Journalist gives voice to voiceless

Town divided over nuclear plant inspires Shin Yamaaki to document the 'underdogs'


Shin Yamaaki is not familiar with the story of David and Goliath, but she has long understood the plight of the underdog. A chance experience in her 20s forged Yamaaki, 38, into who she is today: a woman who takes on global issues by giving voice to people who might go unheard.

Yamaaki, an award-winning journalist known for her work on Japanese nuclear politics, has found her focus by shedding light on social injustice.

She recently tuned into the challenges faced by women in Guatemala. “There have been 36 years of conflict in Guatemala, with much violence against ordinary citizens.” Writing for the weekly Shukan Kinyoobi, Yamaaki, who has used that pen name since she started writing on nuclear issues, highlights the enormous courage of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

“The article focused on the sexual violence targeted toward Mayan women, who are bound by societal norms not to speak about the abuse, as the women themselves will face isolation from their communities or even from their families,” Yamaaki said. “I was lucky to interview two women from Guatemala, both members of a grassroots organization seeking to identify, unite and help these women.”

Yamaaki continues to “give voice to the voiceless,” a lesson she learned as an undergraduate at Nihon University.

When she was researching her senior thesis in 1992, Yamaaki found herself drawn to a small-town drama: local people facing off against an army of Goliaths, not only large corporations and a corrupt local government, but also behind-the-scenes machinations, involving land and money.

For Yamaaki, Suzu, Ishikawa Prefecture, could be any small town, anywhere in the world. “Their problem was not just a problem for Suzu. It is a national problem; it is a global problem.”

At that time, Suzu was embroiled in a decades-long battle over the proposed construction of a nuclear power plant.

In 1975, members of the Suzu Municipal Assembly officially endorsed construction of the nuclear plant and the following year, the Kansai, Chubu and Hokuriku electric power companies announced a joint proposal for the plant site.

But there was opposition to the plan among Suzu residents, and with local politics tied to construction interests, many other factors came into play as political parties made the power plant a focus of their election campaigns. By the 1980s, the community was divided and opponents were holding protests nearly every month.

Yamaaki has always been interested in listening to those who would otherwise go unheard. Her choice of the Suzu nuclear plant as the topic of her thesis was not inspired by a crusade against atomic power, but by the experiences of citizens she encountered.

As a student of media studies, Yamaaki’s assignment was to focus on some element of the media, but just days before she was due to announce her topic, she had yet to find a theme.

At the time, she was living in the United States as an exchange student, with one month to go on her three-month summer vacation. There Yamaaki had seen a photojournalist’s article about Three Mile Island, and for no other reason than to pass the time, she decided to visit the Pennsylvania site of the major nuclear plant power accident in 1979.

“I spent about a week there. Through a lucky accident, I met some local residents who offered to show me around.” Struck by the local stories behind the big news event, Yamaaki decided to focus on nuclear power politics in Japan for her senior thesis back home.

What started as research in Suzu grew into conviction: “There were many reporters and journalists in Suzu because of the controversy, but no one stayed. I became determined to record (the) story (of the residents). I could see something was happening here, in this little city, with these people, but if no one recorded it, it would become lost,” she said.

Yamaaki became a witness to the underdogs of Suzu and spent the better part of four years listening and recording what the residents had to say, including how families were forced to take sides and how land disputes put stress on them — things that tended to go unnoticed by the general public, she said.

It was difficult at first, because of their dialect, but people were welcoming. “Maybe (that was) because I was young. And many young people were leaving Suzu. So they welcomed me as a rarity, a kid,” she recalled.

The kid with a notepad realized her power in 1993, when Mayor Mikito Hayashi’s re-election was contested and eventually overturned because of corruption.

“There were more ballots turned in than registered voters in the city. Grassroots supporters and out-of-town activists rushed to voting headquarters to demand an explanation, but officials did not offer any. They just declared the incumbent Hayashi the winner.”

Yamaaki was in the crowd, and her months of note-taking became evidence in the subsequent court battles to force a rerun of the election three years later.

But Yamaaki soon realized that victory for the underdog is often marked by a few steps forward, with many setbacks along the way. The court decision forced the mayor, who favored the nuclear plant, out of office, but the subsequent vote ended with Hayashi’s handpicked successor beating out a candidate supported by plant opponents.

The Suzu controversy rumbled on, as land squabbles and more politicking further slowed the project. Yamaaki became determined to let local people’s voices be heard.

Although she had long since graduated, Yamaaki visited Suzu whenever she could find time. Working as a translator for a manufacturer, she also embarked on a career as a freelance journalist.

In 1995, Yamaaki published an essay on Suzu in an anthology.

“I wanted to share the experience of the people, since I wanted to show it was actually a universal topic, that it could happen anywhere, to anyone, under the right circumstances . . . but if we can share information or experience, we can become empowered,” she said.

What happened at Suzu highlighted the power of money politics and the conflicts that destroyed close relationships in the community and even within families. Suzu had become a front in the war over Japanese nuclear politics.

Yamaaki continued to follow the case from afar, acting as a witness once again when a related land trial came to a Yokohama court. When the Suzu plant project was officially “frozen” in 2003, Yamaaki searched for a way to record the story for a larger audience.

In finding her voice, Yamaaki also gave up part of her identity. “When I first wrote about Suzu for publication, there were many instances of harassment toward antinuclear power activists — prank phone calls or strange letters, trash or even dead animals left anonymously in yards.”

Using a pen name to avoid possible reprisals, Yamaaki slowly realized the writer’s name isn’t important; it’s the story that matters. She continues to write under that same assumed name today, to give continuity and conviction to her work.

Enlisting the help of University of Tokyo sociologist and professor Chizuko Ueno, Yamaaki turned her years of observation into a book, “The Challenge of Grassroots Democracy: 13 Years of Suzu.” Published in 2007, the book has won the Yayori Journalist Award, and the Peace and Cooperative Journalist Fund of Japan Award, which recognizes excellence by female journalists.

Finding the significance of a small town’s struggle helped Yamaaki find her own. Listening to residents’ stories taught Yamaaki to hear what she calls “the voiceless voices.” And her success with the story of Suzu has allowed Yamaaki to give voice to other underdogs around the world.

In addition to her recent project involving the Maya in Guatemala, Yamaaki also helped start a group on nuclear politics in Tokyo that brings together graduate students, activists and a visiting expert from Taiwan.

This spring, Yamaaki will begin working with Aya Hanabusa, a young documentary filmmaker who has recorded the story of people living on a small island in the Seto Inland Sea who, like the people of Suzu, see their way of life under threat.