Features | Society | East Asia

Fukushima and Japan’s Media Meltdown

10 years later, Japanese media have not shaken off the constraints that prevented meaningful investigative reporting after the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Fukushima and Japan’s Media Meltdown

Members of the media and Tokyo Electric Power Co. employees walk in front of the No. 4 reactor building, rear, crippled by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, at the utility company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, Saturday, May 26, 2012.

Credit: AP Photo/Tomohiro Ohsumi, Pool

This week marks the 10-year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011. The ensuring triple disaster – earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi – killed nearly 20,000 people, destroying dozens of towns, rendering thousands of hectares uninhabitable, and spreading contamination that will take decades to remediate.

Earthquakes are largely unpredictable, and modern technology gives us some minutes of warning at best about tsunamis. But the meltdowns, explosions, and radiation release at Fukushima Daiichi were another matter. The National Diet of Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) concluded in 2012 (in bold type), “The TEPCO [Tokyo Electric Power Company, the plant’s operator] Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents. Therefore, we conclude that the accident was clearly ‘manmade.’”

One would think that such a perfect storm of events as happened in Tohoku, the northeast region of Japan closest to the epicenter, on March 11, 2011, would have proven extremely compelling to any country’s media. Three years earlier, in China, which has a notoriously restricted media, journalists had flocked to cover the Sichuan earthquake with a degree of openness that was (and remains) unprecedented for the People’s Republic.

And yet the major Japanese media fled the tsunami/reactor explosion area en masse the day after the quake, March 12. Two weeks later, Sakurai Katsunobu, the mayor of Minamisoma, one of the many devastated towns in Tohoku, went over the heads of Japanese media and government by posting a video with English subtitles on YouTube. In it, Sakurai entreated the world for the supplies and other support that had not been forthcoming from the national government, and urged the Japanese media to return to his and other towns in the area. Sakurai’s YouTube video became such a viral sensation that he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for the year.

A few days later, one of the weeklies, AERA, featured a sensational cover suggesting that radioactivity was on its way to Tokyo, which was in fact true but contrary to the official story coming from TEPCO and the government. One of the reporters was fired and the company was forced to apologize. The mainstream media continued to transmit (mis)information to the public from TEPCO, government offices, and compliant academics.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In the year following the triple disaster, anti-nuclear protests continued and grew, with more than 150,000 gathering in downtown Tokyo on a mid-July day in 2012. At that time, Japan’s Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe asserted that Japanese media had colluded with the government to give nuclear power a stranglehold. This gathering was the largest protest movement in Japan since the Vietnam era, 40 years before, but the country’s largest newspaper by circulation, the Yomiuri Shimbun, declined to cover it.

Why would media behave in such a way? In 2012’s “Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster,” authors Lucy Birmingham and David McNeill, who were on the ground in Tohoku in March 2011, describe Japanese reporters as “generally staffers, usually embedded in organizations with a strict line of command and lifetime employment.” They add, “Investigative reporting is limited… 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.”

A primary expression of this arrangement is the press club (kisha kurabu) system. Each government ministry, the major industrial associations and companies, police departments – all have their clubs. “Access journalism” is common worldwide, but the Japanese press club system is one of the world’s most extreme expressions of it. The clubs admit only members of the major media groups, and membership depends on following the collective rules, which forbid investigative journalism against the host entity.

Sporadic efforts to reform the system have uniformly failed. In 2009, Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio launched an initiative to create a more open media environment, and as a component of that drive announced that the Prime Minister’s Office, the Kantei, had for many years maintained a slush fund out of which it compensated compliant journalists. The U.K.’s Economist noted the “extraordinary silence” from major Japanese media groups about Hatoyama’s revelation of institutionalized bribery.

A number of pundits, domestic and foreign, observed the widespread distrust that such media collusion generated within the Japanese public in the aftermath of 3-11. Millions of Japanese turned to the internet and foreign media for more accurate and comprehensive information, though the foreign press was also responsible for some egregious “parachute journalism” howlers and gaffes. The many predictions that the Fukushima debacle would lead to longer-term, structural changes to Japan’s media environment were not to come to pass.

‘False Dawn’ for Japanese Journalism

David McNeill, cited above, also wrote “False Dawn: The Decline of Watchdog Journalism in Japan,” for the Asia Pacific Journal in October 2016. In a lengthy analysis of the media environment in Japan, pre and post 3-11, he writes, “The LDP’s return to power in late 2012 (in coalition with Komeito) has seen a striking reversal in media openness. LDP officials have used a range of informal methods to limit exposure to reporters outside the press club system.” McNeill describes how the country’s national broadcaster, NHK, became a specific target of the LDP during the Abe administration, with official and informal constraints on how, for example, the Nanjing Massacre of 1937 may be discussed.

Martin Fackler, who in 2011 was a correspondent for the New York Times and whose coverage of the triple disaster earned him and his team finalist standing for a Pulitzer, outlined in 2016 the Asahi’s attempt to launch an investigative reporting division, following the mass media failure after Tohoku. Fackler wrote that one crushing blow ending the initiative “came not from politicians or officials, but fellow journalists… Other big national newspapers lined up to bash the Asahi, essentially policing each other on the administration’s behalf.” And, perhaps most tellingly, Fackler noted that “the knock-out blow came from within the Asahi, as reporters in other, more established sections turned against the upstart investigative journalists.”

“The new section’s more adversarial approach to journalism had won it wide resentment for threatening the exclusive access enjoyed by the Asahi, as one of Japan’s national dailies, to politicians and the central ministries,” he wrote. “At a deeper level, the investigative reporters’ refusal to act as propagandists for the powerful also seemed to jeopardize the Asahi journalists’ cherished position as establishment insiders…”

One of the tragic stories of the Great East Japan Earthquake was that of the Okawa primary school, where 74 children died. Eri Hotta, reviewing “Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone” for the Guardian in 2017, merits quoting at length about the Okawa school’s representation of a larger Japanese, even human, phenomenon:

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Of 75 children who died while at school, 74 were from Okawa primary. Their parents wanted to know what accounted for these disturbingly disproportionate odds… Official accounts kept changing, and there seemed to be a reluctance to launch a thorough investigation. Grief-stricken and angry, some parents of the dead Okawa children decided to fight back. They filed a lawsuit against the city and prefectural governments.

But those parents were up against a peculiar kind of historical ghost – the spirit of a powerful, state-centered ideology that had proved so useful in Japan’s catch-up modernisation of the 19th century. This ideology regards the people as servants of the state; those who quibble with the official line are seen at best as nuisances and at worst as selfish troublemakers who should be ostracised. It even survived the destruction of Japan in the second world war, despite the officialdom that thrived on that ideology having led the country into disaster.

Ten Years Later

On March 9, 2021, Minamisoma Mayor Sakurai spoke as part of a substantial fortnight of events marking the 10th anniversary of the 3-11 triple disaster, hosted by the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. Two former prime ministers, Kan Naoto and Koizumi Junichiro, have also spoken for the FCCJ and answered questions in the past 10 days. Sakurai reminded the audience of what he’d said 10 years previously, which was that most of the Japanese media had fled, but many foreign media stayed on the ground, and thanked those media for their support. He exhorted Japanese media to spend time on the ground in Fukushima, to report what’s actually happening to the people and environment there.

Sakurai may not be encouraged in his hope by the reflections of Professor Kurokawa Kiyoshi, chair of the NAIIC that conducted the investigation cited above. Kurokawa, faculty at the University of Tokyo when he chaired the NAIIC, was also a speaker for the FCCJ series during these past several days. In his message from the chairman in the NAIIC report, Kurokawa writes about the Fukushima disaster: “What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan’. Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.”

The parents of Okawa Elementary School finally won their Pyrrhic suit. In 2019, Japan’s Supreme Court refused to overturn a lower court ruling against the city and prefecture governments, and consequent damages to the families of about $14 million. But Fackler has just published (in Japanese) “The Dogs that Didn’t Bark: Media Control in Abe’s Japan,” adding to his publications about media in Japan post-Fukushima, and indicating that the glimpsed dawn in the Japanese media environment following Fukushima has proven indeed false, at least so far.

Inertia is a powerful force, and nowhere do people with power and privilege surrender those easily. Sometimes children die as a result. The fourth estate should in theory be a spotlight into misbehavior by powerful people, and a protector of the less powerful, but ultimately only the citizenry can secure that increasingly essential role for media.