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“War Zones” and “Disaster Areas”:
The Things Mika Yamamoto Cared About

Shiro Segawa
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

Deciphering Mika Yamamoto’s Last Lectures

Seventy.

This is the number of journalists who were killed during 2012 in connection with news-gathering activities. The number was compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an NPO based in New York, U.S.A. If you look at the data on the CPJ site (http://www.cpj.org), you’ll find the names of the seventy journalists listed in order of most recent death date. The 34th entry from the top bears the name of a Japanese woman, Mika Yamamoto. This is the freelance journalist Mika Yamamoto. She was shot to death just after 3 p.m. local time on August 20, 2012 while covering the city of Aleppo in northern Syria in the Middle East.

Several events have been held and awards given in Ms. Yamamoto’s honor this spring (2013).

First, the book Mika Yamamoto’s Last Lectures - The Mission: Questions from the Battlefield (Waseda University Press), which records the four lectures she gave in the spring of 2012 as a part-time instructor at Waseda University, was published at the end of March.

Then in April, it was decided that the Japan National Press Club Special Award, which honors noteworthy achievements and activities in journalism, would be given to Mika Yamamoto.

On May 3, the International Press Institute (IPI) announced that Ms. Yamamoto would receive the World Press Freedom Hero award, which is given to reporters who have contributed to freedom of the press.

And on her birthday, May 26, the Inaugural Symposium for the Mika Yamamoto International Journalist Award will be held at Okuma Auditorium, Waseda University. The award has been established to recognize individuals selected for outstanding international reporting in each of three categories: movie, picture and article.

The lectures Ms. Yamamoto gave at Waseda University that have now been published in Mika Yamamoto’s Last Lectures were for a class I asked her to teach. Drawing on the text of her last lectures, I would like to reexamine the things she was so committed to as a journalist that she was willing to risk her life for them.

A Person with a Refreshing Smile

I first met Mika Yamamoto in January 2008.

Waseda University had decided to establish the Journalism School (J-School) in the spring of 2008 under the Graduate School of Political Science with the aim of cultivating highly professional journalists. At the beginning of that year, I had just left my job at a newspaper company to work at the University as the program manager with the main responsibility of running the new program.

At J-School, the curriculum was consciously constructed to train students into professional journalists who could act on their own, as opposed to employees working for organizations like newspaper companies and TV stations. The school would offer a course called Journalism Seminar A (The Mission of Journalism), which was positioned as the main class for cultivating an individual sense of mission. We aimed to invite freelance journalists with extensive experience in on-site news gathering to teach the course, have them develop their own theories of journalism based on their news-gathering experience, and exchange questions and have deep discussions with the students.

I decided to ask Mika Yamamoto, a young female freelance journalist with a lot of experience in war coverage, to teach the class. She would be indispensable as an accessible role model for the female students entering the program.

“What a refreshing smile she has.”

This was my first impression of Ms. Yamamoto when I met her for the first time at Nantei, the university’s restaurant for faculty members. I couldn’t help wondering how I could be speaking over the table with this petite, delicate, wise woman with not a trace of the bloodiness or muddy smell of war, due to my preconceptions of her to have repeatedly survived coverage of conflict-torn regions where the line between life and death is razor-thin. She herself said, “It’s because I know the fear of war that I want to be as safe as I can. I try to be as cautious as possible when covering a war.”

The Question of Whether War Correspondents Are Hypocrites

As for teaching the J-School class, she readily agreed, saying, “If you’re sure you want me to. It would be a good learning experience for me as well.” The theme for the course was War and Journalism. Over the five intervening years, Ms. Yamamoto came two or three times each year to give speeches, combined with video footage of her latest work, and to talk with the graduate students.

On the battlefront, she worked on stories that focused on the local people, especially the women and children who were most vulnerable to the impact of war. Rather than seeing them as weak, she was drawn to civilians who carried on in good spirits with smiles on their faces even in times of war, and took an interest in portraying their lives.

“Why do I (Mika Yamamoto) risk my life to cover wars?”

A student had posed this big question to her in class.

Ms. Yamamoto emphasized discussion with the students in her lectures. Some of the students expressed cynical views about war coverage, commenting, “Aren’t war correspondents just hypocrites who claim to be working for truth and freedom?” and “If there are other journalists covering the war zone, then there’s no need to put yourself in danger, right?”

When responding to such comments, Ms. Yamamoto never took the attitude of lecturing the students. Instead, she listened to each person and then asked, “What does everyone else think?” turning it into the starting point for a discussion. I was pleased to find that she was a person who excelled not only as a journalist, but also as an educator.

Forgotten Countries and Continuity of Coverage

What did she emphasize in her lectures? When I reread the lecture transcripts, I noticed certain keywords that she talked about.

One of these was covering countries and regions that have been forgotten by the world.

Afghanistan, where civil war has dragged on for many years, was one such forgotten country with a forgotten conflict.

“I asked myself what issues there were that few people covered, which needed to be communicated but were not given enough attention, and what locations were very difficult for people to get to, which needed to be covered and reported on but weren’t.”

This was the reason she devoted herself to covering conflict-torn regions like Afghanistan.

In fact, she used expressions very similar to “forgotten countries” when she talked about the coverage of the Great East Japan Earthquake. She started going to the actual disaster areas on the ninth day after the earthquake, traveling north along the Sanriku coast from Ishinomaki to Kesennuma and Miyako (Taro Town) and interviewing the disaster victims.

“News media throughout Japan were using every possible means to gather and report information, but there were still places that were abandoned, areas that were isolated. So I thought I’d gather information to fill in those gaps. . . . If there are locations that can’t be covered, there must still be something that can be done and should be done there.”

Ms. Yamamoto’s desire to find out what people living in forgotten disaster areas were thinking and convey these thoughts seems to have been the driving force in her coverage of the disaster.

Another of the keywords was “continuity of coverage.”

There are a lot of stories which, even after being covered intensively by world media, are eventually not covered by anyone. Many of these issues, however, are important ones that still need to be reported and thought about. Ms. Yamamoto understood that it was the media’s mission, and her personal duty, to continue to cover and report these stories.

If you read the transcripts of her last lectures, you can see how war coverage and disaster coverage were linked within Mika Yamamoto.

The extraordinary nature of war zones and disasters areas which deprives people of the normal experience of daily life. The citizens who bravely carry on their lives there. The tendency for media coverage to decrease after a period of intensive reporting and for these places to be forgotten.

“You can change society by communicating and reporting information. I truly believe that.”

Her words were always full of humanity.

If Mika Yamamoto were living today, I imagine she would be interviewing forgotten disaster victims on an ongoing basis and striving to convey their feelings throughout the world.

Related Links
  1. Mika Yamamoto’s Last Lectures - The Mission: Questions from the Battlefield (Waseda University Press)
  2. Inaugural Symposium for the Mika Yamamoto International Journalist Award
  3. Mika Yamamoto Memorial Foundation

Shiro Segawa
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

[Profile]

Professor Segawa graduated after completing the History and Philosophy of Science course at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo in 1977. He served as a Washington, D.C. correspondent, Chief Editor of the Science and Environment News Department, Deputy Managing Editor, Editorial Writer, and in various other positions at The Mainichi Newspapers. In 1998, he was awarded the JCJ Incentive Award (now called the JCJ Award) as a member of a group of reporters for their coverage of depleted uranium ammunition. Professor Segawa has been the program manager for the M.A. Program in Journalism at the Graduate School of Political Science, Waseda University since January 2008. He is also a board member of the Japanese Association of Science and Technology Journalists.

[Major Publications]

Notes on Health Food [Kenkō Shokuhin Nōto] (Iwanami Shinsho) and The Scene of Heart Transplants [Shinzō Ishoku no Genba] (Shinchosha). His co-authored and co-edited publications include Asia’s Population Explosion of 3 Billion People [Ajia 30 Oku-nin no Bakuhatsu] (The Mainichi Newspapers); White Paper of People Studying Science [Rikei Hakusho] (co-authored, Kodansha); How Should Journalism Engage with Science and Technology? [Jānarizumu wa Kagaku Gijutsu to Dō Mukiau-ka] (Tokyo Denki University Press); and An Illustrated Guide to Japanese Media [Zusetsu Nihon no Media] (NHK Books).