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.

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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.”

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