Published on 13 Mar 2011

Japan: loss of life, devastation of homes, unimaginable grief

I’m writing this from Sendai in Japan, in the aftermath of one of the biggest earthquakes in the country’s history.

Amid rising fears about the quake’s impact on Japan’s nuclear power plants, the death toll from Friday’s quake is now feared to run beyond 10,000. Alex Thomson has become one of the first foreign journalists to get right into Minamisanriku – a fishing port of 17,000 people where up to 10,000 are missing.

He encountered terrible scenes of loss of life, devastation of homes, and grief on an unimaginable scale. I saw his team return to our hotel here in Sendai – shocked to the core by what they had seen.

I and my team have been out around this significant port city (pop one million), much of it surprisingly undamaged. The rest of it, almost beyond recognition.

The tsunami swept across farmland eight miles from the sea, sweeping splintered wooden houses, shower cabinets, washing up basins, clothes, and of course cars in which many people died. The city’s ring road provided a raised trap against which all this detritus piled.

The wave from a tsunami crashes over a street in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan

We have watched the highly efficient search for the dead. Beyond the remarkable survival of the man found floating on his roof, 10 miles out to sea, few people have been pulled alive from all this.

But it is the nuclear threat that is paramount. The authorities are engaged in a desperate battle to prevent another explosion, after the roof of a building blew off at a Fukushima nuclear plant on Saturday.

A second reactor at Fukushima appears to be in meltdown, a second plant in the same region is also in trouble, and yet another nuclear station is facing exactly the same problem with cooling system failure. The authorities are pumping sea water in to cool the reactors, and fortunately the wind is in a good direction, but the Japanese Government is already being accused of downplaying the scale of what is happening.

But this also needs to be balanced against the amazing dedication of Japanese rescue services, who are rapidly moving in on the worst of the devastation.

Channel 4 News is specially extended and starting at 6 tonight, Julian Rush has a highly informed take on the nuclear crisis, Alex and I will be live in Sendai. Krishnan is handling the debate on the nuclear issues – including the question of whether this will affect the world’s attitude to nuclear power in the future – and the rest of the day’s news.

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39 reader comments

  1. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    Why shouldn’t we care about Japan, why do they think that?
    There is nothing more moving than the separated family finding each other again and saddening than the empty look on those who have lost their nearest.
    All the deliberate aggression seems pointless when juxtaposed against nature who always has the final word. Ashes to ashes dust to dust whichever way.

  2. Philip Edwards says:


    It is impossible to convey one’s feelings at a time like this. Sometimes words and even pictures are almost superfluous. The tragedy is almost overwhelming.

    But the Japanese people have shown that human spirit can overcome seemingly insuperable disaster and bewilderment. In adversity they are an example to us all as we sit in safety thousands of kilometres away. May their stoicism see them through recovery horrors yet to come.

    As for C4News, it is a near impossible task to convey the true extent of human loss and tragedy and environmental destruction, and to do it with respect for the dignity of the Japanese people and their culture. Of all the international reports I have seen, none of them have been as clear and respectful as your team’s efforts.

    We cannot ask more of honest reporting.

    1. Saltaire Sam says:

      My sentiments exactly. The dignity of the people was as impressive as the devastation was unbelievable. And as ever, the C4News coverage hit just the right tone. Alex’s report hit just the right note.

    2. Meg Howarth says:

      And would like to single out in particular Jon’s brief exchange with the dignified elderly woman looking for her husband and his vehicle in the paddy-field where he’d been working. Humbling beyond words.

    3. Trev says:

      Japan: I want to know why it was necessary for Jon Snow and the other C4 reporters to go to Japan – the people there are suffering, they have little food or fuel – if Jon is there does that mean that every nation, every broadcast company is also there? Who’s food are they eating, who’s fuel are they consuming?
      I want to know what is happening – but there are plenty of news agencies informing me; so Jon did you stop to think why you had to be there too? Is this about your ratings or about the people?
      I know little of what is needed after such a disaster but should we be not be sending people that can make a real difference on the ground? One thing for sure is that the suffering will go on much, much longer than the news interest.
      I have always been a fan of C4 news I like its independent thinking and appraisals but I have turned against the programme when I realised that Jon was no longer in London – what do we really gain from you being there? What can you do that others of your profession under these tragic circumstances cannot do as well? I am ashamed by what I see as insensitive and unnecessary action by C4 news – these people need real, practical, meaningful and effective help – I suspect the last thing they want is to be made the subjects for the voyeurism of C4 news.

  3. william brown says:

    Jon snow and the team are a different class when it comes to covering the big stories, on the ground and with personal insights and comments second to none. Well done channel 4 news team you are the best!

    1. Ray Turner says:

      I completely agree. Well said William.

  4. Lindy says:

    The whole team’s coverage this evening (March 13th) of the disaster in Japan was really outstanding. Both you and Alex were each so sensitive yet informative in your reports. They were in a differeent league from any others I have seen. Krishnan’s interviews with Walt Paterson and with Mr Huhne were also excellent and he aksed properly searching questions.

    I found the programme very moving and within that, as usual, your standards are exceptionally high in all respects.

    Thank you.

  5. jo hiley says:

    can you remind your colleague Alex that he was very arrogant on tonight’s programme, and DO tell him how sorry I was that the soldiers didn’t ask him to politely move out of the way when trying to alert him of a potential tsunami. What were they thinking…..?

    1. margaret brandreth-jones says:

      Not a hint of arrogance was apparent. It was just a factual report where he was trying to get as much air space as possible in relation to events.

  6. John Wilkes says:

    Why were these plants built on the Eastern coast, facing the tectonic plate joint and therefore in the path of any earthquake generated Tsunami? If these plants were on the West coast of Japan this potential nuclear catastrophe wouldn’t be happening.

  7. GS says:

    What an excellent special show tonight. It was moving in places with many outstanding moments. This is why I watch Channel 4 News.

  8. adrian clarke says:

    I am not going to commend Channel 4’s coverage of the disaster for it is no more than we might expect.Alex certainly seemed to ignore the request to leave the area,but that apart the disaster is too great too unimaginable to give accolades for reporting it .The stoicism and professionalism of Japans emergency services are what stood out for me.
    Krishnan’s interview with Paterson and Huhne were mere fill ins and meaningless.There was an hours programme because of the immensity of the disaster ,but nothing of material worth .Little of rescue attempts , because there is nothing to rescue, just coverage of the scale of the damage.I feel for the Japanese people and marvel at the quiet professional way they are dealing with a tragedy of unbelievable proportions

  9. Lily says:

    I would like to thank Jon and his team for giving us this great coverage tonight on March 13th. I am a Japanese student living in London and constantly watching all these Japan/Tsunami related news on every news channel I can find. Among all, I find this C4 news is the best so far. Very practical and informative yet extremely moving as well. This devastating tragedy happened in my own country so of course I am very concerned, but with tonight’s coverage, I believe there will be more people who would try and do something for Japan and I am very very grateful for it. Japan is a wealthy country, however it needs a lot of help from all around the world.

    Thank you very much.

  10. jo hiley says:

    ummmm…are all of the above related to channel 4 news presenters….?

    1. tthurts says:

      You’ve obviously not spent much time at the C4 blogs!

      Jon’s blogs have regular contributors as well as occasional new faces. If you have a gripe with some of the reporting (Such as Alex’s report you say came across as arrogant) then why not raise it with tangible points that do something to allow people to positively self-improve and reflect on their practice?

      Usually Channel 4 does not make similar mistakes in other news sources that sensationalise or bias their reports. That is why we speak highly of the work done by these journalists. The praise for reporting on this board not a matter of nepotism!

      Incidentally, I did not find anything in Alex’s report which was arrogant or disrespectful. He is a journalist, his job is reporting on world events. That means being there and transferring the sights, sounds and scenes of the news. What more do you want?!

      I am not affiliated to the Channel 4 news team in anyway whatsoever. Just wishing to pass on my deepest condolences to the people of Japan for this tragic disaster.

  11. Barbara Robertson says:

    Such devastation is very difficult to comprehend even for those of us who have had personal experience of floods, loss of home and family.The exposure to radiation is alarming on a different level. Make sure the news team has adequate doses of iodine to prevent thyroid problems and risks of possible cancers at a future date.Perhaps the team could advise on the best possible means of aid? The efficiency of the rescue workers is impressive, but where are the survivors and what is going to happen to them

  12. Britt_W says:

    It’s hard to put down in words what I feel about all this. Disbelief is probably the best word to describe it. Utter disbelief.

    I am happy that at least you, Alex, Marcus & the rest of the team are finding the words and are capable of reporting, in your usual excellent way. The quality of your reports is way above that of other news teams. I’m not just saying this – it really is.
    It must be both physically and mentally challenging for you, even if you are indeed used to seeing misery, from all over the world.

    This is truly a many-faceted disaster. First the actual earthquake with all its aftershocks, followed by the tsunami which pulverised everything and drowned everyone like rats…
    And so the nuclear scare and the radiation danger. The courageous rescue workers, who most probably have lost loved ones, too. Not to mention the health implications, rotting bodies and lack of food, water and medicine. The recovery… Just that! Plus, the economy which has taken a hard hit as well. Finally, shorter days with the Earth’s axis moving… Not noticeable, but just the fact that it has happened scares me.
    Well done to all of the team and take care – we want you all back unharmed!

  13. myceffyl says:

    What i want to know is earthquakes are a natural occurence, but is there a possibility that the underground and ocean testing of nuclear bombs to blame for unstabilising the earths core thus initilaising so called natural devastation. How much of this is the fault of hidden beuracracy?

    1. Tom Wright says:

      Absolutely none. Japan’s history of earthquakes precedes the nuclear era, indeed it is a feature of its entire millenia-long history and a contributing factor to a famously stoical culture. Indeed, the word ‘tsunami’ is Japanese.

      Your speculation is misplaced and in poor taste.

    2. John says:

      No. That’s a silly idea.

    3. myceffyl says:

      why is my speculation misplaced , in poor taste and silly. is this not at all possible???????
      unless anyone of us speculating is a nuclear scientist then i think my speculation is a possibilty.

  14. CWH says:

    “”The tsunami swept across farmland eight miles from the sea,….”

    If each of us sat quietly and thought of a place eight miles from where we are each sitting as we type our posts then perhaps, just perhaps, we might begin to grasp the scale of the devastation that has been visited upon Japan.

    Some of the pictures of the devastated areas particularly Minamisanriku look just like Nagasaki and Hiroshima after the atomic bombs had been dropped on them.

  15. GS says:

    I disagree with Adrian. Krishnan’s interview with the nuclear expert was very interesting to me. It certainly wasn’t ‘meaningless’.

    Inevitably this disaster will generate discussion about nuclear power in Britain. Particularly as we are just about to build more power stations and we’re told we will have to rely on nuclear generation more heavily in future.

    With an energy and fuel crisis looming, it is legitimate to ask whether nuclear is acceptable here, too costly when everything is taken into account, too dangerous or whether we have any other viable option anyway?

    1. Jim Flavin says:

      energy and fuel crises are well liked by the oil compnaies . They make high profits whatever . As regrads Nuclear Power – well what exactly with a rising world population is the answer . Gren Energy – what a laugh . They could not supply a fraction of the needs of today – never mind 20-50 years time . One of Greenpeaces ideas was to put solar panels in the Sahara Desert . !!!!!. Yes Green ebnergy can play a part – but will never even come close to supplying needs of indusry and Population . There is plenty coal – more than likely plenty oil too. Saying it is very limited suits the companies etc – people will not complain re higher pricrs – just glad to get it .
      As for the earths tilting on its axis – it has done that many times – . These are natural phenomnenon [ Tsunami ] . I wonder what it would have been like if there had been TV/ Twitter etc at KT occurence .

  16. Jim Flavin says:

    While the disater is unfortunate – was it not an accident waiting to happen re the Nuclear part of it .Building Nuclear power plants on known Erathquake zones is not clever – but Japan is limited in land mass – so they took the chance – and lost .Also they do not have much natural energy resources . The US also has reprtedly Nuclear Power plant in Earthquke zones on West Coast . It is about time that coal etc got back its rightful place . US has huge deposits of coal – they should use it .The Earths paltes are always on the move – they never stop . These natural disasters always have occured – and will continue to .

    1. adrian clarke says:

      Jim whilst in many respects you are right.The Nuclear plants were neither the cause of the disaster nor added to it .
      The Japanese are coping brilliantly in that respect.There so far has been no reports of massive radiation leaks.I presume they were built where they there were away from the greatest population areas .You know a touch of the NIMBY culture.
      As for GS’s comment what did the nuclear expert add to our knowledge,Zilch, and there is no comparison to our situation and that of Japan

    2. Jim Flavin says:

      ”You know a touch of the NIMBY culture”.
      merely pointing out that US and any other country should use its natural resources . They can build a Nucler Plant or coal station here in wexford – on my doorstep if that is needed . In fact one was planned [ nuclear power stn.] 35 years ago – but due to protest was stopped . Now we need it – and it is not there – nor cannot be there for 15 or more years .

  17. John says:

    C4 has done an excellent job but I do wonder why it is necessary for both the oldest journalists to be on the scene, echoing each other?

    is it true that the younger ones are not up to the job? No women either. there could be a ray of rage if JS keeps all the hotspots to himself.

    1. Jo says:

      do we really need any more reporters out there…??? I agree with Trevs comments before, they are already struggling with lack of food, water, fuel etc and again I really cannot beleive you all missed Alex comment about the soldier asking him to move up the hill…” not very politely I might add “

    2. margaret brandreth-jones says:

      Jo, that comment was factual, not value laden.It is you who are placing value on it.

  18. GS says:

    @John – I don’t think what you write is fair in this instance. Lindsey Hilsum has been doing a great job reporting from Libya – which isn’t exactly an easy, risk-free place to be at the moment. Isn’t there enough of an obsession with youthful presenters elsewhere on TV?

    Jon is one of those older people who seems to connect with people of all ages. A bit like Rolf Harris!

    I always enjoy reports by Kathy Newman and Sarah Smith and I hope Samira Ahmed will do more in future.

  19. Nimbus says:

    Congratulations Jon and all the team (not forgetting technical back-up) for the way you have blended professionalism and compassion in reporting this most dreadful event. Please let people there know that people here are thinking of them.

  20. lilian says:

    It was truly horrible watching Jon Snow tramping through the devastation of the lost towns caused by the tsunami in Japan, giving what I am sure he hoped would come over as a poetic , sympathetic report. We saw him handing a blanket to the elderly woman who had just lost her home and then because of this pointless gesture he felt entitled to quiz her about when she might come back. Did she really need those lumbering clumsy questions shot at her in this moment of intense trauma for her and her family.

    This is not news, this is voyeurism, oozing in sentimental commentary masquerading as news and should be stopped.

    1. michelle says:

      I agree 100%. I am disgusted by this intrusion upon people who have already been through so much.

      Help them if you can, by all means. But don’t take advantage of them for a sensational and sentimental piece of self-aggrandising ‘journalism’.

  21. Lynne Fearnley says:

    Did Jon Snow really refer to worries about when the ‘natural order of things’ would return? An earthquake and consequent tsunami are the natural order of things. They can cause catastrophic damage to the ‘normal’ but unnatural order of things because we have removed ourselves and our ways of life so far from what is natural.

  22. ethics girl says:

    Jon Snow’s piece on Sunday was moving and poetic, and the true impact of the disasters in Japan remains incomprehensible and seems to be worsening every day.

    Like another poster here, I was surprised to hear Jon Snow say something along the lines of the earthquake and tsunami have ‘changed the natural order of things’. Actually, earthquakes and tsunami *are* the natural order of things – they are nature in its rawest form.

    It is ‘civilisation’ (through which we are increasingly removed from our natural roots) that has allowed humans to over-populate the earth, to such an extent that we have to take incredible risks with our lives and the future of the planet. For example, building nuclear power plants in earthquake zones to feed our ever-increasing demand for energy – to heat bigger homes, and make and use more and more stuff, etc.

    It reminds me of the billboard: “You are not IN traffic, you ARE traffic” – and we are all, in some way, responsible for the huge demand for energy. We can all have an impact in reducing that demand, thereby reducing the risks to ourselves in generating energy. We can’t prevent earthquakes, we can reduce their impact by behaving more responsibly.

  23. Atsuko I says:

    Not looking for bodies but survivors!

  24. Atsuko I says:

    I thank channel 4 to send Jon, the veteran journalist, all the way to Japan. I appreciate your unique, humane,and cool-headed approach to the news reporting. Unlike other media, he had achieved an interview with a spokes person at the prime minister’s office who said that we don’t need to be too much worried about the Fukushima accident. Channel 4 website also placed a reassuring comment of a nuclear physicist.

    As a Japanese national living in Kanagawa, having been suspicious about the government’s official announcements at the time of a serious nuclear plant accident, I was despeartely looking for reassuring overseas reports, then I found your reports. I sent your URLs to Britons living in Tokyo, so that they could make a informed decision on their evacuations.

    Today, you find your audience across the world.
    Thank you Jon and the Chennel 4 news team!

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