Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Them Versus Us: Japanese and International Reporting of the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis

Them Versus Us: Japanese and International Reporting of the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis

David McNeill


On April 7, 2011 as Japan tottered back to its feet from the March 11th calamity, I chaired a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan (FCCJ) by Higashikokubaru Hideo, then a candidate for Tokyo’s gubernatorial election. A famous comedian before he entered politics, Higashikokubaru was uncharacteristically somber as he discussed what Japan must do to recover from the terrible damage inflicted by the triple disaster. A major problem, he intoned, was the non-Japanese reporting of the nuclear crisis in Fukushima. Do you think we foreign journalists have done a bad job of reporting the disaster? I asked him and he turned, unsmiling, to face me full on for the first time. ‘Yes, I do,” he said.

        That stinging rebuke in the venerated sixty-year-old home of the foreign press in Japan epitomized criticism of American and European journalists in the month after March 11. Japan’s foreign ministry led the criticism of “excessive” coverage in April, singling out the Blade, a local US newspaper from Toledo, Ohio, that ran a cartoon depicting three mushroom clouds, one each for Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Fukushima.[1] Newsweek Japan was one of several publications to take up the cudgel against shrill, alarmist gaijin reporters.[2] “The foreign media in Japan…has been put on a pedestal as the paragon of journalism, and was viewed as a source of credibility. The Great East Japan Earthquake shattered that myth,” thundered editor Yokota Takashi. “The Western media failed to fulfill its mission during the disaster, hitting new lows with shoddy journalism as reporters were overtaken by the news and lost their composure.”


        Yokota accused foreign journalists of gross sensationalism after the first explosion at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, which quickly turned the story into “Japan’s Chernobyl,” lamented Newsweek – a week before the Japanese government indeed officially raised Fukushima to INES Level 7 – the same as the 1986 Ukraine disaster. The Wall Street Journal also noted the ‘gulf’ that Fukushima opened up in reporting, noting that while local journalists gave the sense that the “situation will be resolved,” their foreign counterparts focused “on the other side – that this is getting out of control.”[3] In the week after the nuclear crisis erupted, Japan-based bloggers assembled a ‘wall of shame’, citing dozens of foreign crimes against journalism, including an infamous report in the UK tabloid Sun, calling Tokyo a ‘city of ghosts.’[4] The Sun reporter had never set foot in Japan.

        It is worth noting that such hyperbolic reporting was not all imported. One of the most criticized examples was Japanese: AERA magazine’s famous March 19th cover story showing a masked nuclear worker and the headline “radiation is coming to Tokyo” was controversial enough to force an apology and the resignation of at least one columnist (though the headline was in fact correct).[5] Moreover, once the dust from the crisis settled, weekly Japanese magazines quickly sank their teeth into the nuclear industry and its administrators far more aggressively then the foreign media ever did. Shūkan Shinchō dubbed the management of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)senpan’ (war criminals). Shūukan Gendai named and shamed the most culpable of Japan’s elite pro-nuclear scientists, calling them goyō gakusha, (government lackeys) and “tonchinkan” – roughly meaning “blundering idiots.” Other magazines turned their critical gaze on the radiation issue, exposing government malfeasance and lies. AERA also revealed that local governments manipulated public opinion in support of reopening nuclear plants.

        The Fukushima disaster revealed one of the major fault lines in Japanese journalism, between the mainstream newspapers and television companies – hereafter “big media” – and the less inhibited mass-selling weeklies and their ranks of freelancers. The subject was new but the debate it amplified on the influence of the press club system had been going on for decades. As Laurie Anne Freeman and others[6] have noted, the system means that Japan’s big newspapers and TV companies channel information directly from the nation’s political, bureaucratic and corporate elite to the media and the public beyond; in this case from the government, TEPCO and the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency. The system’s critics say it locks Japan’s most influential journalists into a symbiotic relationship with their sources and discourages them from investigation or independent lines of analysis and criticism. That certainly seemed to happen here. Foreign correspondents of course had no such restrictions, but nor did they have direct access to key sources.

        The large swathe of journalism outside this official system is a different matter entirely. As Gamble and Watanabe have pointed out in an often less than flattering survey of the weekly media, the weeklies developed after the war partly in response to the feeling among Japan’s growing urban middle-class that they were getting a selective, pro-establishment line from big media.[7] One of the key distinctions across the fault-line is that unlike their big media counterparts, magazine journalists are not allowed access to the press clubs. The consequences of this distinction would become clear in reporting on the Fukushima aftermath, as I will show later.

        One problem with the foreign media was its lack of knowledgeable personnel in Japan. After the disaster many journalists were dispatched to Japan who had no knowledge of the country. The resulting inaccurate or unbalanced reporting was criticized by local foreigners as well as Japanese. Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University’s Japan Campus, was one of several critics who cited the “many egregious instances of…exaggeration and misrepresentation,” fueled by what he called “parachute journalism.”[8] For years, Japan’s dreary, protracted economic decline had been a turnoff to distant editors, and the country had fallen off the media radar, eclipsed by fast-rising China. FCCJ hacks sometimes joked darkly that it would take a major disaster to revive Japan’s newsworthiness. Disaster had duly arrived, and there weren’t enough reporters to cover it.

        It is also worth pointing out that many foreign journalists praised their Japanese counterparts. Washington Post correspondent Chico Harlan singled out public service broadcaster NHK’s restrained, almost “adjective free” coverage in a widely circulated opinion piece: “Anchors do not use certain words that might make a catastrophe feel like a catastrophe,” he wrote. “‘Massive’ is prohibited.” Martyn Williams, a former president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, favorably noted the more sober domestic coverage, adding that Japan’s media had “a duty” to avoid causing panic. “You can bet some of the media running the scare stories about Japan wouldn’t handle a similar disaster in their own country in the same way.”[9]

By far the most unrestrained criticism of Japanese journalism came from Japanese commentators. Author and freelancer Uesugi Takashi was one of several who accused the local media of colluding with the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), operator of the stricken nuclear plant, to lie and hide information. “TEPCO is a client of the media and the press clubs, being one of their biggest advertisers – so the press won’t…say certain things,” he said, citing their blackout of the meltdown that occurred in reactors 1 to 3, and the fact that the latter had a heavy payload of lethal plutonium. Such statements were enough, he claimed, to get him banned from TBS Radio in April.[10] Former Washington TBS Bureau Chief Akiyama Toyohiro, who owned a farm in Fukushima, made a similar assessment. “The mass media, it seemed to us, was just acting as a mouthpiece for the government and the power company.”[11]

It is obviously misleading to suggest that the government, TEPCO and big media were all huddled in the same room plotting to keep the Japanese public in the dark. Prime Minister Kan Naoto had several well-publicized disputes with the utility and indeed was the victim of an attempted smear when TEPCO said his March 12 inspection of the Fukushima plant had delayed venting and caused the hydrogen explosions. And journalists at TEPCO’s televised press conferences were often sharply critical of the company in the weeks after the crisis began.

        Nevertheless, there is strong evidence for claims of structural bias. Japan’s power-supply industry, collectively, is Japan’s biggest advertiser, spending 88 billion yen (roughly US$ 1 billion) a year, according to the Nikkei Advertising Research Institute.[12] TEPCO’s 24.4 billion yen alone is roughly half what a global firm as large as Toyota spends in a year. Many supposedly neutral journalists were tied to the industry in complex ways: Senior Yomiuri editorial and science writer Nakamura Masao, for example, was an advisor to the Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry; journalists from the Nikkei and Mainichi newspapers went on to work for pro-nuclear organizations and publications.[13] Before the Fukushima crisis began, TEPCO’s largesse may have helped silence even the most liberal of potential critics. According to Shūkan Gendai magazine, the utility spent roughly $26 million on advertising with the Asahi newspaper. It’s quarterly magazine, Sola, was edited by former Asahi writers.[14] That industry financial clout, combined for decades with the press club system, surely helped discourage investigative reporting and keep concerns about nuclear power and critics of dangerous plants like Hamaoka and Fukushima well below the media radar.[15]

        As a stringer for two daily European newspapers (The Independent of the UK, and The Irish Times), I was often singed from the heat in this debate. In the course of four trips to Fukushima, over 100 newspaper articles and dozens of radio interviews in the month after the crisis began, I struggled like all other correspondents to give my audience a clear picture of the nuclear crisis, while avoiding the twin traps of complaisant and alarmist reporting. Every story on Fukushima or the fallout was followed by angry comments and letters demanding more ‘balanced’ reporting, often coming from diametrically opposed positions. Consider for example the following samples from the 34 comments provoked by an article about radiation fears in Tokyo in the March 16 edition of The Independent, in which I mentioned the widespread rumor that the emperor had left Tokyo:[16] ‘Some have heard that the Emperor has abandoned the city for Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital, though there is no evidence that it is true. “That's not what concerns me,” said Yutaka Aoki, a taxi driver who works the area around Shibuya Station. “My biggest problem is getting petrol.’”

Comment One: “This article is scaremongering, possibly more aimed at strengthening UK readers’ opposition to nuclear power rather than painting an accurate picture of what's happening in Tokyo.”

Comment Two: “I live in Tokyo. Shibuya is exactly as the article says…The danger is not just a big earthquake, it is the very real possibility of complete nuclear meltdown at the plant in Fukushima which will most definitely be a catastrophe of a magnitude that will impact Tokyo citizens.”


Comment Three: “You lying pommie bastards. The emperor has not left Tokyo. There are no thousands fleeing Tokyo either. Of course you "journalists" are masking the lies you make up as "somebody heard" or similar weasel words.”


Comment Four: “All the top-boy journalists have found a wonderful opportunity to make themselves a nice bit of cash by peddling yet more sensationalist crap. No matter how "Independent" a media source is, there is always someone, somewhere trying to push their own agenda and make money from the misery of others.


Comment Five: “’Making money out of the misery of others.’ You must be talking about the politicians and the owners of the nuclear plants that were poorly constructed in a known earthquake zone, within range of a tsunami. How many paid stooges is the nuclear industry using to blanket the news with lies and deception in order to keep the power flowing and the money coming?”


Accusations of rumormongering were partly a product of restricted access. As Uesugi notes, unlike their Japanese counterparts, foreign reporters were denied press time with the government’s top figures: Prime Minister Kan Naoto, chief cabinet spokesman Edano Yukio and nuclear crisis minister Hosono Goshi. Those men were in the best position to explain what was going on which, as it turns out, was worse than The Independent had dared write: Kan later admitted that his “worst-case scenario” during the first 10 days of the crisis was evacuating the entire population of Tokyo.[17] Even New York Times reporter Tabuchi Hiroko was among those who were swatted away. “We constantly asked for an interview with Kan, especially when we were criticized for misreporting. We said: ‘Ok then, so give us the top man and let us know what’s going on.’ We finally got Hosono after two months.”[18] Foreign reporters could watch Edano daily on Japanese TV but they couldn’t ask him questions.

        In Fukushima itself, however, at least until the government made it illegal in late April to enter the 20-km irradiated evacuee zone, access was almost unlimited. On the morning of March 12, less than 24 hours after the earthquake struck, I set off with two colleagues before we knew anything about the nuclear accident. When we learned that Japanese reporters were able to travel the closed expressways along with Self-Defense Force troops and emergency relief workers, we negotiated with the police a pass that allowed us toll-free access to the whole northeast. In the following month, I would report from Iwaki, Iitate, Soma, Minami-ma, and right to the gates of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant without being stopped by a single policeman. In early April, when I drove around the almost abandoned town of Futaba, 2 km from the plant, talking to local people who had stayed behind, masked policemen in patrol cars asked me to leave “for my own safety” but otherwise left me alone. This was the only way to understand life inside the irradiated zone of the world’s worst nuclear crisis in 25 years, and locals there told immensely poignant stories, expressing bewilderment and anger at their fate at the hands of a plant that didn’t deliver a single watt of electricity to Fukushima. In an echo of Bhopal, Chernobyl and other accidents steeped in epic corporate hubris, they felt they had been manipulated, lied to and finally abandoned by TEPCO. Still, some were determined to stay rather than abandon houses and farms that had been in their families, in some cases since the Meiji era.

        I’ve tried in this brief sample of the voluminous coverage of the disaster to show that that reporting was shaped by structural rather than national or international factors, and that analysis or commentary that simply condemns “foreign” or “Japanese” reporting is inadequate. Shut out from official sources and not subject to the discipline or constraints of employment with Japan’s big media, Japanese freelancers and non-Japanese journalists were forced to report in very different ways. I will attempt to show this in more detail now by recalling the reporting I saw and did on the nuclear crisis while in Fukushima Prefecture, focusing on two key stories: Minami-ma and the evacuation of the 20-km exclusion zone around the nuclear plant.


Reporting Minami-Sōma


The center of Minami-Sōma is about 25 km north of the exclusion zone, which cuts into its natural hinterland to the south. More than 71,000 people lived in the city before March 11th. By the end of the month there were fewer than 10,000. The earthquake and tsunami killed or left missing about 920; the remainder fled from the threat of radiation, according to Mayor Sakurai Katsunobu, who recalled looking out the fourth-floor window of the city offices on 14 March, hours after a hydrogen explosion ripped apart Daiichi reactor building No.3. “Cars clogged the street below as everyone packed up and left. I thought it was the end of the town.”[19]   (車は毎日渋滞だった。皆は出ってしまい。この街はおしまいだと思った)

        Two days before, after the first hydrogen explosion in reactor 1 on March 12, journalists working for Japan’s big media quietly pulled out of the town en masse. The evacuation included all the major newspaper dailies and broadcasters, including the Mainichi, Asahi and Yomiuri, as well as the Sendai-based Kahoku Shin newspaper. The journalists pulled back to Sendai, Fukushima city and other areas considered safe from the (then unconfirmed) radiation fallout. None thought to inform the mayor. They returned some forty days later, by which time a steady stream of foreign and freelance reporters had been to see the town (AFP was the first to arrive, on March 18th). “The Japanese journalists informed us later that their companies told them to leave, and they stayed away until the government and their companies said the radiation had fallen to safe levels.”[20] The decision, he says, significantly worsened the situation for the town. “We were abandoned so there was no way to tell the country or the world what was happening.”

        After March 12, regular deliveries of food and fuel began to dwindle and the citizens of Minami-ma were slowly left to fend for themselves. Information about the state of the power plant was gleaned from the television, mainly NHK, which relied on openly pronuclear experts to explain what was happening to its six reactors. The most prominent and heavily rotated was Sekimura Naoto, a vice dean of the Graduate School of Engineering at the University of Tokyo and a consultant with METI’s Advisory Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Sekimura previously wrote reports verifying the structural soundness of the Fukushima plant (his job was to assess the impact of ageing and seismic stress), and had signed off on a ten-year extension for the No.1 reactor.[21] The comments of other pro-nuclear scientists were also heavily reported, notably Madarame Haruki, the chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan – to the exclusion of alternative voices.

        Most of Sekimura’s on-air comments reflected his close ties to the industry and were, he admitted later, regurgitated from his contacts inside TEPCO. “Residents near the power station should stay calm,” he said on March 12, shortly before the first hydrogeexplosion. “Most of the fuel remains inside the reactor, which has stopped operation and is being cooled.” In fact, as TEPCO would admit two months later, the uranium fuel inside the No. 1 reactor had by this state already completely melted. “A major radioactive disaster is unlikely,” Sekimura said. A short time later, the explosion destroyed the concrete building housing reactor 1, irradiating the surrounding countrywide and sea, and eventually fording the evacuation of at least 80,000 people. “The people of our town didn’t believe what they were hearing or seeing on TV,” Mayor Sakurai recalled six months later. “They made up their own minds.”

        In an October postmortem of NHK’s March/April coverage, Ogi Noriyuki, head of broadcasting during the Tohoku disaster, said of the nuclear crisis:

   Kensho: Higashi Nippon Dai Shinsai to Media,” Galac, October 2011.

“Overwhelmingly the problem was lack of information. Even TEPCO and the government didn’t know the whole picture. We didn’t have enough time to evaluate their reports and so we didn’t know how far we should go in telling the dangers of the situation. We were relying on TEPCO and the government and because they were not sure, we were not sure.”[22]


Ogi said NHK had gone above and beyond the call of duty: “On the afternoon of March 12th, the police only reported that the sound of an explosion had been heard. TEPCO, NISA[23] and the government said nothing. Looking at the screen, our reporter noticed what was happening and said, ‘Just in case, anyone who is outside please go inside and stay out of the rain.’ Even though we didn’t have any proof, we went further than we needed to.”[24]

        He added, however, a crucial, if obscurely worded caveat about NHK’s exclusive dependence for information on the officials trying to solve – and manage – the crisis. “It is being asked whether it is really OK for our monitoring system to only depend on government sources.” Others have expressed much sharper criticism about how nuclear critics were excluded from the analysis. “It was very clear how NHK brought out pro-nuclear professors in force after the earthquake struck,” said Anzai Ikuro, a radiation specialist and former professor at the University of Tokyo’s nuclear engineering department. “Critics like myself were not called on at all during the crisis.” Eventually, he and other long-term critics such as Kyoto University researcher Koide Hiroaki[25] would gain a large following among the public, a slim reward perhaps for being left in the cold for so long by the mass media.

In the week after the crisis erupted, in fact, there was just one notable appearance on TV by an academic who speculated that a meltdown had occurred.  Fujita Yuko, an ex-professor of physics at Keio University, told Fuji TV on the evening of March 11 he was “very concerned” that the reactors were in a “state of meltdown.”  He was never asked back.  “I speculate that it was because the station management thought Fujita spoke too much on the danger of the nuclear accident,” said Ito Mamoru, who published a book in 2012 surveying media coverage of the nuclear crisis.[26]

Immediately after the March 12 explosion, Mayor Sakurai and his staff watched Edano host a press conference. “Even though the No. 1 reactor building is damaged, the containment vessel is undamaged,” the Chief Cabinet Secretary told reporters. “In fact, the outside monitors show that the [radiation] dose rate is declining, so the cooling of the reactor is proceeding.”[27] Any suggestion that the accident would reach Chernobyl level was, he said, “out of the question.” Author and nuclear critic Hirose Takashi noted afterwards: “Most of the media believed this and the university professors encouraged optimism. It makes no logical sense to say, as Edano did, that the safety of the containment vessel could be determined by monitoring the radiation dose rate. All he did was repeat the lecture given him by TEPCO.” As media critic Takeda Tōru later wrote, the overwhelming strategy throughout the crisis, by both the authorities and big media, seemed to be reassuring people, not alerting them to possible dangers.[28]

        Sakurai was left reeling from the impact of the nuclear disaster. His remaining constituents, including many elderly and bedridden people, faced starvation. Television reporters occasionally called from Fukushima city or Tokyo for updates but with so many other stories clamoring for attention, there seemed no way to impress on them how desperate the situation was. There would be no direct word from TEPCO on the state of the Daiichi plant for 22 days. Elsewhere in this collection of essays, Charles McJilton describes being rebuffed by Sakurai’s staff when his organization, Second Harvest, offered food aid to the city, an incident we can interpret either as an indicator of the reflex response to foreign ‘charity’ among Japanese organizations, or simple bureaucratic disorganization. In any event, late on March 24 the mayor sat in front of a camcorder in his office and recorded an 11-minute video that was uploaded to YouTube with English subtitles. “We are not getting enough information from the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co.," said the exhausted looking Sakurai. "Convenience stores and supermarkets where people buy everyday goods are closed. Citizens are almost being driven into starvation…I beg you to help us.”[29] The video, perhaps the most striking attempt of the entire Tohoku disaster to bypass the mainstream media, registered more than 200,000 hits in the following week and attracted tons of aid. It also drew a stream of freelance Japanese and foreign reporters who made Sakurai an emblematic figure of the grassroots challenge to blundering and incompetent officialdom during the disaster.

        When I arrived on April 4, Sakurai was still stinging from his experience with the Japanese media. “I appreciate that there were dangers but we had many people who stayed behind and in my view the journalists should have stayed too. They completely ignored us and left to protect themselves. That’s not the mission of journalism.”[30] What struck him about the Minami-Sōma episode is how the Japanese journalists acted together, like a retreating army. Speaking anonymously, a reporter for one of the major newspapers said he and his colleagues were left with no choice once they were told to leave. “There was some discussion but in the end we agreed that it would be safer to report from Fukushima city.” There was no conscious collective decision. It happened almost by osmosis. When they returned, he added, Mayor Sakurai had berated them. “He said the foreign media and freelancers came in droves to report what happened. What about you?”

        The reporting of the Minami-Sōma story demonstrated some striking differences in how foreign and large Japanese media organizations operated, particularly the discipline and homogeneity of the Japanese press corps. Masuyama Satoru, a director with NHK’s Science and Culture Division, explains the decision to pull out of Minami-Sōma thus: “It’s a case of individual responsibility versus corporate responsibility.[31] Reporters at a Japanese company will not take risks by themselves; they will wait for instructions. And the company will not send its workers off without proper preparation or protective gear. It’s a nuisance but that’s how it is.” Many critics would later question why none of the big media broke ranks in the interests of their readers. "I subscribe to four major national newspapers, but I cannot tell which newspaper I am reading in relation to articles about the nuclear accident,” Uchida Tatsuru, a professor at Kobe College, told the Asahi.[32] “Not only is there no attempt to bring out a unique angle, there is also a sense of fear at reporting something different from the other papers and the feeling of security from running the same articles. That has led to anger among readers who see a repeat of what happened during World War II."


Reporting inside the 20-km evacuee zone


By late March, the war in Libya had knocked Japan from the front pages of the world’s newspapers but there was still one story that was very sought after: life inside the 20km zone around the power plant. The government had steadily strengthened this zone from advising evacuation on March 11 to ordering evacuation for 70-80,000 people later that week, while another 136,000 people in the zone 20-30km away were told to stay in their homes. The government directive was widely criticized by Fukushima residents and some sections of the media as arbitrary and unscientific. Eventually, several highly irradiated villages outside the zone would also be evacuated, such as Iitate (see Tom Gill’s paper in this collection). Most of those people had fled and left behind homes, pets and farm animals that would eventually die. There were claims that hospitals had abandoned patients.[33] Animal corpses had been left to rot. A small number of mainly elderly people stayed behind, refusing to leave homes that had often been in their families for generations. Not surprisingly, there was enormous global interest in their story and its disturbing echoes of the Chernobyl catastrophe 25 years earlier.

In late March, a trickle of foreign journalists braved radiation inside the zone. Newsweek’s Joshua Hammer described it as the “Twilight Zone crossed with The Day Afteran apocalyptic vision of life in the nuclear age.”[34] Daniel Howden, from my own newspaper, The Independent, drove right to the gates of the plant, encountering deserted homes, stray pets and nervous nuclear workers along the way.[35] But he was unable to find interviewees inside the zone, so a few days later I followed him and talked to several holdouts.[36] None of us encountered a single Japanese reporter inside the exclusion zone, despite the fact that it was not yet illegal to be there. Some would begin reporting from the area much later, after receiving government clearance – the Asahi sent its first dispatch on April 25 when its reporters accompanied the commissioner general of the National Police Agency.[37] Later, they would explain why they stayed away and – with the exception of approved government excursions – continued to stay away. “Journalists are employees and their companies have to protect them from dangers,” explained Satō Keiichi, a deputy editor with the News Division of Nippon TV. “Reporters like myself might want to go into that zone and get the story, and there was internal debate about that, but there isn’t much personal freedom inside big media companies. We were told by our superiors that it was dangerous, so going in by ourselves would mean breaking that rule. It would mean nothing less than quitting the company.”[38]

Here we come to some important structural differences between Japanese and overseas news organizations. Outside Japan, foreign correspondents are increasingly retained by newspapers on casual contracts or as stringers, reflecting both shrinking budgets and the declining importance of all but a handful of must-have global stories. Of the foreign reporters I worked with in March, I can think of only a handful who were staff correspondents. Reporters like Hammer and Howden, brought over from their normal beats (in the Middle East and Africa) precisely for their skills and bravery in difficult assignments, are under a lot of unspoken pressure to justify the expense of getting them there. They are expected to use their skills of interpretation and analysis in situations where they don’t always know what is going on. In addition, their stories are bylined, bringing a certain amount of individual glory in the event of a scoop. That background, the reporters’ lack of specific knowledge about nuclear power and their unfamiliarity with Japan, helps explain sensationalist dispatches of the kind that so upset Higashikokubaru.

In contrast, reporters for Japan’s big media are generally staffers, usually embedded in organizations with a strict line of command and lifetime employment. As Jochen Legewie points out, the emphasis at these companies is on a descriptive, fact-based style relying on official sources. Investigative reporting is limited and the individual reputation of each reporter is considered less important than those of their Western counterparts.[39] Most of the stories carried in the Japanese newspapers are not bylined. In practice, this means that the best investigative reporting in Japan is often done by freelancers, such as Watai Takeharu and Kamata Satoshi.[40]

      It is not difficult from this context to see two very different dynamics at work. Unlike their foreign counterparts, Japanese reporters for the big media had little to gain from breaking ranks and disregarding government warnings on the dangers of reporting close to the nuclear plant. Moreover, the cartel-like behavior of the Japanese companies meant they did not have to fear being trumped by rivals.[41][42] In particularly dangerous situations, managers of TV networks and newspapers will form agreements (known as “hōdō kyōtei”) in effect to collectively keep their reporters out of harm’s way. Teddy Jimbo, founder of the pioneering Internet broadcaster Video News Network, explains: “Once the five or six big firms come to an agreement with their competitors not to do anything, they don’t have to be worried about being scooped or challenged.”[43] Jimbo says the eruption of Mount Unzen in 1991 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, both of which led to fatalities among Japanese journalists, copper-fastened these agreements – one reason why so few Japanese reporters can be seen in recent conflict zones such as Burma, Thailand or Afghanistan. The Times’ Asia Bureau Chief Richard Lloyd Parry, who has reported from all those conflicts, sums up his observations thus: “Japanese journalists are among the most risk-averse in the world.”[44]

      Frustrated by the lack of information from around the plant, in the end Jimbo took his camera and dosimeters into the 20-km zone on April 2 and like Sakurai, uploaded a report on YouTube that scored almost 1 million hits.[45] He was the first Japanese reporter to bring television images from Futaba and other abandoned towns, though those images never made it onto broadcast TV in Japan – though images from the zone, shot during government-approved incursions, would later appear on regular TV news) “For freelance journalists, it’s not hard to beat the big companies because you quickly learn where their line is,” he said. “As a journalist I needed to go in and find out what was happening. Any real journalist would want to do that.”[46] He later sold some of his footage to three of the big Japanese TV networks: NHK, NTV and TBS.

Japan’s state broadcaster NHK has a network of 54 bureaus throughout Japan, thousands of journalists, 14 helicopters and over 60 mobile broadcasting units. It reaches 50 million households and is among the most trusted sources in the world. Throughout the disaster, it was striking how it was a key source of information, always flickering on screens in the corner of hotels, restaurants, shelters. “If you rolled ABC, NBC and CBS News together you’d have something equivalent to the place of NHK in Japanese media,” Ellis Krauss, a professor of Japanese politics and policymaking at the University of California told the Washington Post in March.[47] With that network, and its exclusive access to disaster information, NHK did a superb job of simply relaying information from government and corporate sources but did less well in analyzing it, says Jimbo. “For two months they were showing graphics on TV about what was happening. All they did was quote experts, TEPCO and others from the ‘nuclear village.’ So that meant that everything they showed was wrong.”




Exclusively singling out the foreign media as Higashikokubaru, Newsweek and Japan’s government all did in the weeks after March 11 set up an unhelpful binary and perpetuated the soft nationalism that was one of the more unfortunate side effects of the disaster. We stayed and did our job. They ran away. We can’t rely on them. I’ve tried in this paper to question that simplistic notion, showing how journalists from all sides were subject to structural constraints that affected their coverage. It makes as little sense to single out the ‘foreign’ press for particular criticism of poor reporting as it does to blame the entire Japanese media for being complacent, deferential and too process-orientated. As we have seen, freelance Japanese journalists were also frustrated at many aspects of big media reporting of the crisis, while foreign commentators were deeply critical of the more sensationalist “parachute” hacks.

      I’ve cited some of the more striking examples of media manipulation, including the effective blackout of taboo words like “meltdown” and “plutonium,” and the widespread use of government-approved experts to spin the limited information leaking from the Fukushima plant. The industry’s clout surely also helped suppress debate on nuclear policy, though it is outside the scope of this paper to show exactly how. One of the more striking features of the Japanese media, however, is its remarkable self-regulation. It is puzzling to outsiders to see reporters for the largest companies operating in apparent concert, as they seemed to do inside the 20-km zone and in Minami-Sōma, disregarding what many foreign reporters would see as the natural rules of competition – even if this means flouting or breaking government rules.

      Though now regularly compared to the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, Fukushima was in at least one important way very different: it took place in a country with an ostensibly free media. Reporters working during the dying days of the old Stalinist system that ran the Soviet-controlled Ukraine were banned from investigating or writing about Chernobyl. Scientists were placed under house arrest or put in prison. There were no such restrictions in Fukushima, making it a unique case for study.[48] We’re still digesting the full implications of what took place in the weeks after March 11 and what it tells us about how our media performed; I have only scratched the surface here. One important consequence is that big media journalists have been forced to acknowledge the anti-nuclear lobby after years of largely snubbing it and underreporting the dangers of building so many reactors in one of the planet’s most seismically unstable countries. Some grudgingly turned up to report a September 19 anti-nuclear demonstration in Tokyo, one of the largest on record, to hear freelancer Kamata Satoshi launch an angry tirade against them. “Those journalists have become too institutionalized,” he said. “They cannot openly express their anger or fear because they are under pressure from their bosses not to do so. We are all paying the price.”


[1] Japan Criticizes Foreign Media’s Fukushima Coverage,” the Asahi, April 9, 2011. The Blade has a circulation of about 168,000 and ranked 77th in the US in 2011.
[2] Yokota, T. & Yamada, T., Sono toki kisha wa nigeta (At that time, the journalists ran away). Newsweek Japan, April 5, 2011. Published in English as “Foreign Media Create Secondary Disaster,” No1. Shimbun, June 2011.
[3] Sanchanta, Mariko, “Japan, Foreign Media Divide,” Wall Street Journal, March 19, 2011. Available online at
For the “Journalists Wall of Shame” see See also, McNeill, D., “Sensationalist Coverage” in The Irish Times, March 19, 2011:
[5] See “Hōshanō ga kuru” no hyōshi ni hihan, Aera ga Shazai” in The Yomiuri, March 21, 2011. Available on:
[6] See Freeman’s “Japan’s Press Clubs as Information Cartels,” Japan Policy Research Institute, Working Paper No.18, April 1996. Available at (October 6, 2011). Also see Closing the Shop: Information Cartels and Japan’s Mass Media, Princeton University Press (2000). Also, see DeLange, W., A History of Japanese Journalism: Japan’s Press Club As the Last Obstacle to a Mature Press, Routledge (1998).
[7] Gamble, A., Watanabe, T., A Public Betrayed: An Inside Look at Japanese Media Atrocities and their Warnings to the West, Regnery Publishing (2004)
[8] Ibid.
[9] Personal communication, April 3, 2011.  For an overview of foreign reporting of Fukushima, see Eric Johnston, The Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, the Fukushima Nuclear Reactor, and How the World’s Media Reported Them (Japan Times, 2011).
[10] See Uesugi’s own website on
[11] Interview with Wakiyama, M., “The Media is a Mouthpiece for Tepco,” No.1 Shimbun, June 2011. Available on
[12] See (October 3, 2011)
[13] For details, see Koizumi, T., Genpatsu Suishin PR Sakusen no Ichidoku-santan (A Reading of Pro-Nuclear Power PR Strategies) in Daijishin Genpatsu Jiko to Media (The Media and the Earthquake/Nuclear Disaster)Media Kenkyūjo ed., Otsuki Shoten, 2011.
[14] Shūkan Gendai, ‘Skūpu Repōto: Saidai no Tabū, Tōden Mane to Asahi Shinbun (“The Biggest Taboo: Tepco’s Money and The Asahi newspaper”), Aug. 22, 2011.
[15] See Hirose, T., Fukushima Meltdown: The World’s First Earthquake-Tsunami-Nuclear Disaster, Kindle edition (2011). This is not to suggest that NHK and other media outlets completely ignored nuclear power, just that the odds were heavily tilted against a balanced discussion.
[16] “Thousands Flee Tokyo as Experts Try to Calm Radiation Fears ,” The Independent, March 16, 2011. Available online:
[17] See “Tokyo Faced Evacuation Scenario,” The Japan Times, September 19, 2011. Available on
[18] Personal interview, October 9, 2011.
[19] Ibid
[20] Personal interviews, April 4, October 9, 2011.
[21] See McNeill, D., “Pro-Nuclear Professors Accused of Singing Industry’s Tune in Japan,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 24, 2011.
[22] “Kensho: Higashi Nippon Dai Shinsai to Media,” Galac, October 2011.
[23] The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.
[24] Ibid.
[26] See Arita Eriko, “Keeping an eye on TV news coverage of the nuke crisis,” The Japan Times, July 8, 2012.  (Includes interview with Ito.)
[27] Quoted in Hirose, Takashi, Fukushima Meltdown: The World’s First Earthquake-Tsunami-Nuclear Disaster, Ibid.
[28] Takeda, Tōru, Genpatsu Hōdō to Media (Media and Reporting on Nuclear Power). Kōdansha Gendai Shinsho (2011)
[29] See Fackler, M., “Japanese City’s Cry Resonates Around the World,” New York Times, April 6, 2011. Also, McNeill., D., “A City Left to Fight for Survival After the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster,” the Irish Times, April 9, 2011.
[30] Personal interview, Ibid.
[31] Personal interview, November 24, 2011
[32] See “Barriers to Coverage: High hurdles blocked reporting of Fukushima nuclear accident,” July 13, 2011. Available online at:
[33] See “Families want answers after 45 people die following evacuation from Fukushima hospital,” Mainichi Daily News, April 26, 2011. Available online at:
[34] See “Inside the Danger Zone,” The Daily Beast, April 3, 2011. Available at:
[35] See “Fear and Devastation on the Road to Japan’s Nuclear Disaster Zone,” The Independent, March 26, 2011. Available at:
[36] “In the Shadow of Japan’s Wounded Nuclear Beast,” The Irish Times, March 28, 2011. Available at:
[37] Asahi Shinbun, Ibid.
[38] Personal interview, Nov. 28, 2011.
[39] Legewie, J., Japan’s Media: Inside and Outside Powerbrokers, Communications and Network Consulting Japan (2010).
[40] See Arita, A., “Rebel Spirit Writ Large,” The Japan Times, Oct. 2, 2001. Available online at (Nov. 2, 2011). As I write, a scandal involving hidden losses at the camera and optical equipment-maker Olympus is in full flow. The scandal was broken by a tiny subscription-only magazine called FACTA, whose editor Abe Shigeo quit his job at the Nikkei after being told to spike a story on corruption in the securities industry. “There is no investigative reporting at Japanese newspapers,” he said.
[41] See Freeman, L., Ibid.
[42] See Uesugi, T, “Japanese Journalism is Collapsing,” No.1 Shimbun. March 2010. Available at: (October 1, 2011)
[43] Personal interview, September 16, 2011. Most of the big newspapers and networks in Japan also agreed early on to avoid using the word ‘meltdown’ (全炉心溶融)and settle for ‘partially melting’ (部分的溶融), although the decision was made after a lot of debate. It will also be noticed that very little appeared in the Japanese media about the plutonium fuel in reactor 3 of the Daiichi plant.
[44] Personal interview, October 6, 2011.
[45] See:
[46] Ibid
[47] Harlan., C. Ibid.
[48] Interestingly, however, some Japanese magazines say that while the Soviet government was criminally negligent in its first response to Chernobyl, it later worked much harder than the Japanese authorities to move children away from the irradiated zone. See Josei Seven, May 26, 2011. Available online at
(Nov. 27, 2011)