Moments after the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in March 2011, Gene Otani B.A. ’86 was on the air at the anchor desk on NHK World Television in Tokyo delivering the breaking news to a global audience. The 9.0 earthquake rattled the newsroom—literally and figuratively. But Otani stayed cool under pressure. After all, he had been through his share of major news events, including the Kobe earthquake of 1995, when he reported nearly nonstop for two straight days from the epicenter of that disaster.
“My thing has always been getting the story right and being able to communicate it to a wide audience,” says the plainspoken Otani, a prime-time news anchor with Newsline, the Japan-based NHK World Television network’s flagship English-language news program.
“He’s got a golden voice that draws you in and makes you want to hear what he has to say,” says fellow anchor Ron Madison. But Otani’s shining moment, he notes, was the earthquake coverage: “Gene was a hero in our newsroom that day and many more that followed.”
The Kobe, Japan, native was well prepared for his career after majoring in international affairs at Lewis & Clark. He credits his choice of major with broadening his perspectives and teaching him the value of hard work—both qualities essential for a journalist.
“The climate at the college was extremely liberal and open to people from overseas,” remembers Otani. “It also allowed me to get a firsthand look what American society was about—pizza and beer. (Just kidding!)”
Otani recently took the time from his anchor duties to respond to questions from the Chronicle, reminiscing about his years as an international college student, his most memorable experiences as a journalist, and the future of the news in the digital age.
Why did you choose to attend Lewis & Clark?
Several seniors at my high school [Canadian Academy, an international school in Kobe. —ed.] recommended it to me as an excellent college. I also knew if I went to USC in Los Angeles, I would’ve probably ended up at the beach all the time.
But when I first got to Lewis & Clark, I didn’t think I’d make it to graduation. The study load was overwhelming. I had lousy study skills and was a slow reader. I even talked to my advisor about quitting school. It was his encouragement, though, that kept me going. If there was one thing that I had, it was persistence. Getting an A in international affairs was a real ego booster. I changed my major from business to international affairs. It was a tougher route, but I knew I was more interested in the subject.
What professors made a particular impression?
I still remember my international affairs class with Professor Bob Mandel. He taught me to think, not just to memorize. I remember getting a D on my final and an A on my term paper, passing the class with a C. That was the best C I got in my life. It was a reality check, and it taught me I wasn’t naturally smart or talented and had to work hard to do well in life. Being lazy wasn’t an option, but I knew if I put my mind to it, I could do almost anything.
What did you do after graduating?
I first became a salesman for a publishing company, then I got a real estate agent’s license in California. I formed my own development company and built homes using funds from Japanese investors. This was during Japan’s so-called “bubble economy,” and after the bubble burst, I had to fold my business. I then took a sharp turn in my career. I attended a six-month course at Portland Broadcasting School. I took my demo tapes to stations in the Portland area, but none of them wanted to have anything to do with me.
Then I knocked on several doors at stations in Japan. After numerous rejections, FM Osaka said they would fly me to an audition in Canada. Fortunately, I passed. That first job in Osaka was an easy transition, since the city is next to Kobe.
How did you make the transition to television?
Bloomberg was my first job on television. I was first employed in their radio division, but later promoted to be in front of the camera. Working at Bloomberg taught me a whole lot about journalism—how to write well and go after breaking news. You had to work smart and work hard to stay on top. [Current New York City Mayor] Michael Bloomberg was running the company back then. I recall he came up to every one of us in our office to show his appreciation for our work. He really has charisma.
NHK producers saw my performance on Bloomberg, and they really wanted someone with my kind of experience. Currently, I am an anchor for Newsline 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. [Japan time].
What are some of the biggest stories you’ve covered?
The Kobe and Tohoku earthquakes top the list. The Tohoku earthquake badly hit northeastern Japan, but I was in Tokyo. We felt a few shakes but that was about it. The morning the Kobe earthquake hit, I was the first disc jockey/newscaster who was able to reach KISS FM Kobe. I ended up doing a 50-hour bilingual broadcast in English and Japanese. I remember sleeping for a few hours under the mic desk, but the aftershocks would wake me up.
You weren’t just reporting—you were part of the story.
I was in the middle of the shake in Kobe [which claimed over 6,000 lives in Japan—ed.]. The home I was living in was badly damaged with the roof tiles falling off, the water and gas shut off for months. Electricity came back on within 24 hours but we couldn’t take showers, a bath, or even use the toilets during January. You’d expect the city to be in chaos with a lot of looting and hoarding, but there was none. It was intense in that all of a sudden the whole city and Japan came together as one to help each other out.
Inside the production room, the same was going on. We all were asking ourselves how we could help others. We had no “emergency manual,” but we compiled information that was useful, like which hospitals were open and where to find food, shelter, and water.
I did a nightly talk show called Kobe Brilliant Days, hoping the brilliant days would come back. Stories came in about separated couples getting back together and friends reuniting after years of separation. It still brings me to tears thinking about some of those calls.
Your show, Newsline, covers news around the clock, right?
I get to talk about all the major news, from the presidential campaign in the U.S., to the leadership changes in China, to the dissolution of the Japanese parliament.
Sometimes it’s the smaller stories that I like doing best … coverage of the homeless in Japan, for example. Many can’t imagine there are homeless in this country, but they are there, living in Internet cafes and dodging the attention of the public. They often get ignored, but once you get involved you find out a lot about something you’ve never imagined before. A small story is also part of a bigger story. Unemployment figures are just a number, but there is a story behind the numbers. Japan has been going through a recession for over a decade.
How do you see the future of journalism in the digital age?
Media is changing very rapidly, becoming more on-demand, mobile, and free. Outfits that can’t cater to these needs are going to suffer. Then again, you’ll always have old-school folks like me who still subscribe to the newspaper and watch television on the couch at home.
I don’t think it was the actual subjects I learned at Lewis & Clark, but rather the discipline of finishing a degree and applying study skills to learn vast amounts of material that got me ahead. Also, after meeting great people, I think I became a better person. I find that a degree can get you so far, but people skills can bring you to another level.
What are some of your interests outside the newsroom?
I am a surfing addict. I was a latecomer—I started surfing in my 30s. I go in the rain or even in the snow. I go on surfaris to Bali twice a year.
Only a surfer can tell you why you become addicted. It’s not something you can describe in words. When you ride your first wave on a long board, you’ll know what I mean. The high you get after an intense session is surreal. It’s a Zen-like feeling.
But this is not something I can describe in writing. You should get started as soon as possible!
Romel Hernandez is a freelance writer in Portland.