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Hajime Shiraishi's tiny but influential OurPlanet-TV keeps focus on Japan's nuclear disaster

The web-based journalist is one of the few in Japan who continue to visit the region around Fukushima and give a voice to those who have been affected.

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Hajime Shiraishi, who heads Internet based OurPlanet- TV, is still covering the effects of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster that was triggered by a devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan three years ago.

Takehiko Kambayashi

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Three years after the 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan, news coverage of Japanese who have borne the brunt of its effects has subsided.

But journalist Hajime Shiraishi isn't done yet: She's gearing up to take more trips to northeastern Japan, the site of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, to publicize the hardship in that region.

More than 130,000 people remain evacuated from their homes because of radioactive contamination since the meltdown at Fukushima that was triggered by a devastating earthquake and tsunami March 11, 2011.

Ms. Shiraishi is one of the few journalists in Japan who have continued visiting the region to give a voice to parents concerned about the health effects of radiation on their children and students and teachers who have been squeezed into makeshift classrooms in the tsunami-struck area.

It's still important to cover what is happening to them, says Shiraishi, who heads an independent Internet media effort called OurPlanet-TV, based in Tokyo.

There have been new cases of leukemia and thyroid cancer in children in the Fukushima area, she says. At the same time evacuees are being encouraged to return to radiation-contaminated areas, she adds.

In November, despite having a limited budget, Shiraishi flew to Ukraine to learn how it protected its children from low-level radiation exposure after its 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster (at the time, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union). She spent two weeks learning about the roles the Ukrainian government and schools are playing in radiation-protection programs, especially in low-dose radiation-contaminated areas in the country.

"The Japanese government has done very little to protect children's health [since the nuclear disaster], but [this] has been given priority in Ukraine," Shiraishi says.

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Japan's major news media outlets have played down the plight of the evacuees, she says, and have focused instead on how eager utility companies and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government are to restart other idled nuclear reactors.

All of Japan's 48 nuclear reactors have suspended operations for checkups following the 2011 disaster at Fukushima. Nuclear plants had supplied about 30 percent of the country's electricity before the meltdown.

Since the first days of the Fukushima disaster, the news media have depended on statements from the government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of Fukushima, for their coverage. They have rarely spoken with critics of nuclear power and have often ignored antinuclear movements among the public, critics say.

Shiraishi says she is pursuing the truth about the nuclear meltdown by talking to experts, activists, other journalists, and nearby residents. Not surprisingly, the number of OurPlanet-TV viewers surged soon after the disaster at a time when Japanese citizens began casting a more cynical eye toward the major news media.

Shiraishi "won't make a compromise," says Katsutaka Idogawa, a former mayor of the town of Futaba near the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The entire town has had to be abandoned. Mr. Idogawa says he often feels sick because of his exposure to radiation three years ago.

Shiraishi "has a deep sense of integrity. I have high expectations of her," he says. "I think more people need to support OurPlanet-TV."

Japan's news organizations have long been criticized for their symbiotic relationship with authority figures and corporations through the press club system.

Before she launched OurPlanet-TV in 2001, Shiraishi had worked for a major TV network, so she was aware of how large corporations, including those in the nuclear industry, attempt to influence the media. "It was very hard to produce a variety of news programs as major networks took ratings and sponsors into too much consideration," Shiraishi says.

She also criticizes the cozy relationships between government bureaucrats and the media because it is the government that grants licenses to broadcast stations. "That is one of the biggest problems" in Japanese journalism, Shiraishi says. "So, we have aimed to produce a news report which the mainstream media can't."

Free from the constraints of relying on ratings and advertisers, Shiraishi runs her Internet-based news organization as a nonprofit, supported by donations. The programs are available to watch at no cost.

Unlike major news organizations, where many employees boast of a six-figure salary, her three-person team, which includes Sachie Takagi and Takaaki Hirano, scrapes by with much-needed help from other journalists, interns, and volunteers, she says.

OurPlanet-TV has produced around 1,150 news programs and special documentaries, including 750 archived on its website, www.ourplanet-tv.org.

OurPlanet-TV also offers a video journalism class. The 12-week workshop has drawn a variety of participants including mothers, police officers, and journalists who work for major media outlets, Shiraishi says. Since the nuclear disaster, the number of women in the course has increased sharply, she says.

Participants work in a group to produce a short documentary. Shiraishi says she is pleasantly surprised that many of them have not only acquired skills but also changed their viewpoints while participating in the workshop.

That's because they take the time to visit a place over and over again, talk to people, and listen to what they have to say, she says. "That enables them to have a change of perspective."

Since the nuclear disaster, more people have begun supporting OurPlanet-TV, Shiraishi says. She hopes eventually to have many more journalists covering various social issues that have been neglected by the major news outlets.

Internet-based news media in Japan also pay closer attention to nonprofit and citizens groups, many of which sprang up after the 1995 earthquake in Kobe. After that disaster nearly two decades ago, an unprecedented number of volunteers rushed to help out in that western Japanese city. It was the beginning of a new era of grass-roots activism in the country.

"Some groups and organizations are so committed and working very seriously to make society a better place," Shiraishi says. "We would like to bring their perspectives to the public to invigorate discussions."

Shiraishi – a mother of two daughters, the oldest of whom, Megumu, is mentally and physically challenged – has also featured minority groups in her programs, such as ethnic Koreans, the homeless, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens.

Her team is doing nothing special, she says.

It "just tries to reflect the diverse views of society. We would also like to give a voice to those who are stigmatized or marginalized in society. In Japan, the major news media just cover politics, big corporations, and government ministries and agencies. That is only a limited part of this vast society."

OurPlanet-TV has received several awards from journalism organizations and human rights groups, especially on the issue of radiation exposure at Fukushima.

"The good thing about OurPlanet-TV is that it gives a voice to the weakest of society," says Mina Watanabe, director of the Women's Active Museum on War and Peace in Tokyo.

OurPlanet-TV was awarded a prize by her group, the first museum in Japan to collect materials related to sexual slavery conducted by Japan in World War II. Ms. Watanabe says she thinks OurPlanet-TV takes a balanced and nuanced approach to covering issues.

Though Shiraishi graduated from one of Japan's top schools, Waseda University in Tokyo, she says, "In retrospect, I was not in an environment where I was able to think deeply about social issues."

Since then, she says, "I have learned a lot and broadened my perspective...."

• The English version of the OurPlanet-TV website is at www.ourplanet-tv.org/?q=node/287.

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