STEVE INSKEEP, host:
All right, no country is more familiar with nuclear peril than Japan. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 at the end of World War II killed or irradiated hundreds of thousands of Japanese. So you might think that people in that country would be traumatized by the crippled nuclear power complex. But as NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, the reality is more nuanced.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: From one generation to the next, even the most horrible events fade from cultural memory. Isao Hashimoto, an artist in the city of Hakone, wants people to remember 1945.
Mr. ISAO HASHIMOTO (Artist): I had heard from my father, my grandfather about the war, seriousness of war and seriousness of atomic bombs. So I think we should keep talking about this problem, especially towards the younger generation.
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JOYCE: So Hashimoto created a very simple video: just a map of the world. Starting in 1945 with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, it registers, in chronological order, every nuclear test explosion. One after another, each bomb shows up as a little red puff on the screen.
Mr. HASHIMOTO: The beep means each explosion.
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Mr. HASHIMOTO: Another beep means one month for more than 2,000 tests.
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JOYCE: Fear of radiation burrowed into Japanese culture. Godzilla, the movie monster that destroyed Tokyo, was the spawn of radioactive fallout, as were other cinema monsters to follow. On the positive side, animators created the helpful cartoon robot Atom Boy, who uses science for peace.
That was fantasy. But now, in Japan, the fallout is real again. It's even reached Tokyo.
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
JOYCE: At a restaurant in Tokyo, Sukeyasu Yamamoto orders lunch.
Mr. SUKEYASU YAMAMOTO (Nuclear Physicist): I think it's cod and kelp.
JOYCE: No one's ordering spinach these days. The government says crops to the north are contaminated. Yamamoto is a nuclear physicist, trained at Yale University and now teaching in Tokyo. He knows both cultures. He says the reaction to the nuclear accident can be described in a word.
Mr. YAMAMOTO: Gaman: it is to endure, accept the pain. Don't complain.
JOYCE: He says another word: shikata ganai. It means it can't be helped. And in a sense, that's the situation here. Japan needs electricity, and there's little coal and no oil domestically. The government cast the country's lot with nuclear power and built 55 reactors that generate about 35 percent of the country's electricity. Yamamoto says many people here don't really associate the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with this nuclear reactor accident.
Mr. YAMAMOTO: The tsunami was more like the atomic bomb effect of flattening the whole place, and the radiation is another disaster which may be more hazardous than the tsunami in some ways and long lasting. But most people are not scientists, so they don't make that connection very easily.
JOYCE: In fact, Yamamoto says many of his students don't seem to know much about World War II and the bombings. He says people of his generation do remember.
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JOYCE: Two years ago, Yamamoto rediscovered the diaries he kept as a teenager during the war.
Mr. YAMAMOTO: These are the diaries. They're starting from April 27th, 1945. May 1st: Today, we heard about my father's death in action.
JOYCE: Sitting in an armchair at his tidy home in Tokyo, Yamamoto looks for an entry he made about the atomic bombs that America dropped on August 6th and August 9th.
Mr. YAMAMOTO: This is August 13th: Today, a small aircraft came over. So that was more scary, because the one plane can do it. I think, if I remember, there were only two planes over Hiroshima.
JOYCE: For sure, people near the damaged nuclear complex in Fukushima are worried about their health, their food supply. But farther away, many Japanese people are more devastated by the tsunami. Some find it rather odd that Americans are worried about a little plume of radiation thousands of miles away.
Yoshiko Suzuki is a bereavement counselor in Tokyo.
Ms. YOSHIKO SUZUKI (Bereavement counselor): My youngest daughter lives in San Francisco. She is scared to death and worries about me, like mommy, why don't you get out of Japan and come here?
JOYCE: There are others who don't share Suzuki's complacency about the goings on in Fukushima. Seiji Arihara is a filmmaker whose animated movie, "Nagasaki 1945," describes the bombing and a hospital in that city treating survivors.
(Soundbite of movie, "Nagasaki 1945")
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Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
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Mr. SEIJI ARIHARA (Filmmaker): (Through Translator) In my movie, I wanted to give out a message that humans can't live with radiation. It's just not possible.
JOYCE: So far, there hasn't been a groundswell of anti-nuclear demonstrations. The people I talked to say Japan has more immediate concerns. That becomes clear as I sit in a Tokyo office interviewing Arihara. Translator Koki Ishibashi's cell phone rings an alert.
(Soundbite of cell phone alert)
Mr. KOKI ISHIBASHI (Translator): Oh. I think this is an earthquake, an earthquake in Fukushima.
JOYCE: I feel it.
Mr. ISHIBASHI: Because it's shaking. Yeah.
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JOYCE: The quake's epicenter is, again, right near the nuclear power complex.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News, Tokyo.
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INSKEEP: This is NPR News.