Journalists use ‘restorative narrative’ to report on Fukushima


The San Francisco State University’s Dilena Takeyama Center for the Study of Japan and Japanese Culture presented April 4 on the state of Fukushima, Japan at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California. The presentation, featuring the works of San Francisco State University students who visited Fukushima last year, included a series of stories on life after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and ongoing nuclear disaster.

Also present were William McMichael, assistant director of Fukushima University International Center, and Dr. Sae Ochi, director of internal medicine of Soma Central Hospital in Soma City.

During the summer of 2014, professors Jon Funabiki and Sachi Cunningham led six undergraduate students from the university and Ali Budner of KALW radio to Fukushima for a two-week stay to meet with and learn about the people there and the challenges they face today. The visit was part of a program coordinated by the International Center of Fukushima University’s Fukushima Ambassador Program created by McMichael.

“We asked if we could modify the program … to allow our students to not only tour Fukushima and listen to the speakers and tour the site but also do stories,” Funabiki said. Participants, through the course of a year, worked on pieces that they wrote, photographed or filmed. “They’ve become very passionate about the issue and recovery in Fukushima. They’ve developed friendships with people in Fukushima.”

Funabiki said he advocated for a “restorative narrative,” to include the past and present of a story, as well as ask questions looking toward the future and toward recovery so that “we can cover a story more holistically, more deeply, and actually help people think about the future.”

Four of the students — Guadalupe González, Corinne Morier, Lorisa Salvatin and Natalie Yemenidjian — presented their work. Deborah Svoboda and Gavin McIntyre were unable to attend. Funabiki said that McIntyre has since gone back to Japan to continue his work.

Cunningham, who first went to Japan 20 years ago to teach English, spoke about the group’s trip. She said the students elected to use their sole free day during their trip to pursue more interviews. She called the group a “dream team,” and said she looked forward to seeing where they would go on after their work in Fukushima.

Cunningham presented on behalf of McIntyre and Svoboda. She showed a series of portraits McIntyre took of people in Fukushima. They included a man who quit his job in Tokyo to help revitalize his hometown, a woman who faced stigma from people in Tokyo for being from Fukushima and photos from Namie, a hastily evacuated city following the nuclear meltdown. “It was a lot to take in … just trying to make sense of how people are dealing with all this tragedy,” she said.

Svoboda, who did a profile on the Tadano family’s experience, made a video detailing what happened to the family after the earthquake. The story, told through Kayo Tadano, talked about the loss of her grandfather. He was killed by the tsunami, trapped in his own home while his wife had to flee without him in a car.

González and Salvatin gave video presentations. González filmed a profile on McMichael, who is a Japanese Canadian of mixed descent. Salvatin presented two of her videos focusing on the Fukushima University program and a second video on a woman who teaches radio calisthenics at a temporary housing complex.

“I think we all learned a lot, not only for reporting, but for disasters, how a community responds to disaster,” he said. “I was amazed to see the resilience the whole prefecture had.”

González’s video showed how the earthquake inspired McMichael’s drive to fight against stigma after the nuclear disaster.

“When I do videos, … I tend to focus a lot on culture,” Salvatin said. “My favorite thing to cover is things like performance and music … so when I went to Japan that’s a lot of what I got.”

Yemenidjian showed the Website she built for the program’s visit and presented her oral history of Kazuya Sato. Sato, who was 17 at the time of the disaster, suffered from a mild anxiety disorder, but the earthquake and tsunami gave him post-traumatic stress disorder. “I didn’t have to take medicine before. I’m scared of trains. I have medicine, that is a big change.”

“I would have never known his story unless I had asked about it,” Yemenidjian said. She said oral histories are an empowering way to document the lives of the people of Fukushima and, through her work, she found a pattern.

Many of her subjects said it was up to themselves to overcome their losses and hardships. “I thought that was, in a way valiant, and in another way there can be more done,” she said.

Morier, the sole Japanese major to go on the trip, read her story on Tomoya Junior High School. The story touched on the larger controversy of preserving or removing painful reminders of the disaster. The school currently serves as a storage space for debris and personal effects collected after the disaster.

“Although some of the photo albums and other belongings’ owners have been located, only a small percentage of the people have actually claimed their items,” she read.Budner, who works for San Francisco’s KALW radio station also participated in the Fukushima program, gaining her first experience reporting abroad. “I chose the topic of food safety and how people are choosing what to eat after the radiation concerns,” she said. Budner shared her experience with Michiyo Kainuma, as they go shopping to make tempura using local produce.

Funabiki pointed to the “seesaw nature of life” in Fukushima, where residents continue to fight with depression and destruction, but also have uplifting moments and thoughts toward recovery and revitalization. One person who has dedicated his life to the revitalization of Fukushima is McMichael.

McMichael said he grew up wanting to become a multicultural ambassador. During González’s video, he said he worked to increase acceptance and visibility of expatriates in Fukushima prior to the earthquake, a role he said has switched now as he works to dispel the stigmas against Fukushima.

During his presentation McMichael spoke about the state of Fukushima today and introduced the Fukushima Ambassador Program. He said the prefecture now ranks first in obesity among children, as they aren’t able to exercise outside, due to the threat of radiation exposure. Furthermore, he said, Fukushima is ranked last in tourism among all other prefectures.

He showed maps of how radiation spread within the prefecture after the disaster and talked about the stigma people all over the world developed following the disaster. McMichael  said he created the Fukushima Ambassador Program to fight stereotypes by inviting students from around the world to learn about Fukushima and go home to share what they learned.

Ochi, who studied disaster public health in London after the earthquake struck, spoke about the effect the evacuation had on the people of Fukushima outside of the direct danger of nuclear fallout. While it is believed that they face no immediate danger, Ochi said the economic and social stressors stemming from the evacuation to escape the radiation is just as devastating. Unemployment is high and living conditions within temporary housing have led to poor mental and physical health. She also mentioned the poor state of health of decontamination workers, who are often from lower income backgrounds. Ochi said “there is no silver bullet” when dealing with the meltdown in Fukushima, but stressed the importance of working together to create a holistic solution to taking care of the survivors.

The program finished with a Q-and-A session with audience members, who were mostly interested in the state of Fukushima today, the state of government compensation and plans for the future revitalization of Fukushima.

The stories, videos and photos of “Facing Fukushima: We Are Here” are hosted online at


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