Japan Earthquake, Tsunami Hit Home for Two Duke Media Fellows

Many in the U.S. followed the news unfolding in Japan when an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident struck the country’s northern region in March, but two members of the Duke community watched especially closely.

Takaaki Iwabu and Tatsuo Nakajima—Japanese journalists and Media Fellows with the Dewitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy—recently described what it was like to follow the tragic events taking place in their home country from thousands of miles away.

Reporter who covered nuclear industry prepares to return home

From Durham, Tatsuo Nakajima's initial reaction upon hearing news accounts of unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan was a wish to return home to report on events.

“I sent an e-mail to my boss asking if I should come back,” Nakajima said. “He told me, ‘Don’t worry. We have staff that can cover the accident.’ He told me I should focus on my experience here in the U.S. and follow the news from here.”

Nakajima is a Japanese newspaper reporter who has covered nuclear issues extensively during his career as a reporter for The Yomiuri Shimbun, one of Japan’s—and the world’s—most widely circulated newspapers. Nakajima recently finished up an 11-month stint at Duke as a Media Fellow.

The Media Fellows Program brings media professionals from around the world to Duke for anywhere from a few weeks to an entire academic year. The fellows interact and collaborate with one another, attend classes and spend time away from their careers exploring issues related to the ever-changing world of journalism and the role of news media in a democracy.

A Break from the News Cycle

The DeWitt Wallace Center's Media Fellows Program lets journalists take part in the intellectual life of the university.  There are dividends when the reporters return to their home base, but they contribute to Duke as well. Read more.

Nakajima said he followed events in Japan through Twitter, as well as on Ustream, a video website where TV news from Japan was being rebroadcast.

Nakajima has since researched news coverage of the events by newspapers in both the United States and Japan, finding that coverage in Japan focused predominately on nuclear fallout, while U.S. coverage struck more of a balance in covering the earthquake and tsunami as well as nuclear events.

“The nuclear accident is bigger than the earthquake or tsunami in a way, but I do think the Japanese newspapers are too focused on the nuclear side of things,” Nakajima said. He noted that the earthquake and tsunami were responsible for the deaths of thousands, while the nuclear crisis has yet to account for a single death.

Given that his area of expertise as a journalist is in covering nuclear issues, Nakajima expected to be hard at work when he returned home in June, as problems at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant are far from solved.

“I can’t say in the future whether the nuclear situation will get better or worse. The situation is still unstable,” Nakajima said. “There are many things I have to report on. I will cover the situation when I get home.”

Photojournalist returns to Japan to photograph tragedy’s aftermath

Ship aground after Japanese tsunamiTakaaki Iwabu, who moved to the United States from Japan 20 years ago to attend Marshall University, has been a photographer at The News & Observer in Raleigh for the past six years. Iwabu spent approximately one month at Duke as a Media Fellow last fall. Like Nakajima, Iwabu followed events in Japan primarily through Ustream’s rebroadcasts of Japanese TV news.

“It was very difficult to watch. Very painful,” Iwabu said.

While Iwabu has made America his permanent home—he lives in Raleigh with his wife and two daughters—the news of what was happening in his native country led him to return for three weeks to Japan, primarily at his own expense.

“I went there 10 days after the quake,” Iwabu said. “It was a very long 10 days for me to sit and wait to get the OK to go on the trip. As a photographer, I knew the one thing I could do was take photographs.”

An exhibition of Iwabu’s photographs from his recent trip, titled “After the Wave: Japan’s Tsunami Zone,” will be on display through July 29 at the North Carolina Japan Center in Raleigh, located on the North Carolina State University campus.

“I’m still processing my experience,” Iwabu said. “Part of me is happy to be back here with my family, but part of me is also asking, ‘Why am I not there?’ I want to go back at some point.”

For those in Japan, Iwabu notes, the aftershocks—both literal and figurative—have subjected many to fear and hopelessness.

“The scale of devastation is so huge that people there are kind of at a loss,” Iwabu said. “I’m very worried about those in Japan because I know the psychological toll this is having is just so great.”

While being interviewed from the News & Observer offices in Raleigh, Iwabu explained how small things have the potential to remind him of the events that have struck his homeland.

“I’m sitting in a small office. The A/C just turned on and is shaking the window, and I just found myself wondering, ‘Is this an aftershock?’” Iwabu said. “It’s something that is still with me, even after being back.”