BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA – 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.