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Lucky Dragon

The Test

The United States detonated a thermonuclear bomb, codenamed Bravo, at 6:45 A.M. on March 1, 1954 on the Bikini Atoll in the Marshal Islands. The blast was equivalent to 17 megatons of TNT and was 1,300 times the force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and specifically designed to create a vast amount of fallout. The bomb, made from materials processed at Hanford, was a new evolution of nuclear weapons, which combined fission and fusion processes. The chairman of the AEC would later say that the power of the test was twice what was expected.

The Fallout

Caught in the path of Bravo's fallout was a Japanese tuna fishing boat, the Daigo Fukuryu maru (Lucky Dragon). At the time of the detonation the boat was 118 miles east of the Bikini Atoll. The crew of the Lucky Dragon had noticed a bright light in the sky to the west of them and several minutes later they heard a loud explosion. Around 7:00 A.M. the boat was sprayed with a cloud of radioactive ash which lasted until 11:30 A.M. The shower of ash was so heavy at one point that the crewmen could not open their eyes or mouths. There was so much dust on the deck that the crew members left footprints when they walked. Soon after they began to experience eye pain, headaches and nausua. Later, their faces turned black and their hair fell out. The captain did not associate the blast with the symptoms, and chose not to report it until he was able to speak with the ship's owner.

Earlier in the year, the U.S. had issued a general warning defining a danger zone around Bikini, but there was no specific warning about the time or location of the tests conducted there. The crew was unaware of these warnings and even still, they had been 20 miles outside the danger zone.

Initial Reports and Panic

The crew returned to their home port of Yaizu and reported their ailments to a local doctor. The doctor sent two members of the crew to Tokyo University Hospital. The incident made news all over Japan. The news reports had said the ship and crew had been "dusted by the ashes of death."

A biophysicist professor, Yashushi Nishiwaki, read about the situation and called city health officials to see if any fish from Yaizu had been shipped to Tokyo. When Nishiwaki took his Geiger counter to Osaka central market, he found the tuna to be registering 60,000 counts per minute. After city officials measured scales and paper wrappings, they estimated that contaminated fish had been eaten by approximately 100 people. The contaminated fish that remained was confiscated and buried. The evening papers ran the story and fear swept through the city. People immediately stopped buying fish.

City officials asked Nishiwaki for advice on how to proceed. Since he did not know how strong the original dose was, he was unable to set a permissible level of contamination. The doctors who were caring for the crew members were having similar difficulties. Without knowing how strong of a dose the crew received, it was hard to give treatment.

While treating the men, doctors used information gained by the study of survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The data had been collected by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC). Doctors who were examining the crew were confused by the presence of residual radioactivity. The crew had been given given haircuts, a thorough scrubbing and had their nails cut, yet the men retained radioactivity on their skin. The doctors did not know how to proceed.

The doctors in Tokyo, a team from Yaizu, and Nishiwaki were all trying to analyze the ash. Knowing it would be days before the ash could be properly diagnosed, Nishiwaki wrote a letter to the AEC. He asked if Japanese scientists could be told what elements had been in the bomb. He thought the fastest way he could get it to the U.S. was to give it to a representative of the American press service. The letter was never transmitted. It was blocked by the chief of the wire service's Tokyo bureau. The chief thought Nishiwaki was an alarmist who was only seeking publicity. His attitude confused the Japanese scientist.

The ABCC sent Dr. John Morton to Tokyo. He met with two of the patients and spoke to their doctors. He told the doctors that the U.S. was ready to help and he offered to have antibiotics sent to the hospital. Dr. Morton felt the fishermen were in better shape than he expected and predicted their recovery would take less than a month. Dr. Tsuuki Masao was worried about Morton's optimism and warned that the crewman might die because of American irresponsibility. Masao had not trusted the U.S. since Occupation Officials had confiscated his research notes on bomb survivors and published the information without giving him credit.

U.S. Response Angers Japanese

Sen. John Pastore, member of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, was in Japan at the time. He met with doctors and was briefed on the condition of the fishermen. When he returned to the U.S., he gave an interview where he spoke optimistically of the fisherman's recovery. When this was reported in Japan, scientists and the public were confused and upset at the misrepresentation of the situation. What was more upsetting to the public was when the chairmen of the AEC, Lewis Strauss, accused the Lucky Dragon of being part of a Soviet spy mission. Similar comments were made to the press by Congressman Melvin Price and Congressman W. Sterling Cole. Rep. James Van Zandt, a member of the Atomic Committee, said in an interview that the Bravo test was equal to 12-14 million tons of TNT. The Japanese felt that if the U.S was testing weapons of that magnitude they should increase the size of the danger zone. The U.S. promptly issued a notice doing just that. The new danger area was increased to eight times the previous zone, approximately 400,000 square miles. Japan required all boats fishing in this area or taking passage through it to go to five designated ports and be inspected for radioactivity. It was estimated that crews of more than 100 boats were affected to some degree by the nuclear tests.

The Japanese government hoped that the establishment of these official inspection stations would help stem the rising hysteria over contaminated fish. Merchants were having a hard time convincing people that their fish was not radioactive. As panic spread around Japan some fish markets were forced to close. The Tokyo Central Wholesale Market closed for the first time since the cholera epidemic of 1935. The public became increasingly fearful of fish when it was revealed that it had been removed from the Emperor's diet. Fish prices dropped and some dealers went out of business.

Public resentment spread throughout Japan. Newspapers were highly critical of the U.S. and Dr. Morton. There was concern that the fishermen would be used as guinea pigs. There were calls for reparation to be made for the damages. Ambassador John Allison tried assuring the public that the U.S. would make fair restitution based on the facts.

The Lucky Dragon had become front page news in America. The problem of the radioactive fish was given little attention and the injuries of the fisherman were mainly mentioned in comments made by U.S. politicians. Pictures of the crewman were run and it was mentioned that they were outside of the imposed danger zone. The American stories did not mention the how important the situation was for the Japanese people.

The AEC released a statement about radiation and fish. They believed that consuming any fish caught in the Pacific Ocean would not pose a danger unless it was from the waters immediately surrounding the test site. Any radioactivity would be harmless within a few miles and completely undetectable within 500 miles. The American Ambassador issued a similar statement. Japanese scientists responded immediately. They disagreed and were angered by the AEC conclusions. One professor suggested sending the fish to the ambassador so he could eat it.

The official reassurance from the AEC did not relieve the Japanese public nor did it restore confidence in the fish markets. On March 27, the Koei Maru (Radiant Glory) arrived in port with thirty-seven tons of tuna. It was found to be radioactive at levels above the limits established by the Ministry of Health and Welfare. Japanese officials had issued a temporary danger level of 100 counts per minute for a Geiger counter held four inches away from the fish. The Japanese people were not concerned with specifics, they simply felt the fish was either radioactive or not.

Japan Accuse United States of Double Standard

When the story of these contaminated fish became news, American fish dealers asked the Japanese examine the fish with stricter standards than the AEC had said was acceptable. Importers wanted a detailed inspection around the gills, the Geiger counter to be closer than four inches, and less than 100 counts per minute. The Japanese newspapers reported on the double standard of the Americans. The AEC had told the Japanese there was no danger and accused them of overacting. Now importers were rejecting slightly contaminated fish for their own markets.

The U.S. West Coast tuna canneries, most of which were in California, were alerted to the possibility of contaminated fish. The Food and Drug Administration has records of two radioactive fish at one cannery. There are no other details other than the "radioactivity was insignificant." At this time there was a meeting between representatives of the tuna industry, the FDA, the AEC and the State Department. An acceptable level of radioactivity was agreed upon at this meeting but the level was classified as "confidential" and not released to the public.

The Crew

The ash on the boat was discovered to have 26 nuclides including uranium 237. The crewman received external gamma ray irradiation, internal irradiation from fallout intake, and beta ray irradiation from fallout touching their naked skin. The external gamma ray irradiation is believed to be the main cause of the symptoms felt by the crew. Analysis of urine and external measurement of thyroid gland radioactivity showed internal irradiation. There were no cases of long term presence of radioactive material in the men examined. The degree of skin injuries led to estimates that local skin exposure doses were roughly 1,000 rads or higher.

The crew's initial symptoms were fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and anorexia. Conjunctivitis, leucopenia, thrombopenia, and mild anemia were observed in all cases. Some of the men showed mild hemorrhagic tendencies. The main area of injury was exposed skin. The men's clothes, gloves, and shoes protected them from beta ray exposure. The skin injuries developed were, in order of appearance, erythema (reddening of the skin), edema (build up of fluid), bulla (blistering), and erosion. Some men had permanent whitening of the skin.

The boat's chief radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, fell into a coma on August 29, 1954. He died on September 23, 209 days after his initial exposure. Before he went into the coma he said "I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic of hydrogen bomb." His funeral was attended by 400,000 people. Experts disputed what the cause of death was. Some claimed it was from radioactive damage to the liver and others argued it was infectious hepatitis contracted from receiving frequent blood transfusions. Of the remaining 22 crewmen, 12 would die from cancer, liver disease, kidney disease while they were in their 40s and 50s.


The United States had always been prepared to pay reparations, but an exact amount was not agreed on by both sides. The Japanese had originally asked for $7 million. Ambasador Allison said he was only authorized to offer $150,000. After a long negotiation, the United States made a payment of $2 million to the Japanese government in January of 1955 to compensate for all injuries and damages caused as a result of the five nuclear tests it had conducted in the Marshal Islands. The U.S. stressed the payments were ex gratia, or without legal liability, and were done out of sympathy and not responsibility. Each member of the crew received $5,000, the city of Yaizu was given $37,000, and the rest was used to compensate the damage done to the tuna industry.


The Lucky Dragon itself was stripped down and decontaminated. In 1956, the ship's radioactive levels were deemed low enough for the ship to be used again. It was sold to the Tokyo University of Fisheries as a training ship and renamed the Hayabusa-Maru (Dark Falcon). Ten years later it was sold for scrap. In 1968, a letter in the newspaper prompted a donation drive to save the boat. In 1976 the Lucky Dragon museum was built near Tokyo Bay to house the restored vessel. Each year 300,000 people visit the museum.

Inspired by the Lucky Dragon incident, Tokyo women started a petition to ban nuclear weapons. They collected over 30 million signatures. This directly led to the World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs taking place on August 5, 1955. In 2004, on the 50th anniversary of the incident, 2,000 peace activist marched through the Lucky Dragon's port town of Yaizu. Yoshio Musaki, one of the surviving crew members, spoke to the crowd asking that the tragedy not be repeated in the 21st century.


"Japanese Radioactive Injured Fishermen Case." . Web. 08 Feb. 2011.

"Nucelar Tragedy in the Pacific"Japanese Times.
Duke, Derek, and Fred Dungan. Chasing Loose Nukes. Riverside, CA: Dungan, 2007.

Schaller, Michael. Altered States The United States and Japan since the Occupation. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.

Titus, A. Costandina. Bombs in the Backyard: Atomic Testing and American Politics. Reno: University of Nevada, 2001

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