Tracking the Canterbury quake's effects in Japan

Thirteen English-language students from Toyama, Japan died in the CTV building after the February 2011 Canterbury earthquake. Last December, TVNZ’s Mark Crysell, Julie Clothier and cameraman Ken Dorman travelled to Japan to talk to whose lives have forever been changed by the disaster.

Julie Clothier on bringing the stories of Toyama’s victims back to New Zealand.

Kento Okuda and Yukio Minami being interviewed about the earthquakeJust three days before the February 2011 earthquake, 22 students from Toyama arrived in New Zealand full of dreams and super-charged by the prospect of a big Kiwi adventure.

The students were part of an annual trip undertaken by Toyama College of Foreign Languages, and were to spend three weeks at King’s Education in Christchurch, improving their English. Only nine made it home to Toyama alive; two lost a leg.

Though the group’s plight was reported widely at the time, little had been heard about how the survivors were coping after the earthquake, or about the students who died. We felt this was an important story to tell: that New Zealand’s darkest day will also forever be etched in the minds of families and loved ones in other countries.

The death of so many of their young people so far from home has devastated Toyama.

The students, their parents and teachers have been hounded by the Japanese press – at home and when they visited Christchurch. Stories from Christchurch included reporters trying to pay taxi drivers to tell them where the families were going, as well as photographers sneaking into funeral homes and the hospital, and staking out the airport.

Because of this, we knew that those we wanted to interview were suspicious of the media. Besides the sensitive nature of the story, many remained traumatised from their dealings with the Japanese press, and did not want to talk to us.

We spent a week with representatives from the school, who were generous with their time and assistance.

We talked to Tauranga-born teacher David Horsley. His image – bandaged while he sat in shock in Latimer Square – was projected around the world, and became one of the faces of the earthquake.

We also interviewed 19-year-olds Yukio Minami and Kento Okuda, who both survived the CTV collapse. Okuda was the last person to be rescued alive and had his right leg amputated below the knee.

Minami told us that it had been hard at first to return home after Christchurch. He lost motivation and even considered dropping out of school. Now he has been accepted into three universities and hopes to travel to the USA to study in the near future.

School principal Hisao Yoshida told us the students who survived had a strong role to carry on and succeed, because they have been given an opportunity that those who died had not.

Kuniaki Kawahata and two of his daughters show Mark Crysell pictures of Kyoko, who was killed in the quakeWe also spoke with a professor from the school, Kuniaki Kawahata, whose daughter Kyoko travelled to Christchurch with the group to study at King’s Education – on her father’s recommendation. Kawahata was a strong thread throughout our story, representing both the school’s and the parents’ points of view.

At the end of the week we had so many interviews and so much footage we knew the challenge would be not to crowd the story with too many voices.

Equally, we did not want to lose any of the interviews we shot from the final story.

Mark Crysell’s script ended up telling a story that could have reflected any parent who lost a child in the CTV building, regardless of their culture or country of origin.

In telling this story, we have represented many of those forgotten victims of the quake, whose relatives are hurting just as much as those in New Zealand.

We are extremely grateful to the Toyama College of Foreign Languages (TCFL) for their openness and help in the making of this story, and we hope their telling of the story will help with healing. The earthquake wiped out almost one-third of the school’s 2012 graduating class.

Julie Clothier, Mark Crysell and Ken Dorman's trip to Japan was supported by an Asia New Zealand Foundation travel grant for journalists.

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Last updated: 27 Nov 2014