David McNeill: Living on the Edge
When the first seismic waves from a 9.0-magnitude earthquake off the northeastern coast of Japan reached Shinagawa Station in downtown Tokyo, David McNeill watched the train station’s heavy steel and concrete roof lurch sickeningly overhead and thought his time had come.
McNeill, now 49, did not let his brush with death faze him. This Irish journalist’s attention quickly turned to the story at hand––by the next morning he was on site in Iwaki, 25 miles south of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, reporting on what he then thought was an earthquake and tsunami disaster.
With reports of an explosion at the Fukushima power plant trickling out, McNeill displayed remarkable disregard for his personal safety in choosing to spend the next weeks and months covering the aftermath of 3/11. He visited Fukushima upwards of ten times and wrote “Strong in the Rain,” a collection of six survivor stories from the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, with Lucy Birmingham, president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan (FCCJ).
Through it all, McNeill had to worry not just for himself but for his partner, then heavy with child. “What made it scary was we didn’t know where the radiation was going,” he said. “Now we know it went northwest … but at the time it could have been coming toward Tokyo depending on the wind.”
Asked if having a pregnant wife had unduly influenced his coverage of the nuclear disaster, McNeill said, “It made me slightly more emotional for sure.” But, he added in his own defense, journalistic objectivity is an illusion. “There’s only what people think is objective,” he said. Rather, “What I really can’t stand is the pretense of objectivity.”
Born in Dublin to working-class parents, McNeill and his four siblings moved to Clones, a rural village along the then-politically unstable border with Northern Ireland, at the age of 15. After experiencing the uproar that followed the 1981 hunger strikes, McNeill, who by his own admission was bookish and introverted as a child, emerged from his shell, becoming politically awakened.
Duly applying to study journalism at the conservative Rathmines College, at the time the only journalism school in Ireland, he unintentionally turned heads when singling out Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Féin (the IRA’s political wing), as the political figure he most admired. McNeill says he respected Adams only “for his honesty and directness,” and never condoned the IRA’s violent activities.
After being rejected by Rathmines, a career in journalism would elude McNeill for the next two decades.
Following a five-year period spent working odd jobs after trying and failing to make it as a freelancer (“It was just … editorializing. I wouldn’t write like that now.”), McNeill went to the University of Ulster. There he became fascinated by Japan after electing to take an Asian Studies course for its partial focus on Palestinian history. “I was always interested in the Palestinian issue because of growing up in Clones,” he said. “The [Irish] republicans were globalists and one of the struggles they identified with was Palestine.”
Only in 2000, after earning his doctorate in information society and becoming fed up with life as an academic, did McNeill return to his first love. McNeill, who by then taught at the Guangdong University of Technology in southern China, chose to start afresh in Tokyo.
McNeill has since had an impressive run as a journalist. His articles are published in a wide variety of newspapers and magazines––including Newsweek, the Independent, The Chronicle of Higher Education, the International Herald Tribune and The Economist. He has also served as a board member of the FCCJ and chair of The Foreign Press in Japan.
McNeill’s work has taken him to much of Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. While in Pyongyang a year before the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami as part of a group of eight foreign journalists posing as teachers, he and his colleagues were arrested for ditching their North Korean minders and taking photos of an illegal street market. “If they had found out we were journalists––if they had searched our computers and seen our business cards,” McNeill said, “then we could have been in a lot of trouble.”
Over the years, McNeill has interviewed many noteworthy people, including Noam Chomsky and three Japanese prime ministers. “[Yukio] Hatoyama sticks in my mind for all the wrong reasons,” he said, “because when I interviewed him before he became prime minister he was saying, ‘We have to completely change how Japan is run.’ … Then when he got to parliament nothing changed. That was disheartening.”
Despite all his success as a journalist, McNeill has lingered apart from the established news media. “I’ve never had a full-time staff job as a journalist,” he said, adding, “I’ve never looked for one.” Rather, he prefers being a freelancer. That way, McNeill says he can better connect with sources, thereby fulfilling what he believes is his chief responsibility as a journalist “to get as much information as you can out of people so that they can make rational decisions.”
Today, McNeill spends his days struggling to unmask “the duplicitous Abe government and Japan’s shift to the right.” Though he is no longer that credulously outspoken teenager who once advertised as his political idol a man with ties to an infamous terrorist organization, he remains a firebrand journalist who, as chair of The Foreign Press in Japan, was prepared to resort to anything––even threats and intimidation––to circumvent the barriers erected by TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) and the Japanese government in the wake of Fukushima.
Birmingham for one does not doubt that McNeill will continue to expose the ills of Japanese society, calling her former co-author “one of the top foreign journalists in Japan, if not top-drawer.”
Copyright © 2015 Elliot Silverberg. All rights reserved.