The Voyage Of The Lucky Dragon
One of the joys of spending hours creeping around secondhand bookshops is the array of unknown stories that get put in your way. I was not aware of Ralph Lapp’s book about this dark episode in Japanese/US history.
On Friday 22 January 1954 the Lucky Dragon set sail from a port south of Tokyo and would remain at sea for 51 days, looking for the large tuna that formed a staple in the Japanese diet. They took a different route to the usual one, in search of better fish; if they returned with a light catch the fish sales would only cover the cost of the trip and the fishermen would go back to their families empty-handed.
This trip was like no other. For when the Lucky Dragon sailed further out than usual its crew saw a great flash in the sky that covered their boat with gritty white ash. The 23 fishermen had been caught within the blast-field of the H-Bomb, which had been exploded without any warning to shipping.
By the time they returned to port many had already become sick. For a people who remembered the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki there was a terrible stigma attached to radiation sickness, and as the crew members turned black and their hair fell out they tried to ignore what had happened. Soon, though, they were admitted to hospital.
By this time the tuna they had caught – most of it highly radioactive – had been sold across the country, and now began a race to track it down. The fish market collapsed as housewives stopped buying, and officials rushed to stamp food with ‘acceptable’ levels of radiation.
But as the author points out, how would the people of the United States have reacted if they had been told that their meat was labelled ‘Partly radioactive but safe to eat’? The American government accused Japan of unrealistic overreaction to the contamination but, in a classic case of double standards, banned imports of Japanese tuna to America. A secret deal was struck between the FDA and the Atomic Energy Commission. The truth was that the H-Bomb had massively contaminated fish stocks – but no-one was allowed to know.
As the US planned to explode a much bigger ‘superbomb’ the President’s atomic advisor tried to weasel out of paying compensation to the dying sailors and the mass contamination of Japan’s food by claiming that the fish was not contaminated and the fishermen had been harmed by bits of flying coral, not radioactivity. A congressman actually suggested the fishermen had been spying on US test sites!
One of the men sickened and died. The others survived, mostly horribly damaged and sterile. Several more bombs were exploded, and the Russians tested one that covered the whole of Japan in radiation. The US never admitted what was actually inside their superbomb on ‘humanitarian grounds’.
The story went on act as part of the inspiration for the film ‘Gojira’ (‘Godzilla’). The fishermen’s boat is now in a museum.