Two very different Japanese manga, now available in English translation, describe the experiences of bottom-tier workers at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. One describes working conditions decades before the tsunami of 2011 and the other describes working conditions in 2012 and 2014 as men cleaned up following that disaster.
The first 50 pages of Katsumata Susumu’s Fukushima Devil Fish present two stories that Katsumata drew in the 1980s about the lives of the subcontracted nuclear workers who do the dirty jobs. (Katsumata drew the other seven comics stories in this book ̶ about local folklore characters and about his personal issues ̶ when he had participated as a central contributor to Japan’s legendary avant-garde manga magazine Garo during its heyday from 1969-1972.)
Katsumata (1943-2007), a prolific cartoonist for anti-nuclear and social/environmental justice issues, was raised in a farming village, 100 miles north of the site of the Fukushima reactors. His Fukushima stories were based on interviews with workers and with residents of surrounding communities; on what he observed when repeatedly visiting those nuclear reactors; and on what he had learned in his graduate studies in nuclear physics.
Katsumata attempted to faithfully portray disposable, vulnerable workers. He uses manga to make visible the invisible damage of radioactive contamination. These stories were not commercially successful. Katsumata later reflected that “Alas, nuclear power is really not that interesting a theme for manga,” but “that’s no reason to ignore it, however.”
Kazuto Tatsuta (a pseudonym) approaches Fukushima from the opposite direction, coming from Tokyo, 150 miles south of the reactor site. (A New York Times reporter described Tatsuta in 2016 as a 51-year-old part-time lettuce farmer and occasional cartoonist who had gone to Fukushima because he needed a job.) Tatsuta’s reigning passion is to combat media reports that have published “nonsense” and unfounded rumors to sensationalize the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at Fukushima. He has frequently been interviewed about Ichi-F, and to his frustration reporters keep asking about the exploitation of the workers who are decommissioning the plant and the health risks of radiation. Since neither topic interests him, he wonders “are you guys listening to me or not….?”
As its subtitle explains, Tatsuta’s book is based (in tremendous visual and narrative detail) on his personal experiences as a bottom-tier worker helping with the decommissioning of the remains of the Fukushima nuclear reactors, and eventually his promotion from cleaning the rest area toilet to becoming de facto leader of a team that uses robots to map the conditions inside the remains of a reactor building.
His book can look uninviting, as it is drawn (very professionally) with an impersonal style that seems appropriate for someone working under a pseudonym and with the conscious intention of being as non-sensationalist and un-titillating as possible.
If Tatsuta’s biggest enemy is fake news that misrepresents the Fukushima nuclear issue, his greatest fear is that his identity will be revealed and he will not be rehired for the Fukushima-daiichi clean-up when he becomes eligible again. (Workers are regularly dismissed and then rehired as they are not allowed to exceed 20 Millisieverts of radiation exposure per year.) Since Tatsuta is writing the opposite of an exposé, the basis for that fear remains a matter for conjecture.
Tatsuta’s most insistent message is that the ruins of the Fukushima plant are an ordinary workplace where normal people do normal things, and not a pitiable, hellish, quasi-slave-labor camp. He dwells endlessly on the details of the safety procedures that workers followed in Fukushima to limit their exposure to radiation, which involved wearing hot, smelly masks that made it impossible to scratch an itchy nose. A couple of times he hurriedly concedes that Ichi-F is not “a safe and pleasant workplace,” but that quickly turns into a boosterish explanation that this is “why we work here, to make conditions safer.”
Tatsuta portrays his co-workers and himself as nicotine addicts (or, as he interprets their heavy smoking habits, “normal” people.) He never concedes in this manga that either cigarettes or nuclear radiation have caused actual harm to people’s health, in Fukushima or anywhere else.
On the positive side, Tatsuta’s story fits squarely into the manga genre of the “work comic.” This Japanese genre teaches that a man’s worth depends on the hard and careful effort he puts into his work as he learns the technical details of his field and rises from apprentice status. As Tatsuta intends, the reader comes to regard these workers with gratitude for the necessary jobs that they do.
Tatsuta’s book, unlike Katsumata’s has been flipped to read from left to right (while preserving the original orientation of the many panels which include signage in Japanese.) The narrow, vertical shapes of the original balloons and captions are preserved, even when this means shrinking the size of the English text severely. Even teenier text appears in the margins to add commentary, and these easily-overlooked sentences include some of the most meaningful statements in the book.
In both Katsumata and Tatsuta’s very different stories, the workers obsessively keep track of how much radiation they have been exposed to (in Millirems in the earlier story and Millisieverts in the latter.) In Katsumata’s story they do this because they are worried about their health. In Tatsuta’s, because they are worried about their jobs. In both their generations, actual radiation exposure was underreported.
Tatsuta reveals just enough about his capacity for dishonesty, his impaired sense of self-preservation, and his irritable personality, that it may be just as well that he makes no attempt in Ichi-F to argue a convincing case “for or against” nuclear power. He succeeds very well at something different and valuable: conveying a vivid and believable sense of what it was like to work at Fukushima-daiichi in 2012 and 2014.