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In memoriam

In memoriam

ISIS Report 07/01/16

Honouring the Life and Work of Chiyo Nohara




Chiyo Nohara, who died aged 60, was member of the research team that published the first scientific evidence of harm to a living organism from radioactive contamination due to the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Susie Greaves

Courage and heroism

In August 2012, the journal Nature published evidence that artificial radionuclides from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant caused physiological and genetic damage to the pale grass blue butterfly Zizeeria mara [1]. Among the team at University of the Ryukyus Okinawa undertaking the research was a mature student in her first year, Chiyo Nohara.  Chiyo died on 28 October 2015 at the age of 60 from a heart attack. Chiyo was a scientist who set out to protect her fellow human beings despite great pressure from the authorities and at great risk to her own life.

Chiyo once said to a friend [2] “No matter how much you researched and knew, it would be pointless if you die before letting the world know about what you learned”. Fortunately, Chiyo’s research was published, and provided the first scientific evidence of harm to a living organism from the accident at Fukushima.  I will not describe the research itself, which is available in print [1]. (See also [3] Fukushima Mutant Butterflies Confirm Harm from Low-Dose Radiation, SiS 56.) Instead, I would like to concentrate on her response to the accident at Fukushima, and pay tribute to the intelligence, courage, and energy of Nohara and her team-mates in initiating the research, in undertaking the fieldwork, conducting laboratory experiments, and later defending their work against critics.

Chiyo was born 8 May 1955 in Ube city of Yamaguchi prefecture. She studied economics at Okayama University and Aichi University; taught accounting at university level, publishing numerous papers and was involved in public auditing at a local and national government level. But in 2010, at the age of 55, partly because her own daughter suffered allergies, Chiyo became interested in environmental health. She resigned from her university post and enrolled in the Biology graduate school programme of the Faculty of Science at University of the Ryukyus.

Accident at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant

When the accident at Fukushima occurred in March 2011, Chiyo was only in her first year of study. Nevertheless, she persuaded her team that research in the Fukushima area was of crucial importance, and that it had to be started immediately. She had already been active in donating money and supplies to the victims of the tsunami and earthquake, but she said [4]:“I want to go to Fukushima.  I want to see the stricken areas with my own eyes”.  She said she “wanted to do anything” to help the people affected by the accident.

The graduate team, led by Associate Professor Joji Otaki, specialised in molecular physiology, and had been researching the mechanism of the pale grass blue butterfly’s (Zizeeria maha) peculiar colour patterns which are influenced by environmental conditions such as temperature. He saw that this species of butterfly could be used as an environmental indicator.

Conducting research in the contaminated territories

After much heart-searching three members of the graduate school decided to go to the contaminated territories of Fukushima. They all signed a written disclaimer [4]: “I am fully aware of the dangers of my activities in relatively high radiation level areas”.  But several days before their scheduled trip to Fukushima, they were summoned to the Dean’s office. Chiyo and her team were subjected to some aggressive and unpleasant questioning from the Dean, the sub-Dean, and another member of staff. They were challenged with regard to their preparation and planning, and about the reaction they would elicit from people in Fukushima prefecture “when they see a team of the University of the Ryukyus pursuing butterflies with butterfly nets, while they are desperately searching for missing relatives [from the tsunami].”

Eventually, permission was given, subject to the correct radiological protection measures and strict crisis management planning in the event of another explosion at the nuclear power station. Interestingly the sub-Dean paid his respect to the team later saying that many research teams will not take risks for fear of losing funds but “this research team doesn’t care about such risks.  They just want to know what is happening there.  I support their work, but they make me nervous”.

The team left on 13 May 2011 for a six day field trip. They carried a Geiger counter to record radiation levels and gave themselves a strict 20 minute time limit at any one site. If no butterflies were found they moved on. They visited 15 sites in 4 prefectures (Tokyo, Ibaraki, Fukushima, Miyagi), and flew back to Okinawa on the 18 May with 144 butterflies.

Chiyo worries about her health

The work was continued over the next months in the university laboratories in Okinawa, and in September the team visited Fukushima prefecture once again and collected more specimens. Part of the laboratory research involved feeding the butterflies on oxalis corniculata contaminated by radionuclides from the Fukushima area. It was Chiyo and her husband who made the trips to the contaminated territories to collect contaminated oxalis - 15 trips in the space of 18 months. Inevitably Chiyo worried about her health. A friend said [2] “every time she went to Fukushima to collect butterflies, and every time she measured the radiation level of the contaminated oxalis, her physical condition deteriorated.But she did not want young students to do the job.”

The team collected first-voltine adults in the Fukushima area in May 2011 and some of these showed abnormalities. They reared two generations of progeny in the laboratories in Okinawa and found that although these had not been exposed to radiation, they had more severe abnormalities. They were also able to produce similar abnormalities in individuals from non-contaminated areas by external and internal low-dose exposures. Adult butterflies were collected from the Fukushima area in September 2011, and these butterflies showed more severe abnormalities than those collected in May. The team concluded that the artificial radionuclides from the Fukushima nuclear power plant had caused physiological and genetic damage to this species of butterfly.

Research “important and overwhelming in its implications”

The research was first published in August 2012 in Nature and international response was immediate [2]. The BBC detailed the research findings and included the comment that the study was “important and overwhelming in its implications for both the human and biological communities in Fukushima” [5]. Le Monde in France was more explicit, saying that although officially no-one has yet died from the effects of the radiation from Fukushima, many experts believe that people will fall ill and die in the years to come [6]. The BBC and the German TV company, ARD, came to interview Professor Otaki in Okinawa, and the American TV networks ABC, CNN and Fox also covered the story.

The research elicited a huge number of comments (276 139 in the first six months up to January 2013, according to the publisher’s website). The comments were answered by Chiyo and the team in a new paper in 2013 [7]. Eleven points were discussed in depth including the choice of this species as an environmental indictor, the possibility of latitude-dependent forewing-size reduction, the rearing conditions and the implications of the accumulation of genetic mutations. Many of the comments expressed were unscientific and politically motivated and could not be answered for that reason.

In Japan the research is not widely known

The mainstream Japanese media did not report the significance of this research, except for a few minor references. On personal blogs and Twitter accounts the research findings were widely disseminated but not always positively. The lack of press freedom in Japan since the Fukushima accident is very disquieting. In the 2010 Press Freedom Index of countries in the world, Japan ranked 11. By 2015 it had fallen to 61, and this is in large part due to secrecy about the accident at Fukushima [8]. In Europe and the United States, pictures of the pale grass blue butterfly, Z. maha and its abnormalities, post-Fukushima, can be accessed within seconds, but not so in Japan. The Japanese government’s response to the accident has been overwhelmingly to give falsely reassuring “information”. An example is Prime Minister Abe declaring to the Olympic Bid Committee in 2013 that “the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is under control”, which is clearly not true [9].

It is an uphill struggle. Scientists and non-scientists in the West have a duty to help the Japanese people. Just as at Chernobyl, there is [10] “a fragile human chain made up, in the East, of activists in a country trapped in radioactive contamination and in the West, by activists who support them against scientific lies.” In 2014, Chiyo travelled to Geneva to present her research at the Forum on the Genetic Effects of Ionising Radiation, organized by the Collective IndependentWHO [11]. She was already ill. IndependentWHO have published the proceedings of this Forum and dedicated them to Chiyo Nohara, with the words “She died in the cause of scientific truth”. Within the pages of Science in Society, dedicated to scientific independence, I salute her. But we would be doing Chiyo Nohara a disservice if we did not add that the implications of her research are that no-one, and especially not children, should be living in the areas contaminated by the accident at Fukushima.


  1. Hiyama A, Nohara C, Kinjo S, Taira W, Gima S Tanahara A and Otaki JM. The biological impacts of the Fukushima nuclear accident on the pale grass blue butterfly.Nature Scientific Reports2, 570, DOI: 10.1038/srep00570
  2. Obituary of Chiyo Nohara  by Oshidori Mako in Days Japan, December issue, 2015, Vol.12, No.12, p.23.
  3. Ho M W. Fukushima mutant butterflies confirm harm from low dose radiation. Science in Society 56, 48-51, 2012.
  4.  “Prometheus Traps: Pursuing Butterflies”, Nakayama Y,  Asahi Shimbun, 2015 (Series no.4: 12 July 2015:, no.5: 14 July 2015, no.6: 15 July 2015, no.7: 16 July, 2015, no.8: 17 July 2015, no.10: 19 July 2015)
  5. “Severe abnormalities found in Fukushima butterflies”, Nick Crumpton,  13 August 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19245818
  6. “Des papillons mutants autour de Fukushima”, Philippe Pons, 15 August 2012, http://www.lemonde.fr/planete/article/2012/08/15/des-papillons-mutants-autour-de-fukushima_1746252_3244.html.
  7. Hiyama A, Nohara C, Taira W, Kinjo S, Iwata M and Otaki JM, BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:168 http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2148/13/168 http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1471-2148-13-168.pdf)
  8. “Japan slips in press freedom index.” Toko Sekiguchi, Wall Street Journal: Japan Real Time, 13 February 2015. http://blogs.wsj.com/japanrealtime/2015/02/13/japan-slips-in-press-freedom-rankings/
  9. “Japan Olympic win boosts Abe but Fukushima shadows linger”, Elaine Lies, Reuters, 9 September 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-olympics-2020-japan-idUSBRE98806P20130909#ujqbOt12wDCbMa2v.97
  10. Tchertkoff W, Le crime de Tchernobyl: le goulag nucleaire.  Actes Sud (2006)
  11. Collective IndependentWHO, Proceedings of the Scientific and Citizen Forum on the Genetic Effects of Ionising Radiation, (2015) http://independentwho.org/media/Documents_Autres/Proceedings_forum_IW_november2014_English_02.pdf




In French:

on Independent WHO :


on the blog « Vivre après Fukushima » :



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