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Former Japanese Official Who Consumed Treated Fukushima Water Denies Death Rumors

As Japan releases treated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean, misinformation has flooded Chinese social media platforms. Among the rumors was the supposed death of Yasuhiro Sonoda, a former Japanese official, who allegedly consumed treated nuclear water and succumbed to cancer. But a very alive Mr. Sonoda recently refuted these allegations in an exclusive interview with Japan’s Kyodo News.

In a 2011 press conference, Mr. Sonoda, who then served as an administrative officer in Japan’s Cabinet Office, consumed treated water from the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

The dramatic act was intended to quell public fears by illustrating the safety of treated, low-level contaminated water.

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Prompted by challenges from freelance journalists who dared him to “take a sip” if the water was as harmless as claimed, Mr. Sonoda complied.

Allegations Against Japan

Since the commencement on Aug. 24 of treated water discharges into the sea, Chinese state-run media have levied baseless allegations against Japan, resulting in a complete halt of Japanese seafood imports into China.

A sign reading "Suspend the sale of all fish products imported from Japan" at an area of Japanese restaurants in Beijing on Aug. 27, 2023. (Pedro Pardo/AFP via Getty Images)
A sign reading “Suspend the sale of all fish products imported from Japan” at an area of Japanese restaurants in Beijing on Aug. 27, 2023. (Pedro Pardo/AFP via Getty Images)

Aimed at stoking public fears and anti-Japanese sentiments, many unfounded rumors have found fertile ground on social media platforms.

Among these was the claim that Mr. Sonoda, once a Deputy Minister in Japan’s Environment Ministry, passed away in Palau in August 2020 due to multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer. This rumor gained traction through various channels, including videos and text messages.

According to Kyodo News’ Chinese-language platform, a now-retired Mr. Sonoda emphasized in a Sept. 2 interview that his 2011 act of drinking treated water wasn’t meant as definitive proof of its safety.
“Data should be the cornerstone for establishing safety, not symbolic gestures,” he said.

Taiwanese Fact-Checkers

Contradicting the viral video that alleged “Palau’s Ministry of Health announced Sonoda’s death due to cancer,” Taiwan’s independent body, the Taiwan Fact-Check Center, corroborated on Sept. 3 that the claim was spurious.

The center conducted due diligence by contacting Palau’s ambassador to Taiwan, who firmly denied that neither the Ministry of Health in Palau nor its government had disseminated any information regarding “the death of Yasuhiro Sonoda.”

Moreover, no Japanese citizens have been reported to have died of bone marrow cancer in Palau, an island country in the Micronesia subregion of Oceania in the western Pacific.

To further bolster its findings, the Taiwan Fact-Check Center collaborated with Japanese fact-checking agencies, media personnel, academic scholars, and other credible authorities. They unanimously confirmed that Mr. Sonoda had transitioned into the private sector after retiring from politics and that there were no indications from his Japanese colleagues or acquaintances to suggest that he had passed away.

The Fact-Check Center’s report also examined other versions of the rumor and found no credible evidence to substantiate any of them.

The website features an array of debunked myths concerning the safety of Fukushima’s treated nuclear water, ranging from false claims that “Russia will deploy personnel to assess water quality near Fukushima and may use force if standards aren’t met” to unfounded allegations like “Obama has begun to criticize Japan’s discharge of treated nuclear water.” There have also been baseless assertions that “Japan covertly released nuclear wastewater earlier this year, leading to widespread marine fatalities.”

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