Popular new manga "Ichiefu" offers account of workers lives at Fukushima power plant

By Daniele Pestilli on April 26, 2014
Image: panel from the manga Ichiefu

One of the things Japan has long excelled at is alluring people to it via cultural seduction – something Joseph Nye denominated “soft power”. From its rich literature to its tea ceremony to martial arts, Japan seems to have a natural affinity for making people become infatuated, or at least curious, about it. This same virtue allowed the Japanese to dominate the global economic scene by providing top notch electronics and vehicles for decades.

Paramount among Japan's soft powers is their manga culture, a form of comics that has spellbound several generations of foreigners who have been eager to learn everything about the country that spawned these works. Although disguised as innocuous drawings, these can often be more revealing of Japanese culture than any scholarly book on the topic. For instance, manga renditions of Godzilla, the giant black monster who is known to symbolize nuclear bombings, were by no means scant in the 60s and 70s. Another example is the controversial manga regarding Hitler's Mein Kampf published five years ago, which has foreshadowed recent socio-political frustrations, such as a desire to overturn post-war U.S. sanctions.

Latest among these phenomena is a newly released manga, Ichiefu (literally “1F”), which has received a rather impressive domestic readership and may just become another of Japan's soft cultural exports. The comic depicts the situation of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant through the eyes of one of the post-disaster workers - Kazuto Tatsuta. “Ichi”, meaning “one”, refers to Daiichi, whereas “efu”, meaning “F”, refers to Fukushima. According to the author, this is how locals and workers at the plant refer to the compound.

As Asahi News explains, the manga has received staggering popularity in Japan, selling 150,000 copies of the first volume in just three days – a sizable amount for a little known author such as Kazuto Tatsuta.

Upon graduating from university, Kazuto repeatedly changed workplace while continuing to work as a comic artist on the side. Following the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, the author questioned his role as a Japanese citizen, asking himself in what way he could help his country. This prompted him to work at the Fukushima power plant for six months.

However, after only six months Kazuto had reached the permissible level of annual radiation exposure. He thus returned to his home in Tokyo and started drawing the manga upon realizing that the media were portraying the situation very differently from what he had experienced.

In an interview with Sankei News, Kazuto explains “[the manga] was almost entirely drawn from memory, but I remember the details quite finely. Perhaps that's why it has left such an impression.” He also takes special care to underline – on Sankei's interview, on Morning's webpage, as well as on other articles that have been spewing out form local and foreign media – that he did not do this “to infiltrate or to whistle-blow.” He did it simply to contribute to the work that needed to be done at 1F. What he drew, he explains, is not strictly the truth, just his personal experience of what he saw and heard.

According to the magazine's editor, Shinohara Kenichiro, Kazuto received many letters of gratitude from readers who were finally able to understand the reality of workers at 1F, which the government was and is not being transparent about.

Japanese netizens are also spreading the word on Twitter: user @ringomikan05 writes, “After reading about the little children at J-village who helped the recovery efforts, I wondered what I can do to help as well.” (J-village is the sports complex-turned-staging ground for Fukushima workers.) User @miasuke writes, “recalling those times brings tears to my eyes.”

Asahi News explains that the work is written with a painstaking attention to detail: “equipment, such as the masks and protective gear the workers used, and the procedures they took to measure radiation levels make readers feel as if they are there and reading actual worker manuals.”

Contrary to media portrayal, the author reveals that the work conditions at the plant, though tense at times, weren't so bad – although scratching one's face or relieving oneself was hard due to the protection suits, good meals were provided and workers enjoyed pleasurable chats together just as in any other workplace.

During his interview with Asahi, the author explains that while an end to the job at Fukushima Daiichi is nowhere in sight, he expressed his desire to get back to work there, and if need be, he'd even consider going to 1F's high radiation zone.

Not only Japan, but the entire world was shaken on 11 March, 2011. Kazuto's rendition of the situation at the crippled plant has evoked strong memories within Japan, and will provide a glimpse to outsiders as to what the situation there is like as well. If this manga is to have an influential “soft power” effect, that will be in evincing the admirable bravery, the formidable sense of duty and the inspiring devotion to their country of the Fukushima Daiichi workers.