Radioactive fallout survivor continues to speak out

Matashichi Oishi stands in front of the Fukuryu Maru No. 5 at the metropolitan Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall in Koto Ward, Tokyo, in Jan

JAPAN - Saturday marks 60 years since the crew of the Fukuryu Maru No. 5, a tuna boat from Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, was exposed to radioactive fallout from a US hydrogen bomb test on Bikini Atoll near the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific Ocean on March 1, 1954. Matashichi Oishi is one of the former crew members of the boat who continues to speak publicly about his experience, hoping that the horror of the incident, which happened while memories of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were still fresh, will not be repeated.

In late January, Oishi, now 80 years old, was invited to talk at a private middle school in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo. He walked up to a podium, supporting himself with a cane, and started talking about his experiences to an audience of about 170 second-year girls.

He spoke gently, but his stern words carried a sense of gravity and urgency. "Mankind knows the terror of nuclear [weapons], but cannot give them up. Even now there are people who are struggling with radiation damage," he said.

Crew members of the Fukuryu Maru No. 5 were exposed to the fallout on March 1, 1954, from one of the 67 atomic and hydrogen bomb tests carried out by the United States from 1946 to 1958 in the central Pacific.

The tests exposed residents of nearby islands as well as fishermen on about 1,000 boats that were operating in the vicinity of the blasts to levels of radiation that proved deadly in some cases.

The Fukuryu Maru, which literally means "lucky dragon," was exposed to the fallout from a hydrogen bomb code-named "Bravo" that was about 1,000 times more powerful than the type dropped on Hiroshima.

The ship was taken out of service and sat abandoned for a time, now preserved in the metropolitan Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall in Koto Ward, Tokyo, which opened in June 1976.

Of the 23 Fukuryu Maru crew who were exposed to the "ashes of death," seven are alive today, and only three talk about their experience publicly.

Oishi says he continues with his lectures to "resolve the regret of my fellows who died without speaking out about the things they wanted to."

He has given more than 700 talks over about 30 years, and continues to do so despite having collapsed due to a brain hemorrhage two years ago that left the right side of his body disabled.

Oishi said he is unable to forget that day 60 years ago when he was 20 years old, working on the Pacific Ocean about 160 kilometers east of the Bikini Atoll.

The crew noticed that the semi-dark sky and sea before dawn was covered with a yellow light. About eight minutes later, they heard a thunderous roar, which was quickly followed by fine, snowlike powder falling from the sky. "If it got in your mouth, it felt like sand," Oishi remembered.

One week later, his hair fell out and blisters broke out on his skin. The white powder was actually pieces of radioactive coral, something they would not learn until they returned to port in Yaizu.

He and his crewmates were hospitalized, but six months later Aikichi Kuboyama, the chief radio operator, died of acute radiation sickness.

Oishi was released in May 1955, only to be met with prejudice as a person who had been exposed to radiation. He was unable to find a ship owner who would employ him as they were afraid the rumours surrounding him could damage their businesses. Thinking he would like to live in a place where nobody knew him, he left his home behind and set off for Tokyo.

Picking up the pieces

Working at a dry cleaning shop in Tokyo in March 1968, Oishi learned that the Fukuryu Maru No. 5 was sitting abandoned in Yumenoshima, a famed disposal site, in Koto Ward.

Decommissioned in 1967, the vessel was being treated like any other piece of trash. When he saw the ship for the first time in 14 years, Oishi said it was buried in reeking garbage. The boat was not like he remembered it, he recalls. "It's like I had thrown it away, just as I had taken memories of the boat out of my head," he said.

Soon after that, he began giving talks about his experiences at primary, middle and high schools. While continued his "mission," the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, sparked the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant run by Tokyo Electric Power Co.

"We have to make use of the lessons we learned in Hiroshima and Nagasaki," he said. Though he said he sometimes feels powerless, he thinks: "I've survived twice as long as some of my [Fukuryumaru] fellows. I've got to keep going strong."