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Video journalist’s work takes him to centers of the world’s conflicts

Following years covering wars, Takeharu Watai now focuses on Japan's antinuclear movement

by Gianni Simone

Special To The Japan Times

Takeharu Watai has spent all of his two-decade career in video journalism as an independent. But he is conscious that public distrust of the mass media, particularly over its coverage of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the nation’s nuclear energy policy, has grown so strong that, by default, it extends to journalists in this country.

He says that when he went to Fukushima in the aftermath of the March 2011 nuclear accident, he found it increasingly difficult to interview people as he sensed the local residents’ suspicions toward media people in general after they became frustrated with coverage of the disaster in newspapers and on TV.

The Osaka-born Watai specializes in covering conflicts in Asia and other parts of the world, but has lately been active shooting aerial videos of the antinuclear demonstrations that have been held in Tokyo.

A graduate from Nihon University’s broadcasting department, Watai has always been fascinated by journalism. “When I was a child, I was involved in making the school paper,” he said. “Later, I wrote articles for the student paper at my university. I love soccer — so much so that I would gladly become a soccer writer, if I had a chance — and Nihon University has always been a sports powerhouse, so I mostly wrote about sports.”

Watai entered the university in 1990, around the time when Japanese TV and newspapers were busy covering such events as the Gulf War, the collapse of the Soviet-influenced East Bloc, and the 1989 Tiananmen Incident in Beijing. “I quickly became interested in foreign affairs. I used to go to the university library where I could find books about the war in Vietnam. All these things influenced my decision to become a journalist.”

After graduation in 1994, Watai had many job interviews, and hoped to work for one of Japan’s top newspapers or TV broadcasters. “My plan was to work with them for about 10 years, then go freelance. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to hire me, so I decided to become a freelancer right away.”

To support himself, Watai took a number of jobs, including one at a car plant, before joining Asia Press International (API), a group of independent photo and video journalists, in 1998. His first major reportage, though, was the civil war in Sri Lanka in 1997. “At the time many journalists were covering the conflicts in Palestine and Afghanistan, and I was afraid that a greenhorn like me had no place working side by side with the veterans. On the other hand, Sri Lanka was relatively unknown, so I decided to cut my teeth there.”

Though it was only natural for an inexperienced journalist like Watai to have trouble moving around the country and taking good photos, the real problems began at the end of the project, when he tried to find a buyer. Still an unknown reporter with few contacts in the media world, he turned to API for advice. “They were very supportive and helped me in many ways. That’s when I realized that as a freelancer I needed a network of people whom I could rely on.”

From then on Watai has been constantly busy, reporting from Indonesia, East Timor and Sudan between 1999 and 2000, before focusing on Afghanistan and Iraq.

Watai’s parents, though not exactly excited about the idea of seeing their son traveling to dangerous places, have never really tried to interfere with his decision to become a war correspondent. “Since enrolling at Nihon University I’ve lived in Tokyo, at a safe distance from their influence,” Watai says, chuckling. “Still, there are times when I can’t but stop and think about the nature of my job.”

One such moment was on Aug. 20, when former API member Mika Yamamoto was gunned down while covering the civil war in Syria. Yamamoto was a close friend of Watai’s, and had worked with her in Iraq. “Obviously that was a huge shock for everybody. When such things happen, it’s difficult not to think about what I do, and the path I’ve chosen,” he says.

In the last 10 years the number of war journalists killed “in action” has been steadily rising. Reporters have lost their lives in Russia, Myanmar, the Philippines and several other countries. “Without doubt we are being targeted by those who don’t want us to show what’s really happening in those places. It’s clear that some of these killings have been done in retribution for articles those journalists had written.”

One of the projects for which Watai is better known is “Little Birds,” a documentary he made between 2003 and 2004 in which he shows how people lived in war-ravaged Iraq — among them a man who lost three daughters and two brothers, and a 12-year-old girl who lost her right eye because of a cluster bomb. The film was released in 2005 and won several international awards.

“Since I was a child, I’ve always liked watching news on TV, and documentaries in particular, like NHK Special,” he says. “The end of the 1990s, when I began my journalistic work, were the years of the first small video cameras. Until then I thought that in order to make a documentary you needed a big TV crew, but other people at API showed me that with the right equipment and enough technical knowhow one could do everything without assistance. Next year will be the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, so I’d like to make a sequel to ‘Little Birds’ and show what’s happened to the people I first met then.”

Besides API, Watai is a member of the Japan Visual Journalists Association. “Compared with API, JVJA is a looser association of like-minded people. Subject-wise we focus more on freedom of speech issues. Also, photojournalism is our strong suit, while API concentrates on video reporting.”

Since the end of June, JVJA has collaborated with writer and antinuclear activist Takashi Hirose through the Tadashii Hodo Heli no Kai. Watai himself is in charge of renting the helicopters from which he and other photo and video journalists have been showing the huge size of the demonstrations in front of the prime minister’s office and the Diet complex, contradicting earlier reports by the mainstream media on the scale of the protests.

“I have a deep respect for Hirose,” he says. “I confess years ago I didn’t think much about the threat posed by nuclear energy, but Hirose’s predictions have proved true.”

His position about the current status of independent journalism in Japan is rather ambivalent. “On one side, this is an excellent time to become a reporter. Thanks to the Internet, everybody is potentially able to reach millions of people. This is true not only for professional journalists, but for other people who have recently been engaging in quasi-journalistic activity, like lawyers. In this sense, the number of independent journalists is definitely rising.

“The problem is, how many of them get actually paid for their job? How many can make a living out of reporting? The situation is further made worse by the tendency many media have to rely on the same people, so that there is a very small group of journalists who enjoy a kind of elite status, while the money pie is by no means equally shared by everyone.”

Given the situation, Watai finds API the ideal environment for his job. “We are a group of independent journalists so we enjoy a lot of freedom and don’t have to follow anybody’s orders. For example, a producer or a reporter will say something like ‘I’m going to work on such and such a project. Who wants to join?’ As for the business side of the job, it is our API office that deals with the TV broadcasters and takes care of payments. They keep a percentage of the fees, but that’s OK because this way we can concentrate on our job.”

Still, Watai acknowledges that his professional freedom comes with a price. “As I’m not regularly employed, I’m not financially secure. It’s very much up and down. Not only that, it’s true that we can choose any subject we like without fear of censorship from a producer, but we are not always sure that we will be able to find a client. This trend, unfortunately, is getting worse and worse as the media outlets where we can show our work are dwindling in number.”

In addition, freelancers who cover national politics have to deal with the conservative system where access to information from lawmakers and the bureaucracy is often restricted to members of major media organizations that belong to kisha (reporters’) clubs.

“In recent years, the Democratic Party of Japan has partially opened news conferences and briefings to independent journalists. Nevertheless, there are still many areas where we don’t have easy access to information and are discriminated against.”

These problems extend to the relationship with the major media organizations. “If we could establish a healthy competitive environment between mainstream media and independent groups, I believe that would be good for everybody. On the contrary, we are still seen with suspicion by many of our colleagues who work for major companies.

“Personally I think that these divisions shouldn’t exist. What we have to strive for is truthful, honest reporting. It doesn’t matter if it’s done by a major newspaper or a freelancer.”

For more about Watai, check his website at www1.odn.ne.jp/watai/ (in Japanese).