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Reflections on 3/11: reporters’ dispatches

Foreign journalists try to make sense of an exhausting, emotional year since the disasters

Initial hopes turn to frustration

In the immediate aftermath of 3/11 I penned several optimistic pieces for European newspapers predicting that the disaster might jolt Japan out of its long period of economic torpor and social ennui. I wouldn’t write the same today.

Journalists saw the best of Japan in the first month of the heaviest reporting: shattered northeast communities organically re-congealing with remarkable speed; the orderliness and unselfishness of ordinary people in response to their ordeal; their adamant, inspiring refusal to feel sorry for themselves.

We’ve seen its less admirable qualities since. Like many, I’m depressed by the lethargy of ordinary citizens and the political system’s inability to respond to popular signals. How many other world cities would have forgiven their governor after he called the disaster “divine punishment,” let alone reelected him for a fourth term, as Tokyo did for Shintaro Ishihara?

Tokyo hosted just 20,000 antinuclear demonstrators on the anniversary of 3/11, a remarkably anemic response to a disaster that could have wiped out the city. Only then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s demand that Tepco officials stay at their posts inside the Fukushima plant saved the world’s most populated metropolis from catastrophe. Kan of course has gone down in the supine mainstream press as a bungler. The Yomiuri even claimed that he had helped cause the disaster.

Japan’s structural faults are deep. In the next four decades, the population will plummet by 30 percent, a demographic problem that no other modern society has had to solve. The ratio of the nation’s $12 trillion public debt to its GDP is the worst in the industrialized world. Many of its corporations are living on past glories.

Tackling these problems needs an intelligent, responsive political system. I see no signs of that. Instead, we have infantile, antediluvian attempts by the leaders of Japan’s two main cities to enforce patriotism on their citizens. Government inspectors will even be dispatched to make sure that teachers open their mouths wide and sing with gusto and “sincerity.” How on earth will this help revive the country? Pray for Japan indeed . . .

David McNeill covered the 3/11 disaster for The Independent, The Irish Times, RTE and the Chronicle of Higher Education

The fear of what can’t be seen

‘What is the truth?” The words of Muneo Kanno, a 60-year-old farmer from Iitate, reverberated within me. He hopes to return home but has no way of knowing just how much radiation has infiltrated the forest, air and soil.

I once again find myself in this village, some 30 km from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, a year after my first visit on March 31, 2011. Leading up to the March 11 anniversary, I also reported from nearby Soma and Minamisoma.

In March, Iitate is still painted white with snow and the sight is as breathtaking as ever. However, deep within his being, Kanno has come to realize: The farmland is weeping. “The buildings are terribly dilapidated and deserted. My homeland is losing its spirit.”

I listened to his plea, and also to what he believes is the key to his salvation. “I don’t want to wait around in vain,” he said. “Only through science and technology can we know what is happening to this piece of land. And till we know, I will not rely on hearsay.

“It is not for others to pass judgment on our behalf. If one is not able to convince oneself, the truth will always be out of sight.”

Turning a blind eye to hard truth is to disregard humanity. My latest journey into the disaster-stricken regions has convinced me that this is a battle — a battle between humanity and nuclear radiation, between nature and civilization, between rural and urban development: a self-inflicted “nuclear war” of Japan.

Foo ChooWei is Tokyo correspondent for the Chinese-language Lianhe Zaobao newspaper in Singapore

Dangers and duties for journalists

It was the worst of times for Japan, but also the best of times. We’ve seen a nation battered by the fury of nature and then a man-made disaster — the result of human error and scientific “progress” gone horribly wrong — stand firm and face the odds without losing its sense of dignity.

It was also a time that tested our professional integrity, right from the moment that the facts of the nuclear situation became clouded and confused. Many of us were forced into making a quick decision: ignore the danger signals raised by some and continue reporting from the field, or forget about the suffering of the victims of one of the worst disasters in Japan’s recent history and look out for ourselves.

The majority of foreign reporters stationed in Tokyo successfully passed this extremely difficult test and held firm in the face of the looming danger — much of which turned out to have been manufactured by the very journalist community we represent.

As reporters, we are always in search of news, and the March 11 disaster unleashed a virtually endless torrent of stories that media outlets were eager to get hold of and plaster prominently on their front pages. For more than a month, the relentless unfolding of stories one after another kept us extremely busy, sometimes compelling us to spend sleepless nights trying to meet a deadline.

As well as being challenging, the post-March 11 period was professionally fulfilling, as we felt not only a sense of urgency, but also of duty — a commitment to the noble mission of letting people outside Japan know what really was going on. This sense of responsibility turned out to be even more important in light of the rumors circulating in the wake of the nuclear disaster, which led in some cases to foreign politicians reaching bizarre decisions that hurt the feelings of the Japanese people at such a difficult time.

The most satisfying experience for me personally was helping our policymakers reverse the decision to close down the Bangladesh Embassy amid the scare over possible radioactive contamination. I remember writing in my newspaper about the reality of the situation in Tokyo, where even children were attending schools normally, and reminding our readership that the decision could only hurt the sentiment of the people of a friendly country that had always stood by our side when we had faced similar difficulties.

Monzurul Huq is Tokyo bureau chief for Prothom Alo, Bangladesh’s leading daily

Women rose to the challenge

In the reporting of disasters, gender issues can be an important but often overlooked aspect of the story.

When I started doing my research on the subject after the terrifying events of March 11, 2011, I was armed with the usual advice: Women in conservative Tohoku, they said, are a particularly downtrodden group in male-dominated Japan. They stoically accept hardship and rarely speak their minds in public, preferring to allow men to do the talking for them.

So how on earth was I, a foreigner, going to crack that iron curtain? The task, however, turned out to be one of the most valuable learning experiences of my life.

Indeed, during my initial visits to the disaster area, gender stereotyping appeared to be deep-rooted — for example, it was hard to find female leaders in local government positions.

But, with time, I began to find evidence to the contrary. Soon I was writing stories that documented how women were ushering in change by standing at the forefront of antinuclear movements or launching grassroots campaigns to call for alternative job opportunities and better psychosocial counseling for affected children and the elderly. A year later there have been breakthroughs — for example, gender is on the national disaster recovery agenda and women and children have been identified as particularly vulnerable to radioactive contamination.

A crucial lesson I want to share with journalists approaching gender reporting in disasters is the need to look beneath the surface. It is important to spend time with women, to hear their stories, and to tell yourself the gender story is an ongoing one.

The biggest victories in the aftermath of the Tohoku disasters are being won by women.

Suvendrini Kakuchi is Tokyo correspondent for Inter Press Service (www.ipsnews.net)

Media can hurt more than it helps

A year has passed, yet my memory of the Great East Japan Earthquake is still vivid. I was at home with my pregnant wife on the 24th floor when the quake struck. Our 32-story apartment building shook violently, making loud, disturbing noises. I felt more desperate than scared, knowing there was nothing I could do. That said, the fearful possibility of death flashed through my mind for just a moment.

Three minutes later, the shaking finally stopped, and I began the long journey via the stairs to ground level. By the time I left the building, a lot of people were already in the street. Nobody looked flustered. I headed to the designated emergency assembly area at a nearby middle school and was amazed to see that students and teachers had all been evacuated safely to the playground and everything was in good order.

Japanese people’s calmness, sense of order and resilience during and after the earthquake left a deep impression on me. I think these much-reported traits were partly attributable to the painstaking provisions made for natural disasters in Japan, in such areas as education and building construction, as well as the nation’s generous social safety net. If it were not for the huge tsunami and nuclear accident triggered by the quake, the damage would have been much less serious.

As the anniversary passes, news and features about 3/11 have again become the main focus of the media. There’s no doubt that investigations to determine the cause of the triple disasters and reflection on the terrible events of that day and its aftermath are important, but the Japanese media strike me as being overly critical of the government. Rather than finding fault, the media should focus more on making proposals that can help the government improve its work in responding to the recent disasters and planning for the next one.

More than ever, Japan needs a stable and strong government. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Japanese people should be more patient and think more independently of their media. I firmly believe that Japan will soon recover from the disaster and create an even brighter future.

Ganbare, Nippon!

Xie Guoqiao is a correspondent at China News Service’s Tokyo bureau

Teaching world through suffering

Looking back on the year since March 11, 2011, one voice still rattles in my mind: “Japan is where the sun rises on the world,” said the 80-something grandmother. “So it’s the destiny of the Japanese to teach the world through our suffering.”

She was comparing the atomic bombings and her hardships during World War II with the Tohoku triple disasters. The interview was one of many I was scrambling to gather those first few days for a story with TIME.com. But unlike the others, it stuck hard and became an uncomfortable epiphany. I’ve since filed it with a question mark, in bold — and I’m still searching for an answer.

Throughout the year I’ve interviewed remarkable people. Some that quickly come to mind include antinuclear power activist Aileen Mioko Smith, journalist/author and antinuclear activist Satoshi Kamata, Nobel for literature Laureate Kenzaburo Oe, Minamisoma Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai, “Fukushima 100″ mothers fighting the national government for their children’s health, Rikuzentakata Mayor Futoshi Toba, quake/tsunami/fire/meltdown survivors who have lost everything they cherished.

I’ve pored through the riveting book “Fukushima Meltdown” by Takashi Hirose; admired former Prime Minister Naoto Kan; cheered the Japan Self-Defense Forces; wished I could meet again with Masayoshi Son to discuss his alternative energy initiatives and donations to orphans; broke down and sobbed after listening to junior high students from one of the hard-hit towns sing “Sakura” with Naotaro Moriyama after an exhausting day reporting on death.

They and countless others have shown bravery, generosity and selflessness. And not just Japanese, but many foreigners both within Japan and from abroad who came to help. They have much to teach the world, most acutely about the dangers of nuclear power.

Still, layered within, the suffering continues, profound and unfathomable. But is suffering Japan’s destiny? Buddha may agree. If interviewed, though, he might just say: Don’t suffer passively.

Lucy Birmingham is Time magazine’s Tokyo-based reporter

Unsung heroes are still fighting

It would be impossible to even attempt to distill the enormity of the Tohoku disaster into a few succinct sentences.

That said, there is a clear thread running throughout the post-3/11 narrative — the extraordinary human response to the tragedy by people who would have had every right to recoil in despair.

They are the unsung heroes of the tsunami, who have quietly gone about rebuilding their lives, often without official help and with little public recognition. They are the middle-aged sisters in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, who cooked for elderly neighbors in an evacuation shelter last year, and now do the same for paying diners at their reopened restaurant; the fisherman in Ofunato who could not bring himself to look at the sea, now awaiting delivery of a new boat; the Rikuzentakata man who lost his parents, wife and daughter, who now divides his time between his electrical appliances store and volunteer firefighter duties.

There are others, too numerous to mention here, all united by a common purpose: an absolute refusal to be beaten, first by nature’s unforgiving force, and later, by bureaucracy and self-doubt.

I wouldn’t describe any of them as “stoic,” to borrow a word that appeared with alarming regularity in the foreign media in the weeks after the tsunami. Some are grieving, and have few reservations about showing it. Others are deeply worried about what lies ahead for them and their families. And a few, particularly among the evacuees from Fukushima, alternate between sorrow at their misfortune and anger at their treatment by the authorities.

One year on, tens of thousands of displaced and dispossessed people in Tohoku have made remarkable progress. At a time when collective action is routinely disparaged, it is encouraging to witness the strong sense of community ties among the survivors. That, and the indomitability of the human spirit, have got them through the roughest time.

What they need now, more than anything, is the political vision and will to match. Sadly, Japan’s leaders have yet to deliver.

Justin McCurry is Tokyo correspondent for the Guardian and Observer, and Japan and Korea correspondent for Global Post

Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp. This month’s Labor Pains column, which usually appears on the third Tuesday of the month, will be published next week.