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Hibaku: Re-opening the book on an old word

Written By: daveski on March 28, 2011 1 Comment

Seeing a Japanese word I thought was buried in the past re-emerging in day-to-day use reminded me of a strand of posts I started but haven’t kept up with:「ありがとうございます」(Thank you very much),「入口」 (Entrance), and「おひさしぶりです」 (Long time, no see)  were posts I wrote as I tried to make sure my Japanese skills didn’t themselves become a relic of the past. Discovering recently that I’ll be able once again to teach introductory Japanese, and then seeing this word last week, has suddenly made reading and hearing the resonances of words vitally important once again.

被曝を抑えるには (Hibaku o Osaeru ni wa) “How to Limit your Exposure”, reads the title of this pop-up illustration from the Yomiuri Online article from a few days ago,「被ばく、どう予防し、どう対策すれば…」­­­­­­­(Hibaku, Dou Yobou Shi, Dou Taisaku Sureba…) “How can Exposure be Prevented? What Measures can be Taken?”. The illustration tells its viewers first, when seeking shelter (避難時, Hinan-ji), avoid exposing (露出する, roshutsu suru) your skin and keep your nose and mouth covered with a wet towel. Second, under the heading “Decontamination” (除染, Josen), the text tells the reader/victim to remove all clothing, put it in a plastic bag and tie it shut, wipe oneself down with a wet towel, take a shower. And last, under “Food” (食べ物, Tabemono), Viewers are told, “Just to be sure, don’t eat food that has been sitting outside” (外に置いてあったものは念のため食べない, Soto ni oite atta mono wa, nen no tame tabenai).

“Exposure”. Already, the fact that the article uses kanji (漢字) for the “baku” of hibaku in the title of the article proper (被曝), but the hiragana (ひらがな) syllabary in the title of the article’s illustration (被ばく) indicates that there might be some complexity with this word; my own glossing of the word roshutsu (露出) as “exposure” from the phrase “exposing your skin” seems to complicate the matter. Just what kind of “exposure” is hibaku, anyway?

The Japanese Wikipedia article on the word tells us in its helpfully dry tone that hibaku (被曝) is closely related to 曝露(ばくろ、bakuro), meaning “to expose [something]” as a transitive verb, applicable to scientific experiments in general: to expose something to heat, cold, chemicals, high pressure, etc. Hibaku, then, is “exposure” in the intransitive: exposure from the perspective of the exposed entity, and exposure to a particular kind of condition, unlike the general exposure indicated by roshutsu.

“Exposure to nuclear radiation”. This English gloss might do more justice to the word, I guess, as I struggle to make sense of it myself. Although they are only mentioned incidentally in the Wikipedia article, “hibakusha” (被爆者), the word referring to the hundreds of thousands of people injured, sickened, and killed by the effects of the atomic bombs of 1945 (and depicted in such novels and films as Ibuse Masuji’s Black Rain and Steven Okazaki’s more recent White Light/Black Rain) was my introduction. But now, following the ongoing disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (福島第一原発, Fukushima Daiichi Gempatsu), the difficulty of comprehending the physical power of radiation to do damage to people and life is being taken up in ways, and is using media, that probably couldn’t have been imagined over 60 years ago. Witness last week’s (children’s?) video uploaded by YouTube user “Onaradaijoubu”, which explains Fukushima and Japan’s nuclear predicament by making the analogy to a toddler’s leaky diaper—“Nuclear Boy うんち・おならで例える原発説明” (Unchi, Onara de Tatoeru Gempatsu Setsumei, Explaining the Nuclear Plant Situation with Poop and Farts)

At stake for me in coming to terms with this video as an adult learner of Japanese is understanding not just the physical power of radiation, but also its social force. Returning to the aforementioned Wikipedia article on hibaku, I feel like I’m almost reading a stigma in this word, hinted at perhaps by the Yomiuri Online’s alternating use of hiragana and kanji in its illustrations and articles. The “baku” of hibakusha, Wikipedia tells us, is not the “baku” of the hibaku being used in the media today to warn people of exposure to radiation, or to tell them what to do if they are exposed. “被爆” (hibaku) is pronounced and spelled the same as “被曝”, but it means “to be harmed by an explosion”. And while this word would nominally apply to any explosion, the article says, it has taken on connotations of explosions by nuclear weapons.

As I read more about the crisis surrounding the effort to contain the radiation at Fukushima, and the concerns over irradiated food and water up to hundreds of kilometers away, I wonder about the social burdens of radiation (the continuing ostracism and discrimination against those “exposed” in 1945 is well-known), and the weight of this one word. How much are these issues are in the minds of those who must represent “exposure” in the media? And in the minds of those blogging, tweeting, or writing in a more private way? How does one choose between “被曝” and “被ばく”? And are the explosions of “被爆” lurking somewhere behind?

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One Response to “Hibaku: Re-opening the book on an old word”

  1. Tibor on: 30 March 2011 at 8:28 pm

    From watching the TV news in Japan, I get the impression that the general populace might not be familiar with the two forms of hibaku. I’ve seen the anchors explain on several occasions that the “hibaku” word being used recently is the general exposure term and not the one associated with an atomic weapon.

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