TOKYO -- While conflicts across the globe continue, awareness about the issues often fades once the media have finished their initial coverage. The Mainichi sat down with four women in charge of media relations from U.N. organizations here to discuss how they utilize their experience in the news media to keep the focus on continuing world issues and draw the interest of the Japanese public.
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"Everyone knows the name 'United Nations,' but they don't know exactly what kind of work we do, what kind of activities we are involved in. It's like a black box. My work is about making (what is inside) that black box visible to the public," explained Kaoru Nemoto, director of the United Nations Information Centre in Tokyo, at the organization's office in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward on July 2.
Nemoto was joined by Yuko Yasuda, Public Affairs Specialist of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Representation Office in Tokyo; Yumiko Yokokawa, Japan Outreach Specialist of the United Nations University (UNU) Office of Communications; and U.N. Information Centre Information Assistant Haruko Kishida. What all the women have in common is their experience working in news media before coming to the U.N.
"I think many people in mass media originally have this awareness of social issues and they decided to be part of the media because they wanted to do something about it," Yasuda said. "I think in that way, the U.N. shares those same goals, and we can work together to let the public know about global issues."
Nemoto joined TV Asahi as a newscaster out of college, crossing paths with the United Nations while on a break to earn her graduate degree in international refugee law at Columbia University in New York City. She worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for 15 years starting in 1996 and then moved to the World Food Programme before assuming her current position in 2013. Yasuda served as a director for public broadcaster NHK for eight years, directing a news program for children before working for the World Food Programme for 11 years. She came to the UNDP about six months ago. Yokokawa also worked for NHK, but as a reporter, working in the field in Niigata Prefecture in northeastern Japan and eventually getting involved in covering the Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant disaster in 2011. She then entered a graduate program in the U.K. to study before joining UNU in September of last year. Kishida, on the other hand, worked on the Mainichi Weekly editorial staff for roughly six years, selecting news and presenting it to English-language learners in an understandable format before she started working at the U.N. in Tokyo in 2001.
"There is this idea that if a major crisis has been going on for some time, then it's not news because it's not new," Yasuda said, voicing her frustration over a mismatch between what the media would like to cover and the issues that the U.N. would like to spotlight.
The U.N. media experts said they often work hard to find a "Japan angle" for U.N. news to grab the attention of the domestic media. For Nemoto, recent success in this regard came via the hard work of Japanese nationals abroad, such as Tadamichi Yamamoto, the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, and Hiroko Hirahara, manager of the Bentiu Field Office of the U.N. Mission in South Sudan. Few in Japan pay attention to the difficult situations facing those countries suffering from long-term conflicts, and the presence of Japanese nationals in the field, said Nemoto, contributed to getting the stories of those regions covered. Nemoto also named the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) -- 17 goals for the world to accomplish by 2030 -- as having global appeal that is effective in pulling in a Japanese audience.
Similarly, with her work promoting awareness of a wide variety of projects at UNU research centers worldwide, Yokokawa is also always looking for the Japanese angle, contacting researchers and asking questions about implications not only for Japan, but also for the entire Asian region. In one successful case, she asked a UNU researcher to write a proposal for sustainable management of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, and a national newspaper carried the article this February. But it is the drive she learned to keep asking questions that she cultivated as a reporter that gives her a step up.
"If there is something you don't know, then the only thing you can do is ask. If there is something to be studied, you study it. If you ask questions, there will be someone who can answer them. That's what I learned from my time as a reporter," Yokokawa explained. This echoed the sentiments of the others, that being able to take a person, an event, a piece of data and produce it into accurate and detailed news that stands out from the often "crowded" media scene, is a skill one only learns from mass media experience.
Yasuda said that responding to the trends of the times can get your messages across, but creating trends can be more effective, and Nemoto is just doing that. "It's like she is inventing new dishes using all sorts of ingredients ... you have to be creative and always have new ideas."
This is perhaps best showcased by the Information Centre's collaboration with entertainment company Yoshimoto Kogyo Co. The company's wide range of comedians, actors, commentators, directors and producers has become a particularly strong force in Japan promoting the U.N.'s SDGs. Yoshimoto's comedians have not only taken up serious issues with an element of comedy, but linked the SDGs back to revitalizing regional economies in Japan with video contests and film festivals, most recently in Kyoto and Okinawa.
Yokokawa had a similar experience holding a World Oceans Day event at UNU for children to learn about battling plastic pollution. "If you are presented with a complicated problem, then you feel like there is nothing you can do about it. But if you have people think, 'Why do I always use plastic bags and utensils from the convenience store when I eat at home?' It's about noticing everyday things like that," She said. "If you can show them small changes they can make, then they have something to work on immediately."
"I feel that with the SDGs, there are really things that everyone has to work together to accomplish," Kishida added. "You look at even the domestic news in Japan, and there are things that are applicable -- for example, the recent issues with concrete walls collapsing in earthquakes, which applies to the goal of creating safe living environments."
"People think that the U.N. is this body where you need to be representatives of governments or international organizations to play a role and regular citizens can't get involved, but that's not the case at all. Private companies and citizen groups, individuals, celebrities -- if they have the experience and drive to get involved, then they can easily be a part of our activities," Nemoto emphasized. "I want to continue to bring together unexpected things using the U.N. platform and see what kind of chemical reactions occur."
(By Alina Kordesch, Staff Writer)