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Reporting from Kumamoto

Mashiki PTC

Footage from Mashiki evacuation center, morning of April 18

By Michael Penn

SNA (Tokyo) — I decided to take the plunge, throw myself into the Kumamoto earthquake zone, and see how well I could report from the scene of a disaster in an area remote from Tokyo. This is a personal memoir reflecting both on the challenges of one-man reporting under these conditions as well as about what I saw and did during my experience there.

I benefitted from a bit of a “test run” of one-man reporting in disaster-struck Japan by covering the Joso City flood disaster in Ibaraki Prefecture last September. That was the first time I had attempted this same kind of low-budget backpack journalism, and I learned from it some initial lessons that were added to on this occasion. I had also reported, of course, from the Tohoku tsunami disaster zone in March 2011, but that was a venture of a different kind because I had a budget then for a full team and had pooled resources with another party of journalists. Lately I’ve been trying to figure out how to do it alone with no help in the field whatsoever.

Problem One is having the right gear and a kit which allows you to operate independently for at least a couple days, while still being physically manageable. For the Joso trip I had the luxury of being able to go there, film what I could find, and then return to my Tokyo office for editing. In the case of Kumamoto, however, I had an overseas client that required video reports directly from the field, including live Skype interviews and fully-edited on-location packages.

One key lesson I had learned from Joso was that my camera tripod was simply too heavy to carry around for hours and hours in a disaster zone, so I did myself a huge favor by buying a much lighter tripod that wouldn’t break my back. That was a big improvement, but frankly refinement of the kit remains a work in progress. This time I was lugging around not only the tripod, but also three cameras, a MacBook Pro, an assortment of microphones and audio equipment, various batteries, cords, adapters, drives, maintenance materials, and about two days worth of food and drinks.

While I was fortunate not to have forgotten any crucial piece of equipment this time, there were a few key limitations for which I still need to implement solutions. One is that I need a reliable mobile battery for my MacBook Pro. I was dependent on being able to plug in somewhere in order to use the computer extensively. A second major headache was access to wifi and the internet. I had consistent internet access through my mobile phone, but I found that I needed better solutions for the MacBook Pro, especially when sending large files to an international television station. Finally, and somewhat more ridiculously, I found that I did forget one reasonably important thing, which was the passwords to all of my social media accounts. The MacBook Pro is not the computer I use in ordinary times and so it hadn’t occurred to me that I would be needing all of my passwords. I felt kind of stupid about that, but the fact of the matter is that this is precisely the kind of thing you may forget about when hurriedly preparing all the gear you need to report from the field.

I suppose that a good comprehensive solution to the kit problems is to do a number of test runs in ordinary times. Every now and then I should do field trips near Tokyo to identify remaining problems and to work out the bugs in the system.

At any rate, on April 16, about thirteen hours after the largest Kumamoto quake, I boarded the Shinkansen at Shinagawa Station bound for Hakata Station, which was as far the line was running at that time. However, while still aboard the Shinkansen I was informed by a friend that he had found a driver willing to take me into central Kumamoto, starting from my former hometown of Kitakyushu City. As a result, I disembarked from the Shinkansen one stop earlier than I had planned, at Kokura Station.

I made my first television report right there that evening in Kitakyushu, and then the driver dropped me off for the night at a hotel in Tagawa City in central Fukuoka Prefecture. There was only time for about five hours of sleep before we got back in the car and headed directly for Kumamoto Castle. The car trip went smoothly enough, but it took an extra couple of hours because there were traffic jams in the immediate vicinity of Kumamoto, where large numbers of cars and trucks were flowing both in and out of the city.

My arrangement with the driver was that he bring me to Kumamoto. Having arrived at the edge of the castle, he dropped me off and returned to his home in Fukuoka Prefecture. Now I was on my own, on foot with heavy packs, and playing it by ear in the disaster zone. It was about noon on April 17.

Castle Wall

Damaged wall of Kumamoto Castle

I began by filming the outside of Kumamoto Castle, which had sustained very serious damage in the earthquakes. On my one attempt to enter the castle grounds for a closer look, I was immediately confronted by a security guard who took an usually strong stance telling me it was forbidden. I decided to back off for the present and work my way around the edges of the castle. At any rate I was getting good footage even from the perimeter, so it didn’t seem a big enough problem to risk trouble over.

As I was circling the castle I came upon Kumamoto City Hall, which was itself the scene of interesting action. Outside there were Self-Defense Forces providing drinking water to local residents. There were also some city officials there passing out free bananas and few other simple food items. Inside the city hall some residents were camped out living on the floor, obviously having been driven out of their homes by quake damage.

Empty Mall

Empty shopping mall in central Kumamoto

I took a number of interviews right there in front of city hall for the television station and soon found myself wandering around the nearly deserted market streets of central Kumamoto. This area had electricity but all of the water and sewage systems had been knocked out. Almost all businesses were closed, including the usually reliable convenience stores.

There was damage to be seen in central Kumamoto, but I quickly reached the point where I thought maybe I was wasting my time filming here. I had heard that the worst damage was to be found in neighboring Mashiki Town. It was 3 pm and there was still sunlight for a few hours, so I hailed a taxi and asked the driver to take me directly to the worst-affected area.

Sure enough, all along the route from central Kumamoto to central Mashiki, the visible damage of the earthquake become increasingly apparent. In the residential neighborhood where I was finally dropped off, most of the houses were either turned into a pile of matchsticks, entirely collapsed, or leaning at precarious and unnatural angles. Those next few hours of filming as the sun went down formed the heart of my journalistic mission to the region.

I should mention that I was the only obvious foreigner I saw during my entire time in Mashiki Town. There were many other camera crews and photographers wandering around the destroyed Mashiki neighborhoods that I visited, but the ones I saw were all from Japanese television stations, newspapers, and weekly magazines. There were also various repair workers to be found there, as well as some local families trying to salvage personal items from their ruined homes.

Mashiki House

Collapsed house in Mashiki

One memory I expect will stick with me came as I was filming a home in which the tile roof had completely collapsed in on the wooden structure. An immediate neighbor, perhaps in his 60s, walked by, stopped next me, and then said matter-of-factly, “One person died in that house.” I didn’t know what to say in response and so I just nodded in comprehension. In my mind, though, I was thinking, “I’m not sure that I really wanted to know that.”

Even as a mere visitor to a disaster zone, you kind of just fall into a solemn trance and focus on the work in front of you. The human tragedy is so enormous that you can’t really grasp it or dwell upon it. While the sense of horror surely hangs oppressively in the air, it is probably best not to try too hard to immediately take it all in or to ponder too deeply what has just happened there. To do so would quickly overwhelm you.

By the time the sun was setting, I was thoroughly exhausted, both physically and emotionally. The next point of business was to figure out where I would be sleeping that night and whether or not it would be possible to edit and send video news reports to my client.

I considered trying to find a taxi to take me back to central Kumamoto. But that didn’t seem to make sense. With so many people thrown out of their houses by the earthquake and so many relief workers, etc., flooding in, could I really expect any hotels to have available rooms? Wouldn’t every hotel in Kumamoto be fully booked?

But I had another idea in the back of my mind all along. When I had covered the Joso floods last September I had seen an evacuation center where hundreds of people were camped out in a school gymnasium. In the case of Joso there were even some local English teachers living there who had been driven from their apartment. I had considered staying in that Joso gymnasium overnight, but thought about how uncomfortable it must be and so decided to return to Tokyo to sleep in the comfort of my own futon. But this time, in Mashiki, I was set on making the other choice. I’d camp out and live as the evacuees lived — but in my case for only a single night.

It made perfect sense to me. What better way to get some appreciation of the actual conditions for the evacuees? This allowed me to report the real situation in a way that perhaps most other journalists flying over the town by helicopter or quickly jumping out of a news vehicle would never witness. I would be getting the true human story, and thus would be better able to report it to the world. It could be my own penny-ante version of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.

Guided by the directions given to me by a local resident, I found my way to the nearest evacuation center, which in normal times was Mashiki Town’s Hiroyasu-Nishi Elementary School. I’d estimate that about 400-500 people were living there, with the largest grouping in the basketball court gymnasium, almost exactly the same scene I had witnessed in Joso. There were still several available patches of floor space, so I sat down and occupied one of them.

In the center of the gymnasium was a small area squared off by tables and supplies run by a staff of two or three people, perhaps in their 20s. They were essentially the organizers or administrators, and I gathered that they were public employees of some kind. They gave me a thin styrofoam mat to lie upon and two towels to act as a pillow. The hundreds local residents all had brought blankets from their homes, but in my case, of course, there were no blankets. I would sleep wrapped up in the light jacket I was wearing. Fortunately it wasn’t a very cold night.

No one at the evacuation center asked me who I was, even though I could perceive some curious stares that said, “Who is this foreigner with all the cameras, computer, and electric cords hanging out of his bags?” I just quietly took my space on the basketball court floor and kept to myself.

Not long after I arrived there was an announcement over the elementary school’s intercom system and most of the evacuees eagerly formed a line. I soon figured out that it was an announcement that an aid delivery had arrived including some fresh fruit, yogurt, and other snack items. Those at the front of the line were able to snatch the choice items, but even when everyone had taken what they wanted, there was still some food left. The food wasn’t luxurious, but there was at least enough of it to go around. In my case I stuck to eating the food I had brought with me into Kumamoto.

The worst part of evacuee life was definitely the toilets and the general hygiene situation. The sewage systems had all been knocked out and this evacuation center for hundreds of people was served by only five portable toilets that were very unpleasant. I waited twenty minutes that evening to use the toilet, and after the experience vowed to try to avoid a return visit. Needless to say, there were also no bathing or shower facilities. After using the toilet the only hygiene option was rubbing alcohol spray on your hands.

After lying down on the floor for an hour or so to collect my energy, I then got up to see if there was any possibility at all that I could use my computer, edit my video footage, and send a video news package to my overseas client. Somewhat to my surprise I was able to jury-rig something. There were a few electric outlets available, and I was able to put together an impromptu work station in a hallway with a stool and cardboard boxes that were lying around. The wifi services were poor, but they did exist. In order to record the narration for my news package, I went outside to the far point of the elementary school parking lot at about midnight. It worked out better than I had expected and my client was pleased.

It was after 2 am when my client asked for the final report of the day, and so I then returned to the gym floor and tried to sleep. Perhaps due to exhaustion, I fell asleep reasonably quickly.

But not for long. As if it were a military camp or something, wake up time in the evacuation center was 5:30 am. Within thirty minutes of that there was so much activity in the gymnasium that it was a hopeless effort to try to get some additional hours of sleep. I could understand clearly that staying one night in such conditions might be tolerable enough, but doing it for a week or so would be seriously oppressive. I was already getting pretty ragged.

ASDF Rice Balls

Self-Defense Forces making rice balls in Mashiki

Before long I went outside where Self-Defense Forces had set up and begun making rice balls for the evacuees to eat, and I used that space to take some more interviews for my next video report. I found that by having stayed overnight in the evacuation center, I had silently built some rapport with some of the evacuees who treated me in a very friendly manner and asked me questions about my work. I was thanked for reporting their story to the outside world.

After editing and sending another package to my client, I decided that I would now return to central Kumamoto to do my final on-location report, which would have to do with restoring public services and transportation. As I was packing up my bags to leave, two of the evacuees, a mother and her daughter, asked me where I was going. I told them. They then insisted on driving me to Kumamoto. I wanted to decline at first, but they explained that they themselves had seen nothing but the Mashiki evacuation center for several days and that they would enjoy driving me to Kumamoto just for a change of scenery. While I didn’t want to impose on people living in that kind of situation, I could also see that they were seriously insisting and that they would be disappointed if I refused. So I agreed and they drove me to Kumamoto Station.

I arrived at Kumamoto Station at a very interesting time. There was a line of about six or eight people and several camera crews from Japanese news stations. Asking what was going on, I learned that the train station was about to open and the first local train after the earthquake was about to depart for Tosu, north along the Kagoshima Main Line. The media was there to film the event, so I just seized the opportunity and joined them as if I had planned it all along or something.

First Train

First train out of Kumamoto Station

While I was able to film the departing train successfully, I was starting to run into some logistical problems. First of all, I was getting near my own physical limits after two nights of short sleep and lugging around heavy gear for so many hours. Second, the food and water I had brought with me was about to run out. Third, I had to go to the toilet and the whole area around Kumamoto Station was without sewage services.

To my surprise, the JR West staff at Kumamoto Station said that they had no idea where toilet facilities could be found nearby. One would have thought that everyone would know, but apparently not. Eventually I was forced to take a taxi to a rather distant location where I was able to use a toilet. The round-trip fare was 3,500 yen, but at least it was a functioning flush toilet. Ahh! Heaven!

With that business taken care of and no food and water remaining, I figured that it was high time to end my mission and get out of Dodge. Problem was, after the departure of the first train at about 1 pm, Kumamoto Station was then closed again. The stationmaster explained that the quake had done structural damage to the building and that engineers were now assessing if the station could be safely used by the public. To make a long story short, after a delay of several more hours, Kumamoto Station was finally reopened to the now substantial number of people waiting, and I took the second post-earthquake train that left the city, eventually spending that night in a business hotel in Hakata, catching up on my sleep and then my remaining work.

Michael Penn is President of the Shingetsu News Agency.