Reporter Hiroyuki Yokoi has had a lot to write about the past 12 months: He saw his town washed away by the March 11 tsunami, his family briefly fled into his boss’s office and--in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake that claimed his town--he found a fiancee. But thinking back on the stories of the past year, he says it was Valentine’s Day at a local cake shop last month that he found most moving.
“I went there to see if there was a story angle. Maybe the baker was making something special, or maybe he wasn’t making anything at all,” says the 24-year-old, who works for the Ishinomaki Hibi Shinbun Press, a small newspaper in the town of roughly 160,000 residents in Miyagi Prefecture.
Both natives, Yokoi and the baker got to talking about the volunteers and other outsiders who had descended on the community, where scars left by a 10-meter high tsunami--which resulted in about 6,000 people dead or missing and 29,000 homeless--can still be seen.
“When they come here they always say, ‘Gambaro’ (‘Hang in there’) and ‘Kizuna’ (‘Bonding’). These have become catchphrases,” Yokoi says. “To be honest, the people here I talk to are tired of hearing it. Everyone is doing their best, we don’t need to be told to do so. Bonds here have always been strong, we don’t need to be reminded. So when the baker insisted to me that his chocolates were just regular Valentine’s Day chocolates (not Gambaro or Kizuna chocolates), I realized that life was getting back to normal. We’ve finally dug ourselves out.”
Cake shops, local festivals and high school baseball and soccer games make up the stuff of small regional newspapers like the Ishinomaki Hibi Shinbun Press. Yet the 100-year-old publication quickly became a symbol of the Tohoku region’s quiet resilience after reporters and editors turned up at the sodden office the day after the tsunami to write the paper by hand.
But a year after the disaster, the Ishinomaki Hibi Shinbun Press is still in dire straits. Staying in business another decade, let alone another century, will require more than determination. A survivor even before the Great East Japan Earthquake, the paper kept publishing through a tsunami in 1960, created by the 9.5 Valdivia Earthquake on the west coast of Chile, that swept through the area.
The Ishinomaki Hibi Shinbun is among the last three local newspapers in the area that once had 11. Printed on eight pages before the disaster, publication is now down to four, although plans are to raise it back to six pages before summer, according Hiroyuki Takeuchi, who holds the title of director. The number of subscribers has dropped to 7,500, a loss of slightly less than half, while advertisements from local firms--themselves suffering--have all but disappeared.
More serious, says Takeuchi, is the fact that the paper no longer has the resources to augment its six reporters in the field, nor has there been a show of interest. Despite its new fame, the Ishinomaki Hibi Shinbun received only one job applicant this past year, who promptly changed his mind after learning of the newspaper's financial straits.
“When I think about it, we were able to do what we did last year because many of our staff members were young. Our old guard had just retired,” says Takeuchi, who started his career at age 22 and left the field for the director’s desk eight years ago. “It’s a basic principle of journalism to see everything with your own eyes. Our staff was young and had the energy to do it.”
It was, however, no easy thing for reporter Yokoi, who was just five months into his job when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck. Immediately after the shaking, he and his colleagues left their office on Takeuchi’s command and fanned out to various Ishinomaki neighborhoods to check the damage. By the time the tsunami warnings came, says Takeuchi, it was too late to call them back. When the last of the writers finally reported in safely six days after the quake, “my life changed from hell back to heaven,” says the director.
His concern nowadays is to monitor and rest his young staff, who continue to report stories from the disaster, even as they grapple with their own losses and changing living conditions.
“Where I used to live, it’s no longer possible to tell where the land ends and where the sea begins. I can remember what my neighborhood used to look like only when the tide goes out,” says Yokoi, who continues to cover his hometown of Onagawa, although he and his parents have moved into prefabricated housing a distance away. “Whenever I go there now, I’m a journalist on assignment. But when the people I interview see my name on my business card they say, ‘Oh, you’re the son of the rice dealer that was here,’ so we’re able to talk like neighbors."
The sinking of the land has hampered the cleanup in Onagawa, and parts of the town still look like a ghost town.
“But in the past six months, talk has turned from survival tales to comparisons between life inside the prefab units to the cost of rebuilding old homes. It’s one sign,” Yokoi says, "that people are ready to move on.”
Come the 3/11 anniversary, the residents will brace for another tide--of outside journalists and television crews returning to their story.
“People here have developed a media neurosis,” Yokoi says. “Disaster victims have had to tell their story over and over again, when deep down they feel, ‘How can you understand? You didn’t suffer. Why are you digging into our pain, trying to force words out of mouths?’”
To be sure, intruding is part of his own job. But Yokoi also portrays his neighbors not just with sympathy, but with some humor, too.
For the young journalist, it will be re-aired tsunami footage that will stir the feelings of those first days. Because he never saw the waves crash over the embankments in person, he says, the footage has filled his dreams.
“It was my job to record what was happening, but when the time came, I couldn’t react," Yokoi says. "I was worried about my home. Where was my family? I could see the water reaching the office and thought, ‘It’s going to be wrecked. Do I still have to think like a reporter?’”
Only later did he realize that to have been there then, with the Ishinomaki Hibi Shinbun Press armband on his sleeve, was a mandate. When a once-in-a-lifetime story as big as the Great East Japan Earthquake breaks, its "all hands on deck" in newsrooms and media organizations.
“We’re the kind of people who were born here, raised here and will die here,” says director Takeuchi, explaining the essence of the local newsman. He then mentions a subscriber who phoned in to report the March 11, 2011, issue of the paper appeared in her mailbox just before the quake.
“It was the best news," Takeuchi says. "Everything happened just as delivery started. It means it reached at least one place before the waves came in, and that means we’ve never missed a day.”
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