2007 alum experiences Japan earthquake first-hand

By Christine Chien — 

Bi-lingual Akiko Okamoto is a television reporter in Japan. Photos supplied by Akiko Okamoto

There was an ominous rumble in downtown Tokyo around 2:40 p.m. on March 11 as Akiko Okamoto, J/MS 2007, sat writing a news story for her employer, the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS). Suddenly, the office building started to shake violently.

As soon as she scrambled out from under her desk where she had taken cover, Okamoto plunged headlong into detailed 24/7 coverage of the world’s fifth strongest earthquake since 1900, also the most powerful recorded earthquake ever to hit Japan. That earthquake, and the accompanying tsunami that hit Northern Japan that day, left 16,000 dead.

“I had only two days off during March,” recalled Okamoto, who has just left TBS to join the Bloomberg office in Tokyo as news producer and TV reporter on economic markets.

“After the quake stopped, my assignment editor immediately ordered me to call our local stations, city halls, or any stores or restaurants in Northern Japan to get information on what their situation was like, but the phone line was dead for a while,” she said. “Then we heard the big tsunami alert and saw a huge tidal wave from our weather camera by the ocean.”

Okamoto was assigned to write news scripts and edit the footage that TBS was getting through its local stations and from the weather cameras that were situated near the devastated area. She would go back home only to change and sleep for four or five hours before she was back at the station once again.

Through her reporting, Okamato said she wanted to convey to the world the magnitude of the natural disaster and its aftermath.

“The panic that surged through the nation was indescribable,” she said.

The stores in Tokyo were closed for a few days, but once they reopened, people began to snap up food, water, toilet paper, candles, and anything and everything that was needed for survival. By the time Okamoto got off from work, she said, there was nothing left in stores.

“Many people would hit the stores to stand in line before they even opened,” she explained.

Okamoto’s parents, who understood the intensity of their daughter’s job, would line up early as well so they could buy the necessary food and supplies for her.

Soon after the earthquake, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant experienced a meltdown and was hit by explosions. According to Okamoto, people sank into a deeper panic as fear of released radioactive material set in, and they started to flee to cities in the south.

“I was really scared and was concerned about my family in Tokyo, but I was assigned to go to Narita International Airport to report about the situation,” said Okamoto, who was usually assigned to airport stories because of her bilingual abilities.

“I think I was at the airport three to four times to cover the fleeing people,” Okamoto said.

While covering the situation at the airport, Okamoto said she witnessed masses of people waiting to evacuate the country. Many were wearing masks for fear of radioactive material in the air. Not only were there long lines at the check-in counters but even for the waiting lists for flights. According to Okamoto, embassy members from France, China and the United States were there, attempting to assist their citizens to return home. The Chinese government, she noted, conveyed citizens home in private planes.

“I saw a lot of anxiety from foreigners who were returning to their native countries,” Okamoto said. “Many were concerned about their health and about the lack of food and supplies.”

Some of the international students told her they were dropping out of college to return home, which was causing financial havoc for a lot of the colleges in Japan.

A little more than a month after the quake, on April 22, Okamoto was assigned to report on Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Gillard visited Japan for a bilateral meeting and became the first foreign leader to tour the devastated area. Okamoto was supposed to travel with her, but it became one-camera pool coverage.

“However, I was incredibly busy covering her from early morning to midnight in Tokyo,” reported Okamoto. “I remember this day very clearly because it was my 28th birthday, and I was running around with my cameraman to follow Gillard and the Australian rescue team that was stationed in Northern Japan.”

At 1 a.m., when Okamoto got in the taxi to go home from work, she was upset about having missed her birthday celebration.

However, she said, “I felt accomplished for covering an important foreign leader. It was an unforgettable day in my career!”

Overturned boat in devastating Japanese earthquake.

In early August, Okamoto had her chance to tour the earthquake-ravaged region when she traveled with the visiting U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on a bullet train to Fukushima while he was on a humanitarian tour. First, Ki-moon had a meeting with the governor of Fukushima to discuss support and aid from the U.N. After that, Okamoto said, they went to an evacuation center, where Ban Ki-moon met many families who lived near the Fukushima nuclear plant.

“They had been forced by the government to leave their town because of the high radioactive levels and ended up residing in little huts in the evacuation center,” noted Okamoto. Later, Ban Ki-moon visited the local high school and gave a speech about the U.N.

After that, they drove an hour and a half to visit a coastal town that was wiped out by the tsunami.

“On the way there, I saw overturned cars, fishing boats, and debris on the streets,” Okamoto recalled.

When the motorcade arrived, said Okamoto, “There was nothing there. Ki-Moon got out of the car, had a moment of silence and walked around the debris.”

The damage was so extensive that the government has been unable to start rebuilding the city, she said.

Media coverage of the recovery effort is no longer as intense as it once was. And after four years working for TBS, Okamoto left this fall to work for Bloomberg to learn more about the world economy and markets. She is still trying to get used to her new position at Bloomberg since it is very different from her former position.

However, she is still close with TBS, which gave her the chance to cover many different topics.

One of her biggest projects came in 2008 after she started when she produced the U.S. Presidential election special news show. “It was an amazing experience reporting on Obama and McCain’s race to the Japanese viewers!” noted Okamoto.

She was fortunate to cover the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in Japan a year ago. Last December, Okamoto produced and directed a 30-minute documentary on Myanmar for a TBS news documentary show.

“I had been covering the Burmese refugees in Japan, especially during the Myanmar election, and when Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Myanmar opposition politician, was released from house arrest and a TBS reporter in Bangkok went to Myanmar to cover its ethnic minorities, we put our stories together for the documentary.”

In her four years at TBS, Okamoto had the opportunity to cover many world leaders visiting Japan, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. She also covered big local stories involving U.S. military camps in Japan and several murder trials.

“I even wrote about Paris Hilton’s captivity at Tokyo customs when she tried to enter the country after she was released from jail in the United States,” reported Okamoto.