Postcard from Japan | It takes a newsroom to educate
March 11, 2011 is still embedded in Shinichi Takeda's mind, it was the day when the earthquake and Tsunami struck Sendai city; five and a half years on, when he speaks, it seems as if the disaster struck yesterday.
Like the tens and thousands in Miyagi prefecture, who endured physical and emotional trauma, the head of disaster risk reduction education section, Kahoku Shimpo Publishing Company, says he learnt a valuable lesson that fateful afternoon.
Their newspaper had failed to educate the population to handle disasters of this magnitude.
"It is not enough and ineffective, if we inform our readers about the happening at the time when a disaster strikes," Takeda said. "We need to give our readers constant information on how to prepare and be safe."
"If there was a sustained effort to educate our readers and the wider population," Takeda said, "the loss to human life would have been considerably less."
The 2011 earthquake and tsunami claimed 20,000 lives, there are 2,500 people unaccounted for, and 27 vendors of Kahoku Shimpo also died.
Takeda and his staff at Sendai's largest daily, lived through the earthquake and the resultant Tsunami to ensure that the newspaper was delivered to their subscribers the next morning.
"We suffered extensive damage," Takeda said. "The office building was inundated, ceilings had fallen and there were cracks on the wall, 27 of our news vendors and distribution staff lost their lives." Two of the papers branch offices were swept away and the systems were shut down.
Two editorial staff drove 300 km, to a newspaper in Niigata on the western coast of Japan, to plan and design the pages for the March 12 edition of the Kahoku Shimpo.
It was a logistic nightmare, and given the unprecedented scale of the disaster, the emotional price was high; Takeda, who was the Chief Reporter then, stayed in the office for a month.
Post the tsunami, the newspaper set up a disaster risk reduction unit with a mandate to educate the people.
The realisation that they failed on several fronts came after Kahoku Shimpo surveyed people living in shelters if the newspaper stories had helped readers to be prepared for disaster 72 per cent said no.
The newspaper took a lead and reached out to the communities to prepare them organising seminars in schools, companies. Around 60 organisations and 120 people are currently involved, Takeda informed.
"The workshops serve as an opportunity for people to share their experiences," he said. These interactions, he says, give people a chance speak and local newspapers are best suited for this role. His newspaper also organises round-table meeting with universities, corporate bodies and media organisations these interactions are then published.
One elderly reader, he informed, managed to save his life by going to an elevated highway, after recalling an article he had read in Kahoku Shimpo, advising people to move to higher ground when tsunami warning is given.
"It feels good to hear such stories," Takeda said. "We would like to save more lives by educating people."
Life goes on Sendai, bustling, bubbling and rolling under the psychedelic signage and vibrant shopping plazas. Sitting in his offices, Takeda, says media has a larger role to play than news dissemination, and it should be the mandate and onus of the newsrooms to turn their energies to educate their readers.
"It is important to be proactive and make your readers be prepared, should a disaster strike," he said. "It is a great pain to see people lose their lives.
"I don't want this to happen again," Takeda said, Shimpo Publishing is Sendai's largest circulated daily, with their morning edition reaching 450,000 and the evening paper selling 70,000 copies.
"The disaster is not over for us," he said.
- The visit to Japan was part of 'Pacific Islands and Caribbean Journalists' Programme' organised by the Tokyo based Association for Promotion of International Co-operation (APIC) with support from Foreign Press Center, Japan. Email firstname.lastname@example.org