Japan and Nuclear Events

Shaw (Watha T. Daniel) Library

Japan and Nuclear Events

Cover image of Sadako and the thousand paper cranesIf any country on earth knows about the devastation and aftermath of nuclear events it is Japan. While what is happening now is in its own way unprecedented, the Japanese people are handling the situation with characteristic stoicism and bravery. But the mental toll of these events lingers in the minds of Japanese authors and artists, and has led to some important recurring themes in Japanese literature and film. 

The Realities of Radiation Exposure

School children learn the story of the young girl Sadako Sasaki and the Thousand Paper Cranes. Sadako was two years old when the atomic bomb exploded in Hiroshima, and her home was a mile away from ground zero. She began to succumb to Leukemia in 1955, when her friend told her the legend of the thousand paper cranes. If you fold a thousand origami cranes, you will be granted a wish. Sadako folded 644 cranes before she passed away, but her family and friends completed the thousand cranes for her. Statues of Sadako have been erected around the world as an enduring symbol of peace in the face of nuclear war. 

In 1999 there was a critical accident at a nuclear power plant in Tokaimura, just a little northeast of Tokyo. Three of the workers there were exposed to a substantial amount of radiation and suffered a slow death over a period of 83 days. Japanese public television station NHK produced a documentary following the lives of the Tokaimura accident crew. The resulting television show was the most explicit depiction of radiation sickness that had ever been seen. An illustrated print edition of the show, A Slow Death: 83 Days of Radiation Sickness, was produced as well.   


The devastation of World War II has never been forgotten, and the looming threat of a World War III and what would happen has been the stuff of Japanese science fiction for years. The most astounding vision of a nuclear level event and the way the nation would evolve was in Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira. The opening sequence in both the graphic novel and the anime film adaptation show the entirety of Tokyo being enveloped in a swelling bubble of energy that razes buildings and leaves a giant crater in the center of the city. What follows years later is the development of Neo-Tokyo, a run-down and built-up city of neon and motorcycle gangs, corrupt politicians and an overzealous military. Of course the lessons of the past are never learned, and scenarios continue to escalate, leading us to the threat of a fourth great disaster.


Literally translated as "strange beasts," these are the giant monsters that all of us know from Japanese monster movies. The granddaddy of them all is Gojira (known to Americans as Godzilla).  Gojira himself is a mutated sea monster who was exposed to a tremendous amount of radiation from a nuclear explosion. That's the most important element of the Gojira story: he is an aberration that would never have existed without nuclear fallout. The film debuted in 1954, just nine years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So atomic horror was prime in the public's mind. Over time the nuclear element of Gojira's story was downplayed for the sake of developing further Kaiju, whom he fought while simultaneously destroying various cities in Japan. The public's overwhelming interest in Kaiju films led to the development of American versions of Godzilla as well as the more recent J.J. Abrams film Cloverfield.

Assistance to Japan

Some patrons have asked us about how to donate to Japanese relief efforts, especially since there have been many instances of fraud.  Several news outlets, reputable blogs and charity organizations have posted lists of donors that are doing important work with the folks who are affected not just by the nuclear event, but also the earthquake and tsunami. 

-- Eric Riley