Atomic Divorce: How Japan's Nuclear Disaster Is Breaking Up Marriages

Five years after the deadly Japan tsunami, married couples in the country are breaking up over disagreements about radiation safety. The phenomenon has led to a trend known as "atomic divorce," or genpatsu rikon.

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Mar 11 2016, 6:00pm

Families visit doctor for radiation checks. Photo via Flickr user Boaz Arad

Social stigma attached to Japanese victims of radiation goes back to the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki over 70 years ago, when many women struggled to marry because of fears they would deliver deformed children. But five years ago today, the stigma that atomic bomb survivors fought so hard against resurfaced when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake shook the country's northeast in 2011, triggering a 10-meter tsunami that smashed into a nuclear power plant on the Fukushima coastline.

The disaster killed over 19,000 people across Japan and caused an estimated 16.9 trillion yen ($150 billion) in damages. But the radiation leak and nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nulcear Power Plant a week after the earthquake added an extra layer of stress for the two million families who were already overwhelmed from the damages caused by the natural disaster. Whilst men went back to work, women became responsible for the health of their children, who found themselves navigating the unknown consequences of radiation exposure in the years to come.

Although numerous reports have shown no signs of radiation illnesses so far, the World Health Organization concluded in 2013 that radiation exposure could cause cancer. Workers from the nuclear power plant have also criticized the Japanese government over "inconsistent" information surrounding the radiation leak in the years since. Such conflicting reports have caused marital discord over how to raise families amidst the nuclear crisis. It has become so widespread that the phenomenon of couples breaking up has been dubbed genpatsu rikon or "atomic divorce".

There are no statistics on the number of women who have been affected. But an emergency hotline dedicated to women in and around the exclusion zone says they have received calls from numerous heartbroken women in disagreement with their husbands on how to raise their children going forward.

"To be honest, it's all quite overwhelming and difficult to put into words," a spokesperson from Women's Space Fukushima tells Broadly. "There are many problems between families in the aftermath of the earthquake, with changing dynamics often being the consequence of couples falling apart. There have certainly been cases of divorce as couples start to live apart, with women transferring to evacuation centres with their children whilst the husband stays behind."

"Many women have found adjusting to life inside temporary housing difficult, and called us to complain that their needs weren't being met. As the years pass, situation becomes more serious for the survivors who once had a life ahead of them. They feel helpless with the inability to set any goals for the future, as they continue to struggle facing their bleak reality."

The damage caused by thetsunami in the wake of the earthquake. Photo by Boaz Arad via Flickr

Disagreements over the potential effects of radiation on family life has led to "nuclear divorce" in parts of Japan even outside the regions hardest hit by the tsunami. Natsumi Morishita was working in Tokyo when she felt the earthquake in her office five years ago. She was left stranded in the city, unable to head back to her home in neighbouring Saitama prefecture until trains started running the next day.

Although located 200km away from the nuclear power plant, Morishita filed for divorce a year later after numerous disagreements with her husband over relocating as a means to eliminate radiation risk. "To put it simply, I was more fearful of the potential consequences of radiation compared to my husband," she tells Broadly. "I wanted my son to stay as far away from any potential risks as possible. But my husband believed that it will be okay as long as we are careful; he wanted to lead a more stress-free life. When I expressed my preference to move to Western Japan—just for a few months with my son to begin with—he said he didn't want to change his lifestyle."

A girl undergoes radiationtesting. Photo by Flickr user Boaz Arad

"My husband found my new routines stressful. To prevent any potential transmissions, I was protecting myself from exposure to radiation on a daily basis," Morishita adds. "When I went outside, I wore a mask over my mouth and nose. At supermarkets, I would borrow a ladder to search through the shelves to find produce from Western Japan that weren't exposed to radiation. As we continued to argue over differing attitudes, the wounds dug deeper and we became more distant from each other."

Despite the impact of the meltdown, it's taken five years for legal action against its owners TEPCO. Although three men have been charged as criminals last month, around 10 percent of more than 160,000 people were evacuated from towns around the Daiichi nuclear plant still live in temporary housing across Fukushima prefecture.

Families at an emergency center. Photo by Flickr user Boaz Arad

The future is bleak particularly for girls and young women, who are also scrutinized by other women. "A friend's son got married to a 28-year-old woman from Fukushima recently. Apparently, she was the one who really pursued him because of the stigma as victims of nuclear radiation," a Tokyo-based teacher tells Broadly. "Not only is she a couple of years older than her husband, but when he was in between jobs, she was earning enough in the financial sector for the two of them to stay afloat. In a society where men are usually older in a relationship as those responsible for earning the costs to raise a family, she must have been really insecure and desperate to keep him to go that far."

Similar comments have also come from prominent figures in public anti-nuclear activist meetings. "People from Fukushima should not marry because the deformity rate of their babies will skyrocket," said Hobun Ikeya, the head of the Ecosystem Conservation Society of Japan. A new book released last month also describes how parents living 30km from the exclusion zone describes how grandparents pressured their daughter to "be responsible" and move to Southern Japan with her 4-year-old son, despite no financial contributions from her husband who eventually opted for divorce.

Couples live in tough conditions for months. Photo by Flickr user Boaz Arad

But Morishita—who managed to find a job in Malaysia and relocated two years ago—says that the struggle continues even after the divorce. "Women who became single mothers after the divorce may have been relieved from family arguments surrounding radiation," she says. "But they still face tough hurdles financially and criticism from the eyes of Japanese society."

"I can't believe how time has gone by. Five years after the nuclear accident in Chernobyl, there was a sudden rise in health-related illnesses. It makes me wonder whether the same thing could happen to those in Fukushima, and the rest of Japan. All women should deserve a society that allows them to live happily with their children."

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