From Hiroshima to Fukushima: The political background to the nuclear disaster in Japan

By a anonymous contributor
23 June 2011

Following the Japanese earthquake and tsunami disaster of March 11, the meltdown of the nuclear reactor in Fukushima continues to alarm people all around the world. The world witnessed the events virtually live as one reactor building after another exploded and one of the planet’s most high-tech countries tried to quell the 770 000 terabecquerel (1) radioactivity unleashed from the meltdown with bucket and hose. Japan was desperate to convince the world that everything was under control.

Following the media reports from Japan, many people ask themselves why governments chose to gamble on nuclear power in such an earthquake-prone country—after the US and France, Japan is the world’s third largest nuclear power nation—and why the people of this land appeared to be so indifferent to the dangers of nuclear energy.

These are the questions we want to pursue.

Eisenhower’s change of course

The propagation of nuclear technology in Japan was a direct consequence of the US military’s endeavours to wield influence over the country’s development immediately after the Second World War. Shortly after the end of the war, the US began to transform Japan into a bulwark against the Soviet Union. This policy was intensified following the taking of power by Stalinist regimes in China and Korea. Having lost the monopoly on nuclear weapons, it became necessary for the US to make Japan receptive to nuclear power.

On April 20, the Japanese Mainichi Shimbun newspaper wrote: “During the eighth General Assembly of the United Nations in December 1954, former US President Eisenhower held a speech, entitled “Atoms for Peace”. His strategy was to assign relevant technologies to other countries in order to integrate them into the US power bloc, thereby securing hegemony in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. That Japan, the only country to have suffered the full force of nuclear weapons, would agree to embrace nuclear technology was of enormous strategic importance“.

The CIA agent, “Podam”

The same newspaper article quoted Tetsuo Arima, media researcher and professor of social science at the University of Waseda, concerning the Japanese pro-nuclear politician and media magnate, Matsutaro Shoriki: “After the world war, the CIA worked closely with Mr. Shoriki to advance the campaign for nuclear energy in Japan. It did so because this man had not only the necessary connections to politics and economics, but also the power to mobilise his newspaper and television empire”.

During years of research in the United States National Archives and Records Administration, Arima discovered 474 pages of CIA files, documenting in detail the progress of the introduction of nuclear technology to Japan. From one of these, he quotes the following: “Relations with Podam have now progressed to the stage where outright cooperation can be initiated”.

“Podam” was the code name for the member of parliament and CIA asset, Matsutaro Shoriki, who would later become president of the atomic energy authority he founded, as well as minister for science and technology. Shoriki is today regarded as father of Japan’s nuclear power.

The Japanese Goebbels

Shoriki’s career would have been unthinkable without his close relationship with the CIA and the Pentagon. As head of the political police in fascist Japan before and during the war, he was particularly responsible for hunting down and crushing the unions, communists, socialists and opponents of the war. Later he became a member of the upper house of parliament and head of the information department of the interior ministry, which was responsible for ideological warfare and propaganda. He had become owner of the Yomiuri Shimbun as early as 1924. This newspaper was to become the main mouthpiece for the warmongers and the military dictatorship in the 1930s and 1940s. Yomiuri Shimbun is today Japan’s largest newspaper with a circulation of about ten million. It can be said that Shoriki was the Joseph Goebbels of Japan.

Following the war, he was imprisoned as a major war criminal for three years. However, his case was never brought to prosecution. Instead, he was released without trial. The CIA and the US Defense Department needed his skills and influence to implement Eisenhower’s policy in Japan. Secret US government files show that the CIA and the Pentagon provided funds, amounting to tens of millions of dollars, for the construction of the Shoriki media empire—he was also the founder of the first private television broadcaster, Japan TV, as well as Japan’s professional baseball league. (2)

At that time, the Japanese people were still traumatised by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, reacting with horror to any mention of atomic power, whether for peaceful use or employed as a weapon. In March 1954, another event shook the Japanese public. A Japanese fishing trawler was so strongly contaminated by radiation during a hydrogen bomb test in the Bikini Islands that a crew member died and many of the crew were seriously injured, despite the boat having been in an area declared safe by the US authorities. The anti-nuclear sentiment now developed into a broad mass movement against the US. In order to implement Eisenhower’s policy in Japan, the CIA therefore needed the war criminal, Shoriki, to create a favourable climate for nuclear power and distract the population from political developments in general. (3)

The re-militarisation of Japan

This coincided with Shoriki’s interests, although he had a somewhat different intention from that of the CIA. On April 20, 1952, his newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun carried an article, headed: “The government commissions a concrete plan for the establishment of a Department of Science and Technology in preparation for re-armament and weapons production”. The article went on to quote Kantaro Suzuki, the last imperial admiral and prime minister at the time of Japan’s surrender: “We have lost this war because of our lack of science. Therefore, it is now imperative for us to promote science in order to rebuild Japan”. For Suzuki, however, “to rebuild Japan” meant to restore the Japanese empire.

Shoriki, the ardent nationalist, was reluctant to be simply of service to the CIA for propaganda purposes. On the contrary, he intended on using the CIA and the Pentagon for his own projects. His plan was to exploit his relationship with the CIA and the Pentagon to become head of government, and rebuild Japan into a military superpower.

The Department of Science and Technology—the predecessor of the Ministry of Education and Science—was in fact established, and by Shoriki himself. Touting the campaign slogan, “A new Industrial Revolution by means of nuclear power”, he became a member of parliament, and went on to become president of his own creation, the Atomic Energy Authority, which later developed into the Department of Science and Technology. Masao Maeda, one of Shoriki’s party colleagues from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), drafted the legislation to establish the Department of Science and Technology. He defined the task of a body subordinate to this department, the Central Institute for Science and Technology, with the following words: “research into weapons technology, including nuclear weapons”. (4)

Karl Mundt, a right-wing Republican Senator who authored the legislation founding the Voice of America (VOA, the anti-communist propaganda radio station of the American armed forces in Asia), sent a member of his Senate staff, Henry Holthusen, to Japan to meet with Shoriki to launch a television version of the VOA in the country. At the time, Holthusen was cooperating with the Unitel corporation to run a television station for the US Army throughout the Far East. (5)

Shoriki agreed to Holthusen’s request. He used his connection to the Pentagon—the law firm of Murphy, Duiker, Smith & Burwell in Washington—to make a deal with the US Defence Department, concerning the amount of money he would need to set up the television station. (6)

Thanks to Shoriki, this operation was implemented just at the time that the anti-nuclear and anti-American sentiment of the population developed into a major mass movement.

Nakasone, Shoriki’s enforcer

It became increasingly difficult for the CIA and Pentagon to control Shoriki. The US certainly had no intention of equipping its former wartime enemy with nuclear weapons technology. Eisenhower’s policy was rather to make Japanese society compliant to nuclear energy so that, on one hand, American nuclear weapons could be stationed wherever required. On the other hand, a large market was to be opened in Japan for the US nuclear power industry.

This is the reason why nuclear technology know-how was only communicated under the strictest supervision of the US government and only on American soil. Thus, most of the nuclear engineers in the Tokyo Electric Company were “trained” in a school in Illinois, the International School of Nuclear Engineering, which was operated by the Atomic Energy Commission. However, the know-how imparted was insufficient for the development of Japan’s own nuclear reactors, and only useful for operating the ready-for-use nuclear power plants, sold to them by the US. (7)

However, Shoriki was primarily interested in weapons technology. Therefore, the first reactors he was responsible for constructing as head of the Atomic Energy Agency in Japan were the Calder Hall type from England, which were originally developed for the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons. The utilisation of heat, emanating from the production of plutonium, for power generation was really only a byproduct.

The US was appalled by this sleight of hand on Shoriki’s part, and he was increasingly unable to count on any further support from the CIA or the Pentagon. His goal of taking over the government of Japan could no longer be realised.

While Matsutaro Shoriki, the former war criminal, media magnate and head of the Japanese nuclear agency, lost US support and was frustrated in his bid to assume control of the Japanese government, his student and henchmen, Yasuhiro Nakasone, managed to continue his plans.

Nakasone succeeded Shoriki to become head of the Science and Technology Department, then defence minister, and finally prime minister from 1982 to 1987. Nakasone wrote in his memoirs in 1996: “I worked as assistant to Mr. Matsutaro Shoriki, who had been president of the Department of Science and Technology. I wrote all the nuclear energy legislation , i.e. the law establishing the Nuclear Energy Authority, the law promoting the development of nuclear raw materials, the law establishing the Nuclear Research Institute, the law for the Nuclear Fuel Institute …” (8)

As a young naval officer, Nakasone had been an eyewitness to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. He writes in his autobiography: “I saw the mushroom cloud from my naval operation base in Takamatsu. Intuitively I felt that the future of the nuclear age had begun”. (9) It was not the 200,000 people killed in such a gruesome way, nor the agony of slow death for the surviving victims of radiation that interested him. His response was merely to yearn for the coming era of Japan’s nuclear power.

Yuko Fujita, professor of physics at Keio University, described Nakasone’s role in a paper presented at an annual meeting of the Japanese Physics Society as follows:

“In 1953, he was approached by a Mr. Coulton, an officer of the Counter Intelligence Corps from General Douglas McArthur’s headquarters, and invited to attend a seminar at Harvard University, organised by [Henry] Kissinger. After the seminar, Nakasone met with Hideo Yamamoto, a businessman from Asahi Glass and then a student at Columbia University, in order to obtain more information about nuclear technology. Yamamoto said: ‘He was particularly interested in nuclear weapons, particularly the development of compact nuclear weapons. Since he was advocate of Japanese rearmament, I assume he saw nuclear weapons as something that was imperative for Japan’”. (1)

The beginning of the nuclear programme

Immediately after returning, Nakasone began to prepare a special budget for nuclear research in the form of a supplementary budget. Steering a rapid three-day procedure of coalition negotiations, he managed to push the draft bill through, and it was passed by both houses of parliament by March 4, 1954. Thus, the first nuclear programme in Japan was created with a budget of 235 million yen. (This particular sum was the idea of Nakasone himself. He later said that the number of millions was inspired by the element, uranium 235.)

The haste was necessary because the Japanese trawler’s radiation accident during the hydrogen bomb test on the Bikini atoll in March 1954 had recently occurred, although the cutter only returned to Japan 14 days later. The accident was to obsess the Japanese public for years.

Nakasone became head of the the Kishi government’s Science and Technology Department in the late 1950s. Like Shoriki, Shinsuke Kishi had been imprisoned as a war criminal, but was freed from prison by the CIA prior to becoming Japanese prime minister. Serving under Kishi, Nakasone became instrumental in the development of the Japanese nuclear power programme.

In his autobiography, Kishi writes about the importance of the nuclear programme: “Nuclear technology can be used for both peaceful and military purposes. (…) Japan may not have nuclear weapons, but it can strengthen its power to wield influence in the international arena, if it increases its potential nuclear weapons capability”.

Nakasone was president of the Atomic Energy Authority when it published Japan’s first concrete “programme for the long-term development and use of nuclear power” in 1961. Based on this programme, nuclear power plants like Fukushima, came into being. Their reactor blocks were supplied by the US company General Electric, as ready-for-use installations in accordance with the original plans of the CIA. The contracts for building most of the nuclear power plants in Japan went to a single construction company, the Kajima Group, whose boss was a close relative of Nakasone.

While most of the nuclear plants were being built during the early 1970s, Nakasone occupied two ministerial positions: the Ministry for Trade and Industry and the Department of Science and Technology. He was thereby able to fully exploit his power in the fields of both energy management and the nuclear programme.

The ANPO opposition movement

As already mentioned, the introduction of nuclear power was met with widespread rejection by the Japanese population. The traumatic experiences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War certainly accounted for this. In the 1950s and 1960s, the anti-nuclear movement developed into a mass movement against the US military presence, reaching its climax in the legendary anti-ANPO (the Japanese acronym for US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty) struggles. This movement organised what amounted to general strikes against the prolongation of the security pact with the US. The state reacted by launching brutal violence on the part of the police.

Ultimately, all these protest and opposition movements—including the broad student protests in 1968 and 1969—were defeated, because the state and the nuclear lobby were able to rely on the Japanese Communist Party and the trade union leadership to bring the opposition under control and then to betray it. The Communist Party of Japan, which in no sense espoused a genuine socialist programme, initially openly supported the nuclear policy of the state. It exerted great influence especially in the public service, playing a dominant role in the teachers’ union, for example.

The state then turned to systematically aligning its education policies with the nuclear programme. Thus, chapters on nuclear power plants were included in the compulsory school books of all schools, in order to firmly plant in children’s minds at an early age the idea that nuclear power was a secure form of energy for the future. School textbooks in Japan are controlled by the Ministry of Education and Science, the same ministry that implements the nuclear programme.

Numerous legal and economic measures then led to a direct dependency of the regional municipalities on nuclear power plants.

The military importance of the nuclear power projects

Nuclear power plant operators have exerted great influence on the national government over the years. This has contributed to the fact that the threat of nuclear power to the security of the population goes largely unquestioned. Much more important is the military aspect of nuclear energy policy, which is still extremely topical. In order to demonstrate this, a few facts should finally be discussed.

More than $52 billion has so far been invested in the construction of the two reprocessing plants at Rokkashomura and Tokaimura, and the fast breeder reactor at Monju. The plant and equipment at Rokkashomura alone will end up swallowing up more than $100 billion—an amount exceeding all calculations of economic viability. All of these facilities are located in earthquake and tsunami-prone areas. More than 4,000 tonnes of nuclear material are stored in these plants, i.e., a quantity several times more than sufficient to render the whole country uninhabitable in the event of a Category 7 accident. And there have already been serious accidents in all three facilities (including fatalities in the case of Tokaimura).

All three plants suitable for the manufacture of nuclear weapons are closely connected with the Mitsubishi corporation, Japan’s largest weapons producer and manufacturer of ballistic rockets, combat aircraft, guided missiles, warships etc. Mitsubishi has led the development and construction of the facilities.

The head of the operating company for the Tokaimura reprocessing plant, the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute, is Kaneo Niwa, who was previously CEO of Mitsubishi Heavy Industry. His predecessor, Taizo Shoda, was the initiator of the Monju fast breeder. He also came from Mitsubishi Heavy Industry, as did his successor, Yotaro Iida, who headed the board both at Rokkashomura and Tokaimura.

The down-playing of the catastrophe of Fukushima is crucial not only for economic reasons (the issue of the continuing operation of the remaining 54 nuclear power plants); it is also vital for the implementation of the state’s military plans for the future.

Fukushima was foreseeable

Twenty years ago, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission warned in its security report NUREG 1150 that the auxiliary equipment of some reactors (such as diesel emergency generators, water storage tanks etc.) would not structurally withstand stresses caused by earthquakes. Such reactors include the Mark I type, like the reactors at Fukushima. The authority warned it was highly probable that the reactors’ cooling functions would fail in an earthquake. Japan’s nuclear safety authority and the TEPCO reactor operators—responsible for, among others, the reactors at Fukushima—ignored this report.

Hidekatsu Yoshii, a nuclear physicist and lower house deputy, challenged the chairman of the Nuclear Safety Committee during a parliamentary debate in October 2006, as follows: “There is a risk of meltdown due to failure of the cooling systems in 43 nuclear power plants (including Fukushima I), because they are so designed that power transmission lines would be damaged by earthquakes, thereby causing a complete power failure; or the supply of cooling water would be disrupted in the event of large tsunami waves”.

In December of the same year, Yoshii again urged the cabinet in writing to take measures to protect the population against nuclear hazards caused by major earthquakes affecting the operation of nuclear power plants. The prime minister at the time, Shinzo Abe (LDP), rejected the request on the grounds that a failure of emergency diesel generators or a failure of the cooling systems of reactors had never occurred in Japan.

Yukinobu Okamura, geologist and director of the National Institute for Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, examined in 2004 the extent of a tsunami disaster that had struck the region of Fukushima in the ninth century. According to his research, the tsunami waves were so big that they caused damage three to four miles inland. In 2009, he reported his findings to a parliamentary committee for earthquake threat to nuclear power plants, urging TEPCO to make security arrangements with respect to the occurrence of large tsunami waves in Fukushima. But TEPCO’s response was to claim that the available data was insufficient to justify such precautions.


1) 1 terabecquerel is 10 to the 12 power becquerels.

2) T. Arima: Genpatsu, Shoriki, CIA (Nuclear power plants, Shoriki and the CIA), Shinchosha publishers, 2008.

3) See: Crypto-Convergence, Media, and the Cold War: the Early Globalization of Television Networks in the 1950s, Media in Transition Conference, MIT, May 2002; James Schwoch, Northwestern University, Center for International and Comparative Studies

4) Report on “Problems of the Japan Atomic Energy”, published by the Association of Democratic Scientists, Department of Physics, 1953, p. 21

5) Jack K. MacFall-Holthusen April 4, 1952, TV Worldwide Network Japan, Holthusen Papers, Box 8 in Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.

6) Telecommunication Network System for Japan: Memoranda and Exhibits Prepared and Presented by Murphy, Duiker, Smith, & Burwell, Overseas Information Program Subcommittee, Section I, pp. 1-4, Hickenlooper Papers 86, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.

7) Genpatsu e no Keisho (Alarm Clock Nuclear Power), Katsuo Uchihashi, Kodansha 1986, p. 69, ff.

8) Yasuhiro Nakasone: 50 Years of Postwar Politics, published by Bungei Shunju, 1996, p. 170

9) Yasuhiro Nakasone: Politics and Life, Kodansha Publishers, 1992, p. 75

10) “Military Aspects of Japan’s Nuclear Policy”, paper presented at the annual meeting of the Japanese

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