‘Studying Up’ on Fukushima

by Makoto Takahashi

Nuclear disasters do not end – they fade away. Radioactive isotopes decay to stable ones. Clean-up efforts progress. Evacuees return to their homes, or settle into new lives, as legal challenges meander from one court to the next. Yet this process takes decades and finds itself outpaced by the half-life of political attention. The Fukushima Daiichi disaster is no exception to this trend. I began to work on this topic as an undergraduate, conducting my dissertation fieldwork in the summer of 2012, when Japan’s anti-nuclear protests were reaching their height. Two-hundred thousand protestors would flood the streets of Tokyo’s political district, Kasumigaseki every Friday evening in a kaleidoscope of colour: the largest demonstrations Japan had seen for 50 years. By the time I graduated in July 2013, their numbers had dwindled to the thousands. And when I returned to Tokyo as a PhD candidate in 2016 and 2017, the protestors only numbered in their hundreds. The disaster, once splashed across every newspaper, now garnered only sporadic coverage and evacuees expressed concerns of being forgotten. In numerous settings, I found my interlocutors looking forward to March 2021, mentioning the 10-year anniversary as both a milestone and a moment to reflect. It is in this spirit that I would like to (briefly) examine the first decade of social scientific work on the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, celebrating what has been achieved and diagnosing what is yet to be done.

Figure 1.1. Anti-nuclear protest outside the Prime Minister’s Office Source: Author’s own.

By a happy coincidence, I find myself writing between two anniversaries – one political and one academic – and convinced that the latter might speak to the former. It will shortly be 50 years since Laura Nader called upon anthropologists to ‘study up’ in her seminal essay, Up the Anthropologist (1972). Nader observed a tendency among anthropologists to study social problems from the margins, focusing their empirical work on the poor and disadvantaged, rather than the powerful and established. Her proposal for reinvigorating anthropology was to re-focus attention on the ‘most powerful strata of society’, examining the ‘culture of the powerful’ with the same care that researchers had traditionally detailed the ‘culture of the powerless’ (ibid.: 289).

Nader’s call to study up has enjoyed considerable acclaim, especially in STS, where early laboratory studies established elite ethnography as a core disciplinary method. Nonetheless, an imbalance between the number of scholars who ‘study up’ and ‘study down’ persists. This imbalance is evident in the explosion of ethnographic interest in Japan over the last decade. There is now a wealth of work detailing everyday encounters with “3.11”. From Brigitte Steger’s (2012) memorable account of day-to-day life in an evacuation shelter – with its focus on the role of cleaning in ‘rescuing normality’ – to accounts of farming in the affected territories or the stigmatisation of nuclear evacuees, one can find a range of works that examine the experience of the disaster ‘from below’. The question of how citizens negotiate radiation risks is a central theme in this corpus and one that STS scholars have played a pivotal part in exploring, offering considered accounts of the grassroots citizen science projects that have emerged to monitor civilian radiation exposure (see, for example: Kimura, 2016; Polleri, 2019). In taking seriously the lay knowledges and ‘counter expertise’ of such organisations, these works have collectively answered the author and Nobel Laureate in Literature, Kenzaburo Oe’s call to ‘look at things through the eyes of the victims of nuclear power’.

By contrast, our picture of how the disaster looks ‘from above’ remains hazy. Though the impact of the disaster – on both domestic (see, for example: Samuels, 2013; Koppenborg, 2020) and foreign policy bodies (see, for example: Kinsella, 2013) – has received concerted attention, most of this work has been penned from a distance. To the best of my knowledge, there are no accounts of daily life in one of the Japanese ministries involved in the reconstruction (fukko) of the Tohoku region. Nor do I know of an ethnography of the Reconstruction Agency, established in 2012 to co-ordinate their efforts, or any of the local governments in the Tohoku region. Participant observation of projects run in Fukushima by international policy bodies, such as the International Commission on Radiological Protection (Takahashi, 2020: 121-145; Takahashi, forthcoming) and OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (Takahashi, 2020: 98-120), has been conducted but remains rare. Consequently, our insight into how knowledge circulates through the Japanese state and relevant international organisations, as well as whose expertise counts in which policy settings, remains limited. Given that the organisational culture of the Japanese state is often cited as the root cause of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the need for scrutiny is clear. Moreover, analysis that moves beyond a monolithic presentation of Japan’s nuclear industrial complex – or ‘nuclear village’ – might inform strategic intervention. Certainly, one can glean some insight into the internal workings of the state through the diaries and memoires of those who have trodden the halls of power. This genre has proven popular with Prime Ministers, scientific advisors, and local mayors in the last decade; each eager to defend their actions and offer their own perspective. Yet their focus often falls on moments of drama, rather than on the more quotidian negotiations of credibility that STS scholars might wish to examine. Faced with this clear empirical lacuna, there is good reason to echo Nader and cry, “up the STS scholar!”.

One might counter that it is easier to advocate ‘studying up’ than to do it. Those who attempt to get ‘up close and personal with elites’ frequently find themselves hitting a ‘glass ceiling’ (Kuus, 2013; Rhodes, 2011). Though I was forewarned of this difficulty, I only came to viscerally appreciate it at 19, when interviewing a politician for the first time. Having (optimistically) agreed to take the interview at short notice, despite being 500km away, I sped across Japan in a Bullet Train (shinkansen), sprinting across Kasumigaseki to the House of Councilors in 30-degree heat. Slipping a jacket and tie over my sweat-soaked shirt, I entered the air-conditioned building with ten minutes to spare, only to find myself facing airport-style security. Guards. Metal detectors. And a line, inching forwards. I arrived at my interviewee’s office three minutes late[1]. As I received a lecture on my punctuality, bowed deep to 90 degrees, I reflected on how ill-suited traditional anthropological techniques seemed in this environment. Traditional ethnographic methods assume that the researcher is a privileged subject, whose gaze will be welcomed or at least tolerated. Yet the ministry building is a fortress, designed to control access to information. Even the welcome guest, who is ushered through security, finds that the building is organised around the principle of defense in depth (Thomas, 1995). Her path is restricted by passwords and key-cards and she is rarely left unattended. Obtaining the right to be a ‘fly on the wall’ in such settings is not impossible but is exceptionally difficult (see: Rhodes, 2011). Noting that ethnography is not synonymous with observation, some researchers have side-stepped the issue of access to a place of work by socializing with their research informants outside of it (Gusterson, 1997). Yet I could not imagine that the Councilor would agree to ‘hang out’ after hours. Nonetheless, there are avenues forward. Rich ethnographic accounts of senior policymakers’ practices have been produced on the basis of repeat interviews (Kuus, 2013). Moreover, many research sites are not as closely guarded as ministries are – local government offices, international organisations, and laboratories involved in the management of the disaster present themselves as promising and plausible field sites.

Of course, the relative dearth of elite ethnographies may not just be a function of access but also a matter of taste. Ethnography is an inherently intimate process. To detail how others make sense of the world demands both empathy and extended contact. It is therefore understandable that in deciding who we would like to study, we often gravitate to those whom we like. Outside our professional lives, we might marvel at Louis Theroux’s ability to spend time with members of the Westboro Baptist Church or the Neo-Nazi White Aryan Resistance (WAR). But we do not envy the experience. By contrast, watching Michael Palin interact with peoples of the Sahara or Himalayas is a source of vicarious pleasure, even yearning. Given the choice of being a Theroux or Palin in our work, many of us choose to conduct our fieldwork in the company of those that we are not only fascinated by but also feel an affinity for – collectively ensuring that the bulk of anthropological work continues to reflect our underlying ‘taste for the marginal and the exotic’ (Gusterson, 1997: 114). In the domain of nuclear politics, this is to suggest that the concentration of ethnographic attention on citizen scientists, nuclear evacuees, and anti-nuclear groups may reflect the dominant political dispositions of our intellectual community: namely, a critical stance on nuclear power and the Japanese state’s project of reconstruction. In some cases, researchers foreground their political persuasions by adopting an explicitly activist stance. But it is commonly assumed that our choice of research subjects bears some relation to our politics, even in the absence of such declarations. In explaining that I was working on the ICRP Dialogues to a colleague at an academic conference, I found myself being interrupted. “Wait. You’re not pro-nuclear, are you?”[2] The notion that I might embed myself in the work of a policy organisation in order to study it, without necessarily endorsing its positions, seemed peculiar to them. To their mind, the place of a social scientist was at the margins, “punching up” at the centres of power, not immersing themselves in them. Only on hearing that I was also conducting participant observation of seminars held by the Takagi School of Citizen Science and the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes’ weekly demonstrations did my interlocutor soften[3]: “so, you are spending time with some decent (matomo) people.”

A final thought – if our political dispositions sometimes influence who we study, might they also influence how we study them? On the basis of the rich work on Fukushima Daiichi to date, one might tentatively say, “yes”. This is not to suggest that accounts of citizen science, evacuees, or anti-nuclear groups have been hagiographic. (Polleri (2019), in particular, has convincingly complicated a common notion that citizen science is necessarily emancipatory.) Nonetheless, these accounts are often asymmetrical. In many cases, concern about exposure to low dosages of radiation is naturalized. When a citizen comes to measure their exposure and express concern, no further explanation is needed. They have come to recognize ‘the truth’ of their situation. But what of those who read the same measurements as proof of their safety? Here, analysts mobilise a range of sociological factors. Citizens are co-opted or otherwise subjects of (malign) social forces – most commonly, neoliberalism. Such work implicitly treats the state’s narrative of radiation risk as false and anti-nuclear groups’ accounts as true. In so doing, many accounts eschew Bloor’s programmatic notion that true and false beliefs be subject to the same forms of explanation. Consequently, we have myriad descriptions of nuclear normalisation and forgetting, yet scant few sociologies of nuclear fear[4]. As we move forward into a new decade of scholarship on the Fukushima disaster, one hopes that we will ‘study up’ with the same care with which we will continue to ‘study down’ – producing accounts of elite practices and counter-expertise alike, with the Strong Program’s tenets of impartiality, symmetry, and reflexivity firmly in mind.



Gusterson, H. (1996.) Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War. Berkley, CA: University of California Press.

– (1997.) Studying Up Revisted. PoLAR, 20(1): 114-119.

Kimura, A. (2016.) Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists: The Gender Politics of Food Contamination After Fukushima. Durham and London: Duke University Press

Kinsella, W.J. (2013.) Negotiating Nuclear Safety: Responses to the Fukushima Disaster by the US Nuclear Security Community. STS Forum on Fukushima, University of California-Berkley, 12 April 2013. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/4016589/Kinsella_W_J_2013_Negotiating_nuclear_safety_Responses_to_the_Fukushima_disaster_by_the_US_nuclear_community_STS_Forum_on_Fukushima_University_of_California_Berkeley?auto=download [Accessed 16 June 2021.]

Koppenberg, F. (2020.) Nuclear Restart Politics: How the ‘Nuclear Village’ Lost Policy Implementation Power. Social Science Japan Journal, 24(1): 115-135.

Polleri, M. (2019.) Conflictual Collaboration: Citizen science and the governance of radioactive contamination after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. American Ethnologist, 46(2): 214-226.

Nader, L. (1972.) Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives Gained from Studying Up. In: Hymes, D. (ed.). Reinventing Anthropology. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 284–311.

Samuels, R.J. (2013.) 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Steger, B. (2012.) ‘We Were All in This Together’ – Challenges to and Practices of Cleanliness in Tsunami Evacuation Shelters in Yamada, Iwate Prefecture, 2011. The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, 10(38): 1–27.

Rhodes, R.A.W. (2011.) Everyday Life in British Government. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Takahashi, M. (2020.) The Improvised Expert: Performing authority after Fukushima (2011-18). Ph.D. Thesis, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, Cambridge.

Takahashi, M. (Forthcoming.) “Dialogue as Therapy: The role of the expert in the ICRP Dialogues,” Annals of the ICRP.

Thomas, R.J. (1995.) Interviewing Important People in Big Companies. In Herz, R. and Imber, J. eds. Studying Elites Using Qualitative Methods. London: Sage.

Weart, S.R. (2012.) The Rise of Nuclear Fear. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.




[1] Eight really. One should always be early.

[2] The characterisation of actors as either ‘pro-’ or ‘anti-nuclear’ speaks to the Manichean nature of nuclear debates.

[3] My decision to study organisations on different ends of Japan’s nuclear policy debates in parallel owes a debt to Gusterson’s (1996) Nuclear Rites, which drew on ethnographic engagement with both nuclear weapons engineers and anti-nuclear protestors.

[4] The work of Spencer Weart (2012) is a notable exception, though this analysis is global and largely predates the Fukushima disaster.