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In the West, comics are often considered predominantly for younger audiences, and adults who spend more time scrutinising the contents of speech bubbles than printed paragraphs might be looked down on by some. But in Japan, comics are considered a perfectly acceptable pastime whatever one’s age.

More often than not, comics, or manga to use the Japanese term, provide their readers with a break from reality, much like a TV drama or soap, and allow readers to peek into the kinds of worlds that they might not ordinarily be able. But there are times when fiction and reality come together, and real-world events become fodder for a writer’s imagination or in some case the main focus of a story. In the case of popular manga series Oishinbo (美味しんぼ), one particular plotline has raised not just eyebrows but objections on a national level, and what was once just a comic about food has become the centre of a debate about health, radiation, and whether the Japanese government is telling the truth about Fukushima.

Today, we delve a little deeper into the “Oishinbo Nosebleed Problem”, as it has become known, and consider whether, after the resulting backlash, this controversial topic is one that the manga’s writer perhaps ought to have left well alone.

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Tetsu Kariya’s “Oishinbo”

Documenting the lives of fictional journalists Shirō Yamaoka and his wife Yuko, long-running manga series Oishinbo, or The Gourmet, is a food-based drama series. The manga follows the couple on their adventures in the pursuit of gourmet grub, and has won legions of fans since its first publication back in 1983, selling over 130 million copies to date.

While there is plenty of whimsy to be found in the manga’s pages, Oishinbo is written predominantly for adult readers and occasionally touches on slightly more mature themes, the like of which might surprise Westerners whose knowledge of comics extends only as far as Marvel’s more famous action heroes and the musings of Calvin and Hobbes printed in their newspapers.

Published in the April 28 and May 12 editions of weekly manga magazine Big Comic Spirits, a new chapter of Oishinbo sees its protagonist returning from a brief trip to Fukushima, whereupon he suddenly begins to experience nosebleeds. A bespectacled man going by the name of Mr Idogawa then arrives on the scene to explain that he, too, has been suffering with nosebleeds since the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011, telling the fictional journalists: “In Fukushima, there are a lot of people who suffer from the same symptoms. They just don’t talk about it,” and in another scene bluntly stating that “people should not live in Fukushima today.”

Later, the same character alludes to a survey conducted in Osaka, where a large amount of rubble taken from Northeast Japan was shipped during the post-tsunami clean-up operation. He states that 800 out of 1,000 people living close to the site where this rubble is being kept reported having nosebleeds and feeling generally ill.

manga page Amaebi

Even if this sombre gentleman’s surname does not immediately ring any bells with readers of Oishinbo, his face, and to a lesser extent the statements he makes, may.

In the real world, 67-year-old Katsutaka Idogawa is the former mayor of Futaba, a town in Fukushima Prefecture that was once home to roughly 7,400 people. Today, Futaba lies within the exclusion zone surrounding the stricken Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, and its entire population has been relocated. Idogawa stepped down as mayor in January this year after a vote of no-confidence at a local assembly and claiming that “frustrations” with the government following the nuclear disaster had made his job difficult.

Idogawa remains vocal about the dangers of nuclear power, however, and shortly after his initial cameo in Oishinbo, he uploaded a selection of photos to his public Facebook page showing himself with bloodied tissues, often placed on top of a copy of a local newspaper and accompanied by post-it notes with dates written on them, taken after some of the many nosebleeds he has recently been having.

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It is of course no coincidence that the former mayor should feature in the same chapter of Oishinbo in which its protagonist suffers a nosebleed after visiting Fukushima, but the comic’s writer, Tetsu Kariya, maintains that the story is based on his own experiences, commenting that he also suffered nosebleeds and experienced periods of fatigue immediately after a trip to the area. Members of the public commented that the timing of Idogawa’s Facebook post was somewhat suspicious and felt that the photos did little more than incite fear amongst an already anxious population, but it would seem that both the former mayor and Oishinbo‘s writer feel that Fukushima Daiichi is somehow to blame for their health complaints and are using their respective platforms to send a powerful message to the people of Japan.

Unsurprisingly, complaints came flooding in to Shogakukan, the publisher of the magazine that carries Oishinbo, shortly after and government officials began issuing statements assuring the nation that, although studies have shown that exposure to radiation can indeed cause nosebleeds, the levels recorded outside of the Daiichi exclusion zone are nowhere near high enough to cause such symptoms. An Osaka prefectural government statement, too, reported that there had been no such reports of illnesses in the area, and that the rubble brought down from the northeast – which, notably, came from Iwate Prefecture rather than Fukushima where the power plant is situated – in no way posed a health risk to residents.

It is the psychological effects that such a story as Oishinbo‘s may have on the people of Fukushima, however, that were of most concern to officials from the region. A statement issued by the Fukushima prefectural government criticised Tetsu Kariya for his overly dark depiction of the situation, saying that “the feelings of the Fukushima people were totally ignored and deeply hurt.” The prefecture’s economy and tourism industry, too, it added, would likely suffer as a result of the statements made in the comic, despite the fact that “it has been made clear through the appraisal of experts that there is no causal relationship between radiation exposure among residents and nosebleeds.”

Indeed, while statements such as those made in Robert Stone’s pro-nuclear documentary Pandora’s Promise perhaps ought to be taken with a pinch of salt, it is no secret that radiation levels recorded in areas outside of the exclusion zone in Fukushima are on par with – and in some cases lower than – background radiation recorded in other parts of the world where life continues as normal. As a fellow Fukushima resident commenting via Twitter wrote after the Oishinbo Nosebleed Problem began earlier this month (and whose tweet was subsequently shared tens of thousands of times), “I have never once had a nosebleed in the past three years.” It seems odd that, if so many people are suffering with ill-health like Mr Idogawa suggests, they should all want to keep it a secret.

▼ Futaba is home to the stricken nuclear power plant (marked in red)

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The debate rages on, with Fukushima residents, politicians, and even TV personalities chiming in to voice their opinions. Although most agree that creative works such as Oishinbo should not be censored in any way and writers should be free to broach whichever topics they like, a common complaint is that the comments made in the manga were insensitive to the feelings of Fukushima residents and only serve to exacerbate existing fears that the area is unsafe — something that is in itself causing significantly more harm than anything else, with a recent study finding that some 1,656 people in Fukushima have died from stress-related illnesses alone since the 2011 disaster. Clearly, living in fear and being the subject of constant rumour and speculation is already taking its toll on the prefecture, and for that reason one has to ask whether Oishinbo‘s recent portrayal of the situation was the best way to raise concerns.

Are Mr Idogawa and Oishinbo‘s writer right to share their stories and, as the former mayor puts it, “state the truth”? Absolutely. Both TEPCO and the Japanese government have been criticised in the past for downplaying the severity of the situation at Fukushima Daiichi, and clean-up operations have been marred by allegations of counterfeit contracts and mishaps on more than one occasion. It would be wrong for people to blindly accept everything that they are told, and it is the responsibility of not just the government but the people of Japan to ensure that if nuclear energy is to remain a part of the country’s future, standards are met and that those in charge can be trusted and relied upon.

But without medical or empirical evidence to support his theory that his nosebleeds are the result of living close to the exclusion zone (and it should be noted that Oishinbo‘s writer, too, was reportedly told by a medical professional prior to penning the controversial story that it was unlikely that his nosebleed and visit to Fukushima were connected), it is the opinion of this writer – as someone who has many friends living in Fukushima today and who himself resided in the prefecture both before and after the events of March 11, 2011 – that Mr Idogawa’s photos of blood-stained tissues and the matter-of-fact statements such as “people should not live in Fukushima today” printed in the comic do far more damage than any amount of radiation seeping out of Daiichi ever could. I have no doubt that Mr Idogawa’s nosebleeds are quite real, and as many Japanese netizens have commented agree that they are a cause for concern and should be fully investigated, but ignoring the numerous other possible causes – high blood pressure, allergies, perhaps even the stress of having been the mayor of a city affected by one of the largest nuclear disasters in decades – and pinning the blame squarely on Daiichi in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary is not the best way to make one’s case, let alone ensure the welfare of those whom the information most directly affects.

▼ Without nuclear energy, Japan is currently relying heavily on fossil fuels

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The Fukushima disaster has taught us a lot about the dangers of nuclear power, and it is vital that we learn from the mistakes that were made. But right now, as all but one of Japan’s nuclear power stations stand idle and the country relies on electricity generated by burning fossil fuels (despite the fact that air pollution is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people each year), its third-largest prefecture suffers quietly as the rest of the country gives it a wide berth and regularly shuns its produce out of fear of contamination. We should be thankful that men like Katsutaka Idogawa and Tetsu Kariya are among us, unafraid to challenge authority and demanding answers, and we should remain both vigilant and critical of the information that the government provides about the situation at Fukushima Daiichi, but suggesting that a single visit to Fukushima – or that living in the same town in which some rubble taken from the northeast is situated – is enough to cause blood to spurt from one’s nose is in my opinion far more detrimental to the health of Fukushima Prefecture’s residents than anything else during these critical years.

Publisher Shogakukan has stated that it will continue to feature Tetsu Kariya’s comic in its weekly manga magazine, which is due to go on sale on May 19, and that a special feature presenting a number of counter-arguments to the claims made in the story so far will run alongside the next installment of Oishinbo.

Somehow we have a feeling this may be one of the best-selling issues of Big Comic Spirits to date…

Additional sources: The Mainichi, The Asahi Shimbun, Japan Daily Press, Huffington Post JapanFukushima Prefectural Government Homepage, Virates, Kotaku US Facebook
Feature and manga image: Kininaru UwasaOisinbo cover