Burying Japan’s Nuclear Secrets

The call from Fukushima

2020.04.24 19:07 Makoto Watanabe

6 min read

At a press conference on Sept. 11, 2014, Asahi Shimbun President Tadakazu Kimura retracted an article on the testimony of the late Masao Yoshida, manager of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Apologizing, Kimura explained that the paper’s front-page headline “Workers evacuated, violating plant manager orders” gave readers the impression that Tokyo Electric Power Company employees had fled the damaged plant.

As I wrote in this series’ first article, Kimura’s explanation for the retraction is unconvincing. The point of the article was that once a nuclear accident occurs, nobody can control the situation.

Yet the Asahi’s president said the article was wrong and bowed in apology. The paper was subsequently flooded with reader complaints. Staff from other departments were sent to support the customer service office. I helped field phone calls from readers. Although I had not covered the Yoshida testimony, I belonged to the investigative section responsible for the article. Of course it was my duty to listen.

But a reader I spoke with that day had an unexpected message.

“Don’t add your own opinion”

We were instructed to convey the Asahi’s official stance to callers, without adding our own opinion, and we were given prepared answers to anticipated questions.

For example, if a reader asked “What a horribly misleading article — was it not reviewed properly before it went to print?” we were instructed to say:

“In the May 20 article, we reported that during the accident at Fukushima No. 1, 90% of TEPCO employees evacuated to Fukushima No. 2 against the plant manager’s orders. This expression was erroneous, and the paper has retracted the article. The content of Yoshida’s testimony was misjudged and the article was not sufficiently checked. We are very sorry for the loss of your trust. We sincerely regret it and apologize.”

I had no heart to apologize and say things I didn’t believe.

But it turned out my reservations were needless. I spent the majority of my phone duty listening to a man passionately argue why it had been wrong to retract the article.

Former TEPCO employee: “Quit apologizing”

“Quit apologizing!” When I picked up the phone, I was greeted by a shout from the other end of the line.

The caller said he was 63 years old and living in Fukushima Prefecture. He had attended TEPCO’s vocational training school and had worked for the company before leaving to become an architect. And he had been a loyal reader of The Asahi Shimbun for 50 years.

After the nuclear accident, his mother-in-law had cycled through six retirement homes as an evacuee before passing away, aged 90, in the city of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. The man angrily explained that moving the elderly from one facility to another negatively impacts their mental faculties and erodes their health. “How many old folks do you think have died because of the nuclear disaster?” he asked.

“Nothing in the article was fabricated,” he said of the retraction. “Yoshida told workers to wait on standby at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, but they went to No. 2. Doesn’t that mean they violated his order? Yoshida told them to stay at No. 1 because the fate of eastern Japan was on the line.

“It’s impossible for 50 people to operate a nuclear power plant in that state, with 90% of the workers gone. And the specialists weren’t at their posts either, right? Fukushima No. 1 is a 40-year-old facility — it can’t have been in prime condition. Water pipe joints don’t even last 20 years. As an architect, I know.

“Nuclear power plants become uncontrollable once an accident happens. That’s the long and short of it. Radiation doesn’t discriminate. There’s a sign in the [evacuated] town of Okuma that says ‘Nuclear power: the energy of our bright future.’ Now it’s covered by grass, and I saw 10 wild boar running around there. That’s what nuclear power has brought us.”

“Get out there and work”

His anger seemed to stem from his disappointment in the Asahi’s journalists.

“Aren’t you upset?” he asked. “If the Asahi backs down now, how will it look when the next nuclear disaster hits? The paper will have no more credibility.”

“During World War II, dissenters were jailed, and newspapers supported the war without question,” he continued. “Are you just going to repeat the same mistakes? Journalism is currently being tested like it hasn’t since World War II. The usual mindless copy isn’t going to cut it. It’s do or die now!”

I spoke with the man for about an hour.

“Start thinking like an editor-in-chief,” he said before hanging up. “Now is not the time to be listening to an old man’s complaints. Get out there and work.”

I was moved. I jotted down what he had said and shared it with my colleagues in the special investigative section. One replied that they wanted to post the man’s words on our office door.

An award and a petition

Citizens, scholars, and lawyers protested the retraction. Although there was no overwhelming show of solidarity from other journalists, some made their voices heard in various publications and meetings.

In January 2015, the Japan Federation of Newspaper Workers’ Unions issued a special award for the Asahi’s Yoshida testimony coverage. Its reason for giving the award was as follows.

“It is no exaggeration to say that this was the number one scoop of 2014, as it triggered the disclosure of a report kept secret by the government. The Specially Designated Secrets Act has come into force, and access to information is becoming more difficult. Achievements in making public what was hidden should be duly commended. Although The Asahi Shimbun has retracted the article, the selection committee agrees that it is wrong to view the article as misinformed or false.”

From across Japan, 194 lawyers petitioned the Asahi.

“It is a matter of interpretation whether workers ‘evacuated in violation of Yoshida’s order,’” read their letter. “But the article is in agreement with the apparent facts of the incident, namely that although Yoshida told workers to take refuge near Fukushima No. 1 and wait for instructions, about 650 of them evacuated to Fukushima No. 2, 10 kilometers to the south. Retracting the whole article suggests that all the facts it contains are erroneous.

“The Asahi’s report revealed Yoshida’s testimony, which the government had kept hidden, to the public. That is no small matter. The article conveys the hopelessness and confusion at the plant, encapsulated by Yoshida’s words ‘I was prepared for death. It felt like the end of eastern Japan.’

“Asahi President Tadakazu Kimura stated that those responsible for the Yoshida reporting will be ‘strictly punished.’ It is clear that carrying out this undeserved punishment will be detrimental to the reporters who continuously fight to make the truth known. Furthermore, it represents a step by The Asahi Shimbun toward abandoning its mission to impartially report the facts without yielding to any kind of pressure. This poses a serious threat to our democracy.”

At the very least, this outpouring of support shows that the Yoshida testimony article did not meet a wholly negative reception.

But nevertheless, the Asahi retracted it.

A retraction is a blanket rejection of an article and all its content. It is an action only taken in cases of fabrication or misinformation. As a newspaper, the Asahi should have known this well.

In fact, there is more to this retraction than meets the eye. I’ll explain the real reason next time.

… To be continued.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 2, 2019)

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