (Yokohama: International Buddhist Exchange Center, 2016),p. 105.

[2] Nakajima, Tetsuen. “For the Benefit of Self, the Benefit of Other, and the Perfection of the Two: Why Buddhists Should Be Concerned about Nuclear Energy”. in Lotus in the Nuclear Sea: Fukushima and the Promise of Buddhism in the Nuclear Age. Ed. Jonathan S. Watts (Yokohama: International Buddhist Exchange Center, 2013), p. 146.

[3] Mangano, J.J. “Improvements in local infant health after nuclear power reactor closing.” Environmental Epidemiology and Toxicology. 2000; 2:32-36.

[4] Nussbaum, Rudi H. “Childhood Leukemia and Cancers Near German Nuclear Reactors: Significance, Context, and Ramifications of Recent Studies.” International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. 2009; 15:318–323.

[5] Krolicki, Kevin & Fujioka, Chisa. “RPT-Special Report: Japan’s ‘Throwaway’ Nuclear Workers”. Reuters. June 24, 2011.

[6] Krolicki & Fujioka. “Japan’s ‘Throwaway’ Nuclear Workers”.

[7] Röhl, Nicholas. Nuclear Ginza. (United Kingdom: Channel 4, 1995). Kakusareta Hibaku Rōdō: Nihon no Genpatsu Rōdōsha. 隠された被曝労働 – 日本の原発労働者 物語.

[8] Tabuchi, Hiroko. “Japanese Workers Braved Radiation for a Temp Job”. New York Times. April 9, 2011.

[9] Krolicki & Fujioka. “Japan’s ‘Throwaway’ Nuclear Workers”.

[10] Tabuchi. “Japanese Workers Braved Radiation for a Temp Job”.

[11] Nakajima, Tetsuen. “The 3 Structures of Discrimination: Rural Regions, Nuclear Contaminated Work, Children”. In This Precious Life: Buddhist Tsunami Relief and Anti-Nuclear Activism in Post 3/11 Japan. 2nd Edition.Ed. Jonathan S. Watts (Yokohama: International Buddhist Exchange Center, 2016),p. 116.

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