Spiked: The mechanics of modern journalism

Rebuilding Japan: Fukushima’s Hawaii girls go on tour to promote safety

Sitting on a hill just 28 miles from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is one of Japan’s most peculiar and popular tourist destinations.

By Malcolm Moore and Julian Ryall 7:52PM BST 18 Apr 2011

When it opened in 1961, Joban Hawaiian Center was the country’s first-ever theme park. It thrilled the hard-working post-war generation with a fantasy of palm trees, hot springs and hula girls dancing in grass skirts.

In the five decades since, it has only grown in popularity, changing its name to Spa Resort Hawaiians and drawing 3.8m hotel guests last year and a further 1.5m day trippers to its giant tropical dome, filled with water slides and a giant pirate ship.

Before the resort opened, Iwaki was a grim coal-mining town and the site of the Sendai No.1 POW camp during the Second World War where 252 British prisoners were sent to work in the mines, and where at least 22 of them died.

In the 1960s, however, as Japan turned away from coal to other forms of energy, including nuclear, Iwaki’s economy found itself on the verge of collapse.

The story of its transformation into a Hawaiian paradise even became the subject of a movie in 2006, called Hula Girls, a Japanese version of Brassed Off in which the local girls in Iwaki start dancing in grass skirts to “save the town” against the wishes of their dour coal-mining parents.

Today, however, the Spa Resort Hawaiians is closed for business, and in the shadow of the nuclear emergency at Daiichi, it is unclear whether it can ever attract hordes of tourists again. Builders are busy working on a new six-storey hotel, but no one knows if it will ever hold any guests.

“No one here is blind to the impact of what has happened at the nuclear plant will have on the local area,” said one security guard outside the gates. “We have reached the lowest of the low. It cannot get any worse. But we cannot think negatively or we would have to give up. We have chosen to be positive,” he said.

A spokesman for the resort simply said that repairing the damage the earthquake did to the pipes that funnel the area’s natural hot springs into the pools would cost “several hundred million yen”, and that he was worried that fearful Japanese may never come back to Fukushima.

Meanwhile, the 30 hula girls at the resort have gone on a nationwide tour, starting in Tokyo, to try to persuade the Japanese public that Iwaki is still safe. “People now associate Fukushima with people exposed to radiation,” said Ayumi Sudo, 45, one of the dancers. “We have felt like dancing naked to show we are not contaminated. I want to see tourists coming back and revive Iwaki as it was before, with delicious fish, vegetables and fruits as well as a beautiful ocean view.”

For Fukushima, however, the future is looking grimmer than ever before. The prefecture’s main industries are tourism, agriculture, fishing and manufacturing. Rice from Fukushima is famous throughout Japan and the area is one of the country’s top producers of peaches, apples, pears, tomatoes and cucumbers, as well as leaf tobacco and raw silk. The haul of fish from the prefecture’s 100 mile-long stretch of Pacific coast is one of the largest in Japan.

In Tokyo, the government is frantically trying to reassure Japanese consumers that produce from Fukushima remains safe to eat and has staged a series of events where prominent cabinet ministers, including Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, munched their way through tomatoes, strawberries and cucumbers.

But jittery buyers are shunning the markets, and all fishing has been stopped by the problems at Daiichi. “People say they are supporting us, but they choose not to eat Fukushima goods and manufacturers are shifting their lines of production. Superficially they are supporting us, but substantially they are not,” said Professor Toshifumi Tadaka, an economist at Tohoku university whose family lives in Fukushima.

Fukushima is also an ageing prefecture. “Agriculture remains the prefecture’s major industry, but the number of people engaged in full-time farming decreases every year and the rise in the number of elderly farmers presents a serious problem,” said the local government’s international affairs division. With many young people now evacuating the area because of the crisis, there is a worry they may find jobs elsewhere and never return.

In the coming months, as investment pours into Fukushima to rebuild its economy, there is an opportunity to remodel the economy once again and create new industries. But it is unclear if anyone will be able to make the same leap of imagination that led to the creation of the Hawaiian Center in the 1960s.

“We have to be patient,” said Professor Tadaka, arguing against any leap into an unknown industry. “We think we should return to agriculture, fisheries and forestries,” he said. “If young people wish to leave then they can.” And if the local economy declines, he said, it would simply be the responsibility of the people to consume less.

“If you earn two million yen a year (£15,000) then you must learn to live within that.” The professor is pencilling in at least ten years for the North East region to fully recover from the triple calamity of quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

Others blame Japan’s stultifying political system for a failure of vision. “Even if someone came up with an excellent idea, such as creating a solar power industry here, it would never get off the ground with all the bickering and back-and-forth,” said Teruhisa Nakamura, the president of the Sendai 89ers basketball team. “The ideas that worked in the 1970s and 80s will not work now the era of growth is over. What we need now is some kind of change,” he added.

The story of Iwaki, the Joban coal mines, and the inevitable kitsch of Spa Resort Hawaiians is one I’ve been meaning to write about for ages, so I was naturally curious when a friend forwarded me this article from The Telegraph, which beautifully exemplifies the shocking mechanics of contemporary, cut-and-paste “journalism”. Off we go…

When it opened in 1961…

Only five words in and the authors have set off on their carefree venture across the minefield of error. The source for this is undoubtedly the English-language website of Spa Resort Hawaiians, here. But wait a moment—in this chronological history, January 15, 1961 occurs after April 1, 1965. The careful hack should know better than to trust any English-language website in Japan, especially one that proclaims on its homepage, “Hawaiians can be enjoyed in any type of weather!” (I’m sure they can!) All one has to do is go to the Japanese-language site (or to the Wikipage in Japanese or English) to confirm that this is a typo and Spa Resort Hawaiians actually opened on January 15, 1966.

Joban Hawaiian Center was the country’s first-ever theme park

This is also sourced from the Hawaiians History page on the Spa Resort Hawaiians website and may actually be correct!

In the five decades since, it has only grown in popularity

Or not, as the case may be—the Hawaiians History page in both English and Japanese suggest that visitor numbers peaked in 1970 at 1.55mn. According to the financial results of resort operator Joban Kogyo (Japanese only link here, page 4 of 42), the resort attracted 1,487,000 people in the year to March 31, 2010.

changing its name to Spa Resort Hawaiians and drawing 3.8m hotel guests last year and a further 1.5m day trippers

Wow, 3.8mn hotel guests, that’s impressive. That would mean, for instance, that every man, woman, and child in the whole of Fukushima spent two nights a year there. Yet what looks to be the biggest of just four hotels at the resort has only 305 rooms (Japanese only link here). Let’s generously say the other hotels are the same size and all rooms are doubles, giving us 2,400 beds a night—people would have to sleep four to a double bed and the hotels would have to be fully occupied 365 days a year to accommodate 3.8mn guests. The financial results of Joban Kogyo linked to above, however, reveal that the guest tally was a more modest 362,000. Wrong by a factor of 10x.

Before the resort opened, Iwaki was a grim coal-mining town and the site of the Sendai No.1 POW camp during the Second World War where 252 British prisoners were sent to work in the mines, and where at least 22 of them died.

This at least seems to be correct and is sourced from here.

The story of its transformation into a Hawaiian paradise even became the subject of a movie in 2006, called Hula Girls, a Japanese version of Brassed Off in which the local girls in Iwaki start dancing in grass skirts to “save the town” against the wishes of their dour coal-mining parents.

This is well-known and could have been sourced from Wikipedia. By the time I reached this passage, a distinct feeling of déjà-vu was setting in, for this is a classic “me-too” piece of journalism inspired by two earlier articles. The first is from the Asahi, is dated April 10, is available here, and is reproduced in abridged form below.

The 2006 Japanese movie “Hula Girls” is set in a decaying coal mining town in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, in the 1960s. Based on the real-life Joban Hawaiian Center resort that opened in Iwaki in 1966, the town is planning to build a mock-Hawaiian resort, and a young woman (Yu Aoi) is interested in responding to a recruitment ad for hula dancers. She tells her mother (Junko Fuji) so during supper, but the mother admonishes her sternly: “Forget it. Hawaii in these boonies here in the northeast? Ain’t happening.”

But the struggling town sees its only hope of survival in the Joban Hawaiian Center, which will use the region’s natural hot springs. Miners’ daughters get busy practicing hula dancing, but many locals remain hostile to this new project because it only suggests the imminent closure of the coal mines.

The ardor of the project’s supporters gradually turns nonbelievers into believers, and this “Hawaii of the Tohoku Region” blossomed into a successful venture. It has since been renamed Spa Resort Hawaiians, and attracts about 1.5 million visitors a year.

Then the March 11 quake and tsunami struck, followed by the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant disaster 50 kilometers away. Spa Resort Hawaiians has been temporary shut down, and this is said to represent a worse crisis for the locals than when the coal mines closed.

About 30 hula girls, now out of work, will shortly begin performing in the Tokyo area and some parts of the Tohoku region, and later tour the nation.

The second article comes from Agence France Presse (AFP), and was widely picked up by rags around the world, such as The Age, on April 15. Here it is, slightly abridged.

They pulled on their grass skirts to help save their mining town once before, now Japan’s “hula girls” plan to save it again, this time from becoming a nuclear ghost town.

A spa resort on the cusp of the troubled Fukushima nuclear plant exclusion zone might be a difficult sell to tourists but a group of sexy Hawaiian style dancers plan to do just that.

“People now associate Fukushima with people exposed to radiation,” said dancer Ayumi Sudo. “I want to get rid of that image.

“We have felt like dancing naked to show that we are not contaminated.”

Sudo and her hula girls twirled their naked waists outside a Tokyo train station this week to promote safe farm produce from their Pacific Coast hometown of Iwaki, in Fukushima prefecture.

Iwaki was made famous in the 1960s when the declining coal town was revived by an elaborate Hawaii themed spa resort thanks to its hot springs, a story immortalised in the 2006 movie Hula Girls.

The tourist attraction, now called the “Spa Resort Hawaiians”, was largely left unscathed by last month’s giant seismic disaster but has been closed since.

“Our facilities got cracks, and windows were shattered. But the major reason why the spa is still closed is rumours surrounding Fukushima,” said resort marketing official Takashi Wakamatsu.

Veteran dancer Sudo, 45, said she had been told that evacuees from areas near the nuclear plant had faced discrimination elsewhere, and that cars with Iwaki licence plates had trouble buying petrol at filling stations.

Sudo is one of a stream of Iwaki dancers who have kept the spa running since it was established in 1966 to revive the mining town amid the country’s shift from local coal to foreign oil as its main energy source.

As portrayed in the movie based on the real life story, the town was put on the map by a nationwide tour of Iwaki hula girls, which sparked public interest in what seemed like an outlandish, palm-studded theme park 45 years ago.

In the film, which won the 2007 Japan Academy prize, the daughters of hardened coal miners initially drew frowns and indignation from their fellow townspeople when they put on hula dresses and bared their skin.

“We are in the similar situation again,” said Sudo, who runs a hula dance school under her stage name of Linolani. “So we and younger dancers should all gather together to help bring life back to the town.”

“I would like to see tourists come back and help revive Iwaki as it was before — with delicious fish, vegetables and fruits as well as a beautiful ocean view.”

Meanwhile, back to The Telegraph.

“No one here is blind to the impact of what has happened at the nuclear plant will have on the local area,” said one security guard outside the gates. “We have reached the lowest of the low. It cannot get any worse. But we cannot think negatively or we would have to give up. We have chosen to be positive,” he said.

This paragraph strongly suggests that one or other of the authors actually visited the site of Spa Resort Hawaiians. But did they? I only ask because on the same day, April 18, the dynamic duo put out no fewer than four articles, this one on Spa Resort Hawaiians, one on Hitachi, one on Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and one on Japan’s Long Road Ahead.

Meanwhile, the 30 hula girls at the resort have gone on a nationwide tour, starting in Tokyo, to try to persuade the Japanese public that Iwaki is still safe. “People now associate Fukushima with people exposed to radiation,” said Ayumi Sudo, 45, one of the dancers. “We have felt like dancing naked to show we are not contaminated. I want to see tourists coming back and revive Iwaki as it was before, with delicious fish, vegetables and fruits as well as a beautiful ocean view.”

This paragraph is a composite of the Asahi and AFP articles above, with the central quotation a carbon copy of the AFP article. Plagiarism? Surely not: there must be some identical root source for both, mustn’t there? Mustn’t there?

For Fukushima, however, the future is looking grimmer than ever before. The prefecture’s main industries are tourism, agriculture, fishing and manufacturing. Rice from Fukushima is famous throughout Japan and the area is one of the country’s top producers of peaches, apples, pears, tomatoes and cucumbers, as well as leaf tobacco and raw silk. The haul of fish from the prefecture’s 100 mile-long stretch of Pacific coast is one of the largest in Japan.

This wins the prize for my favorite paragraph! It is largely lifted directly from the English-language Fukushima prefectural website here. Here’s the website:

Because of the favorable climate, many of the agricultural products grown in Japan, including rice, are produced in Fukushima. The prefecture ranks among the top producers of such fruits as peaches, apples and pears and such vegetables as tomatoes and cucumbers, as well as leaf tobacco and raw silk. Livestock farming is also active. Fukushima’s 159 kilometer-long Pacific coastline is the site of the prefecture’s vigorous fishing and seafood processing industries and the area’s haul of fish is among the nation’s largest.

Meanwhile, back to The Telegraph.

In Tokyo, the government is frantically trying to reassure Japanese consumers that produce from Fukushima remains safe to eat and has staged a series of events where prominent cabinet ministers, including Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, munched their way through tomatoes, strawberries and cucumbers.

Yes, I’ve been watching the nightly news, too.

But jittery buyers are shunning the markets, and all fishing has been stopped by the problems at Daiichi. “People say they are supporting us, but they choose not to eat Fukushima goods and manufacturers are shifting their lines of production. Superficially they are supporting us, but substantially they are not,” said Professor Toshifumi Tadaka, an economist at Tohoku university whose family lives in Fukushima.

Try as I might, I couldn’t track down the good professor. No combination of searches at the Tohoku University website, nor on the Internet as a whole turned him up. Does he really exist, I began to wonder? And then I found him—Professor Toshifumi Takada, an audit specialist in the accounting department. Japanese names are so confusing, aren’t they?

Fukushima is also an ageing prefecture. “Agriculture remains the prefecture’s major industry, but the number of people engaged in full-time farming decreases every year and the rise in the number of elderly farmers presents a serious problem,” said the local government’s international affairs division. With many young people now evacuating the area because of the crisis, there is a worry they may find jobs elsewhere and never return.

Now this paragraph—another absolute gem—is phrased as though our hack heroes actually spoke to someone at the local government’s international affairs division. But they didn’t, as the passage is lifted directly (again!) from the Fukushima prefectural website here. Here’s the website:

Although agriculture remains the prefecture’s major industry, the number of people engaged in full-time farming decreases each year. The rise in the number of elderly farmers presents a serious problem, as does the increasing competition among agricultural producers.

So there you have it—the mechanics of modern journalism, exposed. Piggyback an existing story, do a quick trawl around the Internet for some factoids, stir in a couple of quotes that may have involved a telephone call or two (although I have grave doubts about the veracity of what the professor and basketball manager are reported to have said), and hey presto!—an article is born. In all likelihood, it took me longer to write this exposé than it did Mr. Moore and Mr. Ryall to concoct their farrago.

16 responses to “Spiked: The mechanics of modern journalism

  1. Spike, you’re doing a fantastic job with exposing this dubious duo. It’s surely a time-consuming and depressing duty, but really valuable to reveal the extent of hackery out there. It’s sad that they are profiting from the disaster; with all the world media’s attention on Japan, they have even more opportunities to churn out the fraudulent and mediocre (or worse).

    Thank you.

    • Thank you. I quite enjoy it, actually–it’s my malicious streak coming out–and I think have developed a very finely honed nose for bullshit about Japan, a nose as sensitive to scams and scallywags (love that word!)
      as a bloodhound’s is to the scent of a fox. The “extent of hackery” is far wider than these two, of course, and I don’t mean to pick on them in particular, although they are superbly easy targets. I fear that the
      only thing that will change is that hacks get smarter at hiding their plagiarisms. What we all really need to do is to start paying for our news properly, although for a bottom-up grassroots consumer movement, I
      realize that is not one of the great slogans of all time. But it really is the only solution.

  2. Chris Creighton

    Malcolm Moore and Julian Ryall, now I know where to turn when I need fish wrap. Before we all call down the wroth of the internets on these hacks we should reflect that if we, the consumers, were more discerning these guys, or their editors, wouldn’t be able to get away with this stuff.

    For those of us who are products of a modern education I will save you the trouble (5 seconds) it takes to Google “farrago”:
    An assortment or a medley; a conglomeration: “their special farrago of resentments” (William Safire). [Latin farr g , mixed fodder, hodgepodge, from far, farr-, a kind of grain; see bhares- in Indo-European roots.] farrago [fəˈrɑːgəʊ] …
    I will be careful to acknowledge the source: The Free Online dictionary.

    Spike, thank you for your great expose! Super.

    • “If we, the consumers, were more discerning these guys, or their editors, wouldn’t be able to get away with this stuff”
      We not only have to be discerning but we have to pay. I say it time and time again, but it remains true. We can’t rely on heroes of the blogosphere to get us through.
      “Spike, thank you for your great expose!”
      My pleasure.

    • People back in the UK read this and have no idea that it’s complete crap. How could they? I no longer live in Japan and have never possessed the Japanese comprehension of pachiguy, so even someone with knowledge of Japan and Japanese can still have a load foisted on them if they aren’t there and reading the local press and such.

      The sad thing is that this level of hackery is not limited to second tier publications like the Telegraph. The NYT had David Sanger and Nicholas Kristoff back-to-back in the mid- to late 1990s as its Tokyo bureau chiefs publishing nonsense week-after-week. Neither one knew the first thing about Japan and unless you did, who’s to doubt someone writing for the Grey Lady?

      The master of this today, however, must surely be The Mustache of Understanding, Thomas Friedman. I believe the guy has taken hackery to previously unattained heights.

      • “People back in the UK read this and have no idea that it’s complete crap.”
        Indeed not. As you say, how could they? I’m sure this is going on in parallel for me, for countries about which I’m not so well-versed, although I do think it is particularly easy just to make things up about Japan and expect that noone will notice. Though not as easy as it was in the past–in the days of Kristoff at the NYT, for instance, when the only people that howled were the Japanese. Somewhere I still have a book in Japanese from the late 1990s that did for NYT articles what I have done in the last couple of posts for Spike. What *was* it called? Still, Kristoff’s got a couple of Pulitzers under his belt, so it must have turned out alright in the wash…
        Friedman is indeed a top-drawer tool. Maybe one day when I have more leisure time…
        I had hoped to stop Mr Ryall in his tracks, but to no avail:
        http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/8472984/Thousands-of-tsunami-victims-undiscovered-as-clean-up-crews-are-forced-to-slow-down.html

  3. treblekickeresq

    Brilliant take down. Malcolm Moore is The Telegraph’s Shanghai Correspondent. Perhaps he is having a bad influence on Julian Ryall who is the regular Japanese reporter.

    Anyone know if Ms. Ryall is on staff or is a stringer? I wonder if combining a parachuting journalist with a stringer has resulted in some kind of bad journalism synergy.

    • Julian Ryall would seem to be a stringer:
      http://www.mediabistro.com/articles/cache/a10177.asp
      Hey, how DID you become a freelance foreign correspondent, Julian Ryall?
      But then again, he’s called in this Hall of Hackery Fame the Telegraph correspondent for Japan:
      http://www.eurobiz.jp/about-us/contributors?page=1
      I suspect–in fact, I know–the lines between “stringer” and “correspondent” are very blurred these days.
      Some second-rate rag like the Independent in the UK will put you on a retainer on which you can barely survive and then
      pay you per article, but they then own your ass and can call you up at four in the afternoon Japan time and say, “Give us an
      article about Japanese pet fetishes in five hours”. And that is no exaggeration.
      I first came across Mr Ryall as a leading light in a repugnant Tokyo “lifestyle” magazine called Wifm (What’s in it for me?) You
      might think I make this stuff up, but I don’t:
      http://wifm-mag.com/
      To be fair, it’s a grim world out there for hackery, and consumers have to take some of the blame, because as the adage goes,
      if you pay peanuts (or less) for your news, you get monkey hacks. And the HuffPo.

  4. “Hawaiians can be enjoyed in any type of weather!” (I’m sure they can!) – you just made my day Richard!

  5. The DY map shows the northern part of Iwaki-shi in the 30km zone from Fukushima Dai-ichi, (but curiously, not as one of the planned evacuation areas or evacuation prepared areas.) The resort itself isn`t in the 30km zone, but I don`t think there will be too many guests enjoying Hawaiians in Iwaki in the near future.
    Regarding the article, it`s a bit sad… so many inaccuracies and typical cut and paste journalism. But as you`ve noted, the public gets the journalism it (doesn`t) pay for.

    • The very northern fringe of Iwaki, where all but a tiny sliver of coast looks from the map to be uninhabited mountains, was included in the initial 30km “stay indoors” zone, which has reminded me ever since I heard of it of the advice given by the UK government in its notorious “Protect and Survive” campaign in the early 1980s, about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. Get under a table, basically, and prepare to meet thy maker:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protect_and_Survive
      Now the 30km zone has been rejigged so it’s not a pure circle (who would have thought that radiation doesn’t obey the dictates of Euclidian geometry?) and extended out a tad to west into the city of Tamura, for instance, while all of Iwaki has been declared safe. The zone has been rechristened the “prepare to evacuate zone”. All of this came into effect with the toughening up of regulations on the 20km exclusion zone on midnight last Wednesday. Iwaki is a very big place, and Spa Resort Hawaiians is in the southern half, but it remains closed, as do many (most?) of the more conventional onsen in Iwaki Yumoto a couple of kilometers away. Joban Kogyo, the operator, is in all sorts of trouble, not least because its wholesale coal business isn’t doing so well, but the balance sheet doesn’t look to bad and I expect it’ll soldier on with a good dash of gaman. Tourists may be back next summer, who knows?

  6. I know this is unrelated to this direct post but it does have to do with the Japenese Media and Government. http://japanfocus.org/-Makiko-Segawa/3516 at the end of the article it talks about the government sending “letters of request” to many organizations saying they must take adequate measurements to protect against illegal information. I was wondering if you have heard anything about this yourself ? As I haven’t seen any main stream report this(not that they’re that reliable anyways) so I don’t know whether it is true or not.

  7. How come you give us cutting edge pictures of old train stations, and none of Hula Girls?

  8. Thanks for this article and indeed the whole series – acutely observed. I’ve used your other commentary as an example to my (Australian) journalism students of an online essay form that (synergistically) integrates text and pictures – and is beautifully written to boot, hallelujah!
    As for this – I intend to scare the pants off them now and show them how easily plagiarism can be unmasked. I have detected their own occasional plagiarism in the past mainly because the writing suddenly becomes suspiciously grammatical compared to the usual ghastly fare. But this, for ‘professional’ journos, is a disgrace. Thanks and best of luck with your travels and writing!

    • Siobhan, many belated thanks for your comments and funny tales of your students; honestly, I’m flattered to be “taught”. Hope you enjoy the latest post, for which I secured the services of a professional photographer. See if you can get your students to use their Internet search skills and find the poem that’s “buried” within the first few hundred words!

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