Photo by Sheldon Yett ’86
On March 11, 20 miles beneath the ocean floor, the Pacific Plate nudged forward under the Eurasian Plate with the force of 9 million megatons of TNT, triggering earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. Not long after, Ken Belson ’87 packed his bags for Japan to cover the story for the New York Times.
Ken was a natural choice to steer the paper’s coverage. After graduating from journalism school at Columbia University, he worked as a business reporter in Japan and wrote the definitive book on Japanese kitsch icon Hello Kitty. He speaks Japanese fluently, and his ties to the country remain strong. He had the skills to get to the bottom not only of how the nuclear disaster occurred, but of why.
Ken coauthored an article in the March 21 Times that changed the storyline. It described how cozy relations between the Japanese nuclear industry and its regulatory overseers—a revolving door known as amakudari (literally, “descent from heaven”)—contributed to the unfolding disaster. The Times team found documents showing that regulators rubber-stamped a 10-year license extension for the Fukushima Daichi 1 reactor about a month before the disaster, despite its misgivings about the aging reactor’s safety.
With local media resigned to business as usual in Japan, it took outsiders to find the story. “It had been out there,” he says, “but nobody paid attention to it, and I think we were the first people to write it large.”
Ken knows the Japanese media’s softball approach too well. After writing an article critical of the finance minister in the 1990s, he was called onto the carpet for rocking the boat—not by government officials, but by fellow reporters in the ministry’s press club.
“The Japanese,” he says, “pull their punches.”