Dispatch from Japan

When I traveled to Jordan on a press trip in 2009, just after I had graduated from college, I wrote that I hope someday, in the future, when my journalism career takes off, I’ll be able to once again tell the customs officer at the airport that I’m traveling “for business.” Well, here I am.

Three years later, I am lucky enough to say that I’m traveling “for business” not once, but twice. Right now, I am in the middle of a 12-day reporting fellowship trip to Japan, sponsored by the International Center for Journalists and funded by the U.S.-Japan Foundation. Just after Thanksgiving, I will find myself in Moscow, Russia for another ICFJ fellowship funded by the Knight Foundation. There, I will be working in the Moscow newsroom of Ogoniok magazine.

So here are some highlights of my Japan reporting trip so far. Hopefully, I can find the time to write a bit more regularly as I finish out the rest of my trip.

Photo Copywright Olga Belogolova


I left Washington on Thursday morning and arrived in Tokyo on Friday evening. The shock of flipping my clock upside down was pretty new for me and it took some getting used to. Still, I was determined to start off on the right foot. I had arranged a dinner for myself with some folks from the Japanese energy ministry right after I arrived from the airport. The restaurant, which they chose, was coincidentally right next door to the American Embassy so I felt a little closer to home. The style of food was izikaya, which I was to have quite a bit of throughout my trip. I learned a few important things right away:

1) I have to keep my chopsticks placed on the chopstick holder whenever I am not using them.

2) When you have soba noodle soup, you have to make loud sipping noising to demonstrate how much you are enjoying your food. This was, interestingly enough, demonstrated to me by the energy ministry guys who expertly showed off their slurping noises.

3) Not finishing all of my food signified that I wasn’t done yet. Like I learned from my grandmother growing up, it is rude not to finish everything on the table in front of you. At least this trip was going to prepare me for Thanksgiving-day gluttony, right?

When I got home late in the evening, I looked out my window at the city lights and it looked just like any ordinary city. I don’t think the fact that I was really in Tokyo has sunk in yet…and it wasn’t going to for several days.

Day 1 – Vox Populi

On my second day in Tokyo, I was still adjusting to the time change and the fact that I was actually in Japan. I met my interpreter for lunch at this beautiful place overlooking the water and Tokyo bridge. We were asked to take off our shoes – the first of many times this would happen during my time in Japan. The food was delicious and then we sped off to get do some vox-pop reporting. It had been a very long time since I had done any man-on-the-street interviews so my skills were a little rusty, especially after spending two and half years reporting in Washington.

We began at the Fukushima prefectural shop in Tokyo, where they sell goods from the area. But more on that later (I have to save something for my actual stories, right?)

We returned to Ginza, where the main street is closed off for pedestrians only on Saturdays and Sundays. This provided a perfect opportunity to interview some locals and get their sense on the U.S. election which had taken place earlier in the week. Along with some further interviews in the next several days, this yielded my first story with a Tokyo dateline. It’s for National Journal members only, but here’s a link and little excerpt:

TOKYO—Much of Japan cheered last week’s reelection of President Obama—especially one small city in this island nation that shares his name. But his reelection doesn’t come without a number of challenges in the region and with its longtime ally.

Obama, who initiated a U.S. foreign-policy “pivot” or “rebalance” toward Asia in his first term, must now deal early in his second term with Japan’s interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership—a regional free-trade agreement—as well as two simmering regional issues: controversy over the U.S. military base in Okinawa, and increasing tensions between Japan and China over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Read more.

Day 2 – Camera Woes and Protests

My second day in Japan began with some drama. I was still not feeling great with the time switch and all the travel and on top of that, my digital camera seemed to be irreversibly broken. The shutter refused to open all the way, a problem I had encountered briefly in Washington but seemed to be okay before I left. Perhaps Japan was refusing a Samsung (Korean brand) camera to work in its country?

Luckily, I was in Japan, a mecca for camera enthusiasts, and after some time in the “big camera” store in Tokyo with my interpreter, I came out with a new purchase. This was an unexpected cost, but it was worth it, especially since I am traveling for such a long time.

That afternoon, we visited several anti-nuclear protests all over Tokyo commemorating the 20-month anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in March 2011. But more on that later, I promise.

We finished off the evening with some shabu shabu for dinner – which is the kind of restaurant where you cook your own meat and veggies in a boiling pot of water. It was very delicious – or “totemo oyishi,” as they say here.

Photo of me and my interpreter at the shabu shabu restaurant:

Day 3 – Going Nuclear, Part 1

On Monday, my interpreter and I met bright and early to take the Shinkanesen bullet train to the Hamaoka nuclear plant in the Shizouka prefecture. The plant was shut down just after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident because it is located in an earthquake/tsunami prone zone.

On the way to the plant, we were lucky enough to see Mount Fuji. According to many Japanese people I spoke with, seeing Mount Fuji from the bullet train is very unusual and difficult, even for regular commuters. It seems we were very lucky for the whole trip, because the sun was shining brightly when we arrived to tour the nuclear plant and its tsunami/earthquake countermeasures. More on that later!

If the day wasn’t long enough, when we returned to Tokyo in the evening, we attended a lecture at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. I included some of the ideas I heard there in my election article (mentioned above).  

Photo of Mount Fuji, as seen from the Shinkansen train:

To come: dispatches from days 4, 5, 6 and 7!


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