Roland Buerk became the BBC’s Tokyo correspondent in January 2009, following five years in South Asia covering war, poverty, elections — and the Indian Ocean tsunami that he survived.
Unless I’ve got an exceptionally early start to do a live for the morning business programmes, I don’t need an alarm clock. Our son, aged one, and daughter, four, usually wake us up not long after dawn. We live in Azabu Juban, expat turf but handy for my wife, Anna, a clinical psychologist, to see the mummy mafia.
First thing I do is check my emails on my phone. Decisions on stories we have pitched to the newsdesks in London tend to get made during Japan’s night. I cycle to work every day to try to keep fit. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I biked right across the country.
The BBC Bureau in Tokyo is in Shiodome. It’s great having a proper office. In Sri Lanka, my last posting, we all worked from home, partly because of security concerns. My workplace was an old storeroom at the back of our house. I used to spend time in Kabul, too. There we lived and worked in what was once a grand residence, now rather faded. Miserable in winter, the only heating was a fire in a stove like a giant metal dustbin in the living room. But the live position on the roof, with views of the city and mountains, was spectacular.
I work with a Japanese producer, and we are blessed with an excellent cameraman as well. Staffing at BBC News is quite lean in each country, but we pretty much cover everywhere. If there’s a big story, backup is only a flight away. With fierce competition to get on the most prestigious programmes, these backups are not always a welcome sight.
In Sri Lanka I used to work with just a local fixer, shooting and editing everything myself. In the trade its called multi-skilling and the accountants love it. But working like that could be tough. I once had to weigh my kit to get on an army helicopter to fly to the war frontlines. With camera, flak jacket and all the rest it was 45kg. Lugging that around all day in heat worse than a Tokyo summer was pretty exhausting. I loved Sri Lanka, and very narrowly surviving the tsunami there in 2004 with my wife gave me a real emotional bond with the place. But you don’t want to be typecast as just able to cover one region, and Tokyo is about as different from Colombo as you can get.
The BBC is a very big machine, with lots of TV channels and radio stations. If a big story breaks we can be inundated with requests to go live on different programmes. But much of the news is surprisingly predictable: we can plan for things such as elections and the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
The best days are when we work on TV and radio features. Carefully crafting pieces is the most satisfying part of the job. Japan is an easy sell to the newsdesks. Very different from the UK but, underneath the neon, another tea-drinking, island monarchy. The challenge is to find a fun way of telling the story. For a recent one about bond markets we found ourselves on a train full of pensioners doing karaoke. It takes a lot longer to make TV programmes than to watch them. It’s not unusual to drive for hours to shoot a 20-second sequence.
Tokyo’s fast internet is a joy. We can send a finished piece to London in minutes. In Bangladesh, a previous posting, the connection was so sluggish it was usually quicker to record the story on tape and post it.
The time difference with London can make for long days. Shifts start in London just as most salarymen here are heading for the izakaya. We receive a lot of calls requesting coverage from perky people just beginning their respective days when we are thinking of ending ours. There’s a radio studio set up in our bedroom closet so I can do some work from there. I try to get home in time to put the children to bed as often as I can.