The Freelancer as Martyr: Mika Yamamoto (1967–2012)

The Japanese journalist who died amid gunfire in Syria was possessed of an unsung bravery and pursued a heroic mission. Her death exposes the grave dangers faced by freelance war correspondents

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Kyodo / Reuters

Mika Yamamoto

Two violent, almost parallel incidents frame the life of the journalist Mika Yamamoto. The first occurred on April 3, 2003, and we hear her distraught voice on a video recorded in the immediate aftermath of the shelling of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, which was at that time being captured by U.S. forces. Her voice is frantic and desperate yet focused on the suffering of colleagues who had been critically injured after an American tank fired on the 18-story building. She was crying out for anyone to help the fallen journalists. Two of them would die as a result of the attack.

The second event took place on Aug. 20, 2012. Yamamoto, 45, and her common-law husband, Kazutaka Sato, 56 — both of whom worked for the Japan Press, an independent, freelance news agency — were on assignment for Nippon Television in Aleppo when they were caught in the middle of gunfire in the Syrian city that got swept up in the country’s civil war. “We ran into soldiers in camouflage fatigues,” Sato told Nippon TV. “The one in front was wearing a helmet, and I immediately thought they were government troops. I told [Yamamoto] to run. At the same moment, they opened fire,” he recalled. “We must have been just 20 or 30 meters away. We scattered in different directions. After that, I didn’t see [her] again. Then they told me to go to the hospital and I found her body.” In a video posted online by rebel forces and reported by the Associated Press, Sato can be seen speaking plaintively to Yamamoto’s lifeless body. “Why?” he asks, sobbing. “Did you suffer? Were you shot in the head?” Officials with Japan’s Foreign Ministry later confirmed that she was shot in the neck.

(PHOTOS: Chaos and Killing in Syria: Photos of a Slow-Motion Civil War)

War coverage can produce outsize journalistic heroes — a combination of courage and braggadocio. Yamamoto was never one of those, even though she was possessed of an unsung bravery. She had a mission, nonetheless. Yamamoto told friends she hoped to connect Japan to the world. “She wanted to show the suffering of innocent women and children caught in war,” said her friend Miyuki Hokugou, of the newspaper Asahi Shimbun. “She felt it would affect Japan sooner or later. That it’s all connected.” Yamamoto was particularly concerned about young Japanese. “She felt they needed to understand that Japan’s peaceful society was built on the suffering of World War II.” Her father Koji Yamomoto put it this way: his daughter was more than a war journalist, he said. “She was a human journalist.”

Yamamoto went everywhere the bold-faced correspondents did. “Mika was a one-of-a-kind frontline reporter,” says Hokugou. “She risked her life, with little economic gain and recognition, to bring the facts of war to Japan and its young generation.” Colleagues remember her as a veteran who could cover anything. “She was calm and stable, and always carefully prepared for assignments,” said Eiko Tamamoto, a friend and fellow conflict journalist freelancing with the news agency Asia Press. The two women became friends covering the conflicts in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Tamamoto was reporting from the Syria-Iraq border when she got a call from Yamamoto in July asking about where to get a body armor for a possible assignment in Syria. “I didn’t tell her it was too dangerous,” she now says regretfully. “That she shouldn’t go. I feel so bad about that.”

The two are part of a small group of Japanese freelancers contracted by large, established publications and TV networks to cover war zones where full-time staff members will not be sent because of the dangers. “The freelance agreement I sign every year says my company is not responsible if I’m kidnapped or killed. It points out that it’s costly to send my corpse back to Japan,” says Tamamoto. Japan’s big media outlets have not been sending their staff to dangerous conflict areas since 2004 when two Japanese journalists were killed in Iraq.

Both women resisted the temptation to show off their journalist exploits, preferring to remain as humble as possible to get closer to their interview subjects. “We’re small and don’t look so strong,” Tamamoto says, comparing herself and Yamamoto with their counterparts in CNN and other Western media. “But we’re strong inside.” She adds, “Mika looked like a beautiful lady who worked in an office. No one could guess that she was a war journalist.”

In 2004, Yamamoto and Sato received recognition as part of the prestigious Vaughn-Uyeda Memorial Prize, for their coverage of the Iraq war and plight of traumatized citizens. “Mika was greatly respected among journalists because she pursued a real mission,” says Hokugou. “If only her name was more widely known during her life. Sadly, it is her death that has made her a national figure. I’m really going to miss her.”

MORE: A Syrian Tragedy: One Family’s Horror

26 comments
FutureTimes
FutureTimes

The indonesian government will Shut www.bisnis.com after the media amp; its journalists make the propaganda for the islamic politics Not just business news.   

Theresekwv
Theresekwv

 Lawrence implied I am impressed that people can get paid $9973 in one month on the network. did you look this(Click on menu Home)

Chhajuram Induscharwak
Chhajuram Induscharwak

Bravo people are those who get victory upon Time,and slain journalist Mika Yamamoto is latest among those people.

andi
andi

Rebels shot her dead and nary a mention by western media.

What free press are we talking about again ?

Paul Martin
Paul Martin

It's a shame ! as a freelance correspondent myself I can emphasize with the drive and allurements of Mika and so many others who risk their lives to bring the news updates to the outside World, but I have never believed the risk is worth it to the reporters and it's time the news venues stopped this waste of life in these extremely dangerous places !

ULURU
ULURU

In Shogun days she might have been a Geisha girl. I guess this is progress. She looks like a serious journalist - something we are lacking in the United States. May her death not be in vain.

Winston Smith
Winston Smith

Love you Mika - Thank you for your selfless heroic actions - same as those of all journalists killed and wounded covering foreign conflicts - cpj.org

liljamie79
liljamie79

Your bravery will be remembered. Rest in peace.

Mike
Mike

Absolutely not trying to blame the victim here, but she_had_no_business_being_there.  If she knows anything about Japanese at all she would know they don't give a damn about ANY gaijin.   And yes, I've lived for several years in Japan and I know first hand.

K-Rue
K-Rue

You don't understand why many Japanese people consider you "gaijin" seperately. Many Japanese tend to do that because many citizens in Japan feel that white people are way superior than Japanese themselves. Many Japanese  TV comercials in Japan often think it's cool to have some random white guy promoting their products. It just comes out from their personalities. It doesn't mean I approve it, but that just the way Japanese people are. 

TimBlough
TimBlough

Saying that Japanese people don't give a damn about ANY foreigner or that foreigners are treated as sub-human by them (according to Paul Martin) is the same as saying that black people are criminals ("Just look how many of them are in jail!") or Jewish people control the media ("Michael Eisner, Peter Chernin, Sumner Redstone, Gerald Levin, Edgar Bronfman Jr, Edgar Bronfman Sr, Sumner Redstone, Peter Chernin, Dennis Dammerman!").

It's all xenophobic, borderline racist hyberbole and misrepresentation.

And saying that Mika Yamamoto had no business being there IS blaming the victim and is equivalent to saying that if Jesus had just kept his mouth shut he wouldn't have ended up on the cross.

Paul Martin
Paul Martin

I agree and I and my Sons have lived in japan a long time to and they are married to japanese, the country itelf is great and so are most folk but on a whole.....geijins (foreigners) are treated as sub human there !

Guest
Guest

You should spend more time there as clearly you have not spent much time. Or maybe you should do some self reflection before passing such judgement. Or maybe I can put it this way - If I answer my cell phone in a movie theatre, people are going to get angry at me - does that mean that those are all angry people? 

As I, and most any other long term resident of Japan will tell you, foreigners are generally treated with the utmost respect and politeness - at times even more so than Japanese people. 

Layla2388
Layla2388

I wouldn't say foreigners are usually treated as "sub-human" in Japan; many actually view foreigners very highly there.

I understand that you may have experienced this during your stay, but I also know of many people that have never experienced what you are bringing up here.  Being half Japanese and half European, with distinctly European features, I never felt like I was sub-human growing up there.  They always treated me the same way as anyone else, even though I do not look Japanese.

The point I want to get across is, it is unfair to generalize a whole society based on the interactions with a few people.  It is unfortunate that you felt this way there, but this situation really can occur anywhere in the world. 

P.S.  The term is "gaijin" and not "geijin".  

Backpacker72
Backpacker72

Like all generalization, your observation may be partially true. But read the article again, it clearly explains her motivation. She is there to educate her fellow countryman, that Japanese cannot really shield themselves from the plight of deprived women and children else where, that the society needs a certain awareness as we are all connected. Unlike you, she did not shy away from what she saw as her responsibility. She went in spite of sharing similar perception as yours, without demanding any financial returns or recognition. That speaks more to her courage and humanity.

You may have lived in Japan, but no offense, you certainly do not know Japanese.

Paul Martin
Paul Martin

 It is very sad what happened to Mika, but as a seasoned foreign correspondent myself I can assure you that career advancement was the real reason she was there. Most reporters would shun the dangers of a volatile war zone and they cannot be blamed for not wanting to get shot or blown up while seeking the news updates !

Winston Smith
Winston Smith

You may know that but you have clearly not yet put together the fact that she was a war correspondent.

Indietoo
Indietoo

People like Mika Yamamoto give me hope- that where there is great cruelty there is also great courage. I hope she becomes a role model for many. A life lived on her own terms that has brought succour in some form to those she interviewed and covered and realisation to those who read her work.  

Rest in Peace, Mika Yamamoto. I am glad I got to read about you here, else would never have known.

Keithnvf
Keithnvf

like Eva said I'm in shock that a mother able to make $8279 in one month on the network. did you see this(Click on menu Home)