ISHINOMAKI, MIYAGI PREF. – Journalists at the daily newspaper in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, who shot to fame after a U.S. museum acquired their handwritten editions, were inspired to grab their pens in a flooded newsroom by a story about their predecessors who acted likewise before the war.
“It was a miracle we survived and that motivated us to get down to our jobs,” said Koichi Omi, president of the publisher of the Ishinomaki Hibi Shimbun. “We are not heroes,” Omi, 52, said in a recent interview. “Any media would have done the same faced with the same situation.
“I thought we were going to be killed by the tsunami,” Omi said, recalling the devastation after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit Ishinomaki on March 11.
In response to a tsunami warning, Omi and two staff members of the company got in a vehicle to follow those who had already escaped to a nearby hill. But the three only found grayish muddy streams carrying rubble and vehicles approaching them. They had to race back inside the building and waited several hours for the tide to recede.
The tsunami flattened most of the surrounding districts, but the daily’s building was intact. Omi saw that two trucks from somewhere ended up near the building by accident and helped slow down the tsunami. All 28 employees of the company were safe.
Omi, who stayed overnight in the office, said the state of the fishing community was beyond description.
“The stars were amazingly beautiful, but I saw fire burning red beneath the black sky in the east. It was silent, but we could hear explosions somewhere, and the smell of burning was in the air.”
Computers and printing machinery were broken. Electricity and Internet connections were out. But staff at the news organization, which dates back to 1912, explored ways to inform its readership of what happened. More than 5,600 of the city’s 160,000 residents were killed or missing.
“If we can’t make a contribution amid a tragedy like this, our newspaper isn’t worthy of existence,” Omi said.
Hiroyuki Takeuchi, 53, editor in chief, said the staff in the dark newsroom even discussed an episode in the daily’s history when reporters were working for the Hibi Shimbun before World War II. After authorities banned the publication, the reporters handwrote the newspapers at home and delivered them to neighbors.
Hearing the story, Omi decided to go with “wall papers” using pens and rolls of paper.
The first set of six large poster-sized newspapers written in black and red felt-tip pens were ready to go the following day. The headline read: “Japan’s largest quake hits; massive tsunami.”
The daily issued 42 handwritten copies of the newspaper for six consecutive days until electricity was restored. The wall papers were posted at shelters and convenience stores in two cities and one town.
Their efforts caught the eye of the Washington-based Newseum, which later acquired the copies. Many foreign media covered the valiant work of the daily, which had a circulation of 14,000.
Omi said his challenge is to keep the business going after the disaster deprived the city of its only daily newspaper and many of its subscribers. Omi, who also owns the local soccer club Cobaltore Onagawa, said, “My goal is to help reconstruct this town.”