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In Japan, Disaster and a Radio Show Put Refugees On the Agenda

Nanmin Now

Radio host Katsuya Soda talks to the audience at Radio Cafe, a community radio station in Kyoto. Used with permission. 

“You see, it’s different here. It’s much safer and more peaceful in Japan,” said my friend. I was introducing her to the idea of Global Voices: hearing stories from other side of the world, because “the world is talking”.

She continued: “There’s almost no need for people here to voice any kind of opinion or point of view, especially when your life is secured by following the norm.”

In a way she’s right. People living in Japan don’t always have to be concerned to what’s going on elsewhere. News headlines reflect this: in the public evening news broadcast, international news makes up only 7% of the total coverage. A researcher who monitored the broadcast [ja] over a period of three months found that a total of only two minutes, or 0.7 % of overall, were dedicated to reporting anything related to the African continent.

What’s going on outside the island usually doesn't matter to Japanese, unless it’s North Korea conducting nuclear tests, or something significant related to the superpower, the United States. And ignorance is bliss, as they say.

One Japanese citizen who disagrees is Katsuya Soda, who believes that the public’s indifference to world affairs is ruining things in Japan. In February 2004, Katsuya started Nanmin Now! [ja], a radio program about refugee issues that airs on a community radio station in Kyoto. The show begins with an introduction by Katsuya in Kyoto-flavored dialect: “It’s time for Nanmin Now! A program that reports refugee information like a weather report.”

Before the Internet and social media became a space for popular expression, low-power FM, or community radio was the only medium available to those who wanted to get an issue like the plight of refugees on the airwaves in a traditional city like Kyoto.

“At that time, information from the Internet had even less credibility than it does now,” says Katsuya. “I thought it was important to provide information via a medium that was familiar to everyone. Community radio is small in terms of reach, but it’s a trusted medium, as the airwaves are mandated by law to transmit information.”

With Nammin Now!, Katsuya’s ambition was to report news about refugees in such a way as to make refugee issues an item of concern in the minds of fellow Japanese. He was inspired to start the show after reading a book by Sadako Ogata, former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “It taught the importance of the role of media and sustainable relationships, and the idea of a weather forecast came to my mind,” Katsuya says. “I decided to start a radio program that continuously reports on refugee issues just like the weather.”

Since launching the show, Katsuya has interviewed more than 500 people on the topic of refugees. The six-minute broadcast airs on a Saturday.

The word refugee—“nanmin” in Japanese — doesn't appear very frequently in the Japanese news headlines. Japan accepts fewer than 50 refugees per year (in 2010 it accepted 39), even though it makes the world’s second largest financial contribution to the UNHCR. This is a surprisingly small number for a secure and peaceful island country. Some of these asylum-seekers even experience difficulties in Japan, such as deportation and detention. For the Japanese, the refugee problem is something going on the other, poorer side of the world. “It’s like a distant sorrow,” Katsuya says, “not just in terms of physical distance but also mentally. People believe they could never be a refugee.”

The mission of Nanmin Now! Is to ensure that “all the children of the world can sleep at home safely,” referring chiefly to places like certain countries in Africa, Afghanistan, and Myanmar, major sources of refugees. In the aftermath of Japan’s March 2011 earthquake, however, and accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that followed, Katsuya became concerned about children in Japan.

The disaster destroyed 126,583 residences [ja], and, in Fukushima alone, 160,000 people have been evacuated from their homes. 100,000 people now live in temporary housing inside Fukushima, with another 60,000 are scattered throughout Japan.

After the earthquake, Katsuya joined a team setting up a temporary radio station in a disaster-stricken area to provide emergency information. After the government shifting the radiation exposure limit [ja] for children from 1 to 20 millisieverts, some people in Japan came to consider they were being put at risk by their own leaders, and Katsuya became actively involved with people who evacuated from Fukushima.

“When I communicated with evacuees from area with high radiation levels,” Katsuya says, “I started to see a kind of similarity between Fukushima evacuees and refugees: both have to do with structural violence. People had to evacuate from their homes in Fukushima because there was a nuclear accident. The act of locating a nuclear power plant is like a domestic colonization, which marginalized communities have to accept.”

For the Japanese people, the 2011 earthquake and the Fukushima accident have brought the refugee issue very close to home, both validating and amplifying the work Katsuya has been doing for nearly 10 years.

Nanmin now! airs on FM79.7MHz, a community radio station in Kyoto, as well as online on-demand. Katsuya Soda's first book [written in Japanese] A Proposal from Community Radio in an Era When Everyone Has a Risk of Becoming a Refugee―Connecting the Voices from Fukushima is available [ja] on Amazon.co.jp.

Keiko Tanaka is a Japanese civic media enthusiast interested in digital engagement, radio and youth culture. 

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