This Town, Is Becoming Like A Ghost Town

March 19, 2011

This has been a trying week. A massive earthquake, a stricken nuclear power plant, 15-hour shifts and very little sleep. And it’s not over yet.

Adding to the stress has been the overreaction of some foreign media outlets. Despite a definite element of tension over the plant, things in Tokyo have remained calm. Most people are going about their business normally, and staying up to date on the situation at the plant. Some have left the city, but mostly as a precaution.

That’s not how the tabloids saw it: The Sun did itself no favours with its “Get Out Of Tokyo NOW’ headline.

But the pick of the bunch, in my opinion, was this effort from the Daily Mail:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1367309/Japan-earthquake-tsunami-Tokyo-ghost-town.html

The shoddy nature of this article so depressed me that I broke journalistic protocol and emailed the author, Richard Shears, to register my dismay. Here is our email conversation, in which he tries to defend his article:

(1)
Hi Richard

One simple question:

Were you in Tokyo when you reported this article?

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1367309/Japan-earthquake-tsunami-Tokyo-ghost-town.html

Thanks

Andrew Joyce

(2)
Hi Andrew.
Don’t know who you are, but of course I was in Tokyo, where I still am. I don’t make things up. I know what I saw, and what the Japanese reporter who I was with saw. Oh, and what I also saw being reported on Japanese tv. Perhaps I Photoshopped the lights out….?
Just out of curiosity, are you a friend of Mike Antolli?
Cheers
=—

(3)

Hi Richard

Thanks for your quick reply – no, I’m not a friend of Mike Antolli – the reason I contacted you was because your article contained a number of inaccuracies and I wanted to hear your explanation for them.

For the record, I am in Tokyo also, and I am also a journalist. I don’t usually email colleagues in the profession about their stories, but this week has been such an epic, exhausting struggle of trying to report the facts about an extremely fast-moving and difficult situation that when I read your story I was so gobsmacked and so disheartened that I felt I needed to get in touch with you just to find out how you came up with this story.

Let’s take things in order, shall we?

*Dark days in ghost town of Tokyo: The deserted streets of a once vibrant capital now crippled by power cuts

I realise that you perhaps didn’t write this headline – but there have been no power cuts in central Tokyo, only outlying areas. As widely reported. People are turning off lights voluntarily, and calmly, to save electricity so there is no need to cut power…which has largely been successful.

* there are queues for everything

Everything? Maybe popular ramen restaurants, but they always have a queue outside them. I witnessed no queues for anything out of the ordinary. There were even no queues for the bullet train ticket machines at Tokyo Station, despite the reports of a ‘mass exodus’ – can you tell me where you saw the queues and how you can justify the use of the word ‘everything’?

* mostly Tokyo has become eerily quiet. Nobody wants to venture out and the streets are deserted

Simply not true. Go out on any normal street (away from Roppongi) and you will see for yourself. People are going about their business normally. Where did you see these deserted streets, and at what time of the day?

* Everyone, it seems, shares the opinion that something very bad is happening at the Fukushima nuclear power plant 148 miles away, and nobody wants to risk breathing the air.

Everyone? I don’t think anyone would say it is good – but can you tell me how you justify this claim? Most people are staying out in Tokyo, calmly and rationally. Can you also tell me how you know people won’t risk breathing the air? And don’t say ‘because they’re all wearing masks’ – because that’s for hay fever and is an extremely common sight in the city.

* The British government has joined other nations in urging its citizens to leave the country whatever way they can,

Simply untrue. Here’s the FCO’s statement:

“Due to the evolving situation at the Fukushima nuclear facility and potential disruptions to the supply of goods, transport, communications, power and other infrastructure, British nationals currently in Tokyo and to the north of Tokyo should consider leaving the area.”

So only consider leaving Tokyo and the north, and not because of radiation. Also, where did you get “whatever way they can’ from?

* But it will be a long journey because the vehicle will have to skirt around the nuclear power plant which stands between Sendai and the capital.

This is also simply untrue. See this map:

http://maps.google.co.uk/maps/ms?source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&aq=&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Tokyo,+Japan&msa=0&ll=38.311491,141.207275&spn=1.836125,3.323364&z=8&msid=204216378274600627194.00049ed5da34126d53263

To get from Sendai to Tokyo, you take the Tohoku expressway, which misses the power plant by around 50km or more, well outside the 30km exclusion zone. Why would that add to the journey? A simple check of a map would have confirmed it.

* She leaves behind a city in fear – a city that was plunged into darkness last night as electricity was cut to conserve power following the massive loss of production at Fukushima.

Again, no power cuts in central Tokyo, and most other parts of the wider suburban area. As widely reported.

* There was no one in the whole of Tokyo who could tell her that, and even if they did, would it be the truth?

No one? Not even the nuclear physicists at the University of Tokyo?

* For the words coming from the lips of government spokesmen and the Tokyo Electric Company officials who have been holding daily press conferences carry mixed messages: ‘We are working at the problem, the radiation is not harmful to humans, you should stay indoors and keep the windows closed, the levels have gone up, the levels have gone down, we’ve managed to pour water on the rods and that should cool them, the radiation has gone up again.

I don’t see any mixed messages here. It’s a fast-moving situation and we’ve all had to try to keep up with the facts. The radiation is not harmful to humans – yes, IN TOKYO. you should stay indoors and keep the windows closed – yes, WITHIN the 30km exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The levels have gone up, the levels have gone down – yes, because they HAVE.

* Also – you don’t name a single Japanese person in the article. Your (unnamed) quotes mostly come from a couple of foreign visitors or expats in Roppongi, and yet you extrapolate from them to describe the mood in the whole city. How do you justify that?

Like I say, I don’t usually do this–especially for articles in the Daily Mail. But this article was so spectacularly off the mark – so unbelievably divorced from the facts on the ground – that I almost have a grudging respect that you had the cojones to send this in for publishing. As someone who has worked on this story night and day for a week, without much sleep, it really saddened me to see this article and in truth it knocked my morale. “Why bother if other people are just going to make it up?”

Appreciate hearing your thoughts.

Thanks

Andy

(4)
Oh boy, Andrew, that’s as very pickety email. But I appreciate your comments and I always reply to people.
I really don’t have the time to go through every fart, spit and comma, as they say, except to say that whatever might have been happening in Tokyo earlier this week and whatever might be the situation right now, on the night I was asked to write this story what I did write was exactly as I saw it. Heck, we’d had explosions at a nuclear power plant, radiation (however high or low) was leaking, train services were disrupted and the lights were going out in the centre of Tokyo, even if they were voluntary switch-offs. I ought to know that – I was in Ginza at 10pm as part of a deliberate tour of the city and it was nothing like the Ginza I know of old. I would say that that was a scenario that was pretty dramatic.
I had arrived back from a lot of horror scenes on the east coast and was then asked to write about the scene in Tokyo.If you had watched the earlier evening news on NHK you would have seen a journalist talking to people discussing how they had been sent home from work earlier, how there were unprecedented queues, how people were uncertain about things etc etc.
Then I went out into the streets myself, accompanied by a Japanese speaker, and talked to heaps of people – so many that I didn’t have the room to include their comments – and what I gathered from them left me in no doubt that they were in fear of what was going on at the reactor.
Whatever the official line on the British Embassy website is, I did talk to the Embassy itself and learned that the bus was going to take a good nine hours to get to Tokyo. That is from the lips of the Embassy official.
You are right, of course, about the headline – I didn’t write it.
Queus for everything – if you take that literally you aren’t reading into the story. The mood of the whole piece was to convey the fact that people were queuing and emptying stores. At a convenience store, gee, I don’t know the suburb but it was about five minutes walk from the New Otani hotel, there was a queue about 30m down the street. There were also pictures on tv of shelves being empty.
And so on and so on.
As a journalist you would appreciate that your own impressions of things are not necessarily the impressions of others. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve written stories that people don’t like while others have said how accurate it is. I’ve never, and I repeat never, in a lifetime of journalism, had another journalist writing to me to explain, virtually sentence by sentence, why I said this and why I said that. So you’re a winner there.
What I wrote was how I saw it, how others saw it and relayed it to me. If you were in, say, Bangkok, and you had used a local journalist to show you around and he told you that this was nothing like the city he normally knew, would you dismiss his words or accept them? I trusted my Japanese ‘guide’ and, as mentioned above, if I’d had the space I would have included many more quotes from Japanese people.
I take except to your comment ‘why bother if other people are just going to make things up?’ Accuse me of making it up if I wasn’t a) in Japan; b) in Tokyo; c) hadn’t gone to the extent of actually going out into the streets and working on this story – but please don’t make sweeping statements like that. You say you haven’t had much sleep. I’ve been getting no more than three hours a night, physically being in the ‘tsunami coast’ , seeing all the horror, before returning to Tokyo. I’ve seen stories in British papers that have left me wondering about their veracity, but I don’t make assumptions that they’ve been made up. Maybe other journalists have seen things that I haven’t.
Thanks for your email and I hope this goes a little way to explaining how I came to put that story together (except the headline).
Cheers,
Richard
PS: I am, by the way, still in Tokyo and there aren’t many lights on around me.
—-

(5)

PS Andrew, Am I now to ignore the headline that is running on the web about Tokyo water – Don’t Drink the Water! A radiation scare, running on the wires, that is going around the world stating that there’s radioactive iodine in the city’s water. My story about the lights going out might have been a tame prelude…
Cheers

(6)

Hi Richard

Thanks for your reply – I appreciate the time taken.

I did hesitate to contact you on this – I felt like I was breaking some kind of protocol – but like I say it depressed me that you could get it so wrong. Maybe I just need more sleep.

I’m going to post these emails (mine and yours – unedited, in full) on my blog as there’s quite a bit of interest in the ‘foreign media overreacting’ element of this story and I think people will be interested to read your side of things.

Will let you know when it’s up

Thanks again

Andrew

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4 Responses to “This Town, Is Becoming Like A Ghost Town”

  1. joycemate said

    The Mail is now running an article saying how everything in Tokyo is fine – despite ‘endless stories’ about it being a ghost town…

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1367999/We-stiff–upper-lip–like-British-Tokyo-residents-true-grit-amid-nuclear-chaos.html

  2. McCrack said

    It’s the bizarre need to exaggerate an already terrible situation. Why would you need to embellish what happened – the facts aren’t quite bad enough? Maybe he’ll have a story in the paper soon on the people working to fix the nuclear plant…’some say his dog died from a mystery illness the week before the disaster. Do these things come in threes…’

  3. McCrack said

    I couldn’t believe what I was reading…truly appalling. The sheer tastelessness of using a natural disaster as a pretext for burning down this week’s favourite straw men is without rival. He’s our own Glen Beck. My favourite / worst passage is:

    Like thousands of other British servicemen who were tortured in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, my wife’s late grandfather, Harold Tuck, would never have joined a minute’s silence for Japan.

    He sounds almost proud of this fact. What a quality to take pride in. What a specimen.

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