Japan’s Nameless ‘Decontamination Troops’

Unidentified workers clean Fukushima after the radiation leakage to make it habitable again.

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Workers clean radioactive soil and plants in a private home in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture. (Photo: AP)

The ashes of half a dozen unidentified labourers ended up at a Buddhist temple in a town called Minamisoma, just north of the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant. Some of the dead men had no papers, others left no emergency contacts. Their names could not be confirmed and no family members had been tracked down to claim their remains.

They were simply labeled “decontamination troops” – unknown soldiers in Japan’s massive clean-up campaign to make Fukushima livable again, five years after radiation from the Daiichi nuclear plant poisoned the fertile countryside.

The men were among the 26,000 workers – many in their 50s and 60s from the margins of society with no special skills or close family ties. They are tasked with removing the contaminated topsoil and stuffing it into tens of thousands of black bags lining the fields and roads. They wipe roofs, clean out gutters and chop down trees in a seemingly endless routine.

The workers assigned this risky, undesirable job make up the very bottom of Japan’s murky, caste-like subcontractor system long criticized for labor violations. Vulnerable to exploitation, they typically work on three-to-six-month contracts with little or no benefits and live in makeshift company barracks.

Most of the men work for small subcontractors that are many layers beneath the few giants at the top of the construction food chain. Major projects such as this one are divided up among contractors, who then subcontract jobs to smaller outfits, some of which have dubious records.

A worker removes the contaminated topsoil it a private house’s garden in Minamisoma, Fukushima. (Photo: AP)
A worker removes the contaminated topsoil it a private house’s garden in Minamisoma, Fukushima. (Photo: AP)

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare examined more than 300 companies doing Fukushima decontamination work and found that nearly 70 committed violations in the first half of last year. This including underpayment of wages and overtime and failure to do compulsory radiation checks.

Violations are so widespread in this multilayer subcontract system. It’s like a whack-a-mole situation. It’s a serious concern, particularly for workers who don’t have families or have lost ties with them.
Mitsuaki Karino, City Assemblyman, Iwaki, Fukushima City

Several arrests have been made in recent months over alleged labour violations.

Government officials say they see no other way than to depend on the contracting system to clean up the contaminated zone, a project whose ballooning cost is now estimated at 5 trillion yen ($44 billion).

A complaint filed by a worker with labour officials led to the October arrest of a construction company president who had allegedly dispatched workers to Fukushima under misleading circumstances.

The investigation found that the worker had been offered 17,000 yen ($150) per day, but after middlemen took a cut he was getting only 8,000 yen ($70).

Most workers keep their mouth shut for fear of losing their jobs.

Officials keep close tabs on journalists. Minutes after chatting with some workers in Minamisoma, Associated Press journalists received a call from a city official warning them not to talk to decontamination crews.

A worker wearing a mask stands as he cleans radiation-exposed roof tiles at a private house in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan. (Photo: AP)
A worker wearing a mask stands as he cleans radiation-exposed roof tiles at a private house in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan. (Photo: AP)

Beyond the work’s arduous nature, the men also face radiation exposure risks. Inhaling radioactive particles could trigger lung cancer, said Junji Kato, a doctor who provides health checks for some workers.

Though no radiation-induced illness has been detected, workers have developed diabetes, cerebral and respiratory problems, often untreated due to lack of money, awareness, and social ties.

Having trouble making ends meet, a growing number of labourers are seeking welfare assistance, local authorities say. The officials worry that they may end up staying on, like construction labourers did in Osaka and Tokyo after the 1960s building boom, forming Japan’s poorest ghettos.

Residents are spooked by rumours that some labourers sport tattoos linked with Yakuza.

Police and volunteers have started neighbourhood patrols amid concerns about safety. Some big construction companies have taken steps to address concerns. Hazama Ando Corporation has imposed an 11 pm curfew on workers.

The workers face heartless rumours as if they are all reckless outlaws. They are the same human beings. Like anywhere, there are good guys and bad guys.
Nakamura, Group Leader
Workers stand in a checkout line at a convenience store in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan. (Photo: AP)
Workers stand in a checkout line at a convenience store in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan. (Photo: AP)

One resident grateful for the workers is Hideaki Kinoshita, a Buddhist monk who keeps the unidentified labourers’ ashes at his temple, in wooden boxes and wrapped in white cloth.

We owe a lot to those who clean this town, doing the work that locals don’t even want to.
Hideaki Kinoshita, Buddhist Monk

Minamisoma city official Tomoyuki Ohwada said the worker population should decline next year when intensive decontamination efforts are scheduled to end. But Kinoshita believes many will still be needed, given the amount of work left to do.

There is no end to this job. Five years from now, the workers will still be around. And more unclaimed ashes may end up here.
Hideaki Kinoshita, Buddhist Monk

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