But in all seriousness, today was one of my favorite days. We went to the 第五福竜丸 (Daigo Fukuryu Maru, or Lucky Dragon No. 5) Museum in Tokyo. I have to apologize for my behind-ness of posts… and for the length of this post. I wanted to do this visit justice.
We did the following readings, but I’m going to focus on the first one because it was more impactful for me:
- The contentious death of Mr. Kuboyama: science as politics in the 1954 Lucky Dragon incident by Aya Homei
- Constructing Sustainable Japan by Peter Wynn Kirby
Because it is thought as an objective truth, science has been used to put forward a political agenda. This was a small museum, but I think there was a lot to take in. First, I will describe some historical background then I will talk about my experience at the museum and how the reading shaped it. On March 1, 1954, the United States conducted its first nuclear test called Castle Bravo on Bikini Atoll. A tuna fishing boat, 第五福竜丸, felt the fallout as white, irradiated ash from coral fell on the ship for approximately three hours. The crew eventually started to experience radiation poisoning symptoms, like nausea. One of the crew members, Aikichi Kuboyama, died six months later and the Japanese declared him as the first victim of the Hydrogen bomb.
The first impression upon entering the museum is just seeing a giant, deteriorated boat that is at least a couple stories high. This was a pretty small museum, with a series of informational panels and encased items underneath them. The first item we see is a glass bottle of 死の灰 (shi no hai, or death ash). Pretty powerful stuff. Next, there were various items collected from the ship itself. I thought this was unusual, as these items did not have much significance to me besides just being from the boat; to be fair, I could not read the context/descriptions accompanied these items. Selinger 先生 suggested that they showed wear from faded color, which was probably a result of the H-bomb. Then to provoke more sympathy, there was a display of children drawings wishing the fishermen well. They were accompanied by a heartbreaking photograph of crying children. It also served as a transition to Japanese citizen response.
An おもしろい part was about how Japanese people treated all the washed up contaminated fish. Eventually they decided to bury the fish in order to help make up the foundation of Tsukiji, as it was made from reclaimed land. Selinger 先生 mentioned the day before that there was a small reference to this at Tsukiji (we only learned about this after the fact). The contrast between building something that emphasizes purity so much (i.e. Tsukiji) with something the opposite of pure (the contaminated fish) and the act of burying/hiding the impure things and showcasing the pure is so interesting to me. I mean, the museum itself is built on reclaimed land and they didn’t bury the fish there, so there is significance to bringing the fish to Tsukiji.
Next, there were newspaper articles displaying the media response less than a month after the bombing. From what Selinger 先生 translated, the general goal of the news articles was to mitigate fear of contamination. They implied that wearing vinyl hats would help protect from contaminated rain, but the word choice was ambiguous. The sense I got was that it was not trying to be scientific (like hey there was a study that showed you won’t get radiation from rain by wearing these hats) but comforting (like hey wearing this hat is probably better than not wearing it). I wish I knew my nuclear chemistry better, but my first instinct is that plastic is not going to protect from radiation. Perhaps if radioactive metals were somehow part of the composition of the rain then the hats would prevent direct absorption of those metals into the body? But protection from the high-energy waves that actually cause mutations in DNA? いいえ。Unless you’re wearing a lead hat, a sheet of plastic won’t do anything. That’s why the dentist or doctor always leaves the room when you get an X-ray. But it’s also unrealistic and unsafe to ask all children to wear lead hats. Plus they probably thought it would be easier to have people perceive the hats as helping than to have them actually help. I don’t doubt that this happened other times in history and not in just Japan (Christmas 先生 は どこ to give some environmental history background?). Nonetheless, a win for the government, really! Also, there were stores displaying signs to reassure customers that their fish was not contaminated, but who regulates that?
There was also information on the citizen activism that arose from this incident. What happened was pretty amazing. My understanding is that a group of people started a petition and it eventually got around half of Japan’s population’s signatures. The exhibit then shifted from the scope of Japan to the scope of the world. It was about how nuclear testing has affected people in other parts of the world, from Tibetans to Native Americans. It ended on a optimistic and sing-songy note of a “nuclear free future.” The description listed the various treaties against nuclear weapons. Where was the mention of nuclear energy?
There was no mention of the disagreement between American and Japanese doctors. This was a huge point in the article that we read today. I mentioned before that the Japanese declared Kuboyama-san as the first victim of the H-bomb. Well, the Americans disagreed with this statement because he died from problems with his liver, which was not a direct result of radiation poisoning but rather from the treatment. But if you think about their motives, Japan was trying to take control of this case and use it to get prestige, as radiation was a relatively knew phenomenon, so being able to study its effects and talk about it increased some kind of social currency. There was a lot of back-and-forth in discrediting the other, with science being the tool they used to do so.
In reference to the first bolded line I put in this post, the author was arguing that the general acceptance of science as neutral and fact can be used to manipulate the public. This is a bit different from my initial reading of the article (which was that science is never objective but laden with social and political context… not that this isn’t true, but that there’s a bit more to it than that), so I’m glad that Selinger 先生 made that distinction. This reminded me of an article I read a few months ago about the media response to Flint’s water quality. The actor Mark Ruffalo (he played Hulk in the Avengers) advocated for a magic sponge that could clean water, but the science he tried to explain was wrong and the sponge did not do what he claimed it did do. I am sure Ruffalo was more of a spokesperson thinking he was doing a good thing, but this was also an example of science being used to manipulate the public (but in this case it was to sell products rather than put forth an agenda). In both examples, doctors were being viewed as heroes.
Other interesting points from the reading: historical and political context (here are the points I liked:
- The incident occurred just two years after the end of the occupation, when the Japanese and American governments were laboriously redefining Japan’s role as an American ally within Cold War geopolitics.
- In March 1954 [the same time as this incident] Japanese government agreed to use nuclear energy
), the media’s role, and the Japanese doctors’ reluctance to involve the Americans.
I’m not sure if you noticed, but I really liked this reading.
Yay my first year seminar. I have to mention the second part of the museum. First, there was a set of stairs that led to the upper half of the fishing boat. Then there was a smaller set of stairs leading to a small platform that allowed you to look at the boat, at the same level as someone would be if they were on the boat. This also positioned you right against the boat, so it is as though you are a passive observer (in contrast to a hypothetical set of stairs that would take you onto the boat or in it). The boat deck was relatively average but obviously carefully put together as there were an informational poster board and a shelf of items seemingly-random-but-perfectly-arranged in the forefront of the deck view. As I ascended the smaller set of stairs, I noticed an increasing temperature change. I found that I could not stand on that small platform for long because it was getting too hot (あつすぎます). HOW INTERESTING!!!! When I turned around on that platform, I also immediately noticed big, bright lights that I could not look at too long. I hope this was purposeful. I want to believe that the designer or whoever did that intended to make museum visitors physically feel uncomfortable when viewing the boat deck, while also connecting heat with the bombing. Experiencing this took me back to my first year seminar (Visual Culture and the Holocaust)–specifically, I’m thinking about a Danish Jewish Museum, in which the uneven wooden floors are meant to make visitors feel like they’re on a boat. Or more generally speaking, my experience reminded me of an architect’s choice to have an incline during an exhibit, meant to slow the visitor down and induce more reflection. I want to re-take that class because I feel like I forgot a lot of specifics haha.
Museums are better experienced with professors. Overall, this was an amazing learning day! I am grateful to Selinger 先生 for her constant translation and the shared interest of lingering in museums. Usually when I go to museums with friends they just want to breeze through everything and finish in like an hour, which is not really an ideal time for me. It was really nice to go through things carefully, and I’m extremely happy to have had this experience.
P.S. More words I learned: におい (smelly), つよい (strong), いびきをかく(to snore), マグロ (tuna)