Ten-Year News Blackout In Japan Over A-Bomb Fallout Coverage

Weekly Report/ History: ’10-year vacuum’ silenced atomic bomb fallout coverage

BY CHIHIRO KATO

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

Barely six weeks after the August 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even the most careful newspaper reader in Japan found that media coverage of the events was nonexistent.

This was primarily due to an edict by the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers in Japan (GHQ) on Sept. 19, 1945, that banned media coverage of the bombings and their aftermath.

Even after the ban was lifted in 1952, the Japanese media continued a policy of self-censorship, depriving the Japanese people of the opportunity to learn of the extent of devastation caused by the bombings on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, respectively.

It is a period that came to be called the “10-year vacuum” in reporting.

Some attempts were made during that time to describe what the A-bomb survivors endured.

One was “Genbaku no ko” (Child of the atomic bomb), published in 1951 by Iwanami Shoten, which focused on the plight of children from the two devastated cities. The book became a long-time best-seller.

Another instance was the Aug. 6, 1952, issue of the photo magazine Asahi Graph.

In a special section, the magazine published never-before-seen photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki taken soon after the bombs were dropped. The magazine sold an unprecedented 700,000 copies.

According to Hiroko Takahashi, assistant professor of history at the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University, “It had the effect of drastically revising the image of the atomic bombs that the United States had tried to establish during the occupation.”

Most of the images were taken by Eiichi Matsumoto and Hajime Miyatake, photographers for The Asahi Shimbun who entered the two cities days after the atomic bombs were dropped.

Prints of photos they had taken in Hiroshima were confiscated, and they were ordered to burn all negatives of film shot in the western city. However, they secretly kept some of the film.

According to a 50-year history of the publishing department at the Asahi, there was heated debate among the magazine’s editorial staff over whether images of the survivors’ terrible suffering should ever be publicized.

The editor in chief, Tadasu Izawa, decided to publish them.

“Closing our eyes will not reduce the destructive power of the atomic bombs at all,” he said at the time.

Then, in 1954, an event occurred that triggered a wide public outcry against atomic bombs.

A fishing boat, the No. 5 Fukuryu Maru, was showered by deadly radioactive fallout from the testing of a hydrogen bomb at the Bikini Atoll by the United States.

The Yomiuri Shimbun published an exclusive story in its morning edition of March 16, 1954.

The Asahi followed up in its evening edition that day with reports that University of Tokyo doctors had confirmed radiation illness among the crew and that high levels of radiation had been detected in the fish caught by the boat and brought to the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.

Because of the delay in its reporting, the Asahi decided to establish a science news department.

The shock of this third case of radioactive fallout affecting innocent people triggered strong reactions among Japanese.

Women in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward began a petition drive calling for a ban on atomic and hydrogen bombs. That led, the next year, to the first international conference seeking such a ban and to the formation of the Japan Council against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs.

However, the homegrown “ban the bomb movement” soon split amid ideological clashes during the Cold War.

While Japan’s media called for a national unification of such efforts, it continued to struggle to find the proper approach to covering the fallout from nuclear weapons.

In 1965, the Hiroshima-based Chugoku Shimbun won a Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association prize for a long-running series published on the 20th anniversary of the atomic bombings.

The series “became an opportunity for establishing a separate genre devoted to coverage of the bombings,” according to Satoru Ubuki, a professor of Japanese history at Hiroshima Jogakuin University.

From the 1970s, there was a trend away from focusing only on Japan as a victim of nuclear war to also include what Japan did as an aggressor during World War II.

In the summer of 1973, at the height of the Vietnam War, Asahi’s Hiroshima edition ran a series that focused on Hiroshima’s role as a military center from which soldiers had been dispatched to battle since the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895.

A-bomb exhibits at Hiroshima museums began to include documents attesting to the city’s aggressor role.

Press coverage gradually expanded to include A-bomb survivors living in China and the Korean Peninsula, as well as residents in the South Pacific who suffered from radioactive fallout along with others exposed to radiation at nuclear power plants.

At an international symposium on nuclear issues held in Hiroshima in 1977 sponsored by nongovernmental organizations, participants agreed the term hibakusha should be used worldwide for anyone exposed to nuclear radiation.

In the 1980s, as the anti-nuclear movement spread in Europe amid moves to deploy medium-range nuclear missiles there, Pope John Paul II and the secretary-general of the United Nations visited Hiroshima.

Such developments further expanded the international angle in Japan’s coverage of nuclear issues.

And then, in April 1986, Chernobyl’s devastating nuclear power plant accident in the Ukraine region of the Soviet Union vividly demonstrated that the dangers of the nuclear age were not limited to war.

The Asahi’s editorial of May 16, 1986, roundly criticized General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev for not speaking about the accident on television until 19 days after it occurred and urged faster disclosure of information.(IHT/Asahi: October 10,2009)