ISHINOMAKI, Japan (Kyodo) — Journalists at a tsunami-hit Japanese daily newspaper, which shot to fame after a U.S. museum acquired its handwritten editions, were inspired to grab their pens in a flooded newsroom by a story about their predecessors who acted likewise before World War II.
“It was a miracle we survived and that motivated us to get down to our jobs,” said Koichi Omi, president of the publisher of the daily Ishinomaki Hibi Shimbun.
“We are not heroes,” said Omi, 52, during a recent interview. “Any media would have done the same faced with the same situation.”
“I thought we were going to be killed by the tsunami,” Omi said, recalling the devastation after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 11.
In response to a tsunami warning, Omi and two staff members of the company got in a vehicle to follow those who already escaped to a nearby hill. But the three only found grayish muddy streams, carrying rubble and vehicles, approaching them. They had to race back inside the building and waited for several hours until the tide receded.
The tsunami flattened most districts nearby but the daily’s building was intact. Omi saw that two trucks from somewhere ended up near the building by accident and helped slow down the tsunami. All 28 employees of the company were safe.
Omi who stayed overnight in the office said the state of the fishing community on the Pacific coast was beyond description.
“The stars were amazingly beautiful but I saw fire burning red beneath the black sky in the east. It was silent but we could hear explosions somewhere, and the smell of burning was in the air.”
Computers and printing machinery broke down. Electricity and Internet connections were out. But staff of the news organization, which was set up 1912, explored a way to inform citizens of what happened. More than 5,600 of 160,000 citizens were killed or missing in the city.
“If we can’t make a contribution amid a tragedy like this, our newspaper isn’t worthy of existence,” Omi said.
Hiroyuki Takeuchi, 53, editor-in-chief, said the staff even talked in the dark newsroom about a story of those who wrote for the Hibi Shimbun before World War II. Even after authorities banned the publication, reporters handwrote the newspapers at home and delivered them to neighbors.
Hearing the story, Omi decided to go with “wall papers” using pens and roll papers.
The first set of six large poster-sized newspapers written in black and red felt-tip pens were ready to go the following day. The headline read: “Japan’s largest quake hits, massive tsunami.”
The daily issued 42 handwritten copies for six consecutive days until electricity resumed. The wallpapers were posted at shelters and convenience stores in two cities and one town.
Their efforts caught the eye of the Washington-based Newseum, which later acquired the copies. Many foreign media covered the work of the daily, which had a usual circulation of 14,000.
Omi said his challenge is to keep the business as the disaster deprived the city’s only daily newspaper of many of its subscribers.
Omi, who also owns the local soccer club Cobaltore Onagawa, said, “My goal is to help reconstruct this town.”