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Nuclear As A Transnational Study Object: Introspection And New Perspectives Of Research After The Fukushima Nuclear Plant Accident

Media discourse at the dawn of the nuclear age in Japan, United States and France (1945-1965)

Tino Bruno
University of Lyon 

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster has challenged the global nuclear industry, especially about the security of infrastructures and economic viability, as it has also exposed newspapers for not having always complied with their watchdog role towards nuclear energy. This paper’s aim is to present briefly the introspective work made by the Japanese newspaper Asahi after the nuclear accident, to submit a succinct review of the main studies made about the media discourse of nuclear energy, and finally to propose a new transnational approach encompassing all the possible aspects in an attempt to bring a fresh thinking to this discourse.

A limited and Japanese-only introspective process?

Some stories coming to the surface now, either confessions of former officials or rediscovery of already forgotten newspapers articles. Also, Japanese media itself is trying to do a retrospection about their responsibility in the development of the nuclear industry, which standards are unfortunately not always severe enough. The most striking example is the daily Asahi, the second largest Japanese and global circulation, for which the journalist Jōmaru Yōichi 上 丸 洋 一 published a long serial of 306 articles entitled “Nuclear Plant and Media”, divided into different series. The first two, respectively entitled “Towards a peaceful use” and “Reality of acceptance” were awarded by the “Shinbun Rōren Journalism Price” in  and gave birth to the book “Nuclear and media: the second defeat of journalism”. The title of this serial of articles, published in an enlarged edition, evokes the first major defeat of Japanese journalism: serving as an official propaganda organ during the Second World War.

Also, if one can say that Asahi is sometimes no stranger to the idealistic image of nuclear energy, it is still regrettable that the largest circulation worldwide, Yomiuri, does not seem too eager to look back on its own past. This is not surprising when we consider the nuclear promoting role played by the latter, in particular through its former owner and manager, Shōriki Matsutarō 正力松太郎, and also its pronuclear positioning, up to this date. However, the history of media discourse operated by the Yomiuri is not non-existent because it has been studied, although fragmentarily.

Even if Jōmaru (2012) dwells on some episodes where the Asahi’s vision of nuclear seems too idealistic, he talks at length about the role played by the Yomiuri, most of it being criticism, causing us to doubt the objectivity of this study. Of course, we cannot ignore the authenticity of the various and numerous citations in the latter but it is difficult to recognize the reality of the past, necessarily truncated in the entire media discourse about nuclear energy operated since the end of World War II.

However, if other major nuclear countries such as the United States and France have well discussed in terms of nuclear safety, although in varying and debatable proportion – for example by conducting stress test or promising the closure of the oldest plant in France – no work of questioning seems to have been made by the media in these countries, even if they merely denounce the Japanese triumvirate that led to the disaster. This is also not surprising because the Western media are used to the “denial of technology”, already highly noticed in 1986 during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Indeed, at that time, most of the mainstream media first refer to the “Soviet accident” as if it were a “systemic accident” instead of a “nuclear accident”. Would it be this time a mere “accident of democracy”, where France and the United States, as two models of their kind in the world, could be the victims? Unless this is an accident solely due to the Japanese nuclear disaster?

Brief review of previous works in this fieldwork

Yet in both Japanese and foreign cases, scientific analysis of articles from major newspapers in each country is required. If this work has already been done partially by Japanese academics about media coverage of nuclear energy in their own country, such studies are limited because they are only focused on editorial (Hiroshi Itō 伊藤 宏 (2004, 2005, 2009)), or because they are confined to nuclear accidents (Ōyama Nao 大 山七穂 (1999)), or because they brew a broad portrait of media, although they suffer from a lack of systematic analysis (Jōmaru Yōichi 上 丸 洋 一 (2012), Akihiro Yamamoto 山 本 昭 宏 (2012)). In the United States, for example, the famous article written by Gamson and Modigliani (1989), whose theories have a strong influence on media frames studies, may be mentioned. It was able to bring an overview of media coverage of nuclear energy in various media of this country from the end of World War II until the Chernobyl accident. But again, the study has a very limited sized corpus. Paul Boyer (1985), like Jōmaru and Yamamoto, offers a history of media discourse about nuclear energy, which again has no scientific data, and is limited to a short period between 1945 and 1950. In France, there are four studies worth noticing. Firstly, Eliseo Veron (1981) proposes an analysis of media frames of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident but unfortunately is restricted to it. Also, Gabrielle Hecht (1998), while describing a very exciting portrait of rural France facing nuclear energy, is limited to the local newspapers around the two nuclear plants studied. Then Cabedoche Bertrand (2003) focuses on various public speeches (including CEA) about nuclear energy. Finally, Philippe Blanchard (2010) makes an analysis of French nuclear power program at great length, especially between 1970 and 2000 and through public television and press.

What remains to be done

If all the studies mentioned above make their contribution to our field of study, it lacks two essential data, in our point of view, which would provide a more comprehensive and scientific discourse about the nuclear superpowers:

–          the transnational character of studies

–          the definition of a “nuclear” object encompassing both its military and civilian use

1) The transnational character of studies will bring new insights into the peculiarities of cultural, socio-economical or historical nuclear superpowers program and discourse that surrounded them. Thus, while highlighting the importance of the media landscape and its system of targeted countries, we could define the importance of this issue in their media agenda or even better understand the links maintained with different countries towards nuclear energy but also between them. Especially that nuclear is a perfect “transnational object”, which production and operation depend on many countries and that American diplomacy urged to internationalize. A country that has suffered atomic bombings (Japan) necessarily has a different culture than the aggressor (the United States) or that of a large nuclear power but outside observer (France).

2) The understanding of the “nuclear object” with wider acceptance than usual, i.e. including both military use and civilian use, is essential since these two aspects are inevitably linked, historically, economically or strategically speaking. There are some examples. Historically, we could see that the speech “Atoms for Peace”, in an attempt to divide nuclear energy into two fields of application, was precisely based on this duality, the two sides of the same coin representing nuclear. Similarly, it is because most of the major powers, including Japan, have previously been involved in basic researches about nuclear energy that they were able to develop civilian applications as expeditiously. On the economic front, it is known that the exploitation of military and civilian purposes at the same time, also often performed together in a same place, allowed to eventually reduce the cost of production of nuclear electric power. Finally, regarding the geostrategic impact, the theoretical proximity between civil and military applications of nuclear energy is, in addition to the Iran nuclear issue, at the heart of the energy and military independence project for many superpowers. And although we know very well that no document establishes that Japan has nuclear weapons, the country remains a “virtual nuclear power”, as emphasized by many researchers around the world, that does not hesitate to make threats when the climate break down in Asia, evidence that it is indeed a “diplomatic weapon”.

The book recently edited by Dick Van Lente (2012) focuses in how nuclear was reported in the popular media in a number of countries. It provides an initial response by analyzing both the civilian and military nuclear, but also by showing that the speech follows a certain transnational logic, especially divided into two groups of countries, representing the Eastern and Western blocs of the Cold War. One can note the vivid example of both Germanys or the presence of England, the main competitor of the United States in the West, in the aftermath of the Second World War. We still regret the absence of France, a sign that the country is comparatively poorly researched. Also, if this study provide some answers, we can regret the small size of most corpuses, limited to the “popular media”, a term which also means “sensational” in some of the countries analyzed, making the comparison even more difficult.

In our current research, built around a thesis entitled “The newspapers at the dawn of nuclear: Agenda and Framing Analysis of discourse about the start of the Japanese nuclear program – in light of the French and the American examples –”, we would answer the following questions:

–          What could be the significance of “Kisha Clubs” in Japan towards media discourse about nuclear energy?

–          What were the differences in discourse between Japan and the United States during the American occupation in Japan?

–          Could we establish a link between Shōriki Matsutarō and Charles de Gaulle in their dual role of policy maker and newspaper man during the atomic age? What about the former chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission David E. Lilienthal?

–          Do the countries of origin influence the media more than their political tendency?

–          How did different countries receive their first commercial nuclear plant or reach their first critical state?

–          What was the influence of American strategy after its famous speech “Atoms for Peace” in French and Japanese media?

–          How did they deal with the different nuclear crisis? (Lucky Dragon Incident in 1954 in which France had an outside perspective, Windscale accident in 1957 which does not relate to any of the three countries of this study).

–          How does the fact of being an aggressor (United States), a victim (Japan), or an outside observer (France) towards the atomic bombings affect the media discourse about nuclear energy ?

However, we still have several problems to solve. Firstly, the immensity of the task would be to analyze the press in these three countries during about two decades, unless using sampling methods.

But more importantly, it will be difficult to make this work as intelligible as possible because of the numerous asymmetric data taken from the different corpuses, each country having its own history of nuclear energy, its own crises, and its own debates. This will be especially done by a particular approach that has yet to be determined.

Works Cited:

Arima Tetsuo 有馬哲夫, 2008 Genpatsu, Shōriki, CIA: Kimitsu bunsho de yomu Shōwa rimen-shi 原発・正力・CIA―機密文書で読む昭和裏面史 (Nuclear Plants, Shōriki, CIA: The Inside History of Shôwa Era through the reading of secret documents), Tokyo, Shinchōsha 新潮社.

 Blanchard Philippe, Les médias et l’agenda de l’électronucléaire en France. 1970-2000 (The Media and the Agenda of Nuclear Energy in France1970-2000 ), Thèse de doctorat en science politique. Université Paris-Dauphine (Political Science Doctoral Thesis of Paris-Dauphine University) 2010

Boyer Paul, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, The University of North Carolina Press, 1994

Cabedoche Bertrand, Ce nucléaire qu’on nous montre. : Construire la socialité dans le débat sur les énergies, Editions L’Harmattan, 2003

Cumin David & Joubert Jean-Paul, Le Japon, puissance nucléaire ? (Japan, a nuclear power?), Editions L’Harmattan, 2003

Dick Van Lente, The Nuclear Age in Popular Media: A Transnational History, 1945-1965, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012

Gamson W. A. and Modigliani A., 1989 “Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power.” “American Journal of Sociology.” 95 1–37 pp

Itō Mamoru 伊藤宏, 原子力開発・利用をめぐるメディア議題 : 朝日新聞社説の分析 (A Media Agenda Regarding the Development and Use of Nuclear Energy: The Analysis of the Editorial of the Asahi Shimbun), プール学院大学研究紀要 (Journal of research of Poole University), 44 : 63-76 ; 45 : 111-126 ; 49 : 101-116,  2004-2009

Jōmaru Yōichi 上丸洋一, 原発とメディア 新聞分ジャーナリズム 2度目の失敗 (Nuclear power plants and media : the second defeat of journalism)、朝日新聞出版、2012

Ōyama Nao 大山 七穂,  原子力報道にみるメディア・フレームの変遷(Changing Media Frames on Nuclear Power), 東海大学紀要. 文学部 (Journal of the Faculty of Letters of University of Tôkai), 1999

Veron Eliseo, Construire l’évènement. Les médias et l’accident de Three Mile Island (To Construct an Event : Media and Three Mile Island Accident), Minuit, 1981

Yamamoto Akihiro 山本昭宏, 核エネルギー言説の戦後史1945-1960: 「被爆の記憶」と「原子力の夢」, 人文書院, 2012

Tino E. Bruno is a french PHD Candidate in Japanese Studies at the university of Lyon III (France), actually enrolled at the University Rikkyo (Japan) where he’s working as a teaching assistant in the Department of Sociology from 2011. The working title of his thesis is :  “The newspapers at the dawn of nuclear: Agenda and Framing Analysis of discourse about the start of the Japanese nuclear program – in light of the French and the American examples –” . His previous works were centered on atomic bomb pictures, framing analysis of antinuclear japanese protests and newspapers analysis of post-fukushima debate.

  1. Chihyung Jeon permalink

    Thank you for this interesting paper, Tino.

    Your remark about the contrast between Asahi and Yomiuri reminds me of my recent visit to Japan. There I happened to visit the photo exhibition on 3.11 organized by Asahi and was struck not only by the images of the disaster but also by Asahi’s sustained efforts to get these images (and voices) out to the public. Asahi published at least two fine collections of their news photographs of the disaster and a collection of the entire Asahi newspapers (in reduced size) from the period of one month after the disaster.

    The book that you refer to, 原発とメディア, was also on display at the exhibition, along with other Asahi books from their award-winning series on Fukushima disaster (プロメテウスの罠).

    I was not aware of Yomiuri’s relative silence on this issue, which makes the Asahi’s self-conscious efforts more impressive.

    This topic–nuclear and media–certainly deserves a transnational analysis.
    In addition to France, US, and Japan you are covering, it will be nice to see some studies on South Korean media, not only because the country is geographically close to Japan but also because Korea is another big promoter of the nuclear even after the Fukushima disaster.

  2. Marja Ylonen permalink

    Hi Tino,

    Your research setting is inspiring. In addition, I found interesting the question whether the different roles of the USA, Japan and France with regard to atomic bombings affect the media discourse about nuclear energy.

    There are good reasons to study major newspapers because our information and knowledge about disasters and reality are mediated by newspapers. However, what is written in newspapers does not reflect all the facts of the reality. Hence, one should reflect the ideological biases related to major newspapers. In addition, in the era of social media, newspaper consumption has decreased, Therefore it would be good to pay attention also to social media as a reporter of reality.

    I symphatise your study because I’m also analysing news articles concerning nuclear energy in major newspaper in Finland.

  3. Hi Chihyung and Marja.
    Thank you for your interesting comments.


    I’ve never heard about this exhibition organized by Asahi but it seems very interesting. I didn’t mention in my paper the serial of articles プロメテウスの罠 which deals with the nuclear industry more broadly than in the serial 原発とメディア and not only in its relationships with the media. The fourth book, entitled プロメテウス の 罠 4: 彻底 究 明!福島 原発 事故 の 裏側 will be published in March 26. In the same vein, 東京新聞 has also recently published a book entitled 非原発, containing the articles of its section called 特报部.
    The Korean case seems very interesting to me, especially in regard of the historical relationship that the country has with the United States and Japan, but also in view of the importance of its nuclear industry. Finally, Koreans are among the most avid newspaper’s readers and such it would be interesting to compare the coverage of nuclear in both right-wing leaders newspapers 読売新聞and 朝鮮日報.


    About the ideological bias, I would like to include it in my transnational analysis, as the specificities of each countries media. However, it seems relatively difficult and risky to include these data as variables in the media frames analysis. I’m still looking to resolve this problem.
    Regarding the decline of newspaper consumption, my project particularly focuses on the period covering 1945 to 1965, the issue is to not include the analysis of both radio and television. TV is born in 1953 and its sales have exploded in 1958 thanks to ミッチー ブーム (betrothal and marriage of the Imperial couple). However, I agree that an analysis of Fukushima nuclear disaster should consider the existence of social media.
    Finally, I would like to read your findings about the media coverage of nuclear energy in the major newspapers in Finland.

  4. Chihyung Jeon permalink

    Thank you for your answer, Tino.

    The photo exhibition that I went to was held in Sapporo from Feb 9 to Feb 21.
    The flyer says that Asahi Shinbun is the organizer and the place was the Kinokuniya bookshop
    near the Sapporo station. I assumed that it was a travelling exhibition, but I may be wrong.
    It was not a huge event with about 30 photographs in big print, but still I was impressed.

    I believe someone must be doing an analysis of 朝鮮日報 or other newspaper coverage of 3.11,
    though I have not seen them published in journals yet. When I find one, I will share it on Teach3.11 website, etc.

    I look forward to reading more of your work in the near future.

    KAIST, South Korea.

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