In Japan, Feelings Of 'Accept Pain, Don't Complain'

March 23, 2011

Christopher Joyce

Embassy Pictures
Radioactive monster Godzilla stomps through a city and eats a commuter train in a scene from the 1956 Godzilla, King of the Monsters! Fear of radiation burrowed into Japanese culture following World War II.

No country is more familiar with nuclear peril than Japan. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, at the end of World War II, killed or irradiated hundreds of thousands of people, an event that dwarfs any nuclear incident since then.

One might think, then, that people in Japan would be traumatized by the calamity at the nuclear power complex in Fukushima. But the reality is more nuanced than that. From one generation to the next, even the most horrible events fade from cultural memory.

Isao Hashimoto, an artist in the city of Hakone, wants people to remember 1945.

"I have heard from my father [and] grandfather about the war — seriousness of war — and atomic bombs, so I think we should keep talking about this problem, especially toward the younger generation," Hashimoto says.

So Hashimoto created a very simple video — just a map of the world.

Starting in 1945 with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, it registers in chronological order every nuclear test explosion. One after another, each bomb shows up as a little red puff on the screen.

'Gaman: Accept The Pain, Don't Complain'

Fear of radiation burrowed into Japanese culture. Godzilla, the movie monster that destroyed Tokyo, was the spawn of radioactive fallout, as were other cinema monsters to follow. On the positive side, animators created the helpful cartoon robot, Atom Boy, who uses science for peace.

That was fantasy, but now in Japan, the radioactive emissions are real again — they've even reached Tokyo.

At a restaurant in Tokyo, Sukeyasu Yamamoto orders lunch. No one is ordering spinach these days — the government says crops to the north are contaminated. Yamamoto is a nuclear physicist, trained at Yale, now teaching in Tokyo. He knows both cultures and says the reaction to the nuclear accident can be described in a word:

"Gaman — it is to endure, accept the pain, don't complain," he says. Yamamoto says another word, shikata ganai. It means "it can't be helped."

In a sense, that's the situation here: Japan needs electricity and there's little coal and no oil domestically. The government cast the country's lot with nuclear power, building 55 reactors that generate 35 percent of the country's electricity.

Little Connection Between Bombings And Fukushima Disaster

Yamomoto says many people here don't really associate the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear reactor.

"The tsunami was more the atomic bomb effect of flattening the whole place," he says. "And the radiation is another disaster, which may be more hazardous in some ways, and long lasting. But most people are not scientists, so they don't make that connection very easily."

In fact, Yamamoto says many of his students don't seem to know much about World War II and the bombings. He says people of his generation do remember. Two years ago, Yamamoto rediscovered the diaries he kept as a teenager during the war.

"These are the diaries starting from April 27, 1945," he says. "May 1: Today we heard about my father's death in action."

Sitting in an armchair at his tidy home in Tokyo, Yamamoto looks for an entry he made about the atomic bombs that America dropped on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9.

"This is Aug. 13," he reads. "'Today a small aircraft came over, so that was more scary, because one plane can do it.' Because if I remember, there were only two planes over Hiroshima."

Focusing On Immediate Concerns

For sure, people near the damaged nuclear complex in Fukushima are worried about their health and their food supply. But farther away, many Japanese people are more devastated by the tsunami. Some find the fact that Americans are worried about a cloud of radiation rather odd.

"My youngest daughter lives in San Francisco," says Yoshiko Suzuki, a bereavement counselor in Tokyo. "She is scared to death and worries about me, like, 'Mommy, why don't you get out of Japan and come here?'"

There are others who don't share Suzuki's complacency about the goings on in Fukushima, like Seiji Arihara, a filmmaker whose animated movie, Nagasaki 1945, describes the bombing and a hospital in that city treating survivors.

"In my movie I wanted to give out a message that people, humans can't live with radiation — it's just not possible." Arihara says.

So far, there hasn't been a groundswell of anti-nuclear demonstrations. Japan has more immediate concerns. That becomes clear while sitting in a Tokyo office interviewing Arihari, when translator Koki Ishibashi's cell phone rings an alert.

"I think this is an earthquake — an earthquake in Fukushima," Ishibashi says.

The quake's epicenter is, again, right near the nuclear power complex. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.