Guide for Reporting the Japan Quake

Comprehensive advice from an environmental issues writer and editor for news professionals bound for Japan: how to prepare, what to expect and how to keep yourself safe while reporting on the earthquake, tsunami and damaged nuclear plants.

By way of quick introduction, I am an environmental issues writer and former editor of The Japan Times Weekly, who covered the earthquakes in San Francisco and Kobe, the Tokyo subway gassing, Mount Unzen volcanic eruption, and led a field study (while simultaneously doing rescue work as a volunteer) in the worst-hit Khao Lak region of Thailand right after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. 

Summary: Japan can be a paradoxical place for reporting, even for its own journalists and longtime expats. The tendency of government agencies and corporations to impose a veil of silence and half-truths doubles the difficulties.

Habitual censorship and blanket public-security rules mean that journalists, if we are going to fulfill our professional responsibility to the public, must "bend" a few rules while minimizing the risks of openly violating the law. Your embassies are unlikely to come to your aid and, often to the contrary, may actually cooperate in curbing the foreign press. Despite these constraints, it is possible to report by stretching the outer limits of the law, which means that you’re still well within the bounds of reason.


Radiation Medicine: Call around to pharmacies in your home country to purchase sufficient potassium iodine capsules for five-to-ten people for a month. The extra capsules are needed for your translators and drivers, as well as a good-will gesture to your local sources. Your thyroid gland absorbs iodine, and these pills help to block radioactive iodine-131. At the pharmacy also pick up some Imodium and nasal inhalant or gel (Vicks type), the latter to help reduce the foul smell of corpses, which wears down your morale.

Cash: The yen is still legal tender in worst-case disasters. ATMs and banks are down in disaster areas, and forex transactions will not be resuming for a long while. So change your money at the airport in Tokyo, get as many small bills as they allow, and break your large bills with convenience store purchases right away. Otherwise you'll be spending 1000 yen, or about $12 US, for a bottle of water, since most stores in disaster areas will not have change. Get a lot of 100-yen and 10-yen coins for buying from vending machines, which will be the first devices up and running.

Mobile Phone: Japan has the worst policy on roaming phones in the world. Cell phone rentals require a large deposit. If possible, get a colleague or friend in Tokyo to buy you a camera phone with SIM card. It is faster and easier for people with a residency card to sign up for a service plan. Be sure that they get a plan that includes the decent rate for international calling and Internet access.

Computers/Wireless: Yahoo Japan is the quickest way to get a password for wireless access, and they have English-speaking staff. You will not have a lot of time to shop around for better deals and fill out Japanese forms.


  • At the airport or a tourism agency, buy travel insurance that will cover a helicopter rescue in case you are injured. Keep the receipt with all the numbers handy in your wallet or front pocket.
  • Go to a major bookstore in Tokyo and buy maps of the Tohoku and a road atlas of Japan. Japan is a hard place for finding locations. Also, pick up a pocket conversation book with short dictionary.
  • Buy a dozen cheap throwaway raincoats and face masks, because you will not have time or water to launder your clothes in case of contact with radioactive particles. 
  • Bring a hard hat or bicyclist's helmet and buy some toilet paper. Throw in an LED flashlight with extra batteries. 
  • For sanitation, several packs of wet wipes and a couple rolls of toilet paper. 

Press Credentials: Get a letter from your managing editor certifying that you are a correspondent in Japan. Go to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan and join, and be sure to sign up for any official tours on site, even if you must cancel later. Then go to the Foreign Press Center in Hibiya, show them the letter and sign up for a member card. The application period is too long, but get the staffer's name and phone number, so that you can tell local authorities out in the field that you are approved and awaiting your press card, and that they can "call the following number." In a crisis, some articles of proof are better than a baseless bluff.


Cars are being allowed on major highways, but roadblocks will likely prevent you from going on feeder roads for close access to the Tohoku coast. 

Public Transport: To reach isolated areas, there is a network of local trains and buses that the police and the rail offices will not inform you about. Go to locals who drive, like truck drivers, to enquire about moving through the transport maze. You may even be able to hitch a ride. I was the only reporter in the Hanshin Quake to get into the heart of Kobe, by taking round-about countryside train lines that I remembered from my childhood days. 

"Rogue" taxi and bikers are often the only guys with the guts, in need of the money and know the back roads to take you inside security-cordoned areas. The authorities always go overboard in imposing access restrictions. Be fast with the photos. When your driver warns that it's time to move, there are zero excuses to delay for that "perfect shot" that will land you in jail and take you off the story altogether. Art for your portfolio can wait; you are there to get back with news.

On Foot: Even with motor transport, you must be prepared for a lot of walking, so bring good walking shoes, preferably waterproof, and band-aids for your calluses. You should be able to buy rubber boots after banging loudly on the doors of closed shoe shops or hardware stores.

Bicycle: For the physically fit, where the road ends is where the bicycle journey begins. There will likely be bicycles lying all around unclaimed. Take down the license number so that someday you can repay its owner, and leave your e-mail address with a magic marker on the handlebars. Gas stations will have residual air pressure for your tires, and if you see a better bike, ditch the one you have. 

Weather: It will be cold, sometimes freezing, at night until well into April, so wear layers of clothing and bring a cap and gloves. A thin sleeping bag is easier to haul than an Arctic type.

Boat: Within several days of the disaster, some boats will start plying the waters, and you can ask captains and crew at small ports if they can take you closer to the more devastated towns. Get their mobile phone numbers to arrange pickup later. They can call around to see if a boat is available. If you think they're slow moving, it's because they're trying not to collide with debris.

Food & Drink: The locals will provide. Give them thanks and iodine capsules or face masks in payment, since they are too honorable to accept cash.

Batteries: Recharging can be difficult in places so be sure to recharge whenever possible, and sleep with electronic equipment inside your sleeping bag because cold night temperatures will sap batteries and increase friction inside videocams.


The people of Tohoku, the northeast region, are known to be reserved and stoical, so do not let the lack of smiles put you off. Don't expect eloquent quotes, since they tend to be terse in their communication. Just be polite and sympathetic, and most people should respond well.

English: A smaller percentage of residents are fluent in English than in the major cities, but many can communicate haltingly in broken English. It will be difficult for them to "switch gears" mentally and call up their English vocabulary, so speak slowly and repeat questions. After four or five exchanges, the English starts to kick in. Be patient and go slow.

Dialect: If your translator is from Tokyo or Osaka, they will have difficulty understanding the rough local dialect, especially in group situations like community meetings. The dialect, colloquialisms and rhythm are so different that some conservations may have to be "translated" into standard Japanese by a local resident.


Tips can come from anybody, even the humblest person. Listen to what they're trying to tell you. 

Get people to write their names and job title or company in your notebook, so that you get the source right. It's easier if you give them a name card first.

As often is the case, people might give you a detailed story in the evening, which normally they would never recall in daylight hours. A good exchange can happen at any time or place, so loiter a bit around groups if you have nothing better to do.


Mud is dangerous and can suck you in. Use boards to cross muddy spots. 

Keep away from downed electric lines and nearby puddles because when the power comes back on, somebody nearly always gets killed.

If you're near tall structures, put on that helmet. 

Keep your eyes on the ground and look overhead once every half-minute. It becomes a routine that you must practice. Don't get lost in your thoughts inside danger zones, no matter how rattled you might be feeling.


Somebody or several bodies in concert must act as the horse's arse raising the tough questions amid the thicket of official denial and excuses. Understand very clearly your mission. It is not to get an immediate answer (which the spokesman is not authorized to give); rather, it is to send a message to their higher-ups of your dissatisfaction with the canned response. Under pressure, the news manager will have to divulge some information on the next day or soon after.

If your group of journalists realize that an expat "journalist" has been planted to raise irrelevant long-winded questions to chew up the alloted time at news conferences, one or two of your team should try to buttonhole him and keep him out of the room or politely encourage him from raising his hand. Just say: "I have a better question, it's my turn so keep your damned paw down." The press handlers play dirty and never forget it. Don't take these sorts of diversions lying down. A press conference, to paraphrase the words of Al Pacino to Jamie Foxx in the football movie "Any Given Sunday," is a war of inches. In decimal Japan, that translates as a sword-duel of millimeters.

The press club system remains intact despite decades of reform attempts. The major Japanese newspapers and news channels have special access. There is also Foreign Ministry favoritism toward certain major Western media, which shamefully collude with this information control system. One way to bust through the press controls is to walk straight past the gatekeepers and sit down and read a newspaper. If they try to evict you, tell them that you've been invited. If your kicked out, that's proof and a scoop for you. Don't be disheartened. Any serious reporter whose not playing the insider game has his or her war stories with the censors.

Finally, if you see a bunch of off-duty Japanese journalists, try to befriend one or two. of them. Off the record, they might let you in on the scoop. If you're lucky, one of them might catch you over a drink and fill you in on the real story. Sometimes you can listen when they're doing an interview, but don't be pushy. Be the gecko on the wall, even if rival journalists accuse you of being a pirate. Always be friendly and open. 

False Alarms: Besides rigged news conferences and security cordons, you may face deliberately exaggerated public-health warnings. These unfounded warnings are usually to keep you out of news sites, as happened in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami, when it was discovered that passport thefts and other crimes were happening. Human corpses, even badly decayed ones, are not fast transmitters of diseases like cholera, especially in the cool temperatures of Tohoku. The stench is worse than the risk of contagion.

One last point, the story isn't a story until its filed. A cassette of decent video will probably have to go by the Black Cat (Kuro Neko Kyubin) or Sagawa Kyubin package express service to a friend in Tokyo for upload or air delivery or to the FedEx office in Tokyo. Large photos sent from the field via the Internet may not be actually going through, so better to send thumbnails before trying to load on a large image. Ask your editors to confirm receipt of each message, or you may be e-mailing into a blind alley.

There's a lot more, but that's enough get you on the road. Good luck, and remember that cold beer never tasted better until after you've made deadline.