By Dr Alexander Brown
Disasters are complex natural and socio-political phenomena and their meanings shift in historical and geographical perspective. The Great East Japan
Earthquake Disaster of 11 March 2011, which came to be known by the shorthand ‘3.11’, originated with a major earthquake that triggered a massive tsunami that hit the northeast coast of Japan. These events combined to cause a major nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
Critical scholars and activists have highlighted the ways in which the 3.11 disaster has been mobilised by nationalistic frames. These included exhortations to buy food products from the disaster-affected regions – despite valid concerns over radioactive contamination of some foodstuffs – and the deployment of notions of kizuna (the ties that bind) by state and corporate actors to encourage a sense of being ‘in this together’ rather than apportioning blame for the disaster to nuclear power plant operators and regulators. Nevertheless, it was clear from the beginning that the 3.11 disaster was global in scale and there have been multiple attempts to understand the disaster beyond the national frame.
As a scholar and activist who has lived in both Australia and Japan during the ten years since 3.11, I have mapped the transpacific geographies of the disaster imagined and enacted by activists in both countries. My personal experiences reflect the structural relationship between these two modern nation states. The American ‘atoms for peace’ initiative of the 1950s sought to preserve American leadership in nuclear policy by supporting American allies to develop civilian nuclear power programmes. The result has been a nuclear relationship between Australia and Japan that takes the form of a civilian energy partnership. Australia supplies Japan with uranium for electric power generation but the trading relationship is situated within military alliances underpinned by the destructive power of the American nuclear umbrella.
Australia’s nuclear relationship with Japan began with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when Australia prisoners of war were irradiated in Nagasaki. Australian troops later took command of Hiroshima as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces. There they witnessed the terrible aftereffects of the bomb. Many Australians supported the use of nuclear weapons against Japan because they believed that it had been decisive in helping end the war. Support for the use of these weapons was eroded, however, by the emergence of a transnational anti-nuclear movement in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1958 Australian peace and anti-nuclear activists organised a tour of a series of large-scale mural artworks by the Japanese artists Maruki Toshi and Maruki Iri. The public flocked to see the works, known as The Hiroshima Panels. These haunting images created lasting memories of the horror of nuclear war. The panels visited New Zealand, too, where they influenced a number of people who would go on to become leading artists and activists.
Significant uranium deposits were discovered in Australia in the 1970 just as the global nuclear power industry was gathering steam. Opposition to its mining and export was driven by concerns about radiation risks and mining development and by fears that once exported, Australian yellowcake might make its way into nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the uranium was located on Aboriginal land. Opposition in Australia to uranium exports thereby provided a major impetus for the development of intersectional struggles that brought Indigenous people together with unions, the peace movement and a nascent environment movement. The legacy of this movement dating back to the 1970s created transnational memories of anti-nuclear struggle. After 3.11, these memories informed anti-nuclear protest in Australia.
Mirarr Senior Traditional Owner Yvonne Margarula, an Aboriginal elder whose Country in northern Australia encompasses Ranger, one of the world’s largest uranium mines, was one of the first to articulate the geographical link between Fukushima and Australia. The mine, she correctly supposed, had supplied yellowcake for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Mirarr country is located far from northeast Japan but for Margarula the Fukushima disaster was a deeply personal tragedy. She saw it as the direct result of mining sacred sites on her Country, mining which her father had warned would have fatal consequences. The slogan ‘Australian Uranium Fuelled Fukushima’ underpinned a campaign of anti-nuclear protest in Australia that has highlighted the transpacific dimension of 3.11.
In 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō visited Australia where he posed with then Prime Minister Tony Abbott in front of a giant Komatsu 930E dump truck at the West Angelas iron ore mine. ‘Manspreading’ in front of this symbol of Japanese manufacturing and Australian resource might, the two reaffirmed their commitment to a bilateral relationship based on extractive industry. Abe’s visit stands in stark contrast to another bilateral encounter that occurred the same year in Jabiru, the mining town built to house workers at the Ranger mine. There, former Japanese prime minister Kan Naoto, who held the office at the time of the March 2011 disaster, met with Mirarr Traditional Owners to listen to their stories of a decades-long struggle against radioactive racism. This second visit showed that another Australia-Japan relationship is possible, one that is based on decolonisation, respect for the environment and peace.
In the ten years since Fukushima, the Japanese nuclear industry has languished in the face of electricity market deregulation, regulatory uncertainty, legal ambiguity and persistent public opposition to nuclear power. On the other hand, the struggle against nuclear power, uranium mining and nuclear weapons has strengthened transpacific civil society. An example of this is Japanese NGO Peace Boat’s partnership with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of non-governmental organisations founded in Melbourne. As a member of ICAN’s International Steering Group, Peace Boat has organised and supported tours of Japanese nuclear bomb survivors and survivors of the 3.11 nuclear disaster to Australia and invited Australian Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to speak about their struggles in Japan. ICAN’s principal campaigning has focused on the development of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a new international legal instrument which bans the possession of nuclear weapons. The treaty, which entered into force in January this year, has been driven from below by civil society activism and by the diplomacy of mostly smaller nations, including many in the Pacific.
Neither Australia nor Japan have signed the treaty as yet. Both nations remain militarily and politically enmeshed in the US nuclear umbrella and the global nuclear fuel cycle. Ten years after 3.11, it remains the responsibility of civil society to make the long-held dream of a nuclear free Pacific a reality.
 Alexander Brown, Anti-nuclear protest in post-Fukushima Tokyo: power struggles, Routledge, London, 2018; Alexander Brown and Catherine Tsukasa Bender, ‘The global hiroba: transnational spaces in Tokyo’s anti-nuclear movement’, in Richard J. White, Simon Springer and Marcelo Lopes de Souza (eds), The practice of freedom: anarchism, geography and the spirit of revolt, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, 2016, pp. 133–52.
 Alexander Brown, The Hiroshima Panels and Australia, in Shinnosuke Takahashi and Yasuko Hassall Kobayashi (eds) Transpacific visions: connected histories of the Pacific across north and south, Lexington Books, forthcoming.
 Hannah Joy Sawada, ‘The Hiroshima Panels: their reverberations in the arts of nuclear-free New Zealand’, Nihon Nyūjiirando gakkaishi, vol. 25, 2018, pp. 14–23.
 Alexander Brown, ‘Transnational memory and the Fukushima disaster: memories of Japan in Australian anti-nuclear activism’, PORTAL: Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies, vol. 17, nos 1–2, 2020, https://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/index.php/portal/article/view/7094/7603
The views expressed in these blogs are not those of the NZASIA Executive and reflect the personal views of the blog authors.