Challenging the Issues Around the Radiation-exposed Labor That Connects San’ya and Fukushima — Toward a Revival of the Underclass Workers’ Movement

(Photo: Kenji Higuchi)


1. Day-workers in Yoseba2 and Radiation-exposed Laborers –-the Fukushima Nuclear Accident and Our Responsibility

It was in 1986, the year of the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident, that I intervened in the day-workers’ support movement in San’ya Tokyo, after having seen and been influenced by the film: “Yama—Attack to Attack.3” From books and lectures by Kenji Higuchi4, I had learned the reality of day-workers being mobilized for radiation-exposed labor, and I had had somewhere in my mind that the issue existed in the context of San’ya day-workers. However, being a student activist at that time, I had only just barely established a rapport with San’ya after some rites of passage; I was tackling already severe and unguaranteed working conditions at construction sites to which the majority of day-workers were sent everyday, therefore I was missing a chance to engage in the reality of radiation-exposed labor.

It was in 1998, after more than ten years had passed, that I came to be able to work on the issues of radiation-exposed labor in the context of San’ya. The Tokyo Electric Company announced that it would have workers go inside the reactor core to do core shroud replacement. (In fact this had already begun in the year 1997). Yuko Fujita5 warned about the unprecedented danger of the work, and the branches of the Day-workers’ Association [Hiyatoi-zenkyo] began a campaign to call for a refusal of this work. They were distributing flyers informing the workers of the dangers. On a day-to-day basis, we were conducting listening research from the radiation-exposed workers. But only one out of 10 to 20 workers explained to us about their experiences, and on top of that most of them were silent about concrete details. Some of them even said they could not talk because they were strictly forbidden to reveal the nature of their work inside reactors, and furthermore, they would not want to talk because of their bonds with the labor brokers (fearing for their future employment).

Meanwhile a familiar buddy, Matsumoto-san, who was having a homeless life in the Shinjyuku area and always participated in our outdoor cooking activities, said that he had gone to work at a nuclear plant five years ago. We were shocked by the experience of this old friend. We then organized a study group centered around him about radiation-exposed labor at San’ya Workers’ Welfare Center [San'ya Rodosha Fukushi Kaikan]. The participating workers and supporters (including Yuko Fujita) learned from his involvement that uninformed day-workers and homeless workers had been made to do decontamination work in a highly radioactive environment. We also heard that a friend of Matsumoto-san who had gone to the plant with him died in misery of leukemia.

But in fact we could not meet a single worker who actually had gone to do the core shroud replacement. Furthermore, amid the reactions of some workers who said: ”to hell with ‘don’t work there’ at this time of high unemployment,” we were unable to develop any campaigns and projects on this front. After the Fukushima disaster I cannot help but regret that we did not stand firm and continue our efforts to make a movement at that time. Fujita repeatedly told us: “No nuclear reactor can operate without radiation-exposed labor, and nuclear plants will stop if and only if the workers refuse to do the job.” Now the responsibility for this nuclear disaster, the responsibility for having produced the labor condition that requires workers to face unprecedented amounts of radiation exposure weighs upon us who gave up the movement then.

2. Creating “The Manual for Radiation-exposed Workers’ Self-protection”

After the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, the framework of the Emergency Conference for Fukushima Nuclear Accident was built around various movements and individuals active in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Due to the deep feeling of regret, I participated in this conference and began to work on the project concerning radiation-exposed labor. The first thing was to produce “The Manual for Radiation-exposed Workers’ Self-protection” to be distributed among the workers who would go to Fukushima Daiichi Plant to take care of the disastrous situation.

All in all, nobody should go there to do such a job with respect to health. On the other hand, it is expected that the situation would develop into an even more disastrous radiation spread if nobody went to do the work. And it can be imagined that there are workers who have to go there due to their own life conditions. From my own bitter defeat in 1998, I know that just saying “don’t go to work there” would not affect the workers and simply exclude them from the movement. Furthermore, the issues around radiation-exposed labor include not only health hazards caused by radiation but also those concerning inhumane, unguaranteed and disposable labor due to the layered subcontracts and informal workers’ dispatching. In this regard, it is we, the movement of day-workers and homeless workers, who have to tackle the issue. Thus the manual is made for offering workers information for protecting their lives and security as well as the contact information for counseling offices for emergency. Our hope was to make this a tool to connect ourselves with the workers and make a movement.

To the manual, due to lack of experience, we had to ask those who had participated in lawsuits for acknowledgment of industrial incidents and compensation for damages in the area of radiation-exposed labor to review our content. As we learned in this process, there had been only very few examples of movements – such as some Labor security Centers [Rodo Anzen Center] and Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center – that have treated the issues around radiation-exposed labor from the standpoint of the labor movement; most labor movements, including ours, left the issues alone. Forty five years had passed since nuclear power plants began their commercial operations in the country, and radiation-exposed workers were said to number about 450,000, while only ten workers have succeeded in attaining any acknowledgment of any industrial incident. It simply showed the extent to which radiation-exposed workers had been excluded from labor movements in general.

In such a social situation, “the Manual” functioned not only as a tool for offering information and a communication network to the workers who might possibly go to work in a radioactive environment, but also as an informational foundation for labor activists to engage in the issues concerning radiation-exposed work. And finally it attained significance in widely socializing the issues of radiation-exposed labor.

3. Fukushima Nuclear Workers and San’ya Workers

Currently, we have been seeking to establish a basis for labor counseling in Fukushima, using the Manual and in collaboration with the Labor security Centers and Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, in order to develop a movement that connects itself with radiation-exposed workers. In Fukushima where we made a preliminary visit, we were able to hear stories about local workers from Koshiro Ishimaru6, who had been active in the local anti-nuke movement as well as in support for radiation-exposed workers.

In Futaba-cho and Okuma-cho where the Fukushima Daiichi Plant is located, the land is not suitable for agricultural production, therefore the local people who came of age had to go to cities as migrant workers, before the plant was inaugurated. There were many households where the father was absent throughout the year. After the power plant was built, those who had gone to yoseba such as San’ya came back and began to work at the plant. They were pleased that they now were able to live and eat together at the same dinner table. That is to say, more than half of the plant workers were locals, who would have been in cities as day-workers if not for the plant.

Many of the workers in San’ya are from the Northeastern part of Japan, and especially from Fukushima. Yes. That is the bare fact. If not for Fukushima Daiichi, many of the people there would have been eating at the outdoor cookout with us in Tokyo. The nuclear workers in Fukushima and the day-workers/homeless workers in San’ya are connected not just in their common structural position, but in concrete living and working conditions.

Having learned this fact, our engagement in radiation-exposed workers came to share the same meaning with the labor movement in San’ya, and was no longer mainly motivated by self-reproach. At the same time, we were confronted by the problem embedded in the fact that we had been active in San’ya for twenty-five years without being fully aware of this fact.

4. From Self-criticism to a Revival of the Under-class Labor Movement

In Fukushima we got much information from a labor union based in Iwaki City. From that area, a certain number of people went to work at the Fukushima Daiichi and Daini plants; some around the ages of 50 to 55 were brought to a local hospital and died there. Locals usually talked about such stories in such a way: “because he has worked at the power plant.”

We had long been oblivious to the situation surrounding Fukushima workers. Our approach in 1998 was just confined in yoseba and not expanding beyond yoseba. Had we really recognized the structural reality of the under-class workers in this country, we could have developed a movement concretely connecting and going back and forth between San’ya and Fukushima, around the Fukushima Daiichi Plant where the core shroud replacement is practiced. It was not that we could not do anything, rather it was that we did not do anything. Had we been able to scrutinize the words of two revolutionaries struggling in yoseba – Osamu Funamoto* and Kyoichi Yamaoka* – in the concrete situation, we would not have been defeated in such a misery.

The nuclear power plant that had come into existence as a much appreciated place to offer locals jobs revealed its substance in the wake of this accident – it destroyed, not to mention the whole family dinner table, the entire life and history of the people in the region. It is now clear to everyone that the nuclear power, imposed as it was upon the people by taking advantage of their difficulty of life, only nurtures, maintains and reinforces the gap between cities and countryside and the structure of discrimination therein. But it is crucial to acknowledge that this has been going on among us: it is far from being an external event. That is to say, the self-definition of “Urban Under-class Workers’ movement” won’t any longer merit the name of under-class workers’ movement if it continuously separates itself from countryside non-urban areas in its consciousness.

We the movement of yoseba must revive as a true under-class workers’ movement in order to destroy the gap between cities and countryside as well as the structure of discrimination that appropriates, maintains and reinforces the gap. We who failed to make ourselves a concrete subjectivity of a movement with the radiation-exposed workers is holding on to the intention, now while concretely touching their agony, sorrow and death.

*Shuji Funamoto was born in Manchuria in 1945. Since 1968, he has been active in the Day-workers’ labor movement in yoseba. Day-workers were the workers who were used and disposed of on a day-to-day basis, suffering from very unstable working and living conditions; they were despised by civil society and ignored by the existing labor movements. Most radically problematizing the characteristics of the day-workers who appeared in the process of Japan’s modernization, Funamoto defined them as “fluid under-class workers.” He stressed the fact that they had been mobilized by state policy, then ruled and disposed of by the violent labor control. He said: “we see the historical and universal destiny of laborers in the Korean and Chinese workers working in Japan.” From such a historical perspective, Funamoto considered the day-workers as “the true workers of all” and “a wing of proletarian class struggle.” In practice he organized the Kamagasaki Joint Struggle Committee for Ousting Violent Labor Brokers in order to fight hard labor disputes. (About Kamagasaki, see this article .) In 1974 he was falsely charged with 1972 bombing incident at a government office in Kamagasaki (yoseba in Osaka), Airin Center [Loved Neighborhood Center], and went into hiding. In June 1975, he self-immolated in front of the gate of the US Kadena Military Base, protesting against the Okinawa visit of the crown emperor, Akihito. He was 29 years old.

*Kyoichi Yamaoka was born in Hokkaido in 1940. In 1972 in Tokyo, in association with Kamagasaki Joint Struggle Committee of Funamoto in Osaka, he established San’ya Struggle Committee for Ousting Vicious Brokers [Gento-i]. In 1981, he organized San’ya Struggle Group [San'ya Sogi-dan], and a year later, worked toward establishing All Nation Day-workers Conference [Hiyatoi Zenkyo]. He dedicated his life to day-workers’ movements. During the year 1982, the 60th reign of the emperor Hirohito, the Nakasone Administration came into power with the slogan of concluding the entire postwar politics, making a big revival of the political rule under the emperorist ideology. The following year, in San’ya, the right wing yakusa group, the Kanamachi Family, who had confronted the San’ya Day-workers movement in their attempt to control the labor dispatching interests, appeared as an armed fascist organization, calling themselves the Japan Emperor Faithful society/San’ya Mutual Aid Association. The struggle between the right wingers and the workers’ movement intensified. Meanwhile, beginning 1984, a documentary film: “Yama—Attack to Attack” was undertaken, but the director, Mitsuo Sato, was stabbed to death by the right wing organization. It was Yamaoka who took over the project and completed the film, that which stresses the continuity of the under-class workers with the Chinese and Korean workers who were forcibly taken to Japan to work at mines and then disposed of by state policy, pointed out the role of the emperorist ideology and right wingers for mass domination, and documented the reality of sufferings of the day-workers by the violent rule of yakuza labor brokers and by being abandoned to die outdoors. In January 13th 1986, he too was shot to death by the right wing group. He was 45 years old.


1 San’ya is the largest day-workers’ inner city [yoseba] in Tokyo.

2 Yoseba is the generic name for day-workers inner cities located in major cities in Japan – such as San’ya in Tokyo, Kotobuki-cho in Yokohama, Sasajima in Nagoya and Kamagasaki in Osaka — where flophouses and labor recruitment center are located.

3 About the film, please see: <>.

4 Kenji Higuchi (1937~) is a photo journalist, known for his works on industrial pollution and radiation-exposed labor.

5 Yukoh Fujita (1942~) is a physicist and historian of science. After the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, he shifted his research activity from physics to the issues of nuclear power, especially its effects on human body and environment.

6 Koshiro Ishimaru, a former post office clerk, has been active in the anti-nuke movement in Fukushima for forty years.


About the Author:

Nasubi is an organizer of Committee of San’ya Workers’ Welfare Center and Emergency Project for Post-Fukushima Radiation-exposed Labor Issues

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僕が映画『山谷 やられたらやりかえせ』を見て山谷を知り、支援活動に入ったのは1986年、すなわちチェルノブイリ原発事故の年だった。樋口健二さんの著作や講演から被曝労働者として寄せ場労働者が動員されている実態を知っていたので、寄せ場・山谷を訪れた僕は、当初より山谷労働者の被曝労働が頭の片隅にあった。しかし、寄せ場求人の多数である土木建設労働でも十分に苛酷かつ保障のない使い捨て労働であり、学生風情が山谷と山谷労働者から受ける様々な「洗礼」の中で、恒常的な山谷との関わりができても、僕はなかなか被曝労働の実情に触れる機会を持てずにいた。








 1940年北海道生まれ。68年から山谷に入り、72年に船本洲治の釜共闘と連動して山谷悪質業者追放現場闘争委員会(現闘委)を結成。81年の山谷争議団の結成、82年の全国日雇労働組合協議会(日雇全協)の結成に尽力し、寄せ場労働者の運動を中心的に取り組む。82年は、天皇在位60年を背景に「戦後政治の総決算」を掲げる中曽根政権が登場し、天皇主義イデオロギーの政治的支配が大きく再興した時期だった。翌年、山谷での運動と敵対し手配利権の支配を狙う右翼ヤクザ・日本国粋会金町一家が、日本皇誠会・山谷互助組合を名乗って武装登場し、それとの攻防が激化。84年から山谷のドキュメンタリー映画を撮影中の佐藤満夫監督が金町一家に刺殺された後、その作業を引き継ぎ、事実上の監督として『山谷 やられたらやりかえせ』を完成させた。その映画では、強制連行された中国人・朝鮮人炭鉱労働者と国策により使い捨てられてきた下層労働者との連続性と、天皇制イデオロギーと右翼が民衆支配に果たした役割を指摘し、労働者が受けるヤクザや業者による支配と棄民・野垂れ死にの実相を表現した。86年1月13日、新宿の路上で日本国粋会金町一家組員に射殺される。享年45歳。




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