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."

Incubating new economic models for journalism.

Latest from iLab

Collaboration: the key

Collaboration was key for the teams of international journalists who produced The Panama Papers, a report that showcases how reporters can hold people and institutions accountable across borders. 

The Buying of the President

Every four years, the American people endure by far the longest and most expensive election of any nation in the world — until the next one. Who profits the most?

Blogs

Most Recent Posts

Madden wins Schorr prize

Patrick Madden of NPR member station WAMU 88.5 is the winner of the annual Daniel Schorr Journalism Prize, named for the respected NPR senior news analyst and veteran Washington journalist who died in 2010. His winning entry was "Assault on Justice," a collaboration with the Workshop and Reveal News.

MacArthur Foundation awards Workshop

The Investigative Reporting Workshop will receive $1.5 million in general operating support over the next five years from the MacArthur Foundation, which today announced its renewed and expanded commitment to journalism and media.

The Workshop is one of 12 news organizations across the country to receive these unrestricted grants. 

Superstorm Sandy victims still struggling

A new FRONTLINE/NPR investigation, "Business of Disaster," examines why thousands of residents of New Jersey and New York are still struggling three years after Superstorm Sandy devastated their communities. See the trailer here.

What we're reading: Homicide coverage

Great journalism continues to be produced by reporters immersing themselves in the lives of others, particularly on the issue of homicide. At the recent Logan Symposium, Jill Leovy talked about the making of her new book, "Ghettoside," and Doug Pardue gave his audience the backstory of "Till Death Do Us Part."

The power of images can make stories more memorable

At the recent Society for News Design conference, designers, illustrators and photographers showed what it takes to make stories visually appealing. El Mundo's art director displayed the creative efforts, from his sketches to finished magazine covers, that the staff undertakes to explain and showcase their journalism.

Partners

Workshop Partners

We publish online and in print, often teaming up with other news organizations. We're working now on a new program with FRONTLINE producers, to air later in the year, and on the "Years of Living Dangerously," a series on climate change that has begun airing on Showtime. A story last year on the use of solitary confinement in immigration detention centers was co-published with The New York Times. Our updates to our long-running BankTracker project, in which you can view the financial health of every bank and credit union in the country, have been published with msnbc.com, now nbcnews.com, and we co-published stories in our What Went Wrong series on the economy with The Philadelphia Inquirer and New America Media. Our graduate students are working as researchers with Washington Post reporters, and our new senior editor is a member of the Post's investigative team. Learn more on our partners page.

Projects

Investigating Power update

Investigating Power update

Profiles of notable journalists and their stories of key moments in U.S. history in the last 50 years can be found on the Investigating Power site. See Workshop Executive Editor Charles Lewis' latest video interviews as well as historic footage and timelines. You can also read more about the project and why we documented these groundbreaking examples of original, investigative journalism that helped shape or change public perceptions on key issues of our time, from civil rights to Iraq, here.