The Social Costs of Japan’s Nuclear Disaster and What Sociology Can Do To Help

Man at the Fukushima Exclusion Zone. By SSoosay. Via Flickr.

Much of the world’s media was focused on the horrific disaster that followed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station meltdowns that began on the 4th of April. An estimated 130,000 people were initially evacuated and 70,000 people presently remain displaced from their homes due to nuclear radiation. In my homeland of Australia, media interest has largely waned on this issue and we don’t hear much about what has happened to Japan’s internal refugees. In today’s post, I will touch on the social policy conditions that exacerbated the effects of the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns. I focus on the ongoing sociological impact of this disaster on Japan’s so-called ‘nuclear refugees’.

Given that my blog is dedicated to experiences of difference (or ‘Otherness’), I am particularly concerned by reports that survivors are being stigmatised for not returning home, while others who have stayed behind along the periphery of the ‘nuclear zone’ are turning to suicide from the despair over the devastation of their land. From the perspective of sociology, social planning and social policy, the magnitude of the refugee crisis could have been avoided. I discuss how sociology can help manage the social problems that the internally displaced Japanese citizens are facing. Sociology can also address future natural disaster responses and contribute towards sustainable planning.

How did the Fukushima disaster happen?

Officials check for signs of radiation on evacuees near the Fukushima Daini nuclear plant in Koriyama, 13 March 11. (REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon. Via The Atlantic)

The various meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station were caused by the reverberating effects of the earthquake and tsunami that had occurred one month earlier, on the 11th of March. How did a nuclear disaster yield so much havoc on the lives of Japanese citizens, given their nation’s technological, scientific and economic advancement? In order to answer this question, we need to better understand the role of government policies and de-regulation of the energy sector in Japan. For this, it’s best to turn to sociology.

In May, Koichi Hasegawa, sociologist with the Tohoku University in Japan, wrote about the ‘battlefield’ left behind by the ‘Giant Tsunami’. Writing to the Research Committee on Environment and Society of the International Sociological Association, Hasegawa reflects on the Japanese Government’s failure to enact an effective evacuation plan when it became clear that the tsunami would have dire consequences on the Fukushima Daiichi station. Hasegawa poses several difficult sociological questions, some of which are deeply personal, such as ‘How can I find a way to the future from this catastrophic situation? Where can I find some hope?’ Other questions relate to poor industry practices and lack of Government intervention: ‘Why did we fail to protect safe community life in the coastal area? Why did we fail to prevent this nuclear disaster? Why did we fail to change a very risky pro-nuclear energy policy?’  These are questions that sociologists are well equipped to answer, as Hasegawa goes on to do.

Unit 4 reactor, Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station, in Okuma 12 November 11. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder. Via The Atlantic.)

Reflecting on a series of Government and private industry reformations that go back to 1955, Hasegawa notes that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) became the largest private electric company in the world. Yet there was no ‘real independent regulator’ monitoring the activities and safety procedures of this nuclear energy monopoly. Hasegawa sees that negligible industry practices and poor Government planning and intervention contributed towards the Fukushima disaster being one of the largest catastrophes in Japan’s history.

Putting things even more bluntly in early September, Former Prime Minister of Japan, Naoto Kan, told the Japanese newspaper The Yomiuri Shimbun that the Government’s slow response to safety and poor communication with the plant’s operator contributed to the magnitude of the nuclear disaster. (Via Majia’s Blog.) Kan said:

The ongoing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant should be considered a ‘man-made disaster’… There in fact were various opinions [regarding the safety of the plant] before the accident, but no well-thought-out preparations were made… In that sense, the nuclear accident should be considered a man-made disaster.

Frank N. von Hippel, a theoretical physicist from Princeton University, has analysed the radiation effects from the disaster in the September/October edition of the Bulletin of the Atom Scientists. He argues that the Japanese Government should have evacuated at least 2 million people in the surrounding areas of Fukushima instead of only 130,000 people. von Hippel notes that around 20,000 people died as a direct result of the earthquake and tsunami. No direct deaths seem to have been recorded from radiation, but von Hippel warns that the radiation levels from the Fukushima leaks could eventuate in up to 1,000 cancer-related deaths in the future.

While around half of the people who were initially evacuated have returned home, National Geographic reports that there remains over 70,000 ‘nuclear refugees’ who are internally displaced within Japan as a result of the Fukushima disaster. So what has happened to them since the first nuclear leaks?

Displaced people

The survivors who were forced to leave their homes are being housed in temporary accommodation. As a result of the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns, they have not only lost their homes, but they face daily socio-economic hardship as they struggle to find ongoing work. Additionally, survivors are experiencing increased feelings of suicide as a result of their trauma and loss, and they experience intense pressure to return home or face social stigma.

In late July, Russia Today reported that suicide has risen amongst Japanese refugees who survived the nuclear disaster. Their forced migration from their homes is reported to be seen as ‘desertion’ by some sections of Japanese society and ‘uncharacteristically Japanese’. For an unspecified number of survivors, being stigmatised as a ‘traitor’ is too much to bear on top of the trauma they have already suffered. Komae Hosokawa, a nuclear sociologist interviewed for this story, said:

Some people do evacuate… But the problem is they are the minority and they have been accused by their neighbours, by their classmates and of course by official personnel that they are causing unfounded anxiety among people, which is not good.

Russia Today also interviewed Hirohito Hirose, a disaster psychologist. His team conducted a study showing that suicide rates in Japan have increased since the disaster in comparison to two years a go. Suicide is rising amongst residents living along the periphery areas of the ‘nuclear zone’. Farmers have been particularly vulnerable to suicide as their soil is their entire livelihood. Hosokawa explains this finding from a sociological perspective:

We hear some organic farmers committed suicide, because you know for organic farmers soil is everything… They nurture the good soil after many years of hard work and it is just contaminated in one night or two you know. So some farmers committed suicide and I am very sad to hear the news. And many other farmers are also very much depressed… Because of the tsunami disaster and the nuclear disaster many people have actually lost their jobs or their working conditions have crashed, so they have so many good reasons to commit suicide.

In a follow up story, Russia Today aired a report that has been much blogged about since it first went online in August. The report discusses the stigma and ‘survivor’s guilt’ that the Japanese refugees have faced amongst some sections of the communities they left behind. Specifically, they have faced criticism for not returning home, even though it is not safe for them to do so. Additionally, the report says that survivors are facing other cultural pressures. Shigeru Iwasaki, a Fukushima Shelter Official, says in the interview:

There is a typical Japanese reaction to blame themselves for not being able to help those who died in this accident. This feeling exists amongst Japanese people and especially those who survived this disaster.

Evacuation sites

National Geographic has recently published a compelling photo essay of ‘Japan’s nuclear refugees’ and the exclusion zone around the Fukushima nuclear plant (photos via The Atlantic). Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder went into the exclusion zone around the Fukushima station. He has chronicled the devastation in the abandoned town of Namie for National Geographic.

National Geographic reports on the toxic severity in this town, which is not immediately visible to the naked eye. Evidence remains of the 21,000 locals who left their homes in a rush. The majority (13,500 people) live in temporary accommodation in the Fukushima region and the rest (7,500) have migrated to other areas in Japan.

The Atlantic writes of the scene above:

After the disasters of March 11, tens of thousands were ordered to leave their homes in the vicinity of the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station, some of their footprints now frozen in the mud. (© David Guttenfelder /National Geographic).

The Atlantic describes the above photo:

In a gym in Hirono, residents in protective suits are briefed before being escorted to their homes for a June 8 visit and to retrieve a few small items. (There’s no room on the bus for larger things.) Although the trips in were strictly controlled, a town official says that for the decontamination process – disposing of shoe covers, suits, caps, and masks and being screened for radiation – everyone and everything was waved through. (© David Guttenfelder/National Geographic)

How can sociology help?

Yesterday, Reuters reported that the Japanese Government may be considering a $13 billion or up to $27 billion bailout for the Tokyo Electric Company, to help repair the Fukushima assets. This would effectively nationalise the energy giant, but Reuters reports that more funding is likely to be sought from banks and private industry.

These private investments might seem necessary in order to rebuild TEPCO’s infrastructure. The strategy may well save a company that is vital to the nation’s energy production and economy – but how will this help to address the daily struggles of the 70,000 Japanese people who remain displaced, unemployed or underemployed? How can Japanese citizens feel assured that private interests will be adequately regulated to prevent a similar situation in future?

Hoichi Hasegawa argues that future discussions about sustainability and ‘eco-friendly’ community planning need to take into consideration natural disasters, such as tsunamis and earthquakes. Hasegawa argues that what happened in Japan was not simply some freak accident triggered by a natural disaster. Instead, the scope of devastation was caused by poor environmental planning. Hasegawa argues:

From now, we should focus on ‘sustainability’ from the standpoint of disaster prevention and safety. Accelerated global warming will bring so many disasters like huge floods, hurricanes, typhoons and so forth. Recovery and regeneration of the local community will be a focal point of discussion. Eco-friendly communities utilizing renewable energy sources like solar, wind, biomass and local resources related to farming and fishery, not dependent on nuclear energy or fossil fuels, will be a trigger to the sustainable future. We should remember that the Chinese character ‘crisis’ consists of ‘risk’ or ‘ danger’ and ‘opportunity’ or ‘chance’. We should turn this crisis into the chance of renewal’ based on ‘renewable energy resources’.

Addressing the Fukushima disaster seems, from the outset, to be a problem perhaps better suited to the natural sciences. For example, physicists who can measure radiation and engineers who can design a new plan for TEPCO. Focusing on rebuilding energy infrastructures is clearly a preeminent concern to Japan. But what about the so-called ‘nuclear refugees’ who languish in temporary housing, without a clear future paved? What about the refugees from the next natural disaster?

Clearly there are wider social ramifications that sociologists and other social scientists can address (and some have already began doing so). The trauma and patterns of suicide I’ve discussed require critical attention. Additionally, as Japan continues to grapple with a national plan to rebuild the communities that have been torn apart by the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima disasters, sociologists can assist in evaluating refugee programs. Moreover, as Hasegawa notes, sociologists have an important contribution to make with respect to sustainable planning.

Disaster forecasting, resilience measures, community development programs and natural disaster planning all require applied sociological knowledge about how different communities are organised in different locations; how people react in times of crisis; how to swiftly and effectively address social stigma, social exclusion and social alienation of survivors; and how to mobilise social action to rebuild communities.

Social policies that address rebuilding Japan’s energy future would be greatly enhanced by sociological input. It is scientifically difficult to precisely predict when the next disaster will hit, but if it’s of the same magnitude (or greater) than what Japan has experienced this year, the social costs can be better addressed through a collective, interdisciplinary effort that includes natural scientists, sociologist and other social scientists working together on environmental and disaster planning.

Do you have any other ideas how sociology can contribute to the reconstruction and planning efforts in Japan’s Fukushima nuclear sites? How can sociology help with the treatment and social inclusion of people who were internally displaced due to the nuclear crisis? If you a Japanese sociologist or if you have a focus on the sociology of  Japan can you share any other ideas regarding the TEPCO bail-out and related social policies that might help to address the social, environmental and economic problems related to the Fukushima disaster?

Learn more

Read more on ‘Japan’s nuclear refugees‘ on National Geographic.

View the photos of Japan’s nuclear zone from The Atlantic.

Read The Atlantic’s photo essay of the earthquake and tsunami from March.

Watch the Russia Today report: Survivor Stigma: Fukushima refugees labelled ‘un-Japanese’.

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6 thoughts on “The Social Costs of Japan’s Nuclear Disaster and What Sociology Can Do To Help

  1. Excellent article, disaster induced displacement is complicated problem

    So-called environmentally induced migration is multi-level problem. According to Essam El-Hinnawi definition form 1985 environmental refugees as those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural or triggered by people) that jeopardised their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life. The fundamental distinction between `environmental migrants` and `environmental refugees` is a standpoint of contemporsry studies in EDPs.

    According to Bogumil Terminski it seems reasonable to distinguish the general category of environmental migrants from the more specific (subordinate to it) category of environmental refugees.

    Environmental migrants, therefore, are persons making a short-lived, cyclical, or longerterm change of residence, of a voluntary or forced character, due to specific environmental factors. Environmental refugees form a specific type of environmental migrant.

    Environmental refugees, therefore, are persons compelled to spontaneous, short-lived, cyclical, or longer-term changes of residence due to sudden or gradually worsening changes in environmental factors important to their living, which may be of either a short-term or an irreversible character.


  2. Thank you for your comments. I agree that environmental refugees are an important group and that their plight is a global issue that social researchers and activists need to keep focused upon. Your thoughts are much appreciated!


    1. Hi Márcia. People’s identities and communities are often bound and defined by place. The farmers who return to nuclear disaster sites are trying to salvage lands that have often been in their families for generations. Moreover, they have faced so much discrimination after evacuation that making a living wage is difficult. Returning home is, for some, a difficult decision for people with few appealing options. Others may be optimistic about the opportunity to rebuild their homes and old lives.


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