Japan's 'Nuclear Gypsies': The Latest Addition to the Fukushima Crew

Tens of thousands of migrant workers are cleaning the place up

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One words often surfaces when describing Japanese culture: duty. A recent Guardian report refers to a shared sense of duty to explain why the migrant workforce helping to clean up the Fukushima disaster risks death daily. "Nuclear gypsy" is the term they mention to describe the men who travel hundreds of miles to work in radioactive conditions. But in the cash-strapped country, there's another, modern world incentive in addition: money.

Reporting from the Fukushima prefecture in Japan, The Guardian's Justin McCurry describes the lives of nuclear gypsies as dangerous and exhausting, but lucrative. One worker mentioned, a former truck driver named Ariyoshi Rune, reports earning about $150 a day, hardly a fortune but roughly double the average minimum wage in Japan. The living conditions around the Fukushima-Daiichi plants sound like they've stabilized considerably since the earthquake but the nuclear gypsies worry locals. "The presence of so many contractors, and the sheer number of men, has led to fears that not all are observing health and safety regulations," McCurry Reports. "One restaurateur complained of workers returning in the evenings still wearing their uniforms, even down to the boots they wear inside the plant's grounds."

Concerns about the oversight is somewhat warranted. Last month, news emerged on the burgeoning tension between the yakuza crime syndicate, an ancient and hugely influential organization, and government officials. With the cleanup effort delayed, the yakuza rushed to secure construction contracts and ran the risk of flying under regulatory bodies' radars. Tokyo Vice author Jake Adelstein told The Atlantic Wire in June:

The yakuza have already moved into the reconstruction. Kanto based organized crime groups are moving rubble in Fukushima and Ibaragi. Fukuoka based front companies for the Kudokai are supplying TEPCO with laborers (homeless people, debtors, ex-yakuza) for the Fukushima reactor. Whether TEPCO is aware of it or not is uncertain. They don't as a rule have organized crime exclusionary clauses embedded in their contracts for outsourced labor. 

Putting that together with The Guardian's story, one does wonder whether the migrants and the yakuza are running into each other over there. One migrant does tell The Guardian that he has no contact with TEPCO and there are a number of layers between him and the plant's owners. In fact, a total of 600 difference contractors are now helping to clean up and rebuild the area around the Fukushima plant, and prime minister Naoto Kan said this week that it could take as long as a decade before it's cleaned up. Adelstein and Stephanie Nakajima meanwhile warns that TEPCO treats the hired help poorly in a National Journal report:

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.
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