The book: Based on several years of fieldwork, Nuclear Ghost (UC Press) looks at the lives of residents in Fukushima who have survived various catastrophes that occurred in 2011. Given the triple disasters of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident, the book discusses and explores the ways the community has acclimated to the presence of radiation and the long-term effects these tragedies have had on their lives. Author Ryo Morimoto is joined by other anthropology experts to unpack this phenomenon.  

 The author: Ryo Morimoto is an assistant professor of anthropology at Princeton University. He is a first-generation student and scholar from Japan whose research focuses on the impacts of our past and present engagements with nuclear events. Nuclear Ghost is Morimoto’s first book project. 


“A city with nuclear ghosts” was how Hatsumi, a woman in her sixties, described the state of Minamisōma city, Fukushima Prefecture. “Do you believe in ghosts?” she asked me. Noticing my dumbfounded face, she offered me a chance to respond. I could not reply right away and, to earn some time, reached my hand to a glass of cold barley tea she had served me. It was late July 2013, during a hot, humid summer. I had just moved to Minamisōma from Massachusetts for my dissertation fieldwork. Talking to residents like Hatsumi, I wanted to understand why many people lived on the edges of nuclear evacuation zones despite the elevated risk of radiation exposure that the media, social media, and scientific reports made undeniably visible. As an outsider, I struggled to understand the polarized discourses concerning postfallout Fukushima. On the one hand, it was argued that the state and the electric company had acted inhumanely to “force” people to reside in the irradiated environment. On the other hand, the local and national government spent so much money and so many resources to make it possible for people to “stay in” and “return to” the region. The same tension still exists at the time of this writing, in 2022, more than eleven years after the disasters.

On March 11, 2011, when the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the tsunami hit the Tōhoku (northeastern) region of Japan, I was in Massachusetts, more than 6,500 miles away and fourteen hours behind. As I woke up that morning, I witnessed the chaotic unfolding of the combined disasters (Fukugō Saigai/複合災害), or what is called 3.11 (san ten ichi ichi), in the recorded images of the tsunami overcoming the coasts of Tōhoku and eastern Japan. The images of destruction bombarded my senses, and I could barely follow the constantly accumulating numbers of people confirmed dead and missing. Now we know that the earthquake and tsunami killed 15,900 people in twelve prefectures, 2,523 are still missing, and the physical and material damages have cost the country over $1.4 trillion.

The situation became even direr as the tsunami devastated what was believed to be the robust assemblage of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant (colloquially referred to as 1F [ichi efu]) in the coastal region of Fukushima and disabled its backup power generators. As a result, the reactors’ cooling system was incapacitated, and hydrogen explosions occurred at three of the six reactors between March 12 and 15, causing the haphazard distribution of radioactive debris throughout the planet and mass evacuation in the surrounding region. “There is no immediate danger,” the chief secretary of the cabinet, Yukio Edano, repeated like a broken record. Focusing on containing the fear among the citizens instead of disseminating information, the state acted on what Clarke and Chess (2008) call “elite panic.” The natural hazards, technological accident, and the subsequent elite panics later became known as “the Fukushima nuclear disaster.” In this book, however, I refer to the nuclear accident as “the TEPCO accident.” In calling it the TEPCO accident, I want to make it evident that the accident occurred at the power plant in Fukushima owned and operated by Tokyo Electric to generate electricity exclusively for the people of central Japan. As I will show, this shift in the naming convention for the English-speaking audience signals the core of my ethnographic project, which aims to decenter the radiation-centered narrative to instead explore the local, more granular conditions surrounding 3.11.

Unlike the Chornobyl disaster in 1986, which remained secret until the neighboring countries traced spiked radiation-monitoring data back to the city of Pripyat, the globally circulated live images of hydrogen explosions and the ensuing efforts to contain the crippled reactors made the TEPCO accident in Fukushima a global “media event” (Beck 1987). In a day, Fukushima became known to the world as the land of contamination. At the same time, while these Fukushima nuclear spectacles brought Fukushima to global attention, they frequently erased the losses the residents experienced from the earthquake and tsunami. Fukushima Prefecture alone lost 1,614 people, including two individuals in their twenties who were surveying the earthquake damage inside reactor four at 1F, and 196 people are still nowhere to be found. The city of Minamisōma, where Hatsumi lived, experienced the highest death tolls in the prefecture, losing 636 people, and 111 people were still missing as of March 2022. The TEPCO accident and the subsequent evacuation order made the losses even more traumatic for those who had to give up searching for their missing friends and families. The city of Minamisōma, where Hatsumi lived, experienced the highest death tolls in the prefecture, losing 636 people, and 111 people were still missing as of March 2022. The TEPCO accident and the subsequent evacuation order made the losses even more traumatic for those who had to give up searching for their missing friends and families.

Even though I was terribly disturbed by what I saw from a distance, I could not keep my eyes off my computer screen, news reports, and social media. I kept wondering if it was the end of Japan as I knew it. My sense of loss was surreal. I was not familiar with most of the places mentioned or depicted in the news. Growing up in western Japan, I knew no one in Tōhoku. My family, who lived far away and experienced only the aftershocks of the rattling earth and the incessant media spectacles, did not help me make sense of the disasters. They described 3.11 as a “big deal” and compared it to the magnitude 7.0 Hanshin-Awaji (Kobe) earthquake, which killed over 6,300 people in 1995, which we had experienced more intimately. 

The overwhelming sense of uncertainty and fear of the unknown in Fukushima, however, suggested that something unusual was creeping up (Inose 2014). Sociologist Kai Erikson (1994) calls invisible threats like radiation and its lingering dread a “new species of trouble.” It unsettles our taken-for-granted idea about the boundedness of an event—a plot with a clear beginning and end—and our assumptions about the safety and security of being in the world (Parkes 1967). For my family and me, what was happening in Fukushima felt closer to the chilling sensation caused by the sudden awareness of the invisible and unknown we had confronted after the Tokyo subway sarin attack, an act of chemical and religious terrorism by Aum Shinrikyo on March 20, 1995, following the Kobe earthquake on January 17. Although 1995 was a dark year for Japan, 3.11 posed a different kind of existential challenge, and we were all seeking some reference for it in the past. For making sense of this “unprecedented/soutei gai” disaster (Bestor 2013), our historical and cultural pockets were empty.

In the summer of 2013, when Hatsumi told me about the nuclear ghost of Minamisōma, I was still haunted by my exposure to the Fukushima spectacles. As a result, I could not help but interpret the “nuclear ghost” as the ghostly presence of radiation in the city, which can only be experienced with technoscientific instruments like a Geiger counter. By interpretating Hatsumi’s nuclear ghost this way, I revealed the fundamental assumption I had brought with me to Minamisōma rather than the city’s actual state. I went there to confirm my belief that it is an unsafe place to live and residents are in denial, just like the media and academic depictions of Fukushima suggested. I had imagined that my research would explore the unarticulated danger, people’s profound fear of imperceptible radiation, corporate and state secrecy about the scale and extent of contamination, and visible health defects among the residents, just as in the cases of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chornobyl, Hanford, the Four Corners, the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia, and other sites of nuclear fallout. After all, isn’t a nuclear accident all about radiation exposure and its detrimental biological and environmental consequences? If the nuclear ghost is not radiation, what could it be?

Excerpted from Nuclear Ghost by Ryo Morimoto. Copyright © 2023. Excerpted with permission by UC Press.


"Nuclear ghosts dwell among the enlightened elders of Minamisōma — as the afterlife of atomic power, as the decay of disaster, as the half life of sociality, and as the dogged persistence of hope. An ethnographer of rare perception, Morimoto sees it all. This exceptional book renders this community’s experiences with sterling insight and tender clarity. An unforgettable, indispensable debut.”  — Alondra Nelson, Harold F. Linder Professor, Institute for Advanced Study 

Ryo Morimoto’s unparalleled, compassionate gaze in Nuclear Ghost brings us deep into the liminal zone of evacuated, post-cataclysm Minamisōma. Ghosts are many — unseen radioactivity, lost friends and livelihood, stigma — haunting citizens striving to live beyond victimhood. Morimoto vividly captures their lifeworld. To understand post-disaster Fukushima, you must read this book.” — Peter Galison, Joseph Pellegrino University Professor, Harvard University