Japan’s Nuclear Gypsies: The Homeless, Jobless and Fukushima

08.21.15
Greg Webb/IAEA
Longform /21 Aug 2015
08.21.15

Japan’s Nuclear Gypsies: The Homeless, Jobless and Fukushima

The cleanup efforts in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in northern Japan have revealed the plight of the Japanese unemployed, marginally employed day laborers and the homeless. They are called the “precariat,” Japan’s proletariat, living precariously on the knife-edge of the work world, without full employment or job security. They are derided as “glow in the dark boys,” “jumpers” (one job to another) and “nuclear gypsies.” They have even been dubbed “burakumin,” a hostile term for Japan’s untouchables, members of the lowest rung on the ladder in Japanese society.

They are unskilled and virtually untrained and are the nuclear decontamination workers recruited by Japanese gangsters, Yakuza, to make Fukushima in northern Japan livable again. These jobs are some of the most dangerous and undesirable jobs in the industrialized world, a $35 billion, taxpayer-funded effort to clean up radioactive fallout across an area of northern Japan larger than Hong Kong. Reuters and the L.A. Times have both described the project as an unprecedented effort.

Reuters made a direct comparison between Fukushima and the Chernobyl “incident.” Unlike Ukraine and the 1986 nuclear “accident” at Chernobyl, where authorities declared a 1,000 square-mile no-habitation zone, resettled 350,000 people and allowed radiation to take care of itself, Japan is attempting to make the Fukushima region livable again.

The army of itinerant decontamination workers has been hired at well below the minimum wage to clean up the radioactive debris and build tanks to store the contaminated water generated to keep the reactor core cool. They work in unregulated environments, without adequate supervision, training or monitoring or the protection of health insurance.

Most of the workers are subcontractors, drifters, unskilled and poorly paid. In an article for Al Jazeera’s “America Tonight,” David McNeill, a blogger about nuclear gypsies, commented: “They move from job to job. They’re unqualified, of course, in most cases.”

Jeff Kingston, Dept. of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan, noted in October 2014 that the numbers of these nuclear gypsies or members of the “precariat” have increased from 15 percent of the Japanese workforce in the late 1980s to 38 percent to date and the numbers are expected to continue to rise.

Jobless, or Just Homeless?

The laborers deputed to carry out this huge ambitious project, Japan’s nuclear gypsies, include both the homeless and those who can be said to be just one notch above homelessness – jobless people. These two classes are nearly identical.

A recent survey claiming that homelessness has reached an all-time low is disputed by Charles E. McJilton, CEO of the Food Bank Second Harvest Japan. He believes that although actual numbers of the homeless in Tokyo may be down, these numbers fail to take into account the larger issue of country-wide poverty and economic insecurity. Al Jazeera quoted him when he suggested, “It has always been a misunderstanding in the media that poverty in Japan is represented by the homeless.”

Survivors huddle around a makeshift fire following the disaster. (Warren Antiola/Flickr)

Tom Gill, a professor at Meiji Gakuin University who writes about the lives of underclass men in urban Japan, agrees. He asserts that the larger problem is the rapidly growing number of people in dire straits.

Many Japanese living on the edge apply for assistance under Japan’s livelihood protection law - seikatsu hogo - which guarantees a basic standard of living. Gill has said that the problem is the sharply increasing number of applications for the generous welfare benefit, and its worsening impact on the national debt, the largest in the developed world.

Well over 500,000 people in Japan have been reported to have lost their jobs since the “Lehman shokku,” the day in September 2008 when the collapse of Lehman Bros. triggered a worldwide financial crisis. Half the people who lost their jobs were on temporary or part-time contracts that offered them no insurance. Thousands lived in company housing and when they lost their livelihoods, they lost their homes. Today they camp out under blue tarpaulins, sleep in parks, under bridges, in railway stations or in 24-hour Internet cafes.

The Christian Science Monitor noted that as of Sept. 2009, twenty million people, one-sixth of Japan’s population, lived below the poverty line. Seventy-seven percent of the unemployed have no unemployment insurance, according to a report earlier in 2009 by the International Labor Organization as cited by the Monitor.

Even the jobless who do find new jobs cannot easily find a new home. The government made 13,000 housing units available to homeless people, and as of September 2009, had filled 7,666 of them. But that is not a lasting solution, argues McJilton. He says that the housing project may have cleared a lot of people off the streets but that “the government is more interested in keeping the peace than in solving the homeless problem.”

As these workers lose their jobs, with few chances of finding another one, younger men are ending up on the streets. The Monitor noted that of the 5,400 people who slept in Internet cafes in 2007, 41 percent were under 30. When they leave the shelters, they are supposed to start looking for work. Only half of them actually do so, however. The other half go back to the streets – often because they see no hope of finding a job.

One nuclear gypsy cited by Reuters in December 2013, summed up a near hopeless situation. “We’re an easy target for recruiters,” Shizuya Nishiyama, 57, says. He briefly worked at Fukushima clearing rubble. He now sleeps in a cardboard box in Sendai Station. “We’re easy to spot. They say to us, are you looking for work? Are you hungry? And if we haven’t eaten, they offer to find us a job.”

These men are the targets for the Fukushima nuclear decontamination project.

TEPCO, Yakuza and Subcontractors

Another nuclear gypsy was even more direct, eloquent and despairing. In its January 2014 report for Al Jazeera’s “America Tonight,” the laborer, Tanaka, was quoted as saying: “TEPCO is God. The main contractors are kings, and we are slaves.”

“The Yakuza have, historically, been deeply embedded in the structure of the construction industry,” explains Takeshi Katsura, a laborer who also helps workers exploited by the Japanese mafia. “It’s the structure that’s evil,” he said. “To quickly gather 4,000 to 5,000 decontamination workers in Fukushima, you need to do it the traditional way,” said Katsura. “Using the Yakuza.”

The decontamination industry is appealing to the Yakuza, because of the extra government-funded $100-a-day pay per worker. Do these wages actually go to the workers?

Takeshi Katsura said: “Because workers are hired through subcontractors, wages are skimmed all along the way, and workers at the bottom actually doing the work sees their pay go down.” “For people in Japan who live like me and work various places, it’s hard to find work that pays $100 a day,” nuclear gypsy Tanaka said. “I get housing, and was able to save more than usual.”

But the promise does not deliver. “The government says it will pay $100 a day, but I initially got $20,” said Sato, another worker lured to Fukushima by the promise of extra cash. “The contractors and subcontractors took the remaining $80.”

In December 2013 a Reuters Special Report noted that only a third of the money allocated for wages was paid to the workers. The rest was skimmed by middlemen, police reports say. After deductions for food and lodging, that left workers with an hourly rate of about $6, just below the minimum wage equal to about $6.50 per hour in Fukushima. Police reported that some of the homeless men ended up in debt after fees for food and housing were deducted.

Police officers man a checkpoint in Minamisoma, Fukushima prefecture, about 12 miles from the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, on Monday, April 11. The signs read, “No entry, Entry not allowed by the special nuclear disaster legislation,” right, and “Security check in operation,” left. (Warren Antiola/Flickr)

The Special Report noted that the problem of paid workers accumulating debt is widespread. “Many homeless people are just put into dormitories, and the fees for lodging and food are automatically docked from their wages,” said a Baptist pastor and advocate for the homeless. “Then at the end of the month, they’re left with no pay at all.”

The base pay for decontamination work may in theory be higher than for other kinds of work. But the risks are also higher.

In a January 2014 Al Jazeera Special Report, nuclear gypsy Tanaka says he was shocked to find radioactive hot spots in the area he worked that were marked with tape but never decontaminated. Training and protective gear were also scarce. “The training didn’t teach us the dangers of handling radiation, so there were some people who worked with their bare hands,” he said. “They would contaminate not only themselves, but would spread particles to others.

Tanaka was fired after his company’s contract wasn’t renewed. Like many nuclear workers approaching their radiation limit of 50 millisieverts a year, it is unlikely that Tanaka will ever be hired at Fukushima again. He’s since lost his apartment, and is crippled by fatigue. When Sato, another nuclear gypsy, complained about the terms of his employment, he was told his contract had changed, and that he now owed money for food and lodging. Sato was lucky. Others who complain and have quit as he did have faced violent retribution.

“I’ve had workers tell me that they’ve been beat up and been told, ‘I’ll kill you,’” said Katsura. “Threatened with, You know what will happen to you.”

Radiation Exposure: Unclear Rulings, Erratic Enforcement

Mainichi Japan’s report in March 2015 on the decontamination project noted that about 28,000 people per day were hired to do decontamination work in 2014, according to the Ministry of the Environment and the Fukushima Prefectural Government. Their status regarding radiation exposure remains unclear. It is also unclear who is responsible for management of radiation doses, one observer has reported.

In January 2012, an act was enforced which allotted decontamination workers the same radiation exposure limits as nuclear power plant workers (a maximum of 50 millisieverts per year and 100 millisieverts over five years). This act specified that employers must have their workers undergo special health checks, and they must record and preserve their radiation readings.

However, at the time the regulation came into effect, there was no centralized system for managing individual workers’ total radiation exposure. Furthermore, sloppy implementation, a lack of oversight, and the very existence of a floating population of itinerants, nuclear gypsies, have made this regulation difficult or impossible to enforce.

In a Mainichi Japan article on March 12, 2015 one 45-year-old man who has visited seven decontamination sites since October 2012 commented, “In decontamination by cities, towns and villages, there are areas called “microspots” where radiation levels are high even in areas being decontaminated by municipal governments.

Another observer, a 58-year-old man who applied to take part in managing decontamination work has offered the following summary on the vast project: “Decontamination has produced a temporary economic bubble, and all sorts of businesses have got in on it.” But it is not all good. “I get looked at as if I’m doing something dirty, and I think I’ve had enough of it,” he said.

Injuries and Deaths on the Job: TEPCO’s Response

To the argument frequently posed that nobody has officially died at Fukushima, a January 2015 report of rising numbers of onsite accidents and deaths, many of which have been attributed to poor onsite oversight or management, may offer a response.

Data released by TEPCO and reported in Mainichi Japan in March 2015 showed that the number of accidents and cases of heat stroke involving Fukushima workers had doubled to 64 in 2014.

The pattern is very Japanese: an incident, charges, apology or faux explanation, inaction, another incident. More apologies. No change in hiring, pay nor working conditions.

On January 20, 2015 ENENEWS reported that the number of injuries and fatalities had doubled this year. “It’s not just the number of accidents that has been on the rise. It’s the serious cases, including deaths and serious injuries that have risen…” said Katsuyoshi Ito, a local labor inspector overlooking the Fukushima power plant.

ENENEWS reported that the number of injured workers has soared at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. In November 2014, [TEPCO] officials claimed that thirty-nine workers were injured at the plant between April and November 2014, while one became ill.

Last Sept. 22, a worker from a partner company suffered a broken back after being hit by a falling iron pipe. During work to build a tank on Nov. 7, three workers were injured by falling steel weighing 390 kg. One was left temporarily unconscious, while another broke both ankles.

Labor inspectors recently warned [TEPCO] about the rise in accidents and ordered it to take measures to deal with the problem. Akira Ono, the head manager of the Fukushima Daiichi plant said: “We are deeply sorry for the death of the worker and express our deepest condolences to the family. We promise to implement measures to ensure that such a tragedy does not occur again.”

On October 3, 2015, TEPCO reported that another Fukushima worker had died 2 days before. Although TEPCO states the cause of death is not identified, a former Fukushima worker posted on Twitter that the worker died of heatstroke.

On June 24, 2015, a few months after the dispute with the labor inspectors and a full four years after the three part disaster, Reuters reported that TEPCO has opened a rest area and canteen for cleanup workers, which will serve up to 3,000 meals a day and provide rest space for around 1,200 workers.

According to Reuters, TEPCO has been widely criticized for its treatment of workers and handling of the cleanup, which is expected to take decades. TEPCO has repeatedly promised to improve conditions for workers. Almost 7,000 workers, provided by around 800 mostly small contractors, are involved in decontaminating and decommissioning the plant.

Decontamination Project: Future Plans

Depending on whom you talk to, decontamination has either been very successful or a complete failure. The business is estimated to take at least another 40 years, so there will be no lack of job opportunities. Areas said to be decontaminated still register very high levels of radiation.

However, the project has not met with local approval. Most former Fukushima residents displaced by the nuclear accident have said they do not believe the government’s assurances of safety and they are unwilling to return home.

(Associated Press)

In a July 21 2014 press release, a Greenpeace Japan investigation revealed that “Radioactive contamination in the forests and land of Litate district in Fukushima prefecture is so widespread and at such a high level that it will be impossible for people to safely return to their homes.”

The press release noted that these findings follow the Abe Government’s announcement on 12th June 2015 to lift evacuation orders by March 2017 and terminate compensation by 2018, which effectively forces victims back into heavily contaminated areas.

Jan Vande Putte, a radiation specialist with Greenpeace Belgium, reports: “The Japanese government has condemned the people of Litate village to live in an environment that poses an unacceptable risk to their health. Stripping nuclear victims of their already inadequate compensation, which may force them to have to return to unsafe, highly radioactive areas for financial reasons, amounts to economic coercion. Let’s be clear: this is a political decision by the Abe Government, not one based on science, data, or public health.”

Decontamination: Greenpeace’s Summary

Possibly, the people of Fukushima took note of Greenpeace’s July 21, 2015 report. In July 2015, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared to be taking a big step toward the goal of repatriating Fukushima evacuees by adopting a plan that would permit two-thirds of evacuees to return by March 2017, the sixth anniversary of the disaster. Some evacuees have cheered this chance to return but many more have rejected it. In fact, polls show a majority do not want to return.

In a telling move in a country where litigation is relatively rare, more than 10,000 have joined some 20 class-action lawsuits to demand more compensation so they can afford to make the choice themselves.

The Abe government’s new timetable, adopted on June 12, calls for accelerating the pace of this cleanup with a “concentrated decontamination effort” over the next two years.

In Litate, the narrow valleys are filled with workers scraping off the top two inches of soil, which is then put into black bags that are stacked in man-made hills. Across the entire evacuation zone, workers have already filled 2.9 million bags, which will be stored for at least the next 30 years at toxic waste sites that the government is building inside the zone.

According to a recent survey by village officials, even with the massive cleanup, only about one-fifth of the 6,200 displaced residents of Litate are willing to return.

To summarize the future of Japan’s nuclear decontamination program, perhaps the best commentary was issued by Greenpeace.

“Decontamination efforts are, many times, missing the government’s targets. Massive amounts of highly radioactive water flow into the ocean from the reactor site every day. The location of molten reactor cores in Units 1-3 remains unknown – which is a problem that requires massive amounts of cooling water every day to minimize the risk of another major radiation release.”

“Those who created the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear catastrophe know that their nuclear power plants have no place in a modern Japan. And they are fighting as hard as they can to stop clean energy progress and shore up their dirty-energy-based profits.”

“But, for the people of Japan, a majority of whom oppose any nuclear restart, there are massive opportunities on the horizon for a truly safe and clean future. And we, at Greenpeace, will stand with them – against the onslaught of the nuclear village – to ensure that the clean, renewable energy future becomes a reality.”

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