Voice of forgotten fishermen

Setsuko Shimomoto, daughter of one of thousands of Japanese fishermen exposed to Bravo hydrogen bomb test fallout in 1954, shows a painting of Japanese high school students interviewing some of the fishermen. She was in Majuro for the 70th anniversary of the Bravo test. Photo: Giff Johnson.

GIFF JOHNSON

Setsuko Shimomoto is an unusual advocate for a little known nuclear exposure problem.

She didn’t discover that her father had been exposed to Bravo hydrogen bomb test fallout while fishing in the waters of the Marshall Islands until over 30 years after the 1954 Bravo test, and then only because a high school student program began a search to find and interview some of the thousands of Japanese fishermen who had been fishing in the waters around the Bikini nuclear test site on March 1, 1954.

But it was after her father died of his second cancer in 2002 and a couple of years later that she was invited to a Bravo 50th anniversary ceremony in Japan “that I learned a lot,” she said in an interview with the Journal during a brief visit to Majuro for the 70th anniversary of the Bravo test.

Since then, Setsuko, who is 73, has become a lead plaintiff in several lawsuits against the Japanese government to gain recognition for the Japanese fishermen through workers compensation and nuclear test compensation.

The backdrop to her story is the coinciding of two seemingly disconnected events: The US hydrogen bomb testing at Bikini in 1954 that started with the Bravo test on March 1 and the Japanese fishing fleet that historically fished in the waters around the Marshall Islands. The most famous of the fleet was the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5), whose 23 fishermen were engulfed in a snowstorm of radioactive fallout perhaps 60 miles away from Bikini on March 1. Their return to Japan with a radioactive hold of tuna and the immediate illness of the crew — who suffered radiation poisoning with nausea, skin burns, and loss of hair — set off a radiation scare in Japan, resulting in the Lucky Dragon’s entire catch of radioactive tuna being dumped.

Few people understand that there were an estimated 1,000 fishing vessels in the vicinity of Bikini. Although other vessels may not have sustained the same high level exposure as the Lucky Dragon, all the vessels returning from the Marshall Islands had their tuna catches checked for radiation and the fishermen watched as the fish were declared unsafe and dumped.

“Some people know about the Lucky Dragon,” said Setsuko. “But there were 1,000 ships that no one knows about. They were all affected while fishing in the area.”

Setsuko, who met with people in the Rongelap community as well as others, said she hoped that her visit would be chance for Marshallese people know about the Japanese fishermen who were expose to the Bravo test.

“One reason most people didn’t know about the damage experienced by the 1,000 fishing boats is that my father and other fishermen didn’t speak about their experience,” she said. “They kept silent after their exposure to nuclear testing.”

Her father was one of 27 fisherman on board the Daimaru No. 7, a 157 foot longline vessel. She said it wasn’t until a group of high school students in the “Hata Seminar” began a peace study involving interviewing people in their community that “they learned about a young man who had been exposed to radiation twice, once in Nagasaki and once in the Pacific Ocean, became ill, and committed suicide, which motivated them to continue visiting fishing villages and their interviews.”

This high school group’s interviews “revealed that many fishermen had been exposed to radiation,” she said. “My father was one of them.” Setsuko commented that “many fishermen have died at a young age from illnesses that can only be attributed to radiation exposure.” Her father suffered from stomach cancer, having three-quarters of his stomach removed in 1984. In 2002, he died from bile duct cancer.

Although Setsuko’s father may have been reluctant talk to the students about his experience, he agreed to be interviewed. Coincidentally, a TV news team was there and his interview appeared on TV later. “Later, he came home and expressed his anger over the TV filming of his interview with the students,” she said. This was the first time she realized that he had been exposed to the Bravo test. “But he didn’t tell me any more,” she added.

As time passed and after her father died in 2002, “the fishermen’s situation became a topic of investigation,” she said. She and others began researching the route and where the hundreds of fishing boats were fishing on March 1.

Information was difficult to come by. “Information about my father’s boat was found in (US) State Department information,” she said. “I believe it must also be with the Japanese government and we demanded they release it.” Setsuko added that finally in the mid-2010’s, 60 years after Bravo, the Japan foreign minister acknowledged that yes, the fishing boats were exposed.

She was able to determine that the Daimaru No. 7 had experienced engine trouble and had stopped at Wake Island briefly before returning to Japan on March 20,1954. On its arrival, its tuna catch was checked by government authorities. “Radiation was detected so they threw away all the tuna.”

Setsuko has been active with other fishermen survivors or children of deceased fishermen in filing a series of lawsuits, most of them not successful. But all have raised the profile of the plight of the fishermen, she said.

“The cases I’m a lead plaintiff I get a lot of support from friends and supporters,” she said. “It’s why I can advocate for the victim families.”

What motivated Setsuko to become an outspoken advocate for the long-neglected fishermen who were exposed to the Bravo test fallout in 1954?

“It was the 2011 Fukushima (nuclear power plant) accident,” she said. “I knew the dangers of radiation (by then). But when I watched the TV, the hazard was being taken lightly. Authorities said there would be no immediate effects or that people won’t be affected.”

Setsuko said she needed to speak out to tell people about the dangers of radiation. She had learned a lot by participating in a study group that looked at what happened to people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only two populations to experience nuclear bombs in 1945. “I learned about internal exposure that it is very dangerous,” she said, adding that on the fishing boats, the fishermen rice and fish contaminated with radioactive fallout from Bravo, showered with radioactive rain water. “They had significant internal exposure to radiation,” she said.

“My telling the story of my father helps people understand the danger of internal exposure to radiation. (People in) Hiroshima and Nagasaki face the same problem. Sickness was caused by the ‘black rain’ — rain contaminated with radioactivity.”

In Fukushima, she said, the internal exposure “cannot be seen and my advocacy helps people understand the dangers.”

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