Fukushima Workers Battle Leukemia – and Bureaucracy

Fukushima Workers Battle Leukemia – and Bureaucracy

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Fukushima cleanup
Eight years out, Japan's nuclear meltdown still impacts Fukushima workers. One man's fight against disease - and the company that refuses to compensate him.

Editor’s Note

The March 2011 tsunami, and the subsequent meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, has had a devastating impact on Japan. Eight years later, and most journalists – in Japan and abroad – have forgotten about the story. But for many, the struggle continues.

This is especially true of workers who helped assist in the cleanup effort at Fukushima. Some Fukushima workers have contracted severe diseases – including cancer and leukemia – since their work concluded. The government of Japan has even certified that some cases are a result of recovery work. But workers who are fighting for their lives also find themselves fighting the system. Tokyo Electric (TEPCO), which led the recovery effort, refuses to admit any connection between the cleanup work and subsequent diseases in workers. And many insurance companies are pointing to the fine print in private insurance contracts stating they don’t cover accidents at nuclear facilities.

Unseen Japan has been pleased to partner with photojournalist Hiro Ugaya (烏賀陽弘道) to translate his interviews with evacuees and former evacuees, and to document the ongoing struggle of the victims of this tragedy.

We previously published Hiro’s interview with a mother in the city of Minamisoma. In this installment, we share the first part of Hiro’s interview with Mr. Ikeda (pseudonym), a Fukushima nuclear reactor cleanup volunteer who now finds himself fighting two uphill battles.

(Translation from an article originally published on Note.mu. Translation by Jay, Editor/Publisher, Unseen Japan. All photos used with permission of Hiro Ugaya.)

Ikeda’s Story

For this installment of the Fukushima Report, I visited Northern Kyushu City in Fukuoka prefecture. I departed from Tokyo and flew west, in the direction opposite Fukushima.


I went to Fukuoka, which is quite far from Fukushima. That’s where the leukemia-stricken Ikeda Kazuya (age 44; pseudonym) has lived since participating in the Daichi Nuclear Reactor reconstruction efforts. I had visited Ikeda once in 2017 to hear his story. Among all my interviews here in the Fukushima Report, it’s the one that’s reverberated the loudest.

Mr. Ikeda volunteered to participate in the restoration work at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. By trade, he’s an independent welder. In March 2011, when so many people died due to the tsunami, he looked at the report of the death of a small child and thought, “I need to do something useful for Tohoku” [Editor: the region of Japan hit by the tsunami]. He asked permission from his boss and threw himself into the reconstruction effort. The interior of the heavy machinery room of Reactor 4 butts up against the nuclear fuel rod pool.

Mr. Ikeda during Fukushima cleanup. (Photo: Hiro Ugaya)

But in 2013, Mr. Ikeda came down with leukemia.

Mr. Ikeda is one of the first cancer patients that the country recognizes as a work-related accident connected to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Two Fukushima workers contracted leukemia (bone marrow cancer), and one contracted thyroid cancer. The first case of leukemia was recognized in October 2015. The second was recognized in August 2016. The third person, who had thyroid cancer, was certified in December 2016.

As of May 2019, there are six patients in the country whose cases have been recognized as occupational accidents caused by work at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. To tell the truth, I was quite surprised that the country recognized them as occupational accidents. Judging from the history of pollution diseases, such as Minamata disease and Itai-itai disease, I predicted the government would probably prevaricate and not admit a causal relationship. But the government admitted it readily (employing a lot of rhetoric, of course, such as “This is not an admission of a scientific, causal relationship”).

From a global and historical perspective, the admission is rare. In the Three Mile Island nuclear accident (1979) in the US, more than 2000 lawsuits have been filed, but no relationship between health damage and exposure has been admitted in even a single case. The state government naturally won’t admit it, and the courts don’t either.

Due to this admission, the assertion that “the radiation leakage from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident is mild enough not to damage health” fell apart.

In the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the former Soviet Union, the first to suffer serious harm were the so-called “Liquidators,” the firefighters and soldiers who were the first responders. Nearly 5,000 people died. Naturally, people who are close to radiation-intensive sites will become seriously ill. The same phenomenon occurred in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident.

While the case was recognized as a workplace injury, Mr. Ikeda filed a lawsuit against Tokyo Electric (TEPCO), which ran the restoration project. That’s because TEPCO doesn’t “recognize a causal relationship between Mr. Ikeda’s leukemia and exposure to radiation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.”

I’ve long found it mysterious that not a single TV station, weekly newspaper, web media or other news outlet has done an article on those like Mr. Ikeda who contracted deadly diseases from the nuclear reactor recovery work. Since the government’s announcement certifying them as workplace injuries, there’s been dead silence. Those affected can’t be heard in their own voices.

For a nuclear accident to occur and three reactors to meltdown (even at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, two such past events, only one reactor melted down) is an event of worldwide and historic proportions. In addition, 200,000 people becoming refugees from the area is a war-level crisis. In addition, there’s the damage toll on six people, starting with Mr. Ikeda, who’ve contracted fatal diseases. I can’t think of any news that’s more important to record in the annals of history than the actual voices of these victims.

The silence of the mass media in the face of such a reality astonishes me. I ‘m tempted to think they all, through some shared intent, decided to suppress the story.

If Mr. Ikeda refuses interviews, I’d get that. But that’s not the case. Since the legal proceeding began, Mr. Ikeda has traveled from Kitakyushu to the Tokyo District Court once every few months. He leaves the courthouse, after which there’s a public briefing session. I also went there and was granted leave to interview people.

If other reporters did this, they could hear Mr. Ikeda’s story too.

I try and attend whenever there’s a court session. In Tokyo, Mr. Ikeda is busy with supporters and lawyers, so he doesn’t have time to interview. So I went to his home in Kitakyushu, where I soaked up his story. This was in March 2017 – two years ago.

During that time, every time I met Mr. Ikeda and talked with him, I realized he was recovering little by little. Let’s talk about what’s happened since. It was April 2019 when I flew back to Kitakyushu again.

This time, Mr. Ikeda pointed out something important. People who work in nuclear facilities such as nuclear power plants are not covered by private insurance, even if they have an accident or get sick. It’s in the so-called “disclaimer.”

If if you can’t work and fall into hard times, unless the country certifies it as a workplace accident, there’s no path to salvation. For subcontractors who are not in-house employees, TEPCO and other electric power companies have denied any compensation or even causality.

People who engaged in the dangerous work of recovering the nuclear power plant post-meltdown have been left naked and defenseless. And few people notice it. Even insurance companies don’t care. I want to fix this abnormality.

Here’s what Mr. Ikeda told me.

A Return to Normalcy?

A set of fishing lures at the Ikeda home. For Mr. Ikeda and his kids, fishing is an important family pastime. (Photo: Hiro Ugaya)

It’s been two years since I’ve seen you. When I last saw you, you told me, “I have to make memories with my kids,” and you’d planned to go skiing or fishing or whatnot in spite of your illness. I heard that and thought, “This is someone who’s truly prepared to die.”

I think, before, I had contracted leukemia, and I’d thought, it’ll probably recur again. But recently I’ve come to think more in terms of doing things for my kids’ future. Things like helping my kids with their hobbies, or helping my wife develop their potential. Kids can’t grow without their parents’ cooperation. In hobbies, or in sports. 

What hobbies do your kids have?

Fishing, mostly. Baseball, golf, track & field.

Your eldest does track and field, right?

Since middle school. Some say he should do baseball as well because he’s so physically gifted.

Is it a local public middle school? Or a private school somewhere that focuses on sports?

Nah, we’re in the sticks (laughs). There are no private schools that are big on sports. 

You said you’re a baseball coach. What do you coach?

I’m a scorer. I volunteer. And I help develop the kids.

You must get up early. Do you go on away trips? Isn’t that tough?

Several middle schools gather together and we drive. We can fit seven kids in a minivan.  The kids love riding like that.

How’s your body?

It’s fine. There are times I get tired, but the kids are enjoying themselves, so I’m like, it’s fine. On days when there’s no practice, I play catch with kids from the team. No matter how hard I toss it, those kids laugh at me. “You’re slow!”

Two Battles for Fukushima Workers

Do you have to go to the hospital regularly?

I go to Kitakyushu Medical Center once a month. Get blood drawn. It’s to check if there’s any recurrence. The doctor tells me, “Don’t go back to work yet.” I became depressed and started going to the psychiatric clinic once a week.

You told me last time that you had to take gritty pills that were like marble chocolate.

Yeah, I did. They had antibacterial agents. I take about six a day now.

(He takes out the pills and shows them to me)

Wow, there are a lot.

Taking depression meds is tough. I lost my cool with my wife during these last two months. So I consulted a doctor, and he switched me to Chinese medicine.

You were in the middle of leukemia treatments when you became depressed, right?

I mean, I thought I’d die during leukemia treatment. I was certified Level 2 on my disability card. [Editor: disability cards, which enable their holders to additional assistance, are classified levels 1 through 6.]

They gave me medical morphine after because the pain was so bad. I felt like my body was floating off of the bed. After I asked them to stop, my stomach got really sore for seven hours.

The Diagnosis

It was December 2013 when Mr. Ikeda noticed an abnormality in his body. It started with cold-like symptoms. Eventually, he was too winded to climb the stairs at the construction site.

The next month, January 2014, he received a blood test using an “ionizing radiation screening” (a screening received after returning from a workplace exposure to radiation). That night, a doctor called him. “This may be leukemia.” 20% of the venous blood in his body was teeming with cells.

When surgeons opened a hole in the lumbar spine and examined it, they found his bone marrow was 70-80% cancer cells. Doctors told him in January 2014 that “Your cancer is spreading gradually,” and he was swiftly admitted to the Kitakyushu Medical Center.

He was hospitalized for seven months. His red blood cells and platelets declined. he had to have over 50 blood transfusions. In August 2014, he underwent an “autologous peripheral blood transplant” to transplant his healthy blood components. In order to reduce his immune strength, doctors isolated him in a sterile room. He couldn’t come face to face with his family.

The side effects of the anti-cancer drugs combined with the fear of death drove him to the brink. When he says he’s being treated for depression, it’s a consequence of that period.

He underwent an ionizing radiation screening in September 2013. Doctors found no abnormalities. The canceration of hematopoietic cells progressed rapidly in the following 3 months.

Experts say that the incubation period of leukemia (time from exposure to onset) is two years. Mr. Ikeda’s case matches that. And the five-year survival rate for leukemia is around 30%. His doctor said, “If you’d waited two weeks, it’d have been too late.”

“No One Will Listen”

Boy running track
Mr. Ikeda’s son running track. (Picture: Hiro Ugaya)

There are six people, including yourself, who have been certified as workplace accidents due to cancer or death from overwork in the recovery work of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident. Any contact from them?

No, none. I’ve caught sight of the wife of one of the Fukushima workers who died from overwork (karoshi) at rallies in Tokyo.

It seems that TEPCO employees and primary subcontractors who got sick will receive 30 million yen [around USD $274,000]. But in return, they can’t sue. That’s what my lawyer emphasized at trial. But that offer doesn’t extend to us (second-tier subcontractors).

The owner who hired me also had business owner insurance. Just in case we have an industrial accident. However, we found out later that it wasn’t valid in nuclear facilities, such as nuclear power plants. The insurance companies say it’s too dangerous a place to cover via employer insurance. And yet TEPCO denies responsibility for my leukemia.

That’s what you’re contesting in court.

That’s right. They’re denying everything. They say it was too low of a dose to bear any relationship. In the previous trial, TEPCO says I developed leukemia due to smoking, drinking, and a vegetable deficiency. That took me aback (laughs). They talk to us like we’re alcoholics.

When I petition to declare this an industrial accident, I was interviewed by the Labor Standards Control Board. I didn’t know quite what was happening, so when they asked me about my health, I was straight and said, “I drink two beers a day,” and “I smoke 20 cigarettes a day.” TEPCO must have requested disclosure of the Labor Board’s data.  Who knows where they got “vegetable deficiency” (laughs). They’re just making stuff up.

Do you have a timeframe for a ruling?

No, not yet. We’re on the 11th round of oral arguments. The last one was in January and the next one’s July. We’re getting our strategy in order.

What evidence is TEPCO presenting to refute you?

Search for the stories of scholars who kowtow to the government, you’ll find it (laughs).

Who’s providing testimony, besides you?

There are various people I think.

TEPCO won’t recognize the causal relationship between your leukemia and radiation exposure, correct?

If they did, it’ll become a serious obstacle to future nuclear power policy. I was the first person certified, and there’ve been a number since. So there has to be a causal relationship, right?

What total dose did you receive?

A total of 19.8 millisieverts. Others received more. TEPCO is terrible. It’d be better if they just copped to it.

“Others Will End Up Like Me”

Why do you think TEPCO should admit responsibility?

When this happens to someone else, this won’t be any guarantee, but it’ll give them peace of mind, you know? I mean, it’s not like you can tell people, “Don’t help with recovery efforts.” Other industries offer insurance – who’s going to guarantee workers who enter a nuclear facility if the employer’s primary insurance won’t? That’s what I want to tell people.

Fukushima workers who entered the facility had no idea their employer’s primary insurance wouldn’t cover it.

Yep, yep…We ask who’s going to cover this, but TEPCO is the only company that makes people work in an environment not covered by insurance. People will think, “If TEPCO won’t guarantee it, why should I take the risk?”

That’s what I want to say, to communicate to the world. But no one will listen….If workers have the right to insurance, they know they can get compensation if something happens. I mean, that’s how the old coal miners thought. “I’ going into a dangerous place, but, well, at least I have insurance.”

Is work accident insurance insufficient?

It’s not a matter of it being insufficient. I want to see a proper system established for the people who come after me. Unskilled workers like me have these jobs like nuclear power plant cleanup shoved on them. If something happens, and you’re a TEPCO employee, you’re covered. The rest of us are kicked to the curb. It makes me sick. Many of us have no idea who’ll take care of things if something happens.

The company that hired me took out high premiums for us to have round the clock coverage. It covers us even when we’re in dorm rooms outside of works hours from aftershocks and tsunamis. However, they didn’t know the insurance wasn’t applicable inside of a nuclear facility. The CEO complained, and a rep came and apologized.

I heard that they changed that text from small print to large print after my case was certified.

So there are gaps in the current system?

That’s what I want people to know. I want the media and others to know. And I want people who enter a nuclear facility to work to know this as well. Private insurance won’t cover you if something happens. Do people think that’s right? If I don’t say something, others will end up like me.

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Hiro Ugaya

Hiro Ugaya (烏賀陽 弘道) was born in Kyoto, Japan in 1963. He has a degree in Economics from Kyoto University, a Master's in International Affairs (Military Science) from Columbia University. He worked as a reporter for Japan's Asahi Shinbun until 2003, and currently works as a freelance photo-journalist.

Japan in Translation

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly digest of our best work across platforms (Web, Twitter, YouTube). Your support helps us spread the word about the Japan you don’t learn about in anime.

Want a preview? Read our archives

You’ll get one to two emails from us weekly. For more details, see our privacy policy