asahi shinbun, fukushima, health, medical, minami-soma, nuclear radiation, psychosocial, radiation, relief, university

MASAHARU TSUBOKURA: Battling anger and criticism, young doctor works to ease radiation exposure fears, asahi, 6/4/2014

Masaharu Tsubokura was in Paris with his fiancee when he received a phone call from his boss in Japan, who abruptly asked him: “When are you coming back to Japan?”

And that, in hindsight, marked the beginning of Tsubokura’s double life. He is no spy, though.

Tsubokura, 32, is a researcher at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Medical Science. He also is on staff of a once-a-week outpatient clinic operated by the Minami-Soma Municipal General Hospital, located 23 kilometers north of the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. His specialty is radiation exposure.

Tsubokura, on a recent day in late April, was consulting with a women in her 60s about the results of her exposure checkup.

“I’m not sure of the source. Do you feel all right?” he asked.

A miniscule amount of radioactive cesium had been detected in the woman’s body. Questioning the woman about her diet, Tsubokura began to suspect dried persimmons that are grown locally as the cause. The amount of cesium was not sufficient to cause concern about the woman’s health.

Because perceptions regarding exposure differ greatly according to the individual, Tsubokura refrained from saying outright that everything would be all right. He listened to the woman’s concerns, pointed out things about her diet and advised her to return for another examination in two to three months.

Starting a month after the nuclear accident, Tsubokura has continually traveled back and forth between Tokyo and Fukushima. Even now, he spends half the week in Fukushima conducting checkups and exposure tests while consulting with people about their health.

His dual work roles originated with a phone call at the beginning of April 2011 while he on a three-day vacation after attending an international academic conference in Paris. Tsubokura was taking a pleasure cruise along the Seine with his fiancce, Mayuko, 32, when his cellphone beeped.

“When are you coming back? Can I get you to go to Fukushima?”

Tsubokura did not hesitate, and said “Yes.”

The call was from Masahiro Kami, 45, Tsubokura’s supervisor at the Institute of Medical Science. Kami was involved in a medical support project for victims of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster in northeastern Japan. Born in Osaka, Tsubokura was a first-year junior high school student when the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck in 1995, claiming more than 6,000 lives.

After the Great East Japan Earthquake, leaving 18,000 dead or missing, Tsubokura wanted to get involved with providing relief to stricken areas.

Prior to the disaster, the Minami-Soma Municipal General Hospital employed 14 full-time physicians. Afterward, that figure dropped to four and the hospital faced a chronic shortage of doctors.

Mayuko, Tsubokura’s fiancee, broke down in tears back at their Paris hotel room. She was petrified of what might happen, given the huge discharge of radioactive materials being reported at the Fukushima plant.

“Why? Why do you have to be the one to go?” she asked.

As a hematology specialist, Tsubokura knew a fair bit about radiation exposure. “Someone has to go, don’t they? Don’t worry, I’ll be all right,” he said. trying to mollify her.


Requests for Tsubokura to “talk about radiation exposure” poured in from Fukushima residents. However, Tsubokura was not entirely sure what he should talk about. Firstly, no residents had been exposed to high doses of radiation that would cause illnesses such as leukemia to suddenly appear. At the same time, the effects of low-dose exposure were not well understood. He decided to be frank with those he spoke to.

“It’s not a situation where you will abruptly die if you don’t evacuate. However, I currently do not know what the long-term effects might be,” he told audiences.

As Tsubokura continued to hold explanatory briefings, complaints and criticism from residents took on a life of their own.

“What are you talking about? You’re receiving money from Tokyo Electric Power Co. to say we ‘haven’t been exposed to large amounts of radiation,’ aren’t you!” “You’re saying Fukushima has been contaminated? If you ridicule Fukushima, you won’t get away with it!”

Even with accusations flying, he continued to hold information sessions. One day he went to eat soba (buckwheat) noodles garnished with edible wild plants. He noticed the food tasted funny. He tried to close his eyes but was unable to: his facial nerves had become paralyzed. The stress of the job was getting to him.

The outpatient service he was providing was becoming a real chore. Patients were venting their anger about the nuclear accident on him. His head and stomach ached and his blood pressure soared to 180. Tsubokura, now married, concealed the situation from his wife. He began taking stomach medication and drugs to lower his blood pressure.

Tatsuya Ozaki, 54, was boarding in the same private residence as Tsubokura at that time. Ozaki is a special mission head to the Seisa Group, which operates various entities including Seisa International High School and was providing medical support to the disaster area. He said, “Coming to a place he was unfamiliar with, Tsubokura, in the beginning, seemed a little perplexed about what exactly it is he should do.”

One evening after support activities had been completed for the day, Ozaki invited Tsubokura to join him at the open-air baths at a local Japanese-style inn.

“I’m so tired,” muttered Tsubokura. Ozaki offered the following encouragement: “I think what you’re telling people is spot-on. For those who want to criticize, just let them. Future generations will make the final judgment about what was correct or not.”


In October 2011, internal radiation exposure test results for approximately 3,000 children were announced. By and large, the density of the cesium detected was low. Tsubokura wanted to inform residents as quickly as possible to put them at ease and persuaded a reluctant municipal government to make the announcement. The next day a newspaper carried an article with the headline “Small amount of cesium detected in elementary and junior high school students in Minami-Soma.” A nurse scornfully told Tsubokura, “Now all Fukushima children have been labeled as having been exposed to radiation.” Tsubokura was shocked. What he had set out to do with only the best of intentions had backfired.

He wanted to give up on the support activities he was involved with. It was when he was seriously thinking about what he should do that he met Yukiko Banba, 53, who operated a tutoring school near the hospital. “I want you to tell the children the truth about radioactivity,” Banba said. Agreeing, Tsubokura spoke to the kids and fielded their innocent queries: “Is it alright to hold a cat that has played outside?” “Can well water be used for doing laundry?”

Thoughtless comments about Tsubokura continued to be posted on the Internet: “He’s a self-serving academic.” “He’s an agent for Tokyo Electric.” Still, with Banba’s encouragement, Tsubokura continued to hold numerous, small explanatory briefings, drawing audiences of about 20 to 30 people each time. Slowly, the number of residents who came to understand that “Dr. Tsubokura is speaking from a scientific and medical perspective” increased.

Last year, the results of internal radiation exposure tests revealed that no cesium was detected in almost all of the children and more than 90 percent of the adults examined. The number of residents saying “We don’t need to test anymore” is increasing. However, Tsubokura believes “testing should be ongoing to maintain confirmation that no cesium is present and that no changes are occurring.”

Tsubokura has commuted to Fukushima for over three years now. “I was criticized a lot during lectures; however, in balance, I received more thanks from people than not. I’m grateful.” Going forward, he plans to continue making himself available to residents to help alleviate their fears concerning exposure.

Kami, Tsubokura’s supervisor, said, “The people of Fukushima have helped him grow immensely.” Aware of Tsubokura’s efforts, a growing number of younger doctors want to follow in his footsteps. Full-time physicians working at Minami-Soma Municipal General Hospital have also increased beyond the pre-quake total.


1982: Born in Osaka. His parents worked in the blood products business at the Japanese Red Cross Society

2000: Graduated from Nada High School. Entered the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo

2006: Graduated from the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Medicine. Obtained his physician’s license. Started internship at Kameda General Hospital

2008: Became an assistant at the internal medicine (blood) department at Teikyo University Chiba Medical Center

2010: Became a practicing physician of hematology at the Tokyo Metropolitan Komagome Hospital

April 2011: Became a researcher (postgraduate student) at the Institute of Medical Science, University of Tokyo. In May concurrently took on the position of part-time physician at the Minami-Soma Municipal General Hospital.

February 2012: Concurrently took up the position of part-time physician at Soma Central Hospital. Married in October

Tsubokura specializes in hematology

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About liz

from the u.s., recently moved from kobe to sendai, japan, researching community-based housing recovery after disaster.


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