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HOME > 20th JAMCO Online International Symposium > “How did NHK Cover the Great East Japan Earthquake?- Challenges and Prospects of Transnational Disaster Reports”International Broadcast through the NHK World TV.

JAMCO Online International Symposium

20th JAMCO Online International Symposium

March to August, 2012

The Great East Japan Earthquake: Japanese TV Coverage and Foreign Reception

"How did NHK Cover the Great East Japan Earthquake?
- Challenges and Prospects of Transnational Disaster Reports"
International Broadcast through the NHK World TV.

Toshiyuki Sato
Special Controller, General Broadcasting Administration, NHK

Overview of the Earthquake and Damages

March 11th, 2011, 2:46 pm. At that time, I was in my room on the 4th floor of the 22- story high NHK headquarters building. The two televisions in the room were showing NHK’s domestic channel and our international broadcasting arm, NHK World TV. The domestic channel was broadcasting the proceedings of the parliament when the emergency earthquake warning appeared, alerting us to the possibility of a large earthquake. It said the epicenter was off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture so I thought I would not be feeling much of anything in Tokyo, 200km away. Also, false alarms by the alert system were quite common so I had my doubts as to whether there was any earthquake to begin with. The system is meant to provide early alarms through TVs, mobile phones and other media by detecting the first wave of an earthquake, the P (Primary)-wave through the seismometers of the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) placed around the archipelago. When the P-wave is detected, supercomputers will immediately analyze and decide whether it is a sign of a large earthquake. If it is, it will send out an alarm before the S (Secondary)-wave, the wave that could cause actual damage, reaches where population centers. However, the system is yet to be perfected. While I was wondering what I would do if in fact a large earthquake hit, the earth began to sway widely, from side to side.

It was a slow, sideways earthquake with a long period and did not seem to cease even after a couple of minutes. The NHK building is designed to be able to retain its broadcasting function even during a massive earthquake. Yet, there was a clashing noise of steel coming from the outside. The noise was from the connecting corridor between the main building and the annex. When I looked, the corridor’s joints were disconnected as much as 20 centimeters (8 inches) and violently colliding into each other while the two buildings kept on shaking. More than five minutes had passed when it finally subsided. Even though the joints were damaged, fortunately the building itself was not. Broadcasting functions were unaffected.

In the Great East Japan Earthquake, more than 15,800 people lost their lives, ranging from Hokkaido to Kanagawa Prefecture. Most of the deaths were concentrated in the Pacific side of the Tohoku (northeast) region. 128,500 buildings were totally destroyed, 240,000 buildings were badly damaged and 330,000 people are still living as evacuees. (The figures are as of January 31, 2012)

I visited the city of Sendai a month after the earthquake. Three to five kilometers (two to three miles) from the coast was totally demolished. The power of the tsunami was evident in many places. Concrete walls of a gas station near the coast were bent with the reinforcing steel sticking out. All I could see was mountains of debris everywhere. Very few buildings remained standing and one was the five-floor elementary school that saved many lives. Similar situations can be seen along the Pacific coast for 500km (300miles). Some towns were totally annihilated. Many disaster victims have lost their families and properties, unable to go back to their homes.

90% of the deaths were caused by the tsunami and even after a year, 3,000 people remain missing. Usually, in terms of infrastructure, reconstruction efforts take around two to five years and the disaster-stricken areas will look as if there were no earthquake. However, the recovery effort from the March 11th earthquake is expected to take longer: not only did the earthquake destroy a vast range of areas with the tsunami; it also triggered a nuclear accident causing radioactive contamination in and around Fukushima prefecture. On top of that, many of the affected areas were already suffering from depopulation prior to the earthquake. Many communities are expected to face difficult challenges in their recovery process.

Response of NHK World

When the earthquake struck Japan, the international broadcasting studio on the seventh floor of the main building was shaking violently. The building was squeaking. Machines and furniture were nearly falling down. Some staff were trying to stand on their feet, some held onto or hid under the desks. Two minutes after the earthquake began, all of the NHK domestic channels were switched to emergency broadcasting. The robot (remote-controlled) camera on the roof of the NHK building was showing live images of West Shinjuku skyscrapers far away, shaking like never before. On the roads around NHK, pedestrians and people who came out of buildings either crouched down or stood helplessly. Along with the report from NHK General TV, the hotline connecting the JMA and our international broadcast station reported the earthquake’s magnitude was 7.9 (eventually corrected to 9.0) and that the intensity in Miyagi Prefecture was 7 (Japanese seismic scale from 0 to 7), warning the arrival of a major tsunami.

The NHK World TV channel provides news on the hour every hour for 30 minutes and information programs on Japan and Asia for another 30 minutes. When we sensed an unusual earthquake, there was a pre-recorded information program on the air. We immediately began preparing a special news report with each staff preparing according to their own responsibilities. Some prepared English titles, some subtitles and others technical settings to switch the program.

Soon Mr. Gene Otani, the anchor of the three o’clock bulletin, Newsline, came in and began the emergency broadcasting from 2:57 pm when the earthquake settled. We began broadcasting information provided by the JMA along with images mainly from the affected areas used in our domestic programs. Also, by using the skipback recorder system that allows us to access images recorded at the time of the earthquake, we broadcast the footage from our office in Fukushima. Camera crews that were out at the time began sending images they took. Using these materials for our domestic programs, Mr. Otani and the news desk tried to convey the big picture to the audience abroad, so that they may grasp the seriousness of the situation. Remembering his experience as an anchor at a small FM station at the time of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, Mr. Otani spoke to the domestic audience, or foreign people in Japan who were watching NHK World TV through iPhones, urging them not to panic and to remain calm.

Less than 20 minutes into the emergency broadcasting, robot cameras stationed along the Pacific coast began sending images of tsunami. They showed images of fishing boats, oil tanks and cars carried into the land by wave after wave of tsunami. By this point, everyone knew this earthquake was beyond anything we had experienced before, that it might be as bad as the magnitude 9.0 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake.

NHK deploys 14 helicopters across the nation for coverage of emergencies. One helicopter was stationed at the Sendai airport located in the suburbs of Sendai City. While most helicopters were dysfunctional due to broken hangers, fortunately NHK’s helicopter was unaffected and was able to depart 20 minutes after the earthquake. Soon after the helicopter took off, the tsunami swept away the airport, destroying airplanes and claiming many lives in the buildings. NHK’s helicopter captured the black tsunami surging into the plain field.

Live coverage that began right after the earthquake lasted for three hours. Some contents were from domestic programs that were translated into English. Others were digests for foreign audiences with re-edited visuals trying to convey the whole picture of the earthquake and tsunami. The newsroom backing up the studio was selecting and providing English translations to materials that should be shown to the audience overseas. Staff made an all-out effort to prepare these materials.

For a while, I was comparing the BBC and CNN’s international channels with NHK World TV. However, after a while, all I watched was NHK World TV carried on different international channels.

Broadcast on Over 2,000 Stations around the World

In 1995, NHK started international television broadcasts. In February 2009, an expanded channel, “NHK World TV”, began its service with 24-hour English news and information programs from a new studio. It is carried by domestic and regional satellites and cable networks overseas. It reaches 150 million households in 130 countries. Also, 70% of the PBS affiliates in the United States broadcast the Newsline (30 minutes news) every weekday. Apart from our international television service, immediately after the earthquake, stations like BBC and CNN broadcast footage from NHK World TV. As far as NHK could trace, more than 2,000 foreign TV stations used our footage from NHK World TV or through international news agencies like Reuters and ATPN for their breaking news.

Original Efforts by NHK World

Unlike BBC and CNN whose language is English, NHK World has to translate most of its articles from Japanese. However, due to the seriousness of the earthquake, NHK World sent crews to costal cities like Kesennuma and Minamisanriku-cho that suffered severely from the tsunami. The crews filed English reports for overseas viewers making use of the IP circuit via satellites.

NHK World also focused on the economic impacts. The Nikkei Index fell from 10,000 to 8,600 after the earthquake and NHK World covered the decline of the stock market live from the Tokyo Stock Exchange. NHK World also covered topics like the suspension of Japanese and American automobile manufacturing due to damages of a factory which produced microcomputers for automobiles.

We also had interviews from many different angles; such as the ones with an American doctor visiting Fukushima to treat people exposed to radiation, and with NPO members who supported children who suffered from thyroid cancer caused by Chernobyl. Activities of foreign rescue teams were also covered for overseas viewers.

Numbers of 50 minutes documentaries from NHK’s flagship program NHK Special such as “Emergency Report Tohoku Kanto Earthquake (March 13th)” and “Emergency Report Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (March 16th),” were translated for viewers abroad. The weekday’s Special, “Today’s Close Up” covered the disaster from various angles; “Social Media to the Rescue (March 29th)” and “Keeping Evacuees Healthy (April 13th) .Weekly programs like “Japan 7 days,” “Asia 7 days” and “Asia Biz Forecast (weekly Asian economic news)” also featured earthquake-related stories such as the mechanism of tsunami, mix-ups after the quakes and nuclear accidents in metropolitan Tokyo area, fleeing foreigners and the impact of the nuclear accident on the Japanese and Asian economy.

NHK World’s catch phrase is “Your Eye on Asia”; news orders and programming are decided in line with that motto. It is said that there are about thirty international 24-hour news and information satellite channels in the world. To cope with such “international competition”, NHK expanded its English TV service three years ago to win trust as an objective and reliable news source in Asia. It would have been too narrow if NHK World focused on things only in Japan. It should be equipped with Asian perspectives different from BBC and CNN. NHK’s extensive network of news bureaus in Asia will definitely an advantage to be recognized in the international market of news and information channels. These are the reasons we can call it, “Your Eye on Asia”. The Great East Japan Earthquake is the topic that NHK is most responsible for covering as the Asian eye. A few days after the earthquake, while other international news channels gradually shifted their focus to the worsening situation in Libya, NHK kept reporting the earthquake as the top agenda item. This trend still prevails; NHK continues producing series of programs related to the earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear accident.

As for shortwave radio service and the Internet, NHK World provided earthquake-related information in 18 languages including Japanese. Within two weeks from the earthquake, 5.4 million people had visited its webpage.

Disaster Reporting of NHK

While the Japanese Broadcast Law guarantees NHK’s editorial independence, the Disaster Measures Basic Law stipulates NHK as one of the designated public organizations which, in order to protect people’s lives and property, has the duty to report disaster-prevention information accurately and promptly in case of large-scale disaster. Such a role is unique among public broadcasters around the world. It reflects the fact that Japan has various natural disasters, including earthquakes, tsunami, typhoons, torrential rains and volcanic eruptions. When there is an earthquake or a typhoon, people tend to watch NHK and the viewer ratings spike. On March 11th, before the earthquake, the rating for NHK was 3% (since many households usually have their TVs turned off around that time) in the Greater Tokyo Area. As soon as the Earthquake hit Japan the ratings quickly rose to 15%, then up as high as 22%.

Disaster-prevention reports are an important factor in gaining viewer’s trust. In the induction course, the NHK trains its employees—whatever their job is; news, programs or engineers— how to react in times of disaster systematically. Also, in most of the stations across Japan, overnight-shift news and engineering staff conduct routine exercises every midnight according to the manual. The fundamentals of disaster-prevention reports include delivering information from JMA accurately and promptly and to urge the audience to remain calm. In case of an actual earthquake, responsible news desks will have to decide where to send the camera crews, ensure the circuit of the robot cameras, or whether to use a helicopter among many other factors on top of the basic actions spelled out in the manual.

The reason behind having 460 robot cameras and helicopters all around the country is to prepare for disasters. Cameras in the airports can capture airplane accidents. Robot cameras facing volcanoes can monitor eruptions and those facing places like industrial complexes or nuclear power plants can monitor fires and accidents 24 hours a day. When there are no disasters, robot cameras and helicopters are utilized for emergency news coverage. Live images from robot cameras can be used for many topics. For example, as backdrops of the weather forecast or weather news—Japanese are keen on the changes of the four seasons and weather information. Although robot cameras and helicopters are meant for emergencies, by making use of them on a daily basis NHK recoups the initial investment.

Skipback Recorder

When the Great Hanshin Earthquake hit Japan in 1995, there was a video clip of the NHK Kobe station that was broadcast around the world. In the video, a journalist jumps out of bed and grabs a telephone while lockers and furniture fall all over the room. This was considered to be one of the first video in the world to have captured the exact moment of a major earthquake. CNN used this earthquake footage over and over in their international advertisement, “CNN is always there.” Back then NHK did not have any way of broadcast overseas and this was a regrettable experience.

The video was taken by the skipback recording system developed by an NHK technical team. Basically, this system records images at all times so that it can capture the moment an earthquake strikes. Obviously, the hard disk has limits and old images will be deleted. However, when it senses strong earthquake vibration, it will protect the recorded image from 10 seconds before the impact. Today, the system is built into some of NHK’s news video cameras.

Importance of Training

Advanced tools and systems can be put to proper use in emergencies only if the people know how to act accordingly. The three-hour long live coverage of the earthquake by NHK World was only possible because the staff was prepared through training and daily practice.

Since the Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami of 2004, I have spoken to other Asian public broadcasters about the importance of disaster reporting on different occasions. However, most countries do not consider the coordination between meteorological agencies and broadcasters an urgent task. When the Indian Ocean tsunami caused major damage, NHK saw it as a chance to raise awareness for disaster reporting in other countries. Among other efforts, NHK hosted an international conference to improve disaster broadcasting. However, such a massive earthquake was said to occur only once in two to three thousand years so broadcasters and meteorological agencies did not see improving disaster reporting as a priority.

Despite the lack of understanding NHK has received over the years, global warming is causing abnormal weather conditions in many parts of the world. Today, the role of broadcasters at times of disaster is becoming more important than ever before. That is why we keep on stressing the fact that NHK’s accumulated knowledge on disaster reporting in disaster-prone Japan can be utilized in reporting many different disasters and kinds of emergencies.

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Accident

One of the reasons why the March 11th Earthquake had such a huge impact was the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The plant was built to withstand a tsunami six meters high. When a more than 10-meter high tsunami hit the plant, all of the fuel tanks for the emergency diesel generator were swept away and emergency power cells fell under water. All power supplies were lost and the nuclear reactor was out of control. There has been ample criticism to the initial response by TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company). Assessment of the situation got worse over time and now, according to the International Nuclear Event Scale of IAEA, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident is at level seven, the same as the Chernobyl accident (the amount of radiation leaked remains one tenth of Chernobyl). Also, since the hydrogen explosion, there were concerns as to whether TEPCO and the government were dealing properly with the situation as their descriptions of the meltdown changed frequently. The government lost people’s trust as many began to wonder whether the government was telling the truth or not.

NHK World broadcast the nuclear accident related press conferences by the Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan with simultaneous translations in Newsline and other extended news programs. It is said that the U.S. Department of State was getting information from NHK World TV because the Japanese government was not providing enough information. The nuclear accident caused a huge impact in the discussion over nuclear safety around the world. Germany and Switzerland began moving away from nuclear energy and the majority of Italian people voted “No” in their referendum on nuclear energy.

Currently, the water temperature inside the nuclear reactor has been successfully cooled down to less than 80 degrees and the government announced the partial accomplishment of the cooling procedure. The cooling system in the Fukushima power plant functions by circulating cold water in and out of the plant and removing radiation from the water at the same time. The problem is that processing a nuclear reactor that has gone through meltdown is expected to take decades and the necessary technologies must be developed in the future. Radiation contamination is a topic that NHK will be looking into over the long run and NHK World is certainly responsible for reporting the efforts to the rest of the world.

Since the nuclear accident, tourism from overseas has decreased. Exports of agricultural products have decreased. Japanese agricultural products were just beginning to be accepted overseas because of their safety and quality despite higher prices. The nuclear accidents have affected other countries too. Now that the radiation levels in Tokyo and other parts of Japan have returned to normal, in order to prevent negative rumors inside and outside Japan, it is the role of overseas broadcasting to report scientific and objective information on radiation safety to the world.


It may sound overly self-congratulatory but the role NHK has played following the Great East Japan Earthquake has been vital; its multi-layered, in-depth broadcasting has been highly acclaimed. Immediately after the earthquake, on March 26th the Washington Post wrote a feature article on NHK’s disaster reporting with the headline “The Calm behind the Headlines” where it praised the channel like never before. In the United States, at the Public Television Programmers’ Association of PBS General Assembly held in May 2011 and at the American Public Television’s program distribution meeting held in November 2011, NHK received special awards and a standing ovation. Even in the meetings of European and Asian TV broadcasters, the images of the tsunami captured by NHK left such a strong impression that we hope the power of NHK has been recognized.

The international acclaim over NHK’s coverage of the earthquake is approval for the daily efforts NHK has put in as an organization. NHK’s decision to expand overseas broadcasting three years ago has finally paid off through the reception of international recognition for its coverage capacity.

International broadcasting is a field of severe competition with Aljazeera, France 24 and CCTV now competing against the BBC and CNN. Whether a channel will be viewed or not depends on whether it covers interesting news and whether it can be trusted. “NHK” is an acronym for “Nippon Hoso Kyokai, (Japan Broadcasting Corporation)” which are Japanese words in Roman alphabet. It is a handicap that non-Japanese speakers cannot understand the name. The best guess a normal foreigner can make may be that “N” stands for “Nippon.” It may be sad but none the less true to say that because of the earthquake, NHK has certainly increased its international recognition.

Finally, as a challenge for the future, I believe our international broadcasting must provide interesting materials to audiences overseas and be trusted for its fair reporting. In order to gain recognition in the fierce international competition, we must not change the sound journalism that stubbornly pursues issues that must be covered. For us, the challenge is to let more people around the world know that there is a public broadcaster called NHK in Japan.

* NHK World is NHK’s international service. It includes television (NHK World TV), radio (NHK World Radio) and Internet services.

Toshiyuki Sato

Special Controller, General Broadcasting Administration, NHK

1948 Born in Japan, 1973 joined NHK after graduating from Waseda University, Department of Political Science and Economics (Studied at Wabash College in Indiana, U.S. as an exchange student). Correspondent and Bureau Chief in Bangkok, Manila, Seoul, Washington, Kuala Lumpur, 1999-2003 Chief Editor(International News), 2003-2008 Director-General, International Planning and Broadcasting Department. (1993-2003 Chairman, News Group, Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union)

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