NOTE: This column is adapted from a blog post Hagit Limor wrote on March 17 for the SPJ “Freedom of the Prez” blog.
I went to Japan on a journalists’ exchange and ran into that nation’s emotional equivalent of our 9/11.
You remember the initial horror, the denial that what you were seeing really could be happening. Disbelief turned to numb acceptance with video replays that would no longer allow us to deny the truth. Then came tears for the human tragedies unfolding before our eyes, parents searching for their children, husbands searching for their wives, holding up signs and photos in desperate hope. We allowed our hearts much longer than common sense normally reigns, to believe that maybe, just maybe, the missing would turn up in a miracle save.
And then came the anger. For this nation, it mostly turned outward, sometimes in unfair fashion toward an entire religion when truly, a few extremists had stolen our innocence. For Japan, a normally stoic citizenry now reels in despair from the triple threat of earthquake, tsunami and, as I write this, ongoing nuclear calamity. Their anger turns toward distrust of their own government efforts and its disclosure of the true threat.
These are the images I carried back to the United States after ten days in Japan. The journey began as a personal and professional adventure, representing SPJ in an East-West Center program that sent six American journalists to Japan while six Japanese journalists travelled our nation.
The quake and tsunami hit on our fifth day. We had just left Tokyo and were sitting at Kadena Air Force base in Okinawa getting a briefing from colonels representing various service branches when their cellphones started ringing. I listened as one organized a mass evacuation of Okinawa’s shoreline; a tsunami was heading our way. He connected me with an oceanographer on base tracking the earth’s movements. I watched in real time as helicopter and satellite shots showed the tsunami offshore heading to land, a huge wall of water like some movie version of the real threat, moving slowly, ominously.
I later tweeted: “Watching tsunami approach was like watching a disaster movie u can’t turn off.”
That’s when the gospel I’ve been preaching about the new world of journalism came up and smacked me in the face. Armed with a Netbook and smartphone, I posted, tweeted, wrote and used Skype for the next five days. I barely slept, fueled by adrenaline and the desire for information.
I wrote an eyewitness account for my station and other affiliates, and used Skype to do live interviews with stations back home, outlets that otherwise wouldn’t have had anyone “on the ground.” It’s something of a distinction to be one of the only U.S. reporters on the scene (even though by happenstance) when a big story breaks. It was a tall order, to say the least, to put aside feelings of personal safety and worry for those around you and go into “reporter mode.”
But that’s what distinguishes journalists, particularly those reporting from disaster and conflict zones: You’re always on the job, even when you don’t intend to be.
Butler Cain of the SPJ International Journalism Committee contacted me by email and posed a few questions for the “Journalism and the World” blog. One question he asked:
What can you tell us about the mood of the people you’re interacting with?
A. People are glued to TV’s and smartphones, getting the latest information. The government’s offered a continuous series of updates from the prime minister, nuclear officials and others, so no one wants to miss the latest live details. People in Japan are well-mannered, soft-spoken and kind so even in the first hours, they masked their fears well in stoic fashion. Everyone got on their cellphones to make sure family members up north were ok, but cell service was very spotty so it took some people a while to get confirmation. Now, there’s worry and an immediate drive to help the hardest hit areas, with donation jars popping up. They’re intent to rebuild as they did after Hiroshima and Nagasaki but right now they’re still just hoping to find survivors. (Read the full Q&A.)
More than professional challenge, I learned a lot about the Japanese people and about the common human thread that weaves us in tragedy. Beyond polite, they clung to civility long past my experience in American cities would hold for our own. But in the end, they, too, succumbed to the overwhelming nature of this calamity. It was inevitable with hour after hour of stories like the one of the husband riding his bicycle from town to town, shelter to shelter, clutching the only photo he had left of his wife, refusing to give up hope he’d find her.
That sort of human drama needs no interpretation, not in words, not by culture. Man-made or borne of nature, tragedy makes for its own universal language.
I came to Japan to learn a different lesson than the one with which I left. Like 9/11, these images will remain seared forever in my mind. My tweet on March 21 summed it well: “I’m back home, back to work, but can’t forget what I left behind.”
Hagit Limor is the 2010-11 national SPJ president.