Were it not for the nuclear disaster last year, Rie Enoki might not have learned that the rural town of Ishikawa in Fukushima Prefecture was part of the Imperial Japanese Army's aborted effort to develop an atomic bomb.
Enoki, 18, who heads the archaeology club at Ishikawa High School, was shocked when Yosuke Takahara, a history teacher and club adviser, said students at the private school were mobilized for uranium mining during World War II.
She was talking about radiation doses with other club members following the reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Ishikawa High School was a five-year school for elementary school graduates under the prewar education system.
The club members decided to investigate further. They are now busy conducting interviews and doing other research into the wartime operation, something that many residents know little about.
They hope to release their findings in September.
"In our conversations as well as in media coverage, the topic of radioactivity comes up far less frequently than before," Enoki said. "But there are things we must not forget. We want to hand down the facts on uranium mining to future generations."
On Aug. 8, Kiwamu Ariga, 81, took Enoki and four other club members to the site where he extracted uranium with a pickax in 1945, along with 150 other classmates.
"We were told that it was possible to produce a bomb the size of a matchbox that can blow away an entire city," Ariga told the students as they took meticulous notes. "We put all our energy into the project because we felt it was our duty to serve the country. We did not have the slightest idea that we were digging for uranium."
The town of Ishikawa is about 60 kilometers southwest of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Airborne radiation doses are low because of a mountain range between Ishikawa and the Fukushima plant.
But when the club members held a dosimeter close to the ground, the reading was four times higher than in the center of town.
The students contacted Ariga and asked him to show them the site where he dug for uranium after reading an account of his wartime experiences in a collection of essays by former students that was published in 1993.
Third-year students at the wartime high school, such as Ariga, were drafted for mining operations along with adults from April 1945 through Japan's defeat on Aug. 15 that year.
"The government kept asserting that Japan would win the war. When I heard the emperor (Hirohito) announcing the surrender on the radio, I thought I could not count on the government anymore," said Ariga, who was 14 years old when the war ended. "After the Great East Japan Earthquake (of March 11, 2011), I remembered how I felt at that time.
"Japan was not able to control nuclear power generation, although it was touted as a peaceful use of atomic energy. I would be happy if the students are able to develop their own thoughts based on our experiences."
Enoki and other club members started studying wartime uranium mining last summer.
They sent out questionnaires to 21 people who were part of the effort, but received contradictory accounts.
They are trying to locate 100 or so people in a 1945 photograph taken at the mining site. More than 10 people have been identified, and the club members interviewed three of them, including Ariga.
None of the individuals they talked to has suffered from disease or a physical disorder caused by radiation emanating from uranium.
Many local residents do not know that uranium ore was mined in the town during World War II, although Ishikawa is rich in a variety of minerals.
When the club members asked 80 residents of varying ages, 43 percent said they were unaware of the wartime project.
Earlier, they asked about 30 schoolmates, of whom only three knew something about it. None of the club members knew until Takahara, the history teacher, mentioned it.
Neither the uranium mining operation nor the history of atomic bomb development is taught at elementary, junior and senior high schools in Ishikawa.
"Nuclear bombs have a negative image," Takahara said. "People probably thought there is no need to discuss these things (in class).”
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