No laughing matter: Japan's manga comics boldly tackle Fukushima

TOKYO Thu Jun 26, 2014 4:38am IST

A staff walks past a poster of a Japanese Manga ''Ichi Efu'', which centres on workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, at a bookstore in Tokyo June 23, 2014. REUTERS/Yuya Shino

A staff walks past a poster of a Japanese Manga ''Ichi Efu'', which centres on workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, at a bookstore in Tokyo June 23, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Yuya Shino

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TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese farmers in Fukushima try to convince sceptical visitors that their crops are safe from radiation. Blood trickles from the nose of a reporter who visits the area.

These are just two of the tales from the aftermath of the world's worst nuclear disaster in 25 years - as told by manga, Japan's ubiquitous comics for adults and teens, which have taken up Fukushima on an unprecedented scale even as Japanese film largely avoids the topic.

"Ichi Efu", which centres on workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, has sold 170,000 copies in book form in nearly two months, rare for a debut manga. Another manga set off a furore that sparked angry responses from the government, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

As Fukushima fades from the public spotlight, publishers say they hope manga will spark debate about uncomfortable topics such as the health impact of the accident, which released radiation over a wide swathe of northeastern Japan.

In contrast to the more than 30 manga published since the disaster, there has been only one mass-market film to date on Fukushima - "Homeland", released in March. Its director was careful to emphasise the human story over any political statements during publicity tours.

The nuclear disaster, set off by a tsunami that tore through the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and touched off meltdowns, remains a sensitive subject in Japan, especially since thousands still remain in temporary housing and may never go home again.

"Movies take a lot of money and backers tend to flinch away from this topic ... Manga are a lot more independent and can go where even news programmes might hesitate," said Kenichiro Shinohara, an editor at the popular "Morning" manga weekly where "Ichi Efu" is also published.

There are several hundred manga published in Japan each year, ranging from cute to violent and pornographic, in magazine and book form. Most are pure entertainment, but others take up samurai-era history, business strategy or World War Two - most notably "Barefoot Gen", a manga about the Hiroshima bombing that stirred controversy last year.

The popular media form - more than 10 million copies of manga magazines are sold annually - is afforded unrivaled freedom in Japan. Last week, Japan passed a law banning the possession of child pornography, but pornographic manga featuring children was excluded after publishers and opposition lawmakers said it could limit free speech.

EASIER TO FOLLOW

Fukushima manga run the gamut from "Sobamon", which promotes the safety of Fukushima produce, to the overtly anti-nuclear "Fighting the Nuclear Demon". At least one is set in the future.

"Manga are easier to follow than serious journalism or reportage, and of course there is some entertainment value, which makes them easier to pick up," said Kazuma Yoshimura, head of the Manga Research Centre at Kyoto's Seika University.

"Most disasters have an end point, but the nuclear problem is ongoing. The special aspects of manga, like looking towards the future and fiction, allow tackling the subject on a different level."

Though manga began trickling out shortly after the disaster took place, it wasn't until April that most of the nation became aware of them, thanks to a food manga called "Oishinbo" - The Gourmet - and a Fukushima food safety series.

In it, several characters suffered nosebleeds they blamed on radiation exposure - a situation that medical experts say is highly unlikely but something they have not ruled out. The manga also said the Fukushima area would be unlivable for years.

This unleashed a flood of angry comments from Fukushima residents to Abe and other cabinet ministers, who called for people to use "correct" information, in turn setting off discussions about free speech and government cover-ups.

"Of course manga are written so they're easy to understand in one glance, which does make it possible for things to be taken wrong and rumours to be born," Yoshimura said.

The editor of the manga apologised for some word choices but remained unrepentant about running it, citing fading interest in Fukushima and the need for more discussion about the issue.

"In addition, people still aren't really settled in what they think about Fukushima," said Kaoru Endo, a sociology professor at Tokyo's Gakushuin University. "They remain uneasy because they feel that ... a lot hasn't yet been revealed."

Among the most talked about is "Ichi Efu", which is drawn by Kazuto Tatsuta, a pseudonym, who actually worked in the plant himself for roughly a year.

The manga, whose title is the insiders' name for the nuclear plant, is drawn in realistic detail and relates the life of workers. It touches on shady hiring practices, the trials of working in anti-radiation gear and getting an itchy nose or needing to use the toilet.

Shinohara, the "Morning" magazine editor, said they took care to make sure the manga didn't stray into any sort of political stance. Even so, some other magazines have refused to run advertisements for "Ichi Efu".

"A lot of people have said that it lacks drama, but I think that just showing life at the plant is scary enough - by showing that this kind of workplace has gone on long enough to be normal," he said. "Having somebody collapse is kind of cliche."

(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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