Japanese reporters describe 'a picture of hell'

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011 

Yoichiro Tateiwa is a journalist with the Japanese public television network, NHK. He is spending a year as a journalist-in-residence at the Investigative Reporting Workshop. He has assembled this description of conditions on the ground in Japan following last Friday’s devastating earthquake and tsunami from e-mail exchanges with colleagues and friends who are covering the disaster.

“You won’t believe this. I don’t know how to describe this. On Sunday, March 13, I was in a taxi following a unit of the Self-Defense Force. They were moving forward with removing wrecked houses. And we reached the town of Onagawa. But we saw nothing. There is nothing left. It was just like after the carpet-bombing raid.”

That description was sent to me via e-mail by Noriyuki Imanishi, an experienced freelance journalist. He was in the disaster-stricken area in Sendai, the capital of Miyagi prefecture. Onagawa is a town of a little more than 10,000 population. According to Imanishi, the town has been destroyed.

“The Hanshin Earthquake is nothing compared to this one,” he wrote. “I don’t have any word to explain the situation. I saw the SDF unit collecting dead bodies. The bodies were all covered with mud and you can’t really tell which is what. It’s like a picture of hell.”

The Hanshin Earthquake hit the western part of Japan in 1995, killing more than 6,400 people and destroying more than 240,000 buildings. As a native of the region, Imanishi covered the earthquake.

“In the Hanshin Earthquake, we saw all the buildings collapsed. But here, you don’t see buildings. Everything has been taken by the tsunami. The casualties can easily surpass 10,000. We just don’t know how many yet.”

As of early Wednesday morning in Japan, the National Police Agency of Japan put the deaths at 3,376 and estimated the number of missing people at 7,555.

As a reporter for NHK, I also covered the Hanshin Earthquake in 1995. I remember that I had never thought conditions in Japan could be so catastrophic. But Imanishi told me that this earthquake is much worse than the Hanshin earthquake.

An e-mail from my friend Shingo Oki on March 14 makes it clear that the troubles aren’t confined to the northeast area of the country that was so hard hit by the combination of the earthquake and the tsunami.

Oki works for a sport newspaper called Sports Nippon. He wrote me in an e-mail that he is covering the earthquake in Tokyo. “The situation of Fukushima nuclear plant seems to be a lot more serious than it’s been reported,” he said. “And life in Tokyo has been hit by this earthquake as well. Of course, it’s much better than those living in the area. But the planned power cut is paralyzing the train system, and we can’t go back to home. You can’t find foods in stores around.”

Hidetugu Tokitsu, who is my colleague from NHK, wrote me on March 14: “It’s not reported, but many people in Tokyo metropolitan area can’t go back to home. There are many refugees around the area.”

Another e-mail from Tokitsu on the same day said, “I have never imagined the situation as such that explosions keep happening inside of the nuclear reactors in this country. We used to consider Japan as the country where safety and water are free. Where did the country go?"

It was afternoon of Friday, March 11 (about 1 a.m. in Washington) when the 9.0 magnitude earthquake 9.0 hit Japan. I learned the news that morning as I was checking news in Japan on the Internet.

I immediately began trying to reach my family members, who live in Tokyo and Fukushima, where the nuclear power plant was hit by the earthquake. When I received no response by cell phone, I realized that the situation is serious, because I knew that all the cell phone companies shut down service at the request of the central government so they would be available for emergency use only.

I later found out, much to my relief, that nobody in my family had been harmed by the earthquake.

But as all of the e-mails expressed, the damages of the earthquake are hard to estimate, and people’s lives are still in danger.

Shingo Oki of Sports Nippon and I have been friends for more than 10 years. He visited me in Washington last summer. He is the kind of man who enjoys jokes.

But I don’t think he was joking when he ended the e-mail with this sentence: “You should not come back here now, no matter what."

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