Incredible stories that should not be forgotten

by Anthony Fensom

Special To The Japan Times

Foreign journalists charged with covering Japan’s devastating March 2011 disasters faced an enormous challenge: sensitively expressing the human tragedy while accurately assessing the vast amount of real-time data on the crisis.

Some failed, as seen by the wildly inaccurate reports broadcast in certain overseas media, including a supposed nuclear reactor in the heart of Tokyo and a “mass exodus” from the capital. But many succeeded where the local media hesitated, particularly those journalists objective enough to draw criticism from both sides of the nuclear debate.

One such journalist was Tokyo-based Australian Mark Willacy, who was in the right place at the right time for a newsman when the disaster struck. However, in an interview to discuss his new book on the crisis, “Fukushima,” the experienced correspondent for Australia’s ABC said it was not always easy keeping emotions in check.

“In the early days of the disaster, I was covering the tsunami exclusively and my colleague Hayden Cooper was flown into Tokyo to handle the nuclear crisis. I just thought the tsunami disaster was massive, the biggest story in the world, and you lose track that there’s this other drama developing,” he said.

“It’s very hard as you’re hearing these terrible stories, and it can be damaging for journalists to cover tragedies like this. Having covered the Iraq War and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for four years, I still get affected, but hopefully I’ve got more of an idea about the wider context.”

“Fukushima” adds to the burgeoning library of works on the crisis but, unlike many others, obtains views from all the main protagonists — from tsunami survivors and nuclear plant workers to former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, along with Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), whom Willacy said needed considerable persuasion to become involved.

Willacy takes advantage of his storytelling experience as a television journalist to portray the crisis, maintaining a lively pace while zooming in like a camera close-up on key personalities. The result is an engaging work that draws readers in rather than shutting them out, portraying the flawed policies and people behind the “man-made” nuclear disaster without sermonizing.

“There’s this view that you’re either pro- or anti-nuclear in covering this disaster, and I’m not either. My reporting is about exposing official corporate and regulatory failings,” he said.

“The government ignored repeated warnings from their own panel members, their own seismologists and their own committees. I find it horribly ironic that Tepco of all people had the closest, most accurate simulation of anyone — their 15.7-meter tsunami wave forecast was the closest anyone got to what actually happened on March 11 [at the Fukushima No. 1 plant].”

The book’s full title promises the “inside story” and Willacy does not shirk from questioning the key players. The villains of Japan’s biggest postwar disaster are clearly identified, including the collusive “nuclear village” of power companies, politicians and bureaucrats, aided by a compliant media.

While fewer in number, the heroes include the stricken nuclear plant’s manager, the “Fukushima 50″ who stayed behind and the “samurai firemen” who worked to prevent an even bigger disaster, along with the individual officials, scientists, journalists and others who battled against a complacent establishment.

The tsunami left 20,000 dead or missing and thousands more homeless, and the author brings such cold data to life with some heartbreaking stories, including the school where 74 of 108 students drowned; the hospital patients killed in a rushed evacuation; the suicides among evacuees “condemned to live in exile”; Fukushima fishermen left wondering if anyone will ever buy their fish again; and parents facing the anxiety of their children’s thyroid tests.

Like other works on the disaster, the author will undoubtedly face criticism from both sides of the nuclear debate for either underplaying or exaggerating the crisis. Japan won much praise internationally for its well-organized response to the tsunami and the “stoicism” of its people, a fact that the author accepts.

However, Willacy argues that Japan has much to learn from the nuclear disaster, including the need for independent regulators, an end to amakudari jobs for bureaucrats in nuclear companies and reform of the “kisha club” media system that helped prevent scrutiny.

With the government now eyeing the restart of nuclear plants, Willacy warns that another Fukushima is possible if the lessons of the disaster are ignored. For the author, the book’s main message is as clear as the stone markers found in coastal towns warning of past tsunami: Never forget.

” ‘Fukushima’ is the story of the people who lost so much — people with incredibly brave stories to tell, but also quite tragic stories. When I interviewed them, most of them would say to me what they didn’t want for the future was for people to forget this. These are incredible stories and they should be told, and hopefully not forgotten,” he said.

Anthony Fensom is a freelance writer and communications consultant.

  • Guest

    The first paragraph sounds like you’re just parroting Kan when he was talking about how the foreign media must report “accurately and correctly” despite the fact that foreign media aren’t allowed into the press clubs, and thus by definition must get their “official” information second (or third) hand.

    To cut right to the chase, let me say this: give it a rest already. Plenty of foreigners speak Japanese, and there are also plenty of non-Japanese working for various foreign media that can speak Japanese, to say nothing of Japanese people themselves working for foreign media. The only enemy to foreign media reporting accurately on/about Japan is Japan itself, which should do more to be open and engage foreign media rather than, as usual, pretend they don’t exist.

    It is not only ridiculous to post attack pieces like this calling on all 6-odd billion people in “the gaikoku” to speak accurately and correctly about Japan but it is also pretty insulting and very much resonates with the mindset of “us” and “them” that is such a plague to this country. You’d do better to encourage Japan to do what the rest of the world does: ignore those who toot their own horn with false information and trust that the truth will prevail if the information necessary is made available.

    The responsibility for that, my friend, rests squarely on the shoulders of Japan.

    • Rockne O’Bannon

      Uh no. No it doesn’t. I have said plenty of times that the best information I got during and after March 11 was our local newspaper. The foreign media were terrible, most not venturing north of Fukushima, and the “foreigners” in general lacked perspective and were herded by their media.

      The foreign journalists were not using the information the government gave them. They were not following up stories on their own. Most don’t speak or read Japanese, as evidenced by their inability to convey what I was reading in Japanese on the internet and in my local paper. Most stayed hunkered down in Tokyo or Hong Kong and Singapore, mailing their stories in rather than seeing what was actually going on.

      As a result, most of the REALLY incredible stories were not forgotten. They were never reported.

      The outstanding work done by the US military to get Sendai’s airport up in record time was amazing. No foreign reporters except for the Stars and Stripes reported that, I think. March 11 was not just about Fukushima, but you can hardly find a foreign journalist who knows that.

  • Rockne O’Bannon

    “One such journalist was Tokyo-based Australian Mark Willacy, who was in the right place at the right time for a newsman when the disaster struck.”

    Oh. Right. He was in Tokyo? And then later he drove to southern Fukushima? Wow. He really had it rough then. Not like the people in Iwate and Miyagi.

    • Adele

      He also travelled to Iwate too. Read the book if you’re curious. It’s thorough.