(Reuters) - Radiation injuries to three workers at Japan’s stricken nuclear plant have put a focus once again on the unnamed and largely faceless corps of men risking their lives to prevent further catastrophe for their countrymen.
First dubbed the “Fukushima Fifty,” their number has now risen to more than 700 workers toiling inside an evacuation zone at the facility on Japan’s northeast coast that was battered on March 11 by an earthquake and then a tsunami.
Feted by foreign media and on social networks, the men have also won quieter admiration and sympathy from Japanese.
“Their job was in that sort of workplace, and I think they always knew that this might be their destiny, that at some point they might have to fight this kind of thing,” said Yasuchika Honda, a 27-year-old advertising executive in Tokyo.
“They’re trying very hard and I’m very grateful.”
Three workers replacing a cable at the plant, run by Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), were exposed to radiation 10,000 times higher than expected when they stood in contaminated water this week.
Though encased in protective suits, it turned out two of the men had boots too short to stop water seeping in.
In a rare glimpse into conditions inside the reactors, photos released two weeks into the crisis showed shadowy figures working in near-darkness to restore the power and cooling systems, the gloom illuminated by a few weak lights.
“They’re all the real Samurai,” said one admirer on a Facebook page dedicated to the Fukushima workers and mainly containing messages from outside Japan.
“Let us pray for your healthy and safe return to your homes. May God help all of you in each single minute when you are still fighting desperately for your country and people. Thank you, Fukushima 50,” commented another person on Facebook.
The only public appearance by anyone who has been inside the plant was a news conference by firefighters earlier this week. They cried with relief and spoke of their commitment to duty.
Most of the workers are too busy to go home.
The wife of one told the daily Yomiuri Shimbun that she had not seen her husband since the day of the quake and tsunami, and had only spoken with him briefly several times.
“It’s like a war here,” she quoted him as saying. Asked if he had been exposed to radiation, he told her: “A little.”
The lack of effusive praise or public fuss over them inside Japan may be due to cultural norms that emphasise the group over individuals.
Sociology professor Takashi Miyajima, of Hosei University near Tokyo, said praise in Japan was generally reserved for the whole team — and only when they finally succeed.
Reservations about the role of plant operator TEPCO could also be a factor.
“Among the mainstream media there’s also a growing sense of how responsible TEPCO is for this whole mess, and this is making them reluctant to praise anybody involved in cleaning it up,” Miyajima said.
“After all, these workers are mainly TEPCO people or from TEPCO affiliates.”
Foreign media have reported the Twitter comments by one of the men’s daughters who said he had volunteered despite being just six months from retirement.
“My eyes are filling up with tears,” posted @NamicoAoto.
“At home, he doesn’t seem like someone who could handle big jobs...but today, I was really proud of him. And I pray for his safe return.”
Editing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Sugita Katyal