In contrast with the maladroit fumbling of TEPCO's and the government, the Japanese public has been largely helpful to survivors and evacuees of areas affected by the March 11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, providing accommodation for those displaced, as well as food and other supplies. Even Japan's infamous organized crime syndicates, the yakuza, have helped out with relief efforts. This, of course, is in addition to the outpouring of sympathy from the international community.
So it’s both heartbreaking and jarring to read about discrimination against, and harassment of, some evacuees. There are incidents such as this one in Chiba Prefecture, where a young evacuee from near Fukushima was bullied and taunted by other children because he could ‘infect’ others with radiation. There was another incident in Niigata, where an elementary school boy—also a Fukushima evacuee—had to be hospitalized after he was kicked in the stomach by a classmate (although the school board has denied that there was any connection with the Fukushima crisis).
These manifestations of a ‘nuclear stigma’ aren’t confined to children. There are reports of rumours, for example, that women from Fukushima shouldn’t be chosen as wives. Yes, there are some risks associated with maternity following radiation exposure, depending on the time and level of exposure. But although these rumours may not be entirely baseless, it’s still ugly discrimination.
That’s not all. Some evacuees seeking accommodation were turned away from hotels due to similar fears, while for a period in March, some evacuation shelters even refused to admit evacuees—the very people they were designated to accommodate—unless they were declared radiation-free. This kind of discrimination has prompted some to draw parallels with the discrimination faced by Hiroshima and Nagasaki's atomic bomb survivors. Indeed, when Prime Minister Naoto Kan likened the current crisis with Japan during World War II, he didn’t know how unfortunately prophetic, in some ways, those words would be.
Granted, Japan does already have something of a bullying culture. This could in part be because of the homogeneity of the population here, with Japanese having come to expect a degree of conformity (which in turn reinforces the homogeneity of the population, and so on). There’s a well-known aphorism that expresses this: Deru kui wa utareru, or, the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.
One of Japanese society's tools for ‘hammering down’ those stubborn nails and unapologetically weeding out the nonconformists, it seems, is bullying. So, although publicly acknowledged as a problem, widespread indifference allows bullying to persist here.
Still, this doesn’t mean that victimization of disaster survivors is any less callous, and it represents an element of sadism that seems uncharacteristic of the Japanese (although schadenfreude is also, frequently, an unpleasant feature of the culture).
Hopefully, these examples of discrimination are isolated cases, rather than the tip of the iceberg, and that the ‘nuclear stigma’ is merely based on a lack of understanding and not something more deep rooted. Hopefully.