WORKERS AT JAPAN’S NUCLEAR REACTORS: NUCLEAR GYPSIES, JUMPERS, TEPCO AND THE YAKUZA

WORKERS AT JAPAN’s NUCLEAR REACTORS

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John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: For decades atomic plants have maintained a two-tiered workforce: one made up of highly paid and well-trained utility employees, and another of contractors with less training and fewer health benefits. Last year, 88 percent of the 83,000 workers at the nation's 18 commercial nuclear power plants were contract workers, according to Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, a government regulator. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2011]

A study by the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, a Tokyo-based watchdog group, found that contractors last year accounted for 96 percent of the harmful radiation absorbed by workers at the nation's nuclear power plants. Temporary workers at the Fukushima plant in 2010 also faced radiation levels 16 times higher than did employees of the plant's owner-operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., because contractors are called in for the most dangerous work, according to

Laborers who work at nuclear plants are often homeless people, foreign immigrants and burakumin (descendants of an outcast class) who are recruited as day laborers by gangs that have connections with the yakuza. It is not usual for these workers work unprotected in areas with high levels of radiation. The workers are sometimes called "nuclear gypsies." One of these workers told the Los Angeles Times he worked for two hours in room with steam leaking out of a pipe the whole time. Unbeknownst to him the steam was highly radioactive. When he was finished his radio meter pointed off the scale. A few months later his joints swelled and his hair and teeth fell out.

Japan's 'Nuclear Gypsies'

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Since the start of Japan's nuclear boom in the 1970s, utilities have relied on temporary workers for maintenance and plant repair jobs, while providing little follow-up health training, activists say. "Typically, these workers are only told of the dose they get from an individual or daily exposure, not the cumulative dose over the time they work at a particular plant," Kristin Shrader-Frechette, a professor of radiobiology and philosophy at Notre Dame University, told the Los Angeles Times. "As they move from job to job, nobody is asking questions about their repeated high doses at different sites. We're calling for a nuclear dosage tracking system in Japan and other nations."[Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2011]

One nuclear plant worker described an unofficial pecking order at most nuclear plants among contractors, with the greenest workers often assigned the most dangerous jobs until they got enough experience to question the work or a newer worker came along.

"This job is a death sentence, performed by workers who aren't being given information about the dangers they face," said Hiroaki Koide, an assistant professor at Kyoto University's Research Reactor Institute and author of the book "The Lie of Nuclear Power." TEPCO says it monitors radiation absorption rates among workers, who are not allowed to exceed government-set limits.

Hiroyuki Watanabe, a city councilman in Iwaki, just south of the Fukushima plant, told the Los Angeles Times past medical tests on plant contractors who had become sick did not produce a definite link to radiation exposure. Still, he thinks the utilities should be more forthright about the dangers such workers face. "It's wrong to prey on the poor who need to feed their families," he said. "They're considered disposable, and that's immoral."

Case of a Longtime 'Nuclear Gypsies'

Reporting from Namie, Japan,John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Kazuo Okawa's luckless career as a "nuclear gypsy" began one night at a poker game. The year was 1992, and jobs were scarce in this farming town in the shadow of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. An unemployed Okawa gambled and drank a lot. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2011]

He was dealing cards when a stranger made him an offer: manage a crew of unskilled workers at the nearby plant. "Just gather a team of young guys and show up at the front gate; I'll tell you what to do," instructed the man, who Okawa later learned was a recruiter for a local job subcontracting firm. Okawa didn't know the first thing about nuclear power, but he figured, what could go wrong?

He became what's known in Japan as a "jumper" or "nuclear gypsy" for the way he moved among various nuclear plants. But the nickname that Okawa disliked most was burakumin, a derisive label for those who worked the thankless jobs he and others performed. Such unskilled contractors exist at the bottom rung of the nation's employment ladder, subjecting themselves to perilous doses of radioactivity.

No matter what people called him, Okawa is proud of the work he performed for his nation's nuclear industry. He labored among teams of men who every day faced incredible risks without complaint. Yet his scariest work had nothing to do with radioactive exposure. "I stood atop a building once, seeing the danger with my own eyes," Okawa said. "That's the way many guys felt about radioactivity: You had to see the danger to fear it. We never saw it."

Hiring and Training Japan's 'Nuclear Gypsies'

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John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Activists say utilities rely on a network of contractors, subcontractors and sub-subcontractors to supply those who work for short periods, absorb a maximum of radiation and are then let go. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2011]

Solicited from day labor sites across the country, many contractors are told little of the task ahead. "The recruiters call out their windows that they have two days of work; it's not unlike the way migrant farm workers are hired in the U.S.," said Kim Kearfott, a nuclear engineer and radiation health expert at the University of Michigan. "Many are given their training en route to the plant. They're told: 'Oh, by the way, we're going to Fukushima. If you don't like it, you can get off the truck right now.' There's no such thing as informed consent, like you would have in a human medical experiment," she said.

"In the beginning, you get a little training; they show you how to use your tools," said Okawa, 56. "But then you're left to work with radiation you can't see, smell or taste. If you think about it, you imagine it might be killing you. But you don't want to think about it."

TEPCO defended its worker training, which "includes basic knowledge of protection against radiation, such as how to manage radiation doses or how to put on and take off protective suits and other equipment," said Mayumi Yoshida, who works in the utility's corporate communications office. But nuclear experts point to what they call a lax safety culture that downplays the risk of radiation exposure. "What's troubling is that both the utilities and the government are saying there isn't a problem, while we know the doses these workers are being subjected to [are] quite high," Shrader-Frechette told the Los Angeles Times.

Working as a 'Nuclear Gypsy at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: On a recent day, hundreds of contractors milled about an abandoned soccer complex near the Fukushima plant that TEPCO has transformed into a nuclear-worker locker room and debriefing center. Men waited in line to pick up dosimeters and disposed of dirty clothes from a just-completed shift. Buses packed with blank-faced workers ran continuously between the center, known as J-Village, and the plant a few miles away. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2011] Now the Fukushima plant needs its temporary workers more than ever, to help Tokyo Electric Power Co. engineers shut down the stricken reactors for good. The "gypsies" are being paid salaries several times higher than before the accident, says Okawa, who says he was offered $650 a day to return to work at Fukushima after the reactor meltdowns there.

After the Fukushima disaster, the government raised the annual limit for allowable radiation exposure from 200 millisieverts to 250 for nuclear plant workers, Shrader-Frechette said. Meanwhile, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has warned that exposure to just 30 millisieverts a year can cause cancer. "The government is allowing workers to receive more than seven times that amount," she said.

Okawa, who was off work from the plant the day of the tsunami, immediately quit the job and the "suicidal work" he performed there: mopping up leaks of radioactive water, wiping down "hot" equipment and filling drums with contaminated nuclear waste. Okawa, a small man with powerfully built hands, said contractors knew they faced layoff once they reached exposure limits, so many switched off dosimeters and other radiation measuring devices. "Guys needed the work, so they cut corners," he said. "The plant bosses knew it but looked the other way."

Shoddy Work Done by Yakuza-affiliated Workers at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant

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Kei Sugaoka, a Japanese engineer who worked at the Unit 1 site, told Adelstein he saw yakuza tattoos on many of the cleanup crew staff. When interviewed on May 23 he stated, “The plant had problems galore and the approach taken with them was piecemeal. Most of the critical work: construction work, inspection work, and welding were entrusted to sub-contracted employees with little technical background or knowledge of nuclear radiation. I can’t remember there ever being a disaster drill. The TEPCO employees never got their hands dirty.” [Source: Jake Adelstein and David McNeill, The Atlantic, July 2, 2011]

Katsunobu Onda, author of TEPCO: The Dark Empire , Onda said: “I’ve spent decades researching TEPCO and its nuclear power plants and what I’ve found, and what government reports confirm is that the nuclear reactors are only as strong as their weakest links, and those links are the pipes.”

During his research, Onda spoke with several engineers who worked at the TEPCO plants. One told him that often piping would not match up the way it should according to the blueprints. In that case, the only solution was to use heavy machinery to pull the pipes close enough together to weld them shut. Inspection of piping was often cursory and the backs of the pipes, which were hard to reach, were often ignored. Since the inspections themselves were generally cursory and done by visual checks, it was easy to ignore them. Repair jobs were rushed; no one wanted to be exposed to nuclear radiation longer than necessary. Onda adds, “When I first visited the Fukushima power plant it was a web of pipes. Pipes on the wall, on the ceiling, on the ground. You’d have to walk over them, duck under them’sometimes you’d bump your head on them. It was like a maze of pipes inside.”

Shoddy Work Related to the Fukushima Meltdown

Jake Adelstein and David McNeill wrote on The Atlantic Online: Onda believes it’s not very difficult to explain what happened at Unit 1 and perhaps the other reactors as well. “The pipes, which regulate the heat of the reactor and carry coolant, are the veins and arteries of a nuclear power plant; the core is the heart. If the pipes burst, vital components don’t reach the heart and thus you have a heart attack, in nuclear terms: meltdown. In simpler terms, you can’t cool a reactor core if the pipes carrying the coolant and regulating the heat rupture---it doesn’t get to the core.” [Source: Jake Adelstein and David McNeill, The Atlantic, July 2, 2011]

Tooru Hasuike, a TEPCO employee from 1977 until 2009 and former general safety manager of the Fukushima plant, also notes: “The emergency plans for a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima plant had no mention of using sea-water to cool the core. To pump seawater into the core is to destroy the reactor. The only reason you’d do that is no other water or coolant was available.”

Problems with the fractured, deteriorating, poorly repaired pipes and the cooling system had been pointed out for years. In 2002, whistle-blower allegations that TEPCO had deliberately falsified safety records came to light and the company was forced to shut down all of its reactors and inspect them, including the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. Kei Sugaoka, a GE on-site inspector first notified Japan’s nuclear watch dog, Nuclear Industrial Safey Agency (NISA) in June of 2000. Not only did the government of Japan take more than two years to address the problem and collude on covering it up, they gave the name of the whistleblower to TEPCO.

In September of 2002, TEPCO admitted to covering up data concerning cracks in critical circulation pipes in addition to previously revealed falsifications. In their analysis of the cover-up, The Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center writes: “The records that were covered up had to do with cracks in parts of the reactor known as recirculation pipes. These pipes are there to siphon off heat from the reactor. If these pipes were to fracture, it would result in a serious accident in which coolant leaks out. From the perspective of safety, these are highly important pieces of equipment. Cracks were found in the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, reactor one, reactor two, reactor three, reactor four, reactor five.” The cracks in the pipes were not due to earthquake damage; they came from the simple wear and tear of long-term usage. On March 2, nine days before the meltdown, the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) gave TEPCO a warning on its failure to inspect critical pieces of equipment at the plant, which included the recirculation pumps. TEPCO was ordered to make the inspections, perform repairs if needed and give a report to the NISA on June 2. The report is not confirmed to have been filed as of this time.

The problems were not only with the piping. Gas tanks at the site also exploded after the earthquake. The outside of the reactor building suffered structural damage. There was some chaos. There was no one really qualified to assess the radioactive leakage because, as the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency admits, after the accident all the on-site inspectors fled the site. And the quake and tsunami broke most of the monitoring equipment so there was little information available on radiation afterwards.

Yakuza and Questionable Labor Practices at TEPCO

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Jake Adelstein and Stephanie Nakajima wrote on the The Atlantic Online: After an expose in the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun, TEPCO admitted in June 2011 that 69 of its plant workers can’t be located for radiation checks---30 of them were found not even to have had their names recorded. This raises questions about how these workers were recruited, paid, monitored for radiation exposure, or vetted before entering the site of the nuclear disaster. Former and current workers within the plant testify that many of the hired hands are yakuza or ex-yakuza members. One company supplying the firm with contract workers is a known Japanese mafia front company. TEPCO when questioned would only say, “We don’t have knowledge of who is ultimately supplying the labor at the end of the outsourcing. We do not have organized crime exclusionary clauses in our standard contracts but are considering it.” The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) has asked the company to “submit a report” on the matter. [Source: Jake Adelstein and Stephanie Nakajima, The Atlantic, June 28, 2011]

Kei Sugaoka, a Japanese-American engineer who had worked at the Fukushima reactor one site, says he saw signs of yakuza ties among his colleagues at the facility. “When we’d enter the plant, we’d all change clothes first. The cleanup crews were staffed with guys covered with typical yakuza tattoos, a rough bunch,” he says. Police sources confirm that one of the companies currently supplying the plant with workers, M-Kogyo, headquartered in Fukuoka Prefecture is a front company for the Kudo-kai, a designated organized crime group. A former yakuza boss notes, “we’ve always been involved in recruiting laborers for TEPCO. It’s dirty, dangerous work and the only people who will do it are homeless, yakuza, banished yakuza, or people so badly in debt that they see no other way to pay it off.” The regular employees were given better radiation suits than the often uneducated yakuza recruits, although it was the more legally vulnerable yakuza and day laborers who typically performed the most dangerous work.

A TEPCO executive, speaking on conditions of anonymity, described the TEPCO working hierarchy:staff employees working at the nuclear reactors enjoy special benefits, safer conditions, and more stringent radiation level checks, while hired workers at the power plants were considered sub-human. “If you voice concerns about the welfare of temporary workers at the plants, you’re labeled a troublemaker, or a potential liability. It’s a taboo to even discuss it.”

TEPCO. Shigeaki Koga, a bureaucrat at METI was asked on July 15 to step down over his persistent calls for TEPCO to be forced into bankruptcy and undergo a wholesale restructuring of the company. His recently released book, The Collapse of Japan’s Central Administration, which also details plans for dismantling TEPCO has become a national best-seller. Tadashi Maeda, advisor to the prime minister, has also called for all nuclear energy to be nationalized.

The Tokyo Prosecutor Office Special Investigative Division has begun a preliminary investigation into TEPCO on charges of criminal negligence resulting in death and/or injury. Meanwhile, the Labor Standards Bureau is investigating them for violations of the Labor Laws. A Ministry of Justice source close to the investigation said on conditions of anonymity, “It seems very clear that TEPCO knew that an earthquake would probably damage the reactors and result in a meltdown. They failed to take preventive measures and their response in after-math was negligent, insufficient, and under Japanese law, they will be held criminally responsible. The question is who will take the fall and how far the investigation will go.”

Adelstein wrote: As for the yakuza, the police are beginning to investigate their front companies more closely. “Yakuza may be a plague on society,” says Suzuki, “but they don’t ruin the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and irradiate the planet out of sheer greed and incompetence.” Suzuki says he’s had little trouble from the yakuza about his book’s allegations. He suspects this is because he showed they were prepared to risk their lives at Fukushima---he almost made them look good.

Yakuza and TEPCO

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Jake Adelstein wrote on The Atlantic Online: Unofficially, TEPCO has such long-standing ties to anti-social forces, including the yakuza---that some members of the Diet, Japan’s national legislature, feel the firm is beyond salvation and needs to be taken over and cleaned up. A Japanese Senator with the Liberal Democratic Party stated on background, "TEPCO's involvement with anti-social forces and their inability to filter them out of the work-place is a national security issue. It is one reason that increasingly in the Diet we are talking de facto nationalization of the company. Nuclear energy shouldn't be in the hands of the yakuza. They're gamblers and an intelligent person doesn't want them to have atomic dice to play with."[Source: Jake Adelstein, The Atlantic, December 30, 2011]

When asked what were the major differences between the yakuza and TEPCO the same Senator paused for a minute. “The primary difference between TEPCO and the yakuza is they have different corporate logos.” He explained, “They both are essentially criminal organizations that place profits above the safety and welfare of the residents where they operate; they both exploit their workers. On the other hand, the yakuza may care more about what happens where they operate because many of them live there. For Tokyo Electric Power Company, Fukushima is just the equivalent of a parking lot.”

In January of 2003, it was reported that TEPCO had been making pay offs to the Sumiyoshi-kai for over twenty years via leasing plants and buying green tea from them. TEPCO also allegedly paid an Yamaguchi-gumi associate and former member, Takeuchi Yoichi, several thousand dollars to stop writing about safety problems at the Fukushima nuclear reactor in the 1990s. As Isao Mori reports in the recently published book Dirty Money, after Mizutani Construction was named a sub-contractor on TEPCO's Fukushima nuclear reactor waste disposal project, it paid Takeuchi's front company "consulting fees" of around ¥120 million (roughly $1.5 million). The same firm also allegedly paid over a million dollars in under the table political donations to Ichiro Ozawa, former “kingpin” of Japan’s ruling party, the Democratic Party of Japan. (Ozawa is currently on trial for violations of the political funds control law.) Mizutani Construction executives have admitted in court that it was standard practice to pay off local yakuza groups and politicians to obtain construction contracts, including those in the nuclear industry.

One National Police official responsible for the Fukushima District said Takeuchi and his involvement with TEPCO were well known among law enforcement. "I know the name very well. There are credible reasons to believe that he shook down TEPCO in the past and he has certainly been the beneficiary of contracts related to Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant construction. Whether TEPCO was victimized by him or the relationship was more symbiotic, I can’t say.”

Adelstein wrote in The Telegraph: It might surprise the Western reader that gangsters are involved in Japan’s nuclear industry and even more that they would risk their lives in a nuclear crisis. But the yakuza roots in Japanese society are very deep. In fact, they were some of the first responders after the earthquake, providing food and supplies to the devastated area and patrolling the streets to make sure no looting occurred. [Source: Jake Adelstein, The Telegraph, February 21, 2012]

A gangster Adelstein refers to as Miyamoto, Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, pointed Adelstein towards a possible connection between TEPCO and the Matsuba-kai, a criminal organization. Adelstein published a number of articles in The Atlantic online, the London Independent, and some Japanese publications, exposing corruption and criminal links at TEPCO.

Yakuza and Hiring People to Do the Dirty Work at Nuclear Plants

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Kei Sugaoka, a Japanese engineer who worked at the Unit 1 site before the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, told Adelstein he saw yakuza tattoos on many of the cleanup crew staff. When interviewed he stated, “The plant had problems galore and the approach taken with them was piecemeal. Most of the critical work: construction work, inspection work, and welding were entrusted to sub-contracted employees with little technical background or knowledge of nuclear radiation. I can’t remember there ever being a disaster drill. The TEPCO employees never got their hands dirty.” [Source: Jake Adelstein and David McNeill, The Atlantic, July 2, 2011]

Adelstein wrote on The Atlantic Online: It is not that the industry ties to anti-social forces were previously unknown. Engineers who worked for the firm noted the practice dated of employing yakuza members at nuclear plants dates back to the 1990s. Police sources also recognize that yakuza having been supplying labor to the area for decades. In the Japanese underworld, the nuclear industry is the last refuge for those who have nowhere to go. One yakuza explains it as folk wisdom, “Otoko wa Genpatsu, Onna was Seifuzoku”--, in other words, “When a man is has to survive doing something, it’s the nuclear industry; for a woman, it’s the sex industry.” [Source: Jake Adelstein, The Atlantic, December 30, 2011]

Tomohiko Suzuki, author of The Yakuza and the Nuclear Industry , told Adelstein: “Almost all nuclear power plants that are built in Japan are built taking the risk that the workers may well be exposed to large amounts of radiation. That they will get sick, they will die early, or they will die on the job. And the people bringing the workers to the plants and also doing the construction are often yakuza.” Suzuki says he’s met over 1,000 yakuza in his career as an investigative journalist and former editor of yakuza fanzines. [Source: Jake Adelstein, The Telegraph, February 21, 2012]

Adelstein wrote in The Telegraph: Suzuki discovered evidence of TEPCO subcontractors paying yakuza front companies to obtain lucrative construction contracts; of money destined for construction work flying into yakuza accounts; and of politicians and media being paid to look the other way. More shocking, perhaps, were the conditions he says he found inside the plant.

Suzuki went under cover and worked at Fukushima (See Below). “His fellow workers, found Suzuki, were a motley crew of homeless, chronically unemployed Japanese men, former yakuza, debtors who owed money to the yakuza, and the mentally handicapped. Suzuki claims the regular employees at the plant were often given better radiation suits than the yakuza recruits. (TEPCO has admitted that there was a shortage of equipment in the disaster’s early days.) The regular employees were allowed to pass through sophisticated radiation monitors while the temporary labourers were simply given hand rods to monitor their radiation exposure.

A former yakuza boss tells me that his group has “always” been involved in recruiting labourers for the nuclear industry. “It’s dirty, dangerous work,” he says, “and the only people who will do it are homeless, yakuza, or people so badly in debt that they see no other way to pay it off.” Suzuki found people who’d been threatened into working at Fukushima, but others who’d volunteered. Why? “Of course, if it was a matter of dying today or tomorrow they wouldn’t work there,” he explains. “It’s because it could take 10 years or more for someone to possibly die of radiation excess. It’s like Russian roulette. If you owe enough money to the yakuza, working at a nuclear plant is a safer bet. Wouldn’t you rather take a chance at dying 10 years later than being stabbed to death now?” (Suzuki’s own feeling was that the effects of low-level radiation are still unknown and that, as a drinker and smoker, he’s probably no more likely to get cancer than he was before.)

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Yakuza-Hired Workers at Fukushima

According to Suzuki three of the heroic “Fukushima Fifty” were yakuza members. Jake Adelstein wrote in The Telegraph: For his book, The Yakuza and the Nuclear Industry , Suzuki went undercover at Fukushima to find first-hand evidence of the long-rumoured ties between the nuclear industry and the yakuza. First he documents how remarkably easy it was to become a nuclear worker at Fukushima after the meltdown. After signing up with a legitimate company providing labour, he entered the plant armed only with a wristwatch with a hidden camera. Working there over several months, he quickly found yakuza-supplied labour, and many former yakuza working on site themselves. [Source: Jake Adelstein, The Telegraph, February 21, 2012]

The initial work, directly after a series of hydrogen explosions in March, was extremely dangerous. Radiation was reaching levels so high that the Japanese government raised the safety exposure levels and even ordered scientists to stop monitoring radiation levels in some areas of the plants. TEPCO sent out word to their contractors to gather as many people as possible and to offer substantial wages. Yakuza recruited from all over Japan; the initial workers were paid 50,000 yen (£407) per day, but one dispatch company offered 200,000 yen (£1,627) per day.

Even then, recruits were hard to find. Officials in Fukushima reportedly told local businesses, “Bring us the living dead. People no one will miss.” The labour crunch was eased somewhat when the Japanese government and TEPCO raised the “safe” radiation exposure levels at the plant from pre-earthquake levels of 130-180cpm (radiation exposure per minute) to 100,000cpm.

The work would be further subcontracted to the point where labourers were being sent from sixth-tier firms. A representative from one company told Suzuki of an agreement made with a TEPCO subcontractor right after the accident: “Normally, to even enter the grounds of a nuclear power plant a nuclear radiation personal data management pocketbook is required. We were told that wasn’t necessary. We didn’t even have time to give the workers physical examinations before they were sent to the plant.”

One mid-level executive in the Sumiyoshi-kai yakuza group even defends the role of his members in the Fukushima disaster. “The accident isn’t our fault,” he said. “It’s TEPCO’s fault. We’ve always been a necessary evil in the work process. In fact, if some of our men hadn’t stayed to fight the meltdown, the situation would have been much worse. TEPCO employees and the Nuclear Industry Safety Agency inspectors mostly fled; we stood our ground.” [Source: Jake Adelstein, The Atlantic, December 30, 2011]

Adelstein wrote: “While the symbiotic relationship between TEPCO and the yakuza has existed for decades, the relationship is officially “unacceptable.” The controversy became so great after the accident that TEPCO pledged on July 19 to try to keep yakuza members from participating in the reconstruction of the power plant and related projects. They have been working with the Japanese National Police Agency (JNPA) to accomplish this but sources inside that agency are dubious as to whether there have been any real results. TEPCO officials met with the National Police Agency and 23 subcontractors in July and created a conference group on organized crimes issues according to government sources and they have met several times since. TEPCO explained at the time, “we want to people to widely know our exclusionary stance towards organized crime.”

Work Done by Yakuza-Hired Workers at Fukushima

Jake Adelstein wrote in The Telegraph: When Suzuki was working in the plant in August, he had to wear a full-body radiation protective suit and a gas mask that covered his entire face. The hot summer temperatures and the lack of breathability in the suits ensured that almost every day a worker would keel over with heat exhaustion and be carried out; they would invariably return to work the next day. Going to the bathroom was virtually impossible, so workers were simply told to “hold it”. According to Suzuki, the temperature monitors in the plant weren’t even working, and were ignored. Removing the mask during work was against the rules; no matter how thirsty workers became, they could not drink water. After an hour fixing pipes and doing other work, Suzuki says his body felt like it was enveloped in flames. Workers were not checked to see if they were coping, they were expected to report it to their supervisors. However, while TEPCO officials on the ground told the workers not to risk injury, it seemed that anyone complaining of the working conditions or fatigue would be fired. Few took their allotted rest breaks. [Source: Jake Adelstein, The Telegraph, February 21, 2012]

Those who reported feeling unwell were treated by TEPCO doctors, nearly always with what Suzuki says was essentially cold medicine.The risk of radiation exposure was 100 per cent. The masks, if their filters were cleaned regularly, which they were not, could only remove 60 per cent of the radioactive particles in the air. Anonymous workers claimed that the filters themselves were ill-fitting; if they accidentally bumped their masks, radiation could easily get in. The workers’ dosimeter badges, meanwhile, used to measure an individual’s exposure to radiation, could be easily manipulated to give false readings. According to Suzuki, tricks like pinning a badge on backwards, or putting it in your sock, were commonplace. Regular workers were given dosimeters which would sound an alarm when radiation exceeded safe levels, but it made such a racket that, says Suzuki, “people just turned them off or over and kept working.”

A recent report in Japan’s Mainichi newspaper alleged that workers from southern Japan were brought to the plant in July on false pretences and told to get to work. Many had to enter dangerous radioactive buildings. One man was reportedly tasked with carrying 20kg kilogram sheets of lead from the bottom floor of a damaged reactor up to the sixth floor, where his Geiger counters went into the danger zone. One worker said, “When I tried to quit, the people employing me mentioned the name of a local yakuza group. I got the hint. If TEPCO didn’t know what was going on, I believe they should have.” Former TEPCO executives, workers, police officials, as well as investigative journalist, Katsunobu Onda, author of TEPCO: The Dark Empire, all agree: TEPCO have always known they were working with the yakuza; they just didn’t care. However, the articles Suzuki wrote before his book was published, and my own work, helped create enough public outcry to force TEPCO into action. On July 19, four months after the meltdowns, they announced that they would be cutting ties with organised crime.

”They asked the companies that have been working with them for years to send them papers showing they’d cut organised crime ties,” Suzuki says. “They followed up by taking a survey.” TEPCO has not answered my own questions on their anti-organised crime initiative as of this date; they’ve previously called Suzuki’s claims “groundless”.

How Yakuza Uses Subcontractors to Hire People to Work at Fukushima

Adelstein wrote on The Atlantic Online: The Fukushima plant is located in the turf of the Sumiyoshi-kai, which is the second largest yakuza group in Japan with roughly 12,000 members. According to TEPCO and police sources, since the reconstruction project has picked up speed, the number of workers has dramatically increased to several thousand. The JNPA has directed TEPCO from as early as June, to keep the yakuza out---although many of the subcontractors of the subcontractors are known yakuza front companies. [Source: Jake Adelstein, The Atlantic, December 30, 2011]

Even before the meltdown, it was very common for TEPCO to use temporary staffing firms that that would ultimately outsource work to organized crime front companies such as M-Kogyo in Fukuoka Prefecture and Yokohama which is backed by the Kudo-kai. Organized crime groups from Kyushu are bringing workers as well. Many of the workers are homeless people, debtors to yakuza loan sharks, or former yakuza who have been expelled from their group.

In fact, in May, TEPCO’s Public Relations Department, when asked by this reporter, if TEPCO’s contracts with subcontractors have what are now standard “organized crime exclusionary clauses,” a spokesperson replied, “We don’t have them standardized into our contracts. We don’t check or demand that our subcontractors have them in their contracts. We are considering doing so in the future.”

TEPCO has not responded to recent requests for clarification on any changes. or whether they have fully implemented the Japanese government issued guidelines for corporations who wish to avoid doing business with organized crime. TEPCO also refused to name the companies they use for outsourcing labor, background security checks, and general security at the nuclear power plants, “because to do so would be in non-compliance with personal privacy information protection laws.”

TEPCO will probably not be held responsible for the second or third tier firms to which the work is further subcontracted. A senior National Police Agency officer said, “TEPCO has a history of doing business with the yakuza that is far deeper than just using their labor.” The same source noted that a TEPCO employee was arrested for insurance fraud along with a Sumiyoshi-kai member in May of this year but there was no evidence that TEPCO itself or any other TEPCO employees were involved in the crime. It only indicated that at least one TEPCO employee had organized crime connections.

Police and underworld sources also allege that a Matsuba-kai related front company is handling waste disposal at TEPCO plants and that TEPCO executives as recently as this summer were going on golfing jaunts with Matsuba-kai members. The Matsuba-kai is one of the ten largest yakuza groups in Japan with a strong presence in Tokyo but not a major powerhouse.

The Inagawa-kai, the third largest organized crime group in Japan, with offices across from the Tokyo Ritz Carlton has also been involved in the reconstruction efforts. Most of the yakuza involvement is in procuring workers to do the jobs of laying pipes and cleaning up debris while being exposed to high levels of radiation. The yakuza bring the laborers there but do not labor there. However, heavy constructions and other work is being done by yakuza front companies or firms with strong yakuza ties.

Image Sources: Japan Nuclear Power Program, TEPCO, Greenpeace Japan

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2012

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