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Japan Quake: Story of a hanging newspaper in Japan

By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse, Nov 25, 2011

“Oh, you did it in a very primitive way.” 

This is how a Japanese reporter for the Washington Post remarked when journalists of local newspaper informed him how they produced a hand-written newspaper for almost a week after the March 11 quake-tsunami disaster. 

“I was very offended,” Hiroyuki Takeuchi, chief editor of reporting section of the 99 year old daily Ishinomaki Hibi Shimbun told us at his office. A modest structure just about a kilometer from the coast, the office building still bears the scars of the tragedy that hit this small town – Ishinomaki- of 160,000 in the northern Miyagi prefecture. 

For more than 24 hours, this building was surrounded by a sea of over feet five high water that had inundated the basement. With that, the printing press was also waterlogged. Hours before the tsunami wave swept the lower rim of the town, the 8.8 Richter Scale quake had shaken everything upside down. 

The shocks lasted for almost three minutes. “It felt like eternity, an unending shake-up,” recalled Takeuchi. Together with several other colleagues, he ducked under tables for cover as they saw and heard computers, printers and other office equipment flying off the tables. The mighty shocks had meanwhile kicked up dust all over – a cloud of dust billowing from every corner as we struggled to protect ourselves. 

The quake turned everything topsy turvy, Takeuchi sent out his six reporters to see what damage it had caused. Meanwhile via radio and cell phones they received the big tsunami warning. Within an hour, the massive water-wave overran the town. 

Together with the president of the company, Koichi Ohmi, Takeuchi looked outside, and to his horror, found himself surrounded by water – a sea of wild water with countless objects floating around. 

“It was a scary scene, frightening, looked like a movie,” recollected Takeuchi, a very humble and passionate typical newspaper editor. We thought we were surrounded by death, and those who tried to escape were being chased by death. The tsunami had knocked out or massively damaged the infrastructure, electricity was gone, and communications severed. Mobile phones and some of the radio communications still seemed to work.

With a crisis looming all around, the newspaper management faced a crisis inside; how to print the newspaper next day? The president of the company thought it was their duty now to reach out to the survivors with the much-needed critical information. 

“If we cannot produce a paper in this crisis, no justification being here,” the president Ohmi told his colleagues. But how to print the paper? The entire machinery – computers and printers were either damaged or lifeless in the absence of electricity. The press submerged in water and the entire paper stock soaked. 

The team deliberated for a while and then decided to go to the basics of the newspaper; hand-written newspaper. We do have pen and paper, let us do it, the president said. 

Some of our colleagues, Takeuchi recounted, brought drawing paper sheets from homes that were safe from the ravages of water, and we sat down to produce six copies, with all the basic data on the quake-tsunami and its consequences. 

As water still covered much of the town surface and snow in the surrounding areas added to the miseries of the survivors, six teams set out next day to six evacuation centres, where some 50,000 locals had taken refuge, and put the paper on display. The headline of the March 12 edition read: Among the largest quake and tsunami disasters in Japanese history: Act on accurate information. 

The newspaper team was not satisfied with the extent of information. The hanging papers could take in only a limited number of characters, and thus not sufficient information. 

But the interest that this paper evoked among the affectees surprised the entire team and this injected more enthusiasm in workers. 

The operation ran for a few days this way, until the electricity returned to the area where the company president lived ( on March 17th). 

“We shifted some of the functional computers and printers to his residence and began compiling paper,” Takeuchi said, adding that the power was restored to the office area on March 19th.

That is why the headline of the final hanging edition on March 17th said: Light returns to town. Power restored to 10,000 homes.

Until the end of April for almost seven weeks, Takeuchi and his colleagues had produced thousands of copies – 600 daily - and distributed them free of cost at the 500 shelters that had been put up by the affected people.

“It really mad us proud,” says Takeuchi. We had become part of the story but, for us, collecting and disseminating critical but true information was a challenge. Our job, he said, is also to document history not only for today but also for tomorrow, said the editor, as he showed off the first edition of the hand-written newspaper.

This is what drew what he thought were offensive remarks by the American reporter. But what the Washington Post report missed was the spirit and the professional commitment that these valiant sons of Ishinomaki demonstrated in the crisis hour. Rather than devising escape into safety, they put their heads together to think of how to perform their fundamental duty as death stared them in the face.

For some, it may sound crazy and primitive, but the six-day hand-written production and the ensuing free distribution of the newspaper stands out as a telling example of the difference that devout professionals can make in times of crisis. The owner and workers of the Ishinomaki Hibi Shimbun certainly made an extremely valuable contribution to the history of newspaper production in crisis. It was not a primitive act at all. They simply found a way to keep performing their primary job for posterity.

Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk