Students visit Fukushima to report stories of resilience in tragedy’s aftermath

The mountains rose in the distance, and a large “supermoon” lit the sky. Natalie Yemenidjian looked around. She couldn’t help but notice how the communities seemed built right into the pastoral landscape — a far cry from San Francisco, the city she had just left, where “everything is filled with cement.”

Oh my god, this is so lush. I didn’t think it was going to be this green, she remembers thinking. She was stunned. Beauty was the last thing she expected to find in Fukushima, Japan. The prefecture had been devastated by an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in quick succession, back in March 2011. An estimated 1,612 people were killed, and 201 remain missing.

It was more than three years later that Yemenidjian arrived, along with five of her classmates, two professors, and one public radio reporter. Together, they had traveled from San Francisco University to report how Fukushima was recovering, and what challenges remained.

Their project, entitled “Fukushima: We Are Here,” went online this past spring. It aims to remind readers of the ongoing issues facing Fukushima, long after mainstream interest faded.

“We forget what happened in Fukushima, we forget what happened in New Orleans, we forget what happened with Haiti,” said Jon Funabiki, ticking off recent disasters. Funabiki, an ivoh trustee, is one of two journalism professors from San Francisco State University directing the project. “We expect that things will get resolved quickly. And if they aren’t, we allow the event and the people to be lost in history.”

Jon Funabiki

But it doesn’t have to be that way, Funabiki told ivoh in a recent interview. He argues that mainstream audiences might welcome news stories that take a “long view” on issues, as they evolve over the years.

“There’s a yearning or a hunger from readers and viewers and listeners for this kind of approach,” he said. “It’s cheaper and faster to do the quick-hit stories. But those become tiresome. I think people want to have a closer look, a deeper look at these kinds of stories.”

Getting that “closer look” wasn’t going to be easy, though. None of the six students on Funabiki’s team had ever gone to Japan, and they only had two weeks on the ground in Fukushima to collect material for their multimedia site.

“As a journalism professor and the director of the project, you have a fear that they might experience culture shock in a way that might negatively impact them. You have a fear that they might not be able to perform under the situation on the ground, because they’re in a foreign territory,” Funabiki said.

So he and his colleague Sachi Cunningham started preparing the students early. Together, they took seminar after seminar, covering everything from Japanese culture to trauma to relationship building.

By the time August rolled around, and the departure date had come at last, Funabiki’s team was ready. “Culture shock was not an issue,” he said.

While in Japan, Cunningham and Funabiki encouraged their students to try different approaches to journalism. They had a unique opportunity in front of them, Funabiki said, so “why do the traditional?”

The students had been primed with concepts like Restorative Narrative, a term that ivoh coined to describe a genre of stories that show how people and communities are rebuilding and recovering in the aftermath, or midst of, difficult times. These stories “bring communities together, inspire hope,and reveal the personal in the universal.” Some students also chose to pursue oral history workshops in preparation for their trip.

But the group agreed on one thing: that they would not forget the human story in favor of disaster coverage. So they came up with a system to ask each individual they met questions about the past, present and future. That way, their interviews wouldn’t concentrate solely on the Fukushima disaster.

“We wanted to make sure that the sum total of our project is not focused only on the tragedy,” Funabiki said. “We didn’t want to diminish the significance of the disaster and everything that they have lost, but we didn’t want to be stuck there.”

Yemenidjian was particularly intrigued with the idea of recording oral histories. “That, to me, felt like the most authentic way to get people’s stories. I had never done that before. I had always just written people’s stories,” Yemenidjian said.

But she felt strongly that even the most beautifully written prose could not compare to the raw story, told by the survivors themselves. And, more than that, she felt a duty to tell Fukushima residents’ stories in their own words. Some of the people she met shook their heads in amazement, shocked that someone actually wanted to listen to them. In their reactions, Yemenidjian realized “how much it hurts people to be forgotten.”

Natalie Yemenidjian

“When you feel forgotten, on top of all that, you don’t want somebody else writing your story for you. I think you just want to tell your story,” Yemenidjian said.

In 1994, when Yemenidjian was young, a 6.7-magnitude earthquake struck California. Her house was torn from its foundation,  and she and her family were left temporarily homeless. The trauma remains with her to this day. So when she met 21-year-old Kazuya Sato in Japan, she could relate.

Sato had been riding a train to Fukushima when the 2011 earthquake hit, and he continues to associate trains with trauma. Yemenidjian used the free time built into her reporting schedule to form a deeper relationship with Sato, sitting down for a formal interview with him only towards the end of the trip.

Funabiki encouraged that sort of approach. “We couldn’t just drop in and leave, or hear a presentation and leave. We needed to develop relationships with people,” he said.

But to do that, the team needed to break away from rigid schedules and formal settings. They were collaborating with Fukushima University International Center, which was used to welcoming typical student exchange groups. Accommodations had to be made.

“Our goal was to produce stories. Their goal was to teach us something,” Funabiki said. “The biggest change or modification we requested was more time to spend with individual residents of the relocation centers.”

Funabiki remembers his students leaving at seven in the morning and returning late, at seven or eight each night. They came back with stories, videos, and photographs from temporary housing projects, farms, and local schools.

“I was blown away by how seriously the students took this,” he said. “They were not just recording stories and data; it was causing them to really reflect and think deeply.”

Funabiki chuckles thinking about how profoundly the trip impacted one student in particular. In April, the students were supposed to gather together to present their project at a public forum. But Funabiki was surprised when one student messaged to say he couldn’t attend, offering little explanation why.

“He just said, ‘I can’t make it. Sorry.’ And it was about a day or two before the program, we noticed on Facebook that he had gone back to Fukushima. He wanted to continue to meet with some of the people we met and develop the stories,” Funabiki said with a laugh. “He just up and went. That was pretty amazing.”

It’s been a pretty revolutionary experience for Yemenidjian, too. A lot has changed since her trip to Fukushima: she has graduated now and works as a freelancer and as an independent producer for the public radio station KQED. But the Fukushima trip shifted something deeper: her sense of purpose.

“My idea of journalism and media changed. We could be restorative. We could be there when people feel like they’re being forgotten, instead of being there right when it’s about the bottom line,” said Yemenidjian. “I just feel like, as a journalist, more so than ever, a duty to just take people’s stories and do something about it.”


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