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Defining the Low Dose for Japan: The 1960 Iden Roundtable on the State of Radiation Research in Genetics

Lisa Onaga
Nanyang Tehnological University


For those who follow the history of biology, March 11, 2011 pointed to a need to understand how scientists resumed the use of radiation to induce mutations in Japanese genetic experiments after World War II. This abridged paper aims to comprehend why enthusiasms for the deliberate irradiation of non-human organisms in Japan occurred in the 1950s, considering the ongoing studies of atomic bomb survivors’ health. The discourse surrounding ongoing uncertainties about the low dose effect – the extent to which minute levels of radiation exposure would cause genetic effects harmful or otherwise – flags a critical aspect of an uncertain period that preceded the normalization of mutagenesis studies in mid-twentieth century Japan that has remained relatively understudied in the humanities[i].

The low-dose effect commanded the concerns of scientists worldwide in the middle of the twentieth century. In many ways, it represented a perfect storm of ambiguity in which the “Atoms for Peace” program could unfold[ii]. The present case, however, offers more than an addendum to existing narratives about international efforts to usher in nuclear energy or consortium resolutions about setting radiation exposure thresholds. I examine a transcript of an unusual roundtable discussion on the state of genetic research on radioactivity, published in the popular genetics magazine Iden (Heredity) in 1960, in order to ascertain how life scientists viewed themselves as purveyors of moral responsibility and expertise as they dealt with the low dose question, and what that meant with respect to any prospect of rehabilitating “life” after nuclear catastrophes.

My analysis shares concerns with science studies scholars interested in the materiality of scientific experimentation and the problems of environments afflicted with difficult to visualize, possibly harmful, and unequivocally controversial particles. From radioisotopes in biomedicine and chemical exposure in buildings to debates about cancer, scholars have shown how scientific uncertainties have facilitated politics, ideas, and practices while also reconfiguring human relationships[iii]. Japan’s postwar uncertainty exceeded the boundaries of science, for many democratic principles were yet to be fully tested as Japan shed the Allies’ censures that had previously limited how scientists could publish [iv]. The Iden documentary source promotes a measured understanding of life scientists’ attitudes toward radiation following the Allied Occupation, the Bikini Atoll incident of 1954, the passing of the Atomic Energy Basic Law in 1955 [v], and Japan’s entry to the United Nations in 1956[vi]. As a way to “listen in” on gentlemanly discourse, this source provides a means to understand how Japanese geneticists, in their own terms, investigated the low dose effect and responded to international agencies. The low dose issue discussed in 1960, I argue, aired a number of uncertainties to the Japanese scientists about their own work, but at the same time, this space made it possible for these geneticists to develop their discourse of radiation in conversation with restoring things to so-called normalcy. This paper takes a critical step toward a deeper understanding of how issues of the human world, such as recovery, restoration, and reliability, were brought into the language of cells, chromosomes, and genes in postwar Japan.

The Low Dose Effect

Japanese researchers’ concerns about how to define a low dose occupied domestic and international valences. Questions about the use of which organisms in Japan to test the low dose effect, the congruence of Japanese data with international data, and reliability of their data, further illuminated how this issue came with a great sense of responsibility and feeling of being judged by the new moral order. As historian Susan Lindee has shown, the question of “what is a mutation” had occupied the attention of scientists like Neel and William Schull who investigated indicators of mutation among hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) and their children. In the face of fearful concerns about the possible extinction of humans, American scientists approached the study of human mutations with a view that mutations were immediately or evolutionarily disadvantageous compared to the norm. This perception of mutation as problematic to survival informed how scientists made value-laden choices to study or ignore certain indicators of mutations. This is curious since scientists like H. J. Muller paid serious attention to these seemingly minor morphological changes, albeit in the fruit fly. These “minor” differences did not seriously fall under the category of mutation for human geneticists due to reasons little to do with methodological consistency within the broader life sciences[vii]. By contrast, as this study of low-dose effect deliberations in Japan suggests, it seems all mutations counted as mutations of interest to Japanese geneticists who were doubly concerned with non-human life and humankind.

Knowledge about mutation rates and radiation depended on the standards by which the underlying research took place. Human geneticists paid attention to different issues than scientists using other model systems at the time. History of science and science studies literature on postwar genetics exemplify a predictably overwhelming emphasis upon U.S. and European genetic studies [viii]. On low-level effects of radiation on mammals, historian Karen Rader has shown how the specific locus test for inbred mice strains at the U.S. Oak Ridge Biology Division was largely considered a waste until it gained approvals from Muller and Sewall Wright and further justifications that satisfied policymakers [ix]. In research on postwar Britain, Soraya de Chadarevian has illustrated how atomic politics informed large-scale, low-dose experiments on animals in the “genetics experiment” of the country. The low-dose studies were “brute force experiments” that depended on the sheer numbers of mice [x]. These and other analyses underscore how research organisms were made to fit into broader radiobiological research programs linked to atomic energy policies while debates continued over the levels of radiation necessary to create harmful effects in humans.[xi]. Comparison of human and animal genetic studies within the U.S. and British contexts have shown how scientific methodologies embodied social, cultural, and political values that mediated working definitions of mutation. It seems unlikely that all these values were shared with Japan, although some core questions about the low-dose did overlap: Was there a linear relationship between radiation dose and mutation rate? Was there a threshold level of exposure that could be considered safe?

Genesis of Iden

After the war, the Japanese genetics community had to rebuild. The seed for the National Institute of Genetics was planted in 1947 with the establishment of the Institute of Genetics. In 1949, the Ministry of Education nationalized the Institute and separated the public outreach arm, the Association for Propagation of the Knowledge of Genetics  (Idengaku Fukyūkai). It published a number of publications, including their flagship magazine, Iden, to popularize genetics[xii].

Iden played a curious role in redefining genetics in mid-twentieth century Japan. It published biographical profiles, youth-oriented stories, photo spreads, speeches, genetics lessons, feature articles about major trends, descriptions of experiments, and in the 1950s, some discussions of eugenic marriages also continued. It especially promoted interest in the practice of genetics in a fashion that gave readers privy to some of the thoughts of scientists. The development that commands interest here is the sharpened attention in radiation that appeared in the years after March 1, 1954, when ash from a nuclear weapon test detonation at Bikini Atoll snowed down upon the Lucky Dragon No. 5 tuna trawler. Of the related articles published, the transcript of the genetics roundtable of 1960 functions as an important bearing point.

“The Current State of Radiation Research”

On May 12, 1960, Iden editor Hanyu Keisaku and Shōkabō publisher Yoshino Hyosaku hosted a private roundtable discussion among key geneticists at the Gakushikai (Japanese University Graduates Society). Yoshino had asked fruit fly geneticist Moriwaki Daigoro from Tokyo Metropolitan University to assemble a cast of scientists to speak on record for Iden readers about the state of their research [xiii]. The rolling tape makes it unlikely that the scientists spoke with complete inhibition, but the fidelity of the transcript, in addition to conveying the regional dialects of the speakers, is perhaps the closest thing to a genuine understanding of how these scientists talked to each in real life as they created understandings about an unsettled science.

Moriwaki represented an important group of geneticists that helped rebuild the academic research community. By the postwar period, in addition to having published on the effects of radiation on Drosophila melanogaster longevity, Moriwaki had earned a solid international reputation. George W. Beadle saw in him a valuable collaborator with respect to fulfilling his role in the National Academy committee on the Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation (BEAR), for example [xiv]. Moriwaki invited Tanaka Nobunori from the University of Tokyo, Honjo Ichijiro from Osaka University, the research director of the National Institute of Radiological Sciences (NIRS) Nakao Yoshio, silkworm geneticist Tazima Yataro, and medical scientist Tanaka Kiyomitsu. There, in a private conference room of the Gakushikai, they discussed matters of fallout, the food chain, dosimetry and the low-dose effect of radiation in relation to their practices of cutting-edge genetic research that relied increasingly on the irradiation of organisms. The roundtable had to address the importance of researching the “influence of radiation on humankind” Moriwaki explained, since in addition to nuclear power, other uses of radiation had developed, too. He directed the group to specifically address the low dose effect, an issue that mapped onto concerns of the Gakujutsu Kaigi (Science Council of Japan) [xv].

The Science Council had earlier appointed a document subcommittee (shiryō shōi’inkai, hereon “SSI”) to collect Japanese publications related to radioactive fallout, the food chain, medical uses, dosimetry, low dose exposure, and genetics. The SSI surveyed primary literature produced in Japan at that time in preparation of contributing findings to the 1962 UNSCEAR report [xvi]. Previously, the Japanese materials provided to UNSCEAR came from studies carried out by government-appointed committees established shortly after the Bikini Atoll Incident[xvii].  By the time of the 1960 Iden roundtable, it was apparent that more reliable studies would also come from individual scientists.

Dose Rate and Kaifuku

Silkworm geneticist Tazima Yataro opened the discussion of dose rate and its relation to mutation rate. His recent work had examined the dose rate effect on spermatogenic cells[xviii]. Funded by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Tazima and mouse geneticist Sugawara Tsutomu had collected data on rodents and silkworm with the aim to countercheck the work of Irwin Oster and W. L. Russell, who published similar results on different mutation rates in Drosophila and mice[xix]. Tazima found Russell’s idea that the process of radiation interferes with cells undergoing spermatogenesis or mature sperm intriguing. He surmised kaifuku, a process of repair or restoration, was at play. Honjō Ichijiro, too, believed kaifuku had occurred, although he wondered whether it operated only at the level of the cytoplasm[xx].

As a Japanese word appropriated by Japanese genetics, kaifuku gained meaning as an organism’s restoration from radiation or chemical damage. Not to be confused with ishin, the term for political change seen in the 1868 Meiji Restoration, restoration qua kaifuku referred to a coming back to life or normalcy. Kaifuku had been under discussion earlier in 1956, when the Japan Atomic Energy Commission called geneticists in for a discussion session about the genetic effects of radiation. They disambiguated kaifuku from a point mutation of a few specific nucleotides in a genome. While intimately tied to determining mutation rates differences, Honjō explained, he felt unsure about its effect on the low dose rate. Talk of the low dose effect in Japan tested the boundaries of disinterested inquiry[xxi]. Reading the 1960 roundtable suggests that recurring discussions about the prevention or reversal of genetic radiation damage pulsed through low dose talks in Japan. This concern even manifested in questions pertaining to the selection of appropriate model organisms. One cannot help but imagine how the concept of kaifuku resonated with these geneticists or how it provided a very small source of great hope.

Post-Bikini Incident Model Systems

The importance of presenting their own data based on experiments conducted with familiar organisms struck a chord with members of the roundtable. Moriwaki encouraged Tazima to “quickly and publish Japan’s unique and clear results using the silkworm.” Indeed, Tazima expressed plans to test one million specimens[xxii]. Scientists questioned, however, just how to produce clear research results when testing the effects of low levels of radiation. In addition to Tazima’s research, Tanaka Nobunori planned to submit his study on the issue small quantities of exposure to the UNSCEAR.[xxiii]Tanaka studied natural chromosomal abnormalities in the purple Asiatic dayflower in 1952, but after 1954, he started to use the plant to study low dose effects more directly.[xxiv] Doctors had detected a high level of radiation in the hair of Lucky Dragon No. 5 deck hand Masuda Sanjurō. Tanaka obtained a sample just under two grams to study the effect of this radiation level (0.00356 microcurie per milligram) on his plants’ cells. Within two days, plant root cell abnormalities had tripled and a week later, abnormalities multiplied thirteen times, supporting the idea that long-term exposure at minute levels of radiation still caused damage. In addition, Tanaka noticed that the prevalence of naturally occurring abnormalities in plant root cells had increased.[xxv]

“So, what’s the reason for the increase in the natural environment?” Moriwaki asked.

“It’s probably because of fallout after all,” Tazima guessed. Tanaka agreed, having had surveyed root tip cell abnormalities for three years until 1959.[xxvi] The upshot of this work seemed to help hone in on the question of the hour.

Moriwaki iterated, “So, in other words, a nuclear explosion test also produces small effects?”

“I believe so,” Tanaka replied.

A number of other genetic researches were mentioned inn the roundtable, but to summarize, these studies all pointed to major uncertainty that confronted Japanese scientists about the reliability and reception of their data. In the absence of standardized research protocols, would Japanese research be viewed seriously enough in international conversations about the effects of radiation on heredity?

A Dose of Data

Nakao Yoshio of NIRS explained how his work on the low dose issue began in relation to work with the SSI, which encountered great uncertainties about what to look for. “I don’t know if it is ok to say this, but [laughs] first, what is meant by low dose – how much is considered a “low dose” became a big issue.” The challenge of standardization characterized the problem of quantitatively defining the low dose concept. Depending on the animal, for instance, the dose of radiation that would cause lethality to 50% of test organisms differed, and some animals experienced greater vulnerability to radiation compared to others.[xxvii] Nakao also mentioned that Giaocchino Failla, then vice-chairman of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), also suggested a new standard for the low dose.[xxviii]

By 1959, the linear no-threshold hypothesis had gained ground as a standard as more scientists accepted the idea that the risk of genetic effects corresponded with radiation exposure. The SSI sought articles that spoke to the Failla suggestions. Journal articles seemed to try to publish studies that reinforced the linear no-threshold hypothesis, but numerous studies also lacked information about the radiation dose used or did not result in any recordable effects, Nakao noticed. The urgency of the low dose problem also heightened at the UNSCEAR, and Nakao saw how little work on the topic came from Japan. Nakao eventually embarked on a plan to expose half a million fruit flies to radiation levels of 8r and 10r.[xxix]

Such large populations would yield about a million chromosomes, but Nakao, Honjō, Tazima, and Moriwaki shared concerns about how well extrapolations based on Japanese results would match the angle drawn in a 1948 study by Curt Stern and Warren Spencer[xxx]. Moriwaki concluded on a rather unsettled note: “This may not exactly be in common to what the rest of the world uses, but here, we have spoken on the difficulty of this type of research, especially on the genetic effects of radiation.”[xxxi]  The low dose investigations discussed seemed to set Japanese geneticists ups for a great test of data dependability.


Analyzed in terms expressed by the Japanese, the low dose problem exemplified a concern about the fidelity of Japanese data and their interpretations to natural phenomena. This related to the worry of using methods suitable to the Japanese situation yet producing results intelligible or receptive to UNSCEAR colleagues. The practical work underlying the low dose debate also legitimized the irradiation of organisms to study mutagenesis as scientists had with silkworms before wartime.[xxxii]Doing the right thing for Japan and for the international community forced Moriwaki and other to walk a tightrope toward the prospect of participating as an equal member of the international scientific community. At the same time, the low dose issue provided way to seek a means to heal and restore a discipline, if not also “Japanese” bodies. Needing to manage thousands of test organisms and create solid science in the uncertainty-laden atmosphere of the low dose debate motivated a pursuit of knowledge that would seem to resist the identification of the Japanese as morally sick or medically afflicted beings. Despite the unsettled ending to the Iden roundtable, that determination to rehabilitate, I argue, was deeply imbricated with the geneticists’ efforts to understand the genetic effects of low dose radiation exposure.

Kaifuku encapsulated this best. Tanaka Nobunori years later published the Idengaku Jiten, or the Dictionary of Genetics and wrote: “The fact that the lethal effect decreases in either low dose exposure of radiation or divided irradiation indicates the process of kaifuku following sublethal damage.” [xxxii] The low dose effect had eventually substantiated the reality of kaifuku for Tanaka. Low dose symbolized how Japanese geneticists materially and intellectually grappled with the study of minute radiation exposure, while it invited a way to express a desired vision about the future in Japanese scientific language, not yet replaced by a foreign borrowed word. The atomic bombings may have been the “best thing” to have happened to human genetics in the Western context, but this paper responds to a serious need to apprehend how geneticists in Japan worked through the decades after several nuclear catastrophes and negotiated a “way out” from both past and uncertain present[xxxiv]. The manner of gentlemanly conversation in the Iden roundtable suggests that the uncertainty surrounding the low dose issue ultimately showed the geneticists a way to work, in lieu of the impossibility of restoring a fallout-free past.

[i] Normile, Dennis. “Fukushima Revives The Low-Dose Debate.” Science 332, no. 6032 (May 20, 2011): 908 –910. doi:10.1126/science.332.6032.908; Press, Associated. “Japan Court Rejects Demand to Evacuate Children While Acknowledging Radiation Risks on Health.” The Washington Post, April 24, 2013, sec. World.

[ii] Hamblin, Jacob Darwin. “Exorcising Ghosts in the Age of Automation: United Nations Experts and Atoms for Peace.” Technology and Culture 47, no. 4 (October 1, 2006): 734–756. doi:10.2307/40061118; Krige, John. “Atoms for Peace, Scientific Internationalism, and Scientific Intelligence.” Osiris 21 (January 1, 2006): 161–181. doi:10.2307/4129759; DiMoia, John. “Atoms for Sale?: Cold War Institution-Building and the South Korean Atomic Energy Project, 1945–1965.” Technology and Culture 51, no. 3 (July 1, 2010): 589–618. doi:10.2307/40927988.

[iii] See Creager, Angela N. H. “Nuclear Energy in the Service of Biomedicine: The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission’s Radioisotope Program, 1946-1950.” Journal of the History of Biology 39, no. 4 (December 1, 2006): 649–684. doi:10.2307/29737444;  Murphy, Michelle. Sick Building Syndrome And The Problem Of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, And Women Workers. Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 2006, p. 107-109, 130; Proctor, Robert N. Cancer wars: How politics shapes what we know & don’t know about cancer. New York: Basic Books, 1996; Star, Susan Leigh. “Scientific Work and Uncertainty.” Social Studies of Science 15, no. 3 (August 1, 1985): 391–427. doi:10.2307/285362.

[iv] Braw, Monica. The Atomic Bomb Suppressed: American Censorship in Occupied Japan. M.E. Sharpe, 1991. Censorship of basic life scientists in postwar Japan is understudied. For a broader discussion of censure by the Allied Occupation see Dower, John W. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. W. W. Norton & Company, 2000, pp. 405-440.

[v] Law No. 186, 19 December 1955.

[vi] For discussion of medical examinations of Lucky Dragon No. 5 fallout survivors, see Homei, 2007.

[vii] Neel, James Van Gundia, and William J. Schull. The effect of exposure to the atomic bombs on pregnancy termination in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No. 461. National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council, 1956; Lindee, M. Susan. “What Is a Mutation? Identifying Heritable Change in the Offspring of Survivors at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Journal of the History of Biology 25, no. 2 (July 1, 1992): 231–255.  Muller, H. J. “Artificial Transmutation of the Gene.” Science 66, no. 1699 (July 22, 1927): 84–87. doi:10.1126/science.66.1699.84; Muller, H. J. “The Production of Mutations by X-Rays.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 14, no. 9 (September 1928): 714–726.

[viii] Rasmussen, Nicolas. “Plant Hormones in War and Peace: Science, Industry, and Government in the Development of Herbicides in 1940s America.” Isis 92, no. 2 (June 1, 2001): 291–316. doi:10.2307/3080630; Masco, Joseph. “Mutant Ecologies: Radioactive Life in Post-Cold War New Mexico.” Cultural Anthropology 19, no. 4 (November 1, 2004): 517–550. doi:10.2307/3651590. A special issue of Journal of the History of Biology in 2006 showcases a set of papers on the topic, “Radiobiology in the Atomic Age: Changing Research Practices and Policies in Comparative Perspective.” See Creager, 2006; de Chadarevian, Soraya. “Mice and the Reactor: The ‘Genetics Experiment’ in 1950s Britain.” Journal of the History of Biology 39, no. 4 (December 1, 2006): 707–735; Santesmases, María Jesús. “Peace Propaganda and Biomedical Experimentation: Influential Uses of Radioisotopes in Endocrinology and Molecular Genetics in Spain (1947-1971).” Journal of the History of Biology 39, no. 4 (December 1, 2006): 765–794. doi:10.2307/29737448.

[ix] Rader, Karen A. “Alexander Hollaender’s Postwar Vision for Biology: Oak Ridge and Beyond.” Journal of the History of Biology 39, no. 4 (December 1, 2006): 685–706. doi:10.2307/29737445. See also Chapter 6 in Rader, Karen A. Making Mice: Standardizing Animals for American Biomedical Research, 1900-1955. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2004.

[x] de Chadarevian, 2006.

[xi] Semendeferi, Ioanna. “Legitimating a Nuclear Critic: John Gofman, Radiation Safety, and Cancer Risks.” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 38, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 259–301; Jolly, J. Christopher. “Linus Pauling and the Scientific Debate over Fallout Hazards.” Endeavour 26, no. 4 (December 1, 2002): 149–153. doi:10.1016/S0160-9327(02)01469-2.

[xii] Mizoguchi, Hazime. “国立遺伝学研究所の設立前後 2006-2007.” 93–114, 2008. Until 2006, the scientific publishing company Shokabō carried out the task of printing Iden. It is now published by NTS, Inc. (New Technology, New Science).

[xiii] Moriwaki, Daigoro, Nobunori Tanaka, Yoshio Nakao, Hyosaku Yoshino, Ichijiro Honjo, Yataro Tazima, Kiyomitsu Tanaka, and Keisaku Hanyu. “Zadankai: Hōshasenkenkyū No Genjō.” Iden 14 (1960): 10–21. The Gakushikai was formerly called the Imperial Academy, and is a scientific alumni association of the former imperial universities of Japan.

[xiv] Crow, James F. “Fortunes of War.” Genetics 122, no. 3 (1989): 467; Moriwaki, Daigoro, and Iwao Tobari. “The Genetic Effects of Radiation on the Longevity of Progeny in Drosophila Melanogaster.” Journal of Radiation Research 1, no. 1 (June 1, 1960): 14–22. doi:10.1269/jrr.1.14. See also Hamblin, Jacob Darwin. “‘A Dispassionate and Objective Effort:’ Negotiating the First Study on the Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation.” Journal of the History of Biology 40, no. 1 (July 2006): 147–177. doi:10.1007/s10739-005-6531-8.

[xv] Moriwaki, et al., 1960.

[xvi] See Report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. General Assembly Official Records: Seventeenth Session. UNSCEAR, 1962.

[xvii] Primarily, the Special Committee to Investigate the Effects of Radiation (Hōshasen eikyō chōsa tokubetsu iinkai), part of the Science Council and a Japanese Ministry of Education General Research Unit on radiation. See also Report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. General Assembly Official Records: Thirteenth Session. UNSCEAR, 1958.,%2013th%20session%20(Suppl.%20No.17)/1958final-1_unscear.pdf.

[xviii] This discussion is in reference to Tazima’s eventual publication, Tazima, Yataro, Sohei Kondo, and Toshihiko Sado. “Two Types of Dose-Rate Dependence of Radiation-Induced Mutation Rates in Spermatogonia and Oögonia of the Silkworm.” Genetics 46, no. 10 (October 25, 1961): 1335–1345.

[xix] Oster, I. I., S. Zimmering, and H. J. Muller. “Evidence of the lower mutagenicity of chronic than intense radiation in Drosophila gonia.” Science 130 (1959): 1423; Russell, W. L. “Lack of linearity between mutation rate and dose for X-ray-induced mutations in mice.” Genetics 41 (1956): 658-659; Russell, W. L., Liane Brauch Russell, and Mary B. Cupp. “Dependence of Mutation Frequency on Radiation Dose Rate in Female Mice.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 45, no. 1 (January 1959): 18.

[xx] Moriwaki, et al., 1960.

[xxi] Moriwaki et al., 1960, 13. Muraji’s talk from this meeting stated that kaifuku, or repair, of chromosomal abnormalities is associated with a particular moment or factors but is not considered itself a “point mutation.” See “放射線遺伝学に関する講演討論会.” 原子力委員会月報 1(1956). Accessed online at

[xxii] Moriwaki et al., 1960, 13.

[xxiii] Moriwaki et al., 1960, 14.

[xxiv] See Giles, Norman. “Spontaneous Chromosome Aberrations in Tradescantia.” Genetics 25, no. 1 (January 1940): 69-87.

[xxv] Moriwaki et al., 1960, 14-16.

[xxvi] Tanaka, N., M. Kohno, and A. Sugimura. “Cytological effect of hot rain.” Idengaku Zasshi=Jap. J. Genet. 35 (1960): 257-63.

[xxvii] The notation LD50 was specifically used in this roundtable to discuss notion of the lethal dose.  See Trevan, J. W. “The Error of Determination of Toxicity.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Containing Papers of a Biological Character 101, no. 712 (July 1, 1927): 483–514. doi:10.2307/81329.

[xxviii] Moriwaki et al., 1960; Lindell, B. “A History of Radiation Protection.” Radiation Protection Dosimetry 68, no. 1–2 (November 1, 1996): 83–95; Taylor, Lauriston S. “History of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP).” Health Physics 82, no. 6 (2002): 789–794; Clarke, Roger, and Jack Valentin. “A History of the International Commission on Radiological Protection.” Health Physics 88, no. 6 (2005); Gottfried, Kate-Louise D. and Gary Penn, Editors; Committee for Review and Evaluation of the Medical Use Program of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Institute of Medicine. Radiation in Medicine: A Need for Regulatory Reform. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 1996, pp. 284-289; Pollycove, 1995. Further work will have to be conducted on the work of Tajima Eizo on the genetic dose limit.

[xxix] Moriwaki et al., 1960, p. 19.

[xxx] Moriwaki et al., 1960, p. 19; Spencer, Warren P., and Curt Stern. “Experiments to Test the Validity of the Linear R-Dose/Mutation Frequency Relation in Drosophila at Low Dosage.” Genetics 33, no. 1 (January 1948): 43.

[xxxi] Moriwaki et al., 1960, p. 20.

[xxxii] Matsui, Kaiichi. “Toyama Kametaro Sensei No Rajiumu Jikken.” Kagaku Asahi no. 9 (1968): 70; Onaga, Lisa A. “Tracing the Totsuzen in Tanaka’s Silkworms: An Exploration of the Establishment of Bombyx Mori Mutant Stocks.” Identifying Mutation (2009): 109-117.

[xxxiii] Tanaka, Nobunori. Idengaku jiten. Tokyo: Kyoritsu Shuppan Kabushiki Kaisha, 1977. No katakana term is offered by Tanaka, suggesting this is not derived from a borrowed term, despite existence of the English word hormesis.

[xxxiv] Comfort, Nathaniel. The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine. Yale University Press, 2012.

Lisa Onaga is an assistant professor in the History Programme at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She studies the history of science and technology in Japan and is currently working on a book manuscript entitled “Anatomy of a Hybrid: Cultivation of Silk and Genetics in Modern Japan.”

  1. Kath Weston permalink

    Lisa, what an intriguing paper. To re-read the hopes for rehabilitating land around the Daiichi plant in the context of a concept like kaifuku . . . there’s so much to think/feel with here. Do you know if “kaifuku” was a category used to grapple with cellular damage from chemical exposure, for example in investigations into the Minamata mercury poisoning in the late 1950s-early 1960s? Does it still circulate today in debates about low-level radiation? Researchers studying events at Minamata were also interested in what we would now call epigenetics, for example, trying to understand how children born to parents with so-called “Minamata disease” could be affected. Were indirect effects on future generations of concern to participants in the low dose talks, too, or was that not something they looked for in their fruit flies and their mice?

  2. Scott Frickel permalink

    I agree with Kath: this is a lovely paper. What I like most about it is the significance the study gives to analysis of scientific communities impacted by disaster. The ‘geographical turn’ in science studies notwithstanding, our work too often conceptualizes science as placeless, focusing on circulations of knowledge more than its rootedness or “emplacement”. Lisa’s analysis of why/how place (or region or nation) matters is important stuff: Japanese scientists understood and drew different meanings from mutation than scientists elsewhere. This is a general insight, but it applies particularly well (and with great emotional force) to Disaster STS, where I think a major challenge before us will involve digging through the tension of differential impacts among expert communities and knowledge systems that are inside and outside disaster-impacted regions/locales.

  3. Daniel Aldrich permalink

    Lisa, I found the paper provided me insights into the Japanese radiological community – thanks! I wanted to ask you to help refocus on the Fukushima disaster, and perhaps speculate on the ongoing debates among the scientific and local resident communities on the potential impact of radioactive contamination. Can your study of these earlier discussions help us better understand where debates might lead as more information comes in? Are there precursors to modern day discussions of low-doses that can help us understand the perspectives of the epistemic community here?

  4. Monamie Bhadra permalink

    Thanks for this fascinating look into the minds of these scientists. It’s wonderful you have been able to find documents with which you can eavesdrop of gentlemanly debate. I am struck (but not surprised) by how UNgentlemanly the low-dose radiation debate has been in India. Rather than bringing the world of humans into the world of cells, the case in India has been to bring the world of cells into the world of humans. The state of Kerala is a world-renowned site for high background radiation due to its monazite sands. As such the WHO, and the Indian nuclear establishment has conducted studies there, but the first was inconclusive, and the latter concluded that whatever genetic abnormalities were present were due to inbreeding in the villagers. Consequently, Indian activists and scientists turned to the international community in the US for help in conducting studies and made correlations between low-dose radiation and health hazards. Although these studies were ignored (and continue to be) by the Indian nuclear establishment, they helped organize and mobilize the existing people’s science movement. Since then, there are anecdotes of Indian nuclear establishment scientists who have claimed that there is a strong correlation between low dose radiation and health hazards, but have been silenced.

  5. Thanks for your paper. Like Daniel Aldrich, I enjoyed reading this account and hoped you could do more to link it to Fukushima more explicitly. One way you might do this is by discussing the Japanese “nuclear allergy” that was said to arise in the aftermath of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and later the Lucky Dragon incident. Rather than simply asking what people thought, your paper can help illuminate what a small group were actually doing. Like in Philip Brown’s paper, this is a nice way of comparing broad statements about national ideology with analysis of actual practice. Did your scientists ever discuss the “nuclear allergy”? Do their actions suggest we think differently about whether such a category is useful in describing Japanese history? This may or may not be the most helpful way to proceed, but I suggest it as a possible way to link your interesting case study with the broader history of nuclearity in Japan.

  6. Scott Knowles permalink

    Lisa what a wonderfully nuanced work, bravo. I echo much of what’s been said above. So as not to repeat let me raise another question that came to mind reading this. Your attention to the kaifuku concept led me to think about the ways that postwar science was infused with a tense process of restoring inclusiveness and openness, while at the same time grappling with the realities of shame, responsibility, censorship, and ultimately the manias of the cold war.

    I am thinking about the concept of disaster here as stretchy enough to include war. Your passage below is provocative:
    “Doing the right thing for Japan and for the international community forced Moriwaki and other to walk a tightrope toward the prospect of participating as an equal member of the international scientific community. At the same time, the low dose issue provided way to seek a means to heal and restore a discipline, if not also “Japanese” bodies.”

    I read in this that the scientists saw their work as performing a post-disaster healing function at multiple levels. Did they see (or do you) parallels to scientists in other countries who take on such burdens–postwar German physicists perhaps, or post-3.11 civil engineers?

  7. Thanks for your generous comments and insightful questions, everyone. I’m looking forward to discussing these next week. To respond very briefly to Chris, I mention the nuclear allergy in the full manuscript, which is not posted here. As an analysts’ category, it helps prompt the question about the “resumption of irradiation” in Japanese genetics that I examine. I also discuss my concern with why the low-dose question in Japan has remained unresolved, considering current efforts to study radiation health epidemiology in Tohoku and the contentious court case that demanded that the government evacuate children from Kōriyama (this was recently thrown out). Indeed, this paper sets a plan to eventually bring these moments together to gain deeper historical meaning. I’d like to do so carefully.

  8. Hi Lisa, thank you for this interesting paper. I’m looking forward the longer version.

    Following on your answer to Chris Jones’s remark and Daniel Aldrich’s question about the concordance with post 3.11, don’t you think that the criticism of research for research, survivors being used as “guinea pigs”, let it be to study of the genetic or other effects on human health, might be the biggest issue?

    For example, I’m thinking of the criticism against the survey conducted by Yamashita Shun’ichi et al, and WHO, after 3.11; and for the 1950s onward, the criticism against ABCC for its no-treatment policy (as described by Susan Lindee, 1995, ch.7). For the latter, the criticism started around 1952, but it went more sharply after the Lucky Dragon episode (for example with the publication of “Jikken Toshi”, “Experimental City”, in June 1954), after an American ABCC physician offered help. As described by John Beatty (1991), non ABCC Japanese physicians who took care of the crew refused the offer, because they suspected ABCC was just looking for data.

    By the way, about the Lucky Dragon episode, I guess you know it, but just in case, one of the crew survivor, Oishi Matashichi’s testimony has been translated and published by Hawai U.Press, in English soon after 3.11. (“The day the sun rose in the west. Bikini, the Lucky Dragon and I”). Oishi made a speech, among other personalities like Kamata Satoshi, at an antinuclear rally in Fukushima city at the end of July 2011. I guess his narrative, for example of his first child stillborn (he “was not just born dead”…. “you’re better off not seeing it”) have impressed people in Fukushima. Did the scientists who published in Iden addressed that issue?

  9. Hi Lisa, thank you for this interesting paper. I’m looking forward the longer version.

    Following on your answer to Chris Jones’s remark and Daniel Aldrich’s question about the concordance with post 3.11, don’t you think that the criticism of research for research, of survivors being used as “guinea pigs” for the study of genetic or other effects on human health, is an important topic?

    For example, I’m thinking of the criticism against the survey conducted by Yamashita Shun’ichi et al, and WHO, after 3.11; and for the 1950s onward, the criticism against ABCC for its no-treatment policy (as described by Susan Lindee, 1995, ch.7). For the latter, the criticism started around 1952, but it went more sharply after the Lucky Dragon episode (for example with the publication of “Jikken Toshi”, “Experimental City”, in June 1954), after an American ABCC physician offered help. As described by John Beatty (1991), non ABCC Japanese physicians who took care of the crew refused the offer, because they suspected ABCC was just looking for data.

    By the way, about the Lucky Dragon episode, I guess you know it, but just in case, one of the crew survivor, Oishi Matashichi’s testimony has been translated and published by Hawai U.Press, in English soon after 3.11. (“The day the sun rose in the west. Bikini, the Lucky Dragon and I”). Oishi made a speech, among other personalities like Kamata Satoshi, at an antinuclear rally in Fukushima city at the end of July 2011. I guess his narrative, for example of his first child stillborn (he “was not just born dead”…. “you’re better off not seeing it”) have impressed people in Fukushima. Did the scientists who published in Iden addressed that issue?

  10. Hi Lisa,

    Like others, I hope your presentation will highlight the specific reasons that historians of biology feslt a sense of resonnance with the low dose issue. One possibility is to simply summarize the reference you cite in your note, and then think about some of the other possibilities raised by the comments above, but I want to be sure we get exposure to evidence of what people were actually saying about this resonance.

  11. Lisa Onaga permalink

    Paul, as you alluded in your paper, we are confronting the sensitive matter of plant – animal – human data congruence here. So, continued focus on the materiality of scientific practice in this history remains key to me, alongside critical analysis of the parallels between the scientific responses to the Bikini Atoll Incident and to Fukushima. We have a lot more work to do in the field to articulate the history of mutation in Japan from the inside out, and I know these questions about Fukushima have already alerted me to examine some things that we have previously left ignored in the global history of biology.

    Phil – That’s an excellent suggestion!

  12. Bill Kinsella permalink

    Thanks for this very fine paper, Lisa. You’ve sparked so many good comments that instead of commenting on your essay directly, I’ll point to a related topic in a US context. I don’t know much about this but would like to learn more–you may be able to shed some light on the subject.

    When I first started hearing about the Human Genome Project (long ago, when it was still fairly new), I wondered why its largest source of funding was the US Department of Energy. A narrative circulating at that time said it was because only DOE had the computing power needed for the task.

    But this “origin story” for the project, from the USDOE’s Oak Ridge National Labs, gives a different reason–

    This narrative says that the very beginnings of the Human Genome Project were motivated by an effort to understand the genetic effects of radiation.

    I’d be interested to hear more about this from Lisa or anyone. And returning more closely to your paper, I hope we’ll have some opportunities to discuss the many controversies regarding low-dose exposures, in various national contexts, further.

  13. Karena Kalmbach permalink

    Thanks for this paper! I found it fascinating to read that the questions central to the 1960s debate (‘Is there a linear relationship between radiation dose and mutation rate? Is there a threshold level of exposure that could be considered safe?’) are exactly the same issues that are in the focus of today’s public debate on low level radiation effects. As these similarities are so striking, I wondered if you could point out aspects of this debate that have changed profoundly over time; or if instead you would argue that it is really kind of the ‘same’ debate going on over decades with the same actors, the same arguments, the same theories etc.

  14. Nicolas Sternsdorff permalink

    Lisa — echoing the previous comments, this is really fascinating material.

    Together with Paul Jobin’s paper, your work shows the great ambiguities present in the low exposure debate.

    I’ve heard at a couple of food safety events the speaker say that Japanese people were eating radiated food already in the 1960s due to the fallout of atomic bomb testing. This was in small quantities (about 5 bq/kg if i remember correctly), so concerns about low level exposure to food products should not be something new. I wonder if you came across such material in the iden magazine? It would be interesting to compare if concerns about low level exposure then and now differ in how they’re framed/understood.

  15. Lisa, I have always admired your work. As usual, this is top-knotch scholarship and skilled storytelling to boot. And it is an important story to tell. It reminds me, among other things, of Masazumi Harada’s work on mercury poisoning in the context of Minamata disease. He quite forcefully argued that “there is no threshold” above which mercury in the body begins to do damage, but that it is a continuum of damage that begins with a single molecule and cell.

    Now, I want to use this space to discuss today’s workshop session and discussion, for reasons that I hope will become clear below. During the session, and within the papers, a huge number of interesting threads of discussion were raised, from specific, empirical questions to big, meta-theoretical themes. File this comment under the latter category, as a theme that connects the subjects and objects of our study with the interdisciplinary enterprise in which we ourselves are engaged.

    Whether it is trying to assemble an international nuclear event response team, integrate subjective and objective information into risk maps, compile diverse forms and sources of data into a centralized “knowledge commons,” or establish an interdisciplinary community of disaster and STS scholars, all of these endeavors highlight the challenges of making sense of, and acting upon, diverse knowledges. Phil’s paper points to a time and place in which knowledge production and responsibility for action were both local and coextensive, and suggests that the splintering of the former from the latter is a (perhaps not unique, but notable) characteristic of modernity (if I may use that loaded word), at least in Japan. Lisa’s paper, as well, depicts a community of experts considering diverse influences and sources of information as they struggle to figure out the goals, methods and common framings of their particular regime of knowledge production. Arguably all of these projects (as well as others discussed at this workshop, such as Safecast) involve knowledge production and organization with the expectation that these knowledge-centered activities will lead to some kind of *action* more directly applicable to the public, motivated by ethical conceptions of “doing good” in the context of risk and disasters.

    In this context, I found one of the strands of discussion today, on what we might call “the uses of history,” particularly interesting. I would imagine that historians often get tired of being asked to spell out exactly how their studies are relevant to contemporary events and issues. (In my interdisciplinary department, more than once I have seen some of our historians wince at being asked such questions in some form or another.) Of course, this particular workshop is organized around 3.11, and while we may not aim to produce specific policy recommendations, I think that we all agree that the development of DSTS and these kinds of studies promises both (in the language of our generous funder) intellectual merit and beneficial broader impacts, so it is understanding that the historians in our number have been asked for more details about contemporary connections. This is not improper, but today’s discussion, prompted initially by Chris Jones’s comments, did make me consider what “scholars of the contemporary” can learn from our historian colleagues regarding perspectives on the value of history, since I do think that there are probably ingrained differences in the ways that historians think about the role of history vis-à-vis contemporary issues, relative to (other) social scientists.

    As we work to establish an interdisciplinary community of DSTS scholarship, I think it is important to reflexively consider these subtle (or perhaps sometimes not so subtle) interdisciplinary faultlines, what we can learn from our colleagues in other disciplines, and what these lessons might mean for our larger enterprise as well as for our own disciplines and projects.

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