TOKYO — A journalist finds his nose doesn't stop bleeding after visiting the meltdown-stricken Fukushima nuclear plant. He also learns others suffer similar symptoms.
The scene from popular manga comic "Oishinbo," published last month, has set off a hot public debate in Japan — a nation still traumatized by the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
Local governments immediately protested the comic, saying it fosters unfounded fears of radiation.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe chimed in over the weekend, reassuring the public there was no proof of a link between radiation and such illnesses. "The government will make the best effort to take action against baseless rumors," he said.
Undeterred by the ruckus, Tokyo-based publisher Shogakukan added a special 10-page segment to weekly Big Comic Spirits magazine, published Monday, featuring criticism it had received as well as opinion from radiation experts.
Editor Hiroshi Murayama acknowledged he had been unsure about publishing the manga, subtitled "The Truth of Fukushima," because he anticipated people would be offended. But he had decided that voice needed to be heard, he said.
"We hope the various views on the latest 'Oishinbo' will lead to a constructive debate into assessing our future," he said in the special segment.
"Oishinbo," a hit series usually about gourmet food, which began in the 1980s, will be discontinued temporarily in the magazine. But the publisher said that had been the plan even before the controversy. It is not clear when it will run again.
So far, there has been no confirmed illnesses related to radiation among nuclear plant workers or residents of Fukushima. The nuclear disaster began three years ago in March 2011, when a giant tsunami disabled backup generators at three reactors. Entire towns around the Fukushima plant remain no-go zones.
The Fukushima prefectural government issued a protest against "Oishinbo," slamming it as misleading and fanning the fears about the safety of the area's fish and agricultural products.
Although nosebleeds may be related to radiation, people outside the evacuation zone in Fukushima are not being exposed to such high levels of radiation, it said in a statement, also included in the magazine.
Also featured was Ikuro Anzai, honorary professor at Ritsumeikan University and radiation expert, who said he was aware of talk in Fukushima about nosebleeds but stressed there was no scientific data to draw conclusions. And discrimination against Fukushima was causing far more real suffering, not radiation.
"People know it is best not to get radiated and so whatever happens, people are going to blame Fukushima," he said.
Scientists say there is no exact safe limit to low dose radiation. A causal link to any individual's disease is hard to prove, given the varieties of carcinogens and other risks in the environment.
Fukushima is monitoring the health of its residents, and carrying out thyroid checks on those ages 18 and under.
Seventy-five confirmed and suspected cases of thyroid cancer have been found in those tests, but it is unclear whether they are linked to radiation.
A group of Fukushima residents, who say they have suffered dizzy spells and nosebleeds since the disaster, came out last week in defense of "Oishinbo." They said through their lawyer that they will speak out in Tokyo, but on condition of anonymity, perhaps wearing a traditional demon's mask to protect themselves against ostracism and other social backlash over going public with fears about radiation.
In the final scenes of the Fukushima episodes of "Oishinbo," the characters — drawn in trademark manga style with big eyes — talk about how they must save Fukushima. But they decide that the best way is to urge people living with radiation to have the courage to get out, with the help of the government.
Tetsu Kariya, the writer of "Oishinbo," did not immediately respond to requests for an interview. But he said on his blog earlier this month that the intensity of the outrage set off by the nosebleed scene was unexpected.
Having researched Fukushima for two years, he was not about to write that Fukushima was safe and all was well — even if that may be what people wanted to hear.
"I can only write the truth," he said.
Follow Yuri Kageyama on Twitter at twitter.com/yurikageyama