TOKYO–William Zeller, a petty officer second class in the U.S. Navy, was one of hundreds of sailors who rushed to provide assistance to Japan after a giant earthquake and tsunami set off a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011. Not long after returning home, he began to feel sick.
Today, he has nerve damage and abnormal bone growths, and blames exposure to radiation during the humanitarian operation conducted by crew members of the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan. Neither his doctors nor the U.S. government has endorsed his claim or those of about 400 other sailors who attribute ailments including leukemia and thyroid disease to Fukushima and are suing Tokyo Electric, the operator of the plant.
But one prominent figure is supporting the U.S. sailors: Junichiro Koizumi, former prime minister of Japan.
Koizumi, 74, visited a group of the sailors, including Zeller, in San Diego in May, breaking down in tears at a news conference. Over the past several months, he has barnstormed Japan to raise money to help defray some of their medical costs.
The unusual campaign is just the latest example of Koizumi’s transformation in retirement into Japan’s most outspoken opponent of nuclear power. Though he supported nuclear power when he served as prime minister from 2001-06, he is now dead set against it and calling for the permanent shutdown of all 54 of Japan’s nuclear reactors, which were taken offline after the Fukushima disaster.
“I want to work hard toward my goal that there will be zero nuclear power generation,” Koizumi said in an interview in a Tokyo conference room.
The reversal means going up against his old colleagues in the governing Liberal Democratic Party as well as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who are pushing to get Japan, once dependent for about one third of its energy on nuclear plants, back into the nuclear power business.
That Koizumi would take a contrarian view is perhaps not surprising. He was once known as “the Destroyer” because he tangled with his own party to push through difficult policy proposals like privatization of the national postal service.
Koizumi first declared his about-face on nuclear power three years ago, calling for Japan to switch to renewable sources of energy like solar power and arguing that “there is nothing more costly than nuclear power.”
After spending the first few years of his retirement out of the public eye, in recent months Koizumi has become much more vocal about his shift, saying he was moved to do more by the emotional appeal of the sailors he met in San Diego.
Scientists are divided about whether radiation exposure contributed to the sailors’ illnesses. The Defense Department, in a report commissioned by Congress, concluded that it was “implausible” that the service members’ ailments were related to radiation exposure from Fukushima.
To many political observers, Koizumi’s cause in retirement is in keeping with his unorthodox approach in office, when he captivated Japanese and international audiences with his blunt talk, opposition to the entrenched bureaucracy and passion for Elvis Presley.
Some wonder how much traction he can get with his anti-nuclear campaign, given the Abe administration’s determination to restart the atomic plants and the Liberal Democratic Party’s commanding majority in parliament.
Two reactors are back online; to meet Abe’s goal of producing one-fifth of the country’s electricity from nuclear power within the next 15 years, about 30 of the existing 43 reactors would need to restart. (Eleven reactors have been permanently decommissioned.)
A year after the Fukushima disaster, anti-nuclear fervor led tens of thousands of demonstrators to take to the streets of Tokyo near the prime minister’s residence to register their anger at the government’s decision to restart the Ohi power station in western Japan. Public activism has dissipated since then, though polls consistently show that about 60 percent of Japanese voters oppose restarting the plants.
“The average Japanese is not that interested in issues of energy,” said Daniel P. Aldrich, professor of political science at Northeastern University. “They are anti-nuclear, but they are not willing to vote the LDP out of office because of its pronuclear stance.”
Sustained political protest is rare in Japan, but some analysts say that does not mean the anti-nuclear movement is doomed to wither.
“People have to carry on with their lives, so only so much direct action can take place,” said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo.
Anti-nuclear activism “may look dormant from appearances, but it’s there, like magma,” he said. “It’s still brewing, and the next trigger might be another big protest or political change.”
Some recent signs suggest the movement has gone local. In October, Ryuichi Yoneyama was elected governor in Niigata, the prefecture in central Japan that is home to the world’s largest nuclear plant, after campaigning on a promise to fight efforts by Tokyo Electric to restart reactors there.
Like Koizumi, he is an example of how the anti-nuclear movement has blurred political allegiances in Japan. Before running for governor, Yoneyama had run as a Liberal Democratic candidate for parliament.
Koizumi, a conservative and former leader of the Liberal Democrats, may have led the way.
“Originally, the nuclear issue was a point of dispute between conservatives and liberals,” said Yuichi Kaido, a lawyer and leading anti-nuclear activist. “But after Mr. Koizumi showed up and said he opposed nuclear power, other conservatives realized they could be against nuclear power.”
Since he visited the sailors in San Diego, Koizumi has traveled around Japan in hopes of raising about $1 million for a foundation he established with another former prime minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, an independent who has previously been backed by the opposition Democratic Party, to help pay some of the sailors’ medical costs.
Koizumi is not involved in the sailors’ lawsuit, now before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Tokyo Electric is working to have the case moved to Japan.
Aimee L. Tsujimoto, a Japanese-American freelance journalist, and her husband, Brian Victoria, an American Buddhist priest now living in Kyoto, introduced Koizumi to the plaintiffs. Zeller, who said he took painkillers and had tried acupuncture and lymph node massages to treat his conditions, said the meeting with Koizumi was the first time that someone in power had listened to him.
“This is a man where I saw emotion in his face that I have not seen from my own doctors or staff that I work with, or from my own personal government,” said Zeller, who works at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego. “Nobody has put the amount of attention that I saw in his eyes listening to each word, not just from me, but from the other sailors who have gone through such severe things healthwise.”
Koizumi, whose signature leonine hairstyle has gone white since his retirement, said that after meeting the sailors in San Diego, he had become convinced of a connection between their health problems and the radiation exposure.
“These sailors are supposed to be very healthy,” he said. “It’s not a normal situation. It is unbelievable that just in four or five years that these healthy sailors would become so sick.”
“I think that both the U.S. and Japanese government have something to hide,” he added.
Many engineers, who argue that Japan needs to reboot its nuclear power network to lower carbon emissions and reduce the country’s dependence on foreign fossil fuels, say Koizumi’s position is not based on science.
“He is a very dramatic person,” said Takao Kashiwagi, a professor at the International Research Center for Advanced Energy Systems for Sustainability at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. “He does not have so much basic knowledge about nuclear power, only feelings.”
That emotion is evident when Koizumi speaks about the sailors. Wearing a pale blue gabardine jacket despite Japan’s black-and-gray suit culture, he choked up as he recounted how they had told him that they loved Japan despite what they had gone through since leaving.
“They gave their utmost efforts to help the Japanese people,” he said, pausing to take a deep breath as tears filled his eyes. “I am no longer in government, but I couldn’t just let nothing be done.”
Anti-nuclear village voice: Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi attends a press conference in Carlsbad, California, in May with former U.S. soldiers who have sued Tokyo Electric Power Co. for damage to their health they believe was caused by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The author of this column, Brian Victoria, who acted as translator for Koizumi during the trip, is seated on the left.
Dear Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,
Let me first acknowledge that after four long years of silence, the Japanese government has finally taken a position regarding the lawsuit filed against Tokyo Electric Power Co. in the U.S. by more than 450 American sailors, marines and civilians who were on board the USS Reagan and accompanying military ships off the coast of Tohoku after 3/11.
These young people experienced serious health problems resulting from, they allege, radiation exposure while participating in Operation Tomodachi, the U.S. military’s humanitarian rescue mission launched in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, and subsequent multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
While the Japanese government’s acknowledgement of the suit is welcome, the unconditional support it has given to Tepco is a matter of deep concern. Even now, U.S. service personnel find themselves prevented from seeking justice because Tepco, with the support of the Japanese government, is doing its utmost to ensure the case will never be heard in an American court.
The Japanese government submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Feb. 3. An amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief is one presented by a party not directly involved in the suit in the hope of influencing the outcome. The brief contains two points:
1. “The Government of Japan has developed a comprehensive system to ensure compensation for victims of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident.”
2. “Damage claims brought in tribunals outside of Japan threaten the continuing viability of the compensation system established by the Government of Japan.”
Examining the first point, if the Japanese government truly had “a comprehensive system to ensure compensation for victims,” there would be no need for the U.S. service members’ lawsuit. Yet, as you know, the Japanese government and its subsidiaries have, to date, not paid a single yen to any non-Tepco-related victim of radiation exposure from Fukushima No. 1. This includes, as of March this year, a total of 173 children from the prefecture who underwent surgery after being diagnosed with suspected thyroid cancer, 131 of whom were confirmed to have had cancer.
If the Japanese government will not admit that the suffering of its own children was caused by radiation exposure, how confident can young Americans be that the apparently radiation-induced injuries they experienced will be recognized as such, let alone compensated for, in Japan?
Further, at least seven of these previously healthy young Americans have already died and many others are too ill to travel to Japan even if they could afford to, let alone reside in this country during lengthy legal procedures, which typically take years to resolve. This is not to mention the prospect of expensive legal costs, including for court fees, hiring Japanese lawyers, translation of relevant documents, etc. And let us never forget, Prime Minister, it was the Japanese government that requested the assistance of these American military personnel.
As for the second point above, I agree the U.S. military personnel’s lawsuit threatens “the continuing viability of the compensation system established by the Government of Japan.” For example, if a U.S. court were to ascribe the plaintiffs’ illnesses to radiation exposure, how could the Japanese government continue to claim that none of the many illnesses the children and adults of Fukushima presently experience are radiation-related? The American service personnel truly serve as “the canary in the coal mine” when it comes to demonstrating the damaging effects of radiation exposure. Moreover, this canary is out of the Japanese government’s ability to control.
Let us further suppose that an American court were to award $3 million per person as compensation for the deaths, currently standing at seven, of the military personnel who were irradiated. By contrast, the Japanese government continues to deny compensation, for radiation-induced illnesses let alone deaths, to its own citizens. This would surely impact the “viability” (not to mention reputation) of the Japanese government in its ongoing denial of radiation-related injuries to non-Tepco employees.
Let me close by noting that there is one Japanese political leader who has accepted personal responsibility for the injuries inflicted on American service personnel. I refer to former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi who, after meeting with injured servicemen and women in San Diego in May, initiated a fund to meet as many of the medical needs of these sailors and marines as possible.
Fortunately, thanks to the support of thousands of ordinary Japanese, he has already raised $700,000 toward his $1 million goal. With tears in his eyes, Koizumi explained that he could not ignore the suffering of hundreds of formerly healthy young Americans who willingly put themselves at risk in order to render aid to the Japanese people.
Prime Minister Abe, I call on you to end the Japanese government’s unconditional legal support of Tepco. Further, if the Japanese government has a conscience, please immediately provide medical aid and compensation to the hundreds of American victims of Operation Tomodachi.
Recently former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, 74, was seen talking to 62-year-old Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Their encounter was recorded on a photo page of the Sept. 29 issue of the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun.
The scene was Aoyama Funeral Hall in Tokyo, where they had attended the Sept. 15 funeral of former Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary-General Koichi Kato and were waiting for their cars to arrive. For about 90 seconds the “master and disciple” stood side by side. Below are the details of Koizimi’s comments and the prime minister’s reaction, which didn’t appear in Shukan Bunshun.
Koizumi: “Why don’t you totally eliminate nuclear power plants?”
Abe: (Faint smile, bow)
Koizumi: “Having zero nuclear power plants is cheaper. Why don’t you understand such a simple thing? It’s all lies, what the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is saying. The things advocates of nuclear power plants are saying — they’re all lies. Don’t be fooled.”
Abe: (Wry smile, bows again, and with head kept low heads to official vehicle)
Koizumi is currently pouring his efforts into a fund to support those who say they were affected by radiation during “Operation Tomodachi,” a U.S. Armed Forces operation to support Japan in the wake of the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
Over 400 soldiers from the USS Ronald Regan aircraft carrier and accompanying ships complained of ill-health after helping in rescue efforts following their urgent dispatch to the seas off Fukushima Prefecture in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and ensuing meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. Some of them are said to have died from causes including leukemia.
The aircraft carrier fleet worked intermittently in a radiation plume from the stricken power plant between March 13 and 17, 2011. After returning home from Japan, a stream of soldiers developed ailments including brain tumors and thyroid cancer. The nuclear plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), and the Japanese and U.S. governments acknowledged that they had been exposed to low-level radiation, but do not accept a causal relationship between exposure and their illnesses.
Koizumi learned that some soldiers had left the military at a young age, had no insurance and couldn’t pay their medical fees. It was in May this year that the former prime minister traveled to the United States and directly inquired about their circumstances.
Former soldiers earlier filed a lawsuit against parties including TEPCO, and oral arguments over whether jurisdiction of the case should lie in Japan or the United States were heard in an appeals court in California on Sept. 1. At the time, a Japanese government adviser is said to have supported an agent for TEPCO, stating that radiation exposure is the responsibility of the U.S. military.
Koizumi, who read a note on the hearing (carried in the Sept. 9 issue of the magazine Shukan Kinyobi), responded immediately.
“This is embarrassing. They were relief efforts for Japan, right? The American judge is said to have been appalled,” he was quoted as saying.
On July 5, Koizumi appeared in a news conference with figures including former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, 78, and Tsuyoshi Yoshiwara, 61, an adviser at The Johnan Shinkin Bank, to announce the start of fundraising activities to help the U.S. soldiers. Koizumi himself approached the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) but was turned away on the grounds that TEPCO is a member of the federation.
Reinforcements have nevertheless appeared on the funding front. Japanese architect Tadao Ando, 75, posed the following question: “Mr. Koizumi, will you come to Osaka and give a lecture? I’ll assemble 1,000 people. With a fee of 10,000 yen per person, that’ll bring in 10 million yen.”
When Koizumi appeared at the lecture in August, 1,300 people turned up. The same style of lecture is due to be held in Tokyo on Nov. 16, organized by the head of a group of managers of small- and medium-sized enterprises. Additionally, the president of a solar power generation company provided 10 million yen.
Through these efforts, the total has climbed to 50 million yen. Koizumi apparently hopes to amass 100 million yen by next spring.
The connection between radiation exposure and the development of illness is delicate. There’s a possibility of developing cancer, but there are doubts about whether a person would suddenly die, experts say.
On Sept. 7, Koizumi spoke at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan in Tokyo’s Yurakucho district. He was asked if it was responsible to talk about damage from radiation exposure without presenting scientific evidence.
Below is the gist of his reply:
“I’m no longer a member of the government. I’m a civilian. There are people who are actually suffering. It’s common sense for me to support them.”
Fundraising and service instead of criticism; denial of the perception of saying, “Radiation exposure is the responsibility of the U.S. military” to protect nuclear power policies … I support this form of common sense from our former prime minister. (By Takao Yamada, Special Senior Writer)