Japan Rethinks Its Relationship With The Atom

Over the weekend, Japan commemorated the 66th anniversary of the American bombing of Hiroshima. Some used the event to protest nuclear energy. This spring's massive earthquake caused a meltdown at a nuclear plant north of Tokyo. The recent disaster has many Japanese re-thinking their nation's relationship with nuclear energy.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Over the weekend, Japan marked the anniversary of the American bombing of Hiroshima. Some also used the event to protest nuclear energy. Radiation is still leaking from a Japanese nuclear plant damaged by an earthquake and tsunami. That disaster has many Japanese rethinking their complex relationship with the atom. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Hiroshima.

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Unidentified group: (Singing) Hiroshima, Hiroshima...

FRANK LANGFITT: It's the night before the commemoration ceremony and a band plays along the banks of Hiroshima's Motoyasu River. Across the water stands the skeletal remains of one of the few buildings to survive the atomic blast in 1945. The band also played a song protesting the Monju Nuclear Plant, which has a history of safety problems.

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Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Monjuro, Monjuro, Monjuro...

LANGFITT: For years, many Japanese saw nuclear weapons and nuclear energy as separate - not anymore. Like the band, people say they increasingly see a connection between the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the disaster at Fukushima, all part of Japan's long and painful nuclear narrative.

Kyoko Kawakami is an art curator in Tokyo. She's attending the Hiroshima commemoration for the first time since childhood. The reason: Fukushima. After the ceremony, she attends a no-nukes rally along the river.

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LANGFITT: The cicadas are so loud, it's hard to hear.

Ms. KYOKO KAWAKAMI (Art Curator): (Through translator) I think lots of people in Japan are thinking about nuclear power plants for the first time. I never thought about where the electricity I used came from.

LANGFITT: Although nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors serve different purposes, today, Kawakami sees them as related threats.

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Ms. KAWAKAMI: (Through translator) What I'm thinking now is Japan and the world have been making things that we don't know how to deal with it.

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Unidentified Man #2: (Japanese spoken)

LANGFITT: Kunihiko Okimoto is strolling through Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Museum. He says this year's disaster has created a new generation of radiation victims, and he fears people from Fukushima will suffer discrimination, just as the people of Hiroshima did.

Mr. KUNIHIKO OKIMOTO: (Through translator) I'm worried about the people of Fukushima. They might be okay now, but in the future, when they are asked where are you from, they may not be able to get married. Things like that might happen.

LANGFITT: Beginning in the 1950s, the Japanese government mounted a public relations effort to persuade people the atom could be harnessed for safe energy. Scholars say the campaign included planting positive stories about nuclear energy in newspapers, emphasizing nuclear safety in middle school curricula, even creating a cartoon ambassador for plutonium.

It all proved remarkably effective, even to survivors of Hiroshima like Keijiro Matsushima, an 82-year-old retired school teacher.

Mr. KEIJIRO MATSUSHIMA (Former Teacher): I think we ordinary people were very obedient. They said nuclear energy can be used in a safe way, and we had believed it - very naive.

LANGFITT: When radiation first started leaking from Fukushima, Matsushima was shocked.

Mr. MATSUSHIMA: Instantly, I felt, oh, Japan has suffered from the third A-bombing

LANGFITT: But he says he's also a realist. Japan relies on nuclear energy for 30 percent of its power. Matsushima says the government should make it safer, not get rid of it.

Mr. MATSUSHIMA: Right now, we need nuclear energy every day. So seems to be a necessary evil.

LANGFITT: Keiji Nakazawa disagrees. Six years old at the time, he too survived the bombing here. He grew up to become a famous cartoonist. Nakazawa created an alter-ego named Barefoot Gen, who wanders the ruins of Hiroshima, trying to rebuild his life. He says after Fukushima, Japan's choice is obvious.

Mr. KEIJI NAKAZAWA (Cartoonist): (Through Translator) We should never stop trying to abolish nuclear power. We should make our country one, where our descendants can live safely. I want to stick to this problem until I die.

LANGFITT: Nakazawa says that may be soon. He's suffering from inoperable lung cancer. Nakazawa attributes his illness to radiation exposure from the atomic bomb. He says he never smoked.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Hiroshima.

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