Foreign Policy Blogs

Dumping radioactive water and semantics

The Japanese government defended Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s dumping of radioactive water into the ocean by claiming the action violates no international laws Tuesday. The government claims TEPCO’s dumping of 11,500 tons of low-level tainted water does not violate the 1986 Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident or the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto stressed that the discharge poses “no significant health threats” to human bodies. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the discharge would “not cause immediate radioactive contamination in neighboring countries.”

The government has released these statements in an attempt to pacify the public and other countries, but I find their use of unquantified hedge words like “significant” and “immediate” disturbing. What does the Japanese government consider to be “significant” health threats? If the discharge doesn’t cause “immediate” contamination in neighboring countries, does that mean we should not rule out contamination later down the road?

I am interested to see the government’s response if health threats and contamination do occur. I will look for parallels to the handling of Chisso’s dumping of industrial wastewater into Minamata Bay.

The Japanese chemical company Chisso dumped large quantities of industrial wastewater that was contaminated with highly toxic methylmercury from 1932 to 1968, causing thousands of people in the town of Minamata, Kumamoto, to die or become diseased from mercury poisoning. Because Japanese law prevents class-action lawsuits, victims of the poisoning had to sue individually. The company used yakuza thugs to intimidate the victims and beat up photographer W. Eugene Smith for publishing a photo-essay of the effects. The government initially slapped the company with a $5000 fine for illegal dumping and did not force the company to clean up the contamination. It took victims 30 years to get compensation from the company, and the government did not order Chisso to clean up the contamination until 2004. When referring to the incident, Japanese textbooks do not mention which corporation was responsible for the “Minamata disease.”

I think foreign governments should demand that Tokyo clarify the meaning of hedge words such as “significant” and “immediate.” (Of course there is the possibility that the government simply can’t define such hedge words, in which case we will find out the health risks and contamination in the event that they occur.) Governments might look at the Chisso case as a precedent for how Japan handles such incidents.



Dustin Dye

Dustin Dye is the author of the YAKUZA DYNASTY series, available through the Amazon Kindle.

He lived in Okayama, Japan, where he taught English at a junior high school through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program for three years. He is a graduate from the University of Kansas, where he received a bachelor's degree in anthropology.

His interest in Japan began in elementary school after seeing Godzilla fight Ghidorah, the three-headed monster. But it wasn't until he discovered Akira Kurosawa's films through their spaghetti Western remakes that he truly became fascinated in the people and culture of Japan.

He lives in Kansas with his wife, daughter and guinea pig.

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E-mail him: [email protected]