Lucky Dragon survivor Oishi interview

While filming ANPO, I interviewed Oishi Matahichi, the only survivor of the Lucky Dragon, the fishing boat exposed to massive radiation from the U.S. Hydrogen bomb test on Bikini Atoll in 1954. Unaware of the danger of exposure to radiation (much less that a nuclear bomb had been exploded in their vicinity) the fishing vessel limped back to home port, the crew crippled by radiation poisoning. Later, the radioman died from it. Their widely publicized terrifying experience, and the complete contamination of the entire Pacific catch (over 800 fishing vessels in total) became a rallying cry for a national anti-nuclear campaign, started by Tokyo housewives. In 6 months, they gathered signatures from more than half the adult population. It’s important to remember just how politicized the Japanese public was in the 1950s, culminating the national uprising against U.S. military bases and a CIA funded prime minister in 1960.
One of the unfortunate realities of the editing a documentary film is that some interviews, no matter how compelling, don’t make the final cut. In order to bring my film under 90 mins, I had to cut the entire Lucky Dragon incident. But I’m posting some excerpts from his extended interview below and will post a video of it in April.

Oishi: Our experience of the bomb? The situation was, as usual, the work of tuna fishing starts at 1AM at night. We start working around 1AM and we lay all the nets out to sea and for the next 2 or 3 hours we kill the engine and drift until the fish bite. That’s when the explosion happened. But we had no idea that it was an explosion or a nuclear weapon. But a terrible scene unfolded before our eyes… It was still before dawn and in the instant of the explosion…

9:32 It wasn’t pitch black. The sky was just getting ready for dawn, like that, dawn was just about to arrive, that’s the kind of sky it was. So it wasn’t pitch black but the sky was still dark and so the color of the explosion seemed especially intense to our eyes. The color was just like the color of a sunset. The way a sunset burns the sky, the colors just flowed from one side of the horizon to the other, very swiftly and it stayed that way. It didn’t vanish. That’s what happened and so this was unthinkable under any normal circumstances, but we had no way of even imagining what had happened. And what I thought then was that a natural disaster, like a huge underwater explosion had happened or a meteorite had fallen. My thoughts turned to some kind of natural disaster.

10:45 And, also the sound… If the sound had immediately followed the blast of light you could imagine it was an explosion of some kind but the sound took a while… They say it followed 7 or 8 minutes later, it was a long time before the sound came. And the sound itself was different from the sound of an explosion. It was a roar that came rumbling up from the bottom of the sea.

12:34 I think that must have been the mushroom cloud, but time had passed so it no longer looked like a mushroom and I think its very top must have reached the stratosphere. More than 10 minutes had passed. And then the clouds at the very top began to disintegrate and race towards us at full speed, covering us. But we were upwind. It was unthinkable that a cloud that we were upwind from would cover us, so we were stupefied at all these completely unthinkable things that kept happening one after the other and we were so anxious. Time just kept passing as we all wondered “What is this? What happened?” About one hour and a half later, that white powder started falling on us.

Pure white, it fell down on us just like when it snows, but that was also unthinkable. Why would it snow in the southern sea and why was all this white stuff… So much of it fell on us. We didn’t know what it was.

13:48 It kept falling the whole time we were working so it fell for about 6 hours or so. It kept falling until we finished working. And it was falling so much that it piled up on the deck, just like snow would pile and if you walked on it you could see your footprints in it. On the deck, there’s always water flowing, seawater is always being poured over the deck but still it piled up so I think a huge amount of it fell. The ashes piled up on our bodies, above our headbands if we were wearing them, and we were working shirtless, just in our undershirts so a lot of it fell inside our shirts and piled up under our belts. It pricked and if it was snow it should have melted but it didn’t melt and instead it felt prickly so I couldn’t figure out what it was, but we didn’t have time to shake it off us. Because we were working and we just kept working with it just piled up there.

And then two days later, the places where the ashes had landed on our bodies, started swelling up. Dots of swelling and water was in them. So we wondered what it was but those places where the ashes had piled up started swelling up with water inside them. The surface skin would peel off and we work in the sea and when the saltwater would hit it, the pain was searing, I do remember that.

16:50 I learned later that they were radiation burns. The radiation burns had caused blisters. And about 10 days later, this time we noticed our hair had started to fall out. One of our crew was combing his hair and all this hair came out. We wondered what it was and tried combing our own and although painless, it wastefully fell out. Once that happened, we knew things weren’t normal and we started thinking back over things and decided that the white powder must be the cause of it. That’s what we were thinking when we made it into port. (to be continued)

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