MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Now to Japan and one of the institutions most crucial to saving lives in an emergency. It's the Japanese public broadcaster NHK.

NHK responds to emergencies by issuing warnings, so ordinary citizens can hear, for example, if a tsunami may be on the way. When disaster struck one month ago, much of the job of sending out warnings fell to the broadcaster.

But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Tokyo, nothing could prepare NHK's journalists for the harrowing images that they captured.

ANTHONY KUHN: Every night, NHK journalists rehearse emergency broadcasts so that they respond to disasters instinctively. It's a key part of NHK's journalistic mission. But what happened at 2:46 p.m. on March 11th during a live broadcast from parliament was no drill.

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KUHN: A minute and a half after that initial warning, NHK's news department director Noriyuki Oogi pressed a button, sending NHK into emergency broadcast mode.

NORIYUKI OOGI: (Through translator) When the quake hit, each person knew just what to do. So in that sense, all the drills paid off. But what we didn't expect was that emotionally, this was the most devastating thing any of us had experienced, even in Tokyo.

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KUHN: An NHK announcer described the scene as the quake shook Tokyo violently for five minutes. In the background, listeners could hear studio equipment rattling around as directors shouted orders to switch back and forth between cameras in Tokyo and Japan's northeast coast.

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KUHN: Minutes later, tsunami alerts flashed across NHK's screens, predicting how big the tsunami would be and what time it would reach different localities. Residents in many areas had less than 15 minutes to flee.

Oogi says that no matter how disturbing the images being broadcast may be, NHK policy says that its announcers and reporters must keep their calm.

OOGI: (Through translator) Our main purpose is to deliver the information accurately. And we believe the best way to do that is in a calm manner, because if our anchor is shouting and saying get out now, that would be fear mongering.

KUHN: Within minutes of the quake, a young NHK cameraman took off from Sendai in a helicopter. His images captured the tsunami's cataclysmic power and were seen around the world.

NHK senior announcer Shinichi Taketa narrated the images.

SHINICHI TAKETA: (Through translator) A black wave is now engulfing the houses and the farmland.

KUHN: As he prepares for the evening newscast, Taketa says he expected to see the tsunami rushing inland.

TAKETA: (Through translator) What I didn't expect was for the tsunami to completely engulf the fields, and then the houses. And then you can see it coming up to a road, and there was a car and people just standing there. To see this before my eyes was incredibly difficult.

KUHN: Taketa says he's covered earthquakes and tsunamis before but nothing like this. His narration this time may have been calm, he adds, but his emotions were not.

TAKETA: (Through translator) This natural disaster has caused a great many casualties. So I have to wonder if there was a way we could have lessened the casualties or saved even one more life.

KUHN: Takesato Watanabe is a media scholar at Doshisha University in Kyoto. He praises both NHK and Japan's commercial media for their job in reporting on the earthquake and tsunami.

TAKESATO WATANABE: But about the nuke accident, I think NHK do know the facts, what's happening, but they are not reporting well, and private broadcasters, they don't have any staff who understand the nuke accidents scientifically.

KUHN: Watanabe argues that Japanese media have not been critical enough because they themselves are part of the network of vested interests that includes power companies and government regulators. He says that for decades, NHK and other Japanese media have conveyed the nuclear lobby's message, that nuclear power is safe and necessary for Japan. He points out that NHK's funding must be approved by Japan's Diet or parliament.

WATANABE: To get NHK's budget passed in the Diet, they must follow the ideas of the ruling party or economic circles' ideas represented by the power stations.

KUHN: NHK's Noriyuki Oogi denies that his network is prevented from reporting the politics of the nuclear accident. He says he just wants to get that story out as quickly and completely as possible.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo.

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