Asia Pacific

Japan’s Art of Forgetfulness

Ten years after the event, the Japanese government decides it’s time to wash the memory of Fukushima into the ocean.
Japan, Japan news, news on Japan, Fukushima, Fukushima nuclear reactor, Fukushima disaster, Fukushima nuclear disaster, Fukushima water release, Japanese news, Peter Isackson

Fukushima, Japan on 4/30/2011. © Fly_and_Dive / Shutterstock

April 14, 2021 10:28 EDT

What choices are available to a nation that, in its quest for modernization, foolishly built a nuclear reactor in a seismically active tsunami zone? The Royal Society reported in 2015 that the disastrous fate of Fukushima in 2011 resulted from a “cascade of engineering and regulatory failures.” This included not only multiple design errors and miscalculations of the geological risks, but also “methodological mistakes that nobody experienced in tsunami engineering should have made.” The report concluded that the “Fukushima accident was preventable, if international best practices and standards had been followed.”

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A full 10 years later, after dealing with the aftermath in a reasonably efficient manner, Japan has one major task left. It must find a way of disposing of more than a million tons of contaminated water from the powerplant’s three decommissioned reactors. To the chagrin not only of neighboring countries including China and South Korea but also environmental groups and even Japan’s own fishing industry, the Japanese government has made the controversial decision to close the book on Fukushima by dumping the water into the ocean.

According to Al Jazeera, the Japanese government claims to have taken this decision on the basis of its newfound concern with the “international best practices and standards” the Royal Society referred to in its report. The government released this statement on April 13: “On the premise of strict compliance with regulatory standards that have been established, we select oceanic release.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Oceanic release:

An act stirred by the temptation to believe that whatever you can discreetly dump into the ocean will be so diluted by the mass of moving water that within weeks or months, even if it is public knowledge, no one will actually remember that the deed was done or blame those who did it

Contextual Note

In his explanation of the government’s decision, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga appealed to the fabled capacity of the Japanese to accept the inevitable. “Releasing the … treated water,” he said, “is an unavoidable task to decommission the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant and reconstruct the Fukushima area.” As a politician, not only does he feel it is his humble duty to put the errors of the past behind him, but he knows it is always effective to focus on potential positive outcomes — in this case, the reconstruction of the non-nuclear reconstruction of the affected area. Averted readers should know that when a politician from any nation calls something “unavoidable,” the most sensible reaction is to suppose that what they really mean by “unavoidable” is what we judge to be the most convenient and economic way for us to dismiss such an annoying issue.

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Polls in Japan show little support for the government. Le Monde reports that a poll conducted by NHK, the Japanese broadcaster, found that 51% of those polled opposed the plan, with only 18% supporting it. The Chinese called the plan “extremely irresponsible.” South Korea seconded the Chinese, deeming it “totally unacceptable.” Protesters in Seoul accused Japan of engaging in “nuclear terrorism,” echoing the Iranian government’s complaint this week following Israel’s brazen sabotage of the nuclear facility at Natanz in Iran. Even Taiwan — more fearful of China than of contaminated waters — expressed its concern, though much more timidly. 

These reactions contrast with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s tweet in which he thanks “Japan for its transparent efforts in its decision to dispose of the treated water from the Fukushima Daiichi site.” Transparent? China complained that the Japanese made their decision “without fully consulting with neighboring countries and the international community.” Is that what Blinken sees as a “transparent” effort? Or does he mean that because the operation will only be carried out in two years’ time, announcing it today is an example of transparency? After all, the US tends to act first and explain later and rarely worries about transparency.

Then there is another consideration the Japanese government would be wise to ponder. Dumping the still polluted water into the Pacific means that sooner rather than later the West Coast of the US will be affected. At some point in the future, could this have dire consequences for Japanese Americans who risk being assaulted for spreading “Fukushima cancer” just as Chinese Americans have been attacked for releasing the “Wuhan flu”?

Historical Note

The Japanese language has a common expression: Shouganai. One specialist of Japanese offers this explanation of the expression: “The best way I can translate ‘Shouganai’ is ‘It can’t be helped,’” comparing it with the well-known French expression, “C’est la vie.” The author confesses to using the Japanese “phrase almost daily.” Italian Americans from New York might prefer to compare it with their favorite all-purpose phrase for dismissing any subject they don’t want to discuss: “Forget about it.” Every culture has its own way of accepting what is written off as a fatality that cannot be constructively addressed.

Pushing the explanation of the Japanese phrase further, the author insists that despite always being used in reference to negative events, Shouganai is “actually a pretty positive way to look at the world.” It signifies a basic feeling at the core of Japanese culture, that it’s “better to not get hung up on things outside of your control.” In contrast, US culture encourages making every effort — including at times extreme violence — to demonstrate one is in control.

Since the end of the Second World War, the Japanese government has developed the art of not getting hung up on disagreeable past events from the past, such as the fate of the Chinese and Korean sex slaves they euphemized with the name “comfort women” at a time in their history when they believed they could dominate all of Asia. After their six-week-long massacre known as the Rape of Nanking, sensing the risk of bad PR the knowledge of the brutal campaign of massacre and violent rape might produce, the emperor decided to step in. The answer was less murder and more rape, but better organized and subject to the kind of discipline and social rituals with which Japanese culture feels comfortable. The treatment of the comfort women was unspeakably cruel and inhuman, but the Japanese military had the good sense to manage it as a stable institution rather than allowing rape to play out according to the random whims of marauding soldiers.

The website History explains the pattern of denial associated with this episode: “For decades, the history of the ‘comfort women’ went undocumented and unnoticed. When the issue was discussed in Japan, it was denied by officials who insisted that ‘comfort stations’ had never existed.” Whether those same officials were saying Shouganai in private while they systematically refused to admit anything in public will never be known. Even today, the Japanese government continues to deny some of the most obvious facts about the “comfort women.”

The Fukushima catastrophe lacks the deeply human moral dimension associated with the crimes perpetrated by Japanese imperialism in the early 20th century. The scandal relating to the fact that the nuclear catastrophe was preventable had more to do with professional negligence and government incompetence than moral failings, cruel personal behavior and abusive policies, though the frontier between conscious and neglectful abuses will always be difficult to define. The tendency to deny and then forget is common to both.

On the purely moral plane, were either of these human disasters in any way comparable with US President Harry Truman’s decision to drop — without warning — not one but two atomic bombs on urban civilian targets at the end of World War II? The immediate difference between the attitudes of the two nations is that the Japanese showed some sense of shame, however hypocritical, following the Rape of Nanking. Their consistent denial of the true history of comfort women also indicates a degree of implicit shame. It’s as much a question of not losing face as it is of aggressive denial.

In contrast, the American government never attempted to disguise its fulsome pride in an achievement that — following its cultural logic summed up in the expression, “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” — put an end to a world war. Could it have been done differently? Of course. But for most Americans, the positive result canceled all the useless scruples one might have concerning the gravity of the damage done.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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