Japan in the Atomic Age: History of Radiation Genetics and Protection from 1920s to 1970s

This post contains the selected parts (Abstract, Conclusion and Acknowledgement) of my research report when I participated in Nanyang Research Programme in 2013. The programme overall offered me a rather fulfilling experience and inspired me to pursue my academic interests further with more determination.

The complete list of references and research paper may be requested by email. Thank you.

Japan in the Atomic Age: History of Radiation Genetics and Protection from 1920s to 1970s

Wan Bo

Anglo-Chinese Junior College

Lisa Onaga

Department of Humanities and Social Sciences

Nanyang Technological University


This investigation is about the history of radiation in Japan. After the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the topic has received increasing interests among scholars. The foci of this research include the discovery and development of the knowledge regarding biological effects of radiation by Japanese scientists, the changing safety standard of exposure and radiation protection in Japanese society from 1920s to 1970s. 1,517 journal articles in the Japanese journal Cytologia and newsletters published by Japan Atomic Energy Commission in the 1950s were collected and analyzed to triangulate the research topic. This paper covers how Japan developed its knowledge in radiation genetics both before Hiroshima and in the post-war era. It examines how Japan recovered from the nuclear disaster at the end of the Second World War and became a major power in peaceful usage of nuclear energy in the last century. Little English work has indeed been published illustrating the topic from the Japanese perspective, the country that suffered from the two atomic bombs, the Lucky Dragon incident, and the recent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. This investigation, while doing Asian studies within Asia geographically, is significant in fostering regional understanding among East Asia countries and contributing to regional integration as well.

Keywords: radiation genetics, Japan, Hiroshima, radiation protection, radiation exposure, Cytologia, Japan Atomic Energy Commission, Fukushima


The development of radiation genetics actually started as early as the 1920s in Japan, around the time when H.J.Muller founded the discipline. The initial development of the discipline in Japan was much guided by the west, as seen in the amount of German articles published in Cytologia, and the fact that many radioactive materials were imported from Europe. During the Second World War, under the fascist government where militarism and expansionism were widespread in Japan, radiation, or more specifically, nuclear fission, was utilized in making weapons, which was a failure eventually. Nuclear physics, as well as radiation genetics, developed mainly in order to serve the national interests during the war.

In the post-war Japan, being the only victim of the nuclear bombings, the development of radiation technology faced several psychological obstacles in Japan. Some politicians wanted to step away from nuclear energy, and the public were afraid of its effects. With the help of the west, several nuclear energy agencies, like the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, were established in Japan to research on radiation genetics and publish guidelines to ensure safety. Radiation, and its relevant sciences, reached the golden time of its development. Japan was then able to recover from the two atomic bombings quickly and evolve as a major power in the peaceful usage of nuclear energy.

Today, after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the Japanese government has decided to eradicate all nuclear power plants in Japan in the near future. The sufferings of Japanese during the incident reflect the lack of knowledge and technology to protect people from radiation in a country that has frequent earthquakes. Although this is a political decision that is susceptible to future changes, I feel that more academic attention and efforts will be drawn to the development of radiation genetics and protection in Japan. In the globalized world, this is no longer a domestic issue; rather, it is an international concern.


As a non-history, non-biology student doing a research on the history of biology, I have been very fortunate to receive much help along the way. First of all, I would like to thank my project supervisor, Prof. Lisa Onaga, without whom this paper will be completely different. I thank her for always being willing to give extremely helpful and detailed advice, and offer insightful critics at the same time. I also want to thank her for her encouragement and her time in reading my drafts and correcting my mistakes patiently. I also want to thank Mdm. Low Hwee Miang, the program coordinator from Anglo-Chinese Junior College, for her encouragement and advice on coping with my other school activities. I also appreciate the library staff from Nanyang Technological University for their assistance when I borrow library materials and request new books. I would also want to thank all my friends in Singapore, for their support and encouragement when I faced difficulties.

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