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A support group for Japanese fishermen exposed to radiation from US nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean in the 1950s has had to launch a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to cover growing legal costs. Photo:

Japan’s ‘nuclear’ 1950s fishermen need human rights recognised, not just cash, say justice campaigners

  • A crowdfunding project has been set up to pay legal, medical costs for men exposed to radiation in Pacific during US tests decades ago
  • Organisers also want their lawyers to further investigate ‘cover ups’ by US and Japan amid ‘human rights violations’ by both

A support group for Japanese fishermen exposed to radiation from US nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean in the decades immediately after World War II has had to launch a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to cover growing legal costs.

Organisers of the campaign also hope it will raise awareness in Japan of the difficulties thousands of men have faced after they were exposed to radiation while at sea due to tests carried out between the mid-1940s and 1958 and help them pay for the medical care that some now need.

Many of their colleagues have died of illnesses like cancer that their families blame on their exposure.

Hundreds were previously denied compensation from the Japanese government in earlier court cases.

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Keisuke Okamura, the deputy director of the Grass Roots House peace museum and head of the crowdfunding effort, insists that the campaign goes far beyond simply raising funds for the men’s legal representatives.

He said the case was also about many decades of “human rights violations of the crew and their families by the US and Japanese governments during the Cold War nuclear arms race. This is a trial for human dignity, not for money, but for the restoration of human rights”.
The crews of the tuna fishing boats were not informed that hydrogen bomb tests were taking place at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, he added, and the men worked in radiation-contaminated waters on numerous occasions. Every day they were on board they were exposed to radiation and, as a result, many sailors later suffered health problems.


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Of the dozens of tests carried out in the Pacific, the most infamous was Bravo that took place on March 1, 1954. It was three times more powerful than scientists had predicted. The explosion also produced a fireball more than 7km across within a second. The mushroom cloud reached a height of more than 14km in around one minute and scientists recorded a maximum altitude of 40km.

The blast was estimated to be 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bombs that devastated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. As well as producing a larger blast, powerful winds took the fallout far further than anticipated.

The Daigo Fukuryu Maru – The Lucky Dragon – was one of the vessels affected by the blast and the experiences of its crew were well reported at the time. The ship was around 1,300km east of Bikini Atoll and more than 120km outside the US government’s 240,000-square-km exclusion zone around the atoll when the first bomb was detonated.

The Daigo Fukuryu Maru, or Lucky Dragon, was a Japanese fishing boat with a crew of 23 contaminated by nuclear fallout from US testing in 1954. Photo: Wikipedia

Fallout began to coat the tuna fishing boat – and its 23 crew members – about two hours later. Unaware of the danger, they scooped the radioactive ash off the deck with their bare hands, while one of the fishermen, Matashichi Oishi, said he licked the dust, reporting that it was gritty but had no taste.

By the time the ship docked in Japan two weeks later, the men were suffering from nausea, headaches, burns, pain in their eyes and bleeding from their gums. They were soon diagnosed with acute radiation poisoning. In September, 40-year-old Aikichi Kuboyama died as a result of his exposure. Sadly, he would not be the last such victim, although exact figures of those who died as a result of their exposure are difficult to ascertain

In 1955, the United States paid Japan US$2 million in “consolation money” but refused to admit liability, concluding the issue at the political level. The Japanese government paid each of the crew of the Lucky Dragon 2 million yen (US$13,550 at present-day exchange rates) but provided nothing to fishermen aboard other ships.

Many Japanese fishermen were exposed to radiation from US nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean. Photo:

The health ministry in Tokyo admitted that crew members of 10 ships were exposed to radiation, but it insisted that their doses “did not reach levels that could damage their health”.

Okamura disputes the government’s figures, claiming that at least 11,000 sailors aboard 556 fishing boats were affected by US nuclear tests.

Insult was added to injury when repeated requests to the Ministry of Health and Welfare for details on the impact of the radiation on the fishermen were rejected when legal challenges were first discussed in the 1980s.

The ministry insisted that documents compiled at the time no longer existed but in 2014 bureaucrats admitted that they did have the data.

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The delay in handing over the paperwork prevented the fishermen from launching legal challenges for compensation from the US and they claim the Japanese government deliberately withheld the information.

Two lower courts have dismissed the lawsuit brought by 31 plaintiffs on the grounds that the 20-year statute of limitations in the case had expired. The plaintiffs disagreed with the rulings, pointing out that the government had withheld vital evidence from them.

The courts replied that the government had not intentionally concealed the data and stuck to their rulings.

The nuclear explosion of March 1, 1954, above the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. File photo: SCMP

Okamura says that time is running out in a case that has already dragged on for nearly seven decades, with the legal team suggesting switching to an administrative lawsuit might get results sooner. It is, however, expensive, he said.

“We cannot afford to have 24 lawyers working to investigate the facts of the cover-up by the US and Japanese governments,” he admitted.

“We expect the case to cost Y10 million (US$67,700), of which we hope to raise at least Y5 million through the crowdfunding campaign.” The shortfall will have to be covered by the group or through other fundraising efforts, he said.

As of October 14, more than 1,300 people had visited the site and contributed over 2.8 million yen (around US$19,000).

“We are halfway there, and there is still a month and a half to go until the end of November,” said Okamura. “We shall continue to fight and hope to expand our circle of support even further.”