Understanding Vulnerability With Kumi Taguchi
With a career in journalism spanning more than two decades, Kumi Taguchi has become intimately familiar with vulnerability.
The host of SBS’s flagship current affairs program, Insight, has interviewed families who have lost their homes to bushfires, military personnel diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and people living with addiction, to name a few. But it wasn’t until Taguchi documented and shared her own story that the journalist truly understood what she asks people to do daily.
In 2019, when she was the host of the ABC’s Compass, Taguchi was encouraged by her team to explore her story of belonging. Her father, Akira, had passed away two years earlier, but his relatives in Japan were still unaware of his passing. Interested in understanding her father’s relationship with Japan and her own sense of identity, Taguchi set out to share her story. Her team planned the program over a series of months, but the idea of a documentary focusing on Taguchi’s life felt deeply uncomfortable to her.
“As a journalist, I feel like our credibility is nearly based on the fact that we aren’t the story, and I’ve always had visible resistance to journalists becoming the story,” she says. “My boss at the time said to me identity is a very big thing to get your head around, and she had a belief that the bigger the concept, the closer in you have to go to a story.
“It wasn’t so much me desperately wanting to reveal all and go back to Japan and tell my story to strangers, but I could see that it was the best way to do justice to what we were trying to do as a unit.”
They arrived at the peak of cherry blossom season. But about halfway through filming, Taguchi called it quits. She told her film crew that she wanted to stop, pack up and go home to Australia.
“I felt vulnerable,” she says. “It was really, really interesting because it gave me a real insight into what we ask people as journalists when we ask them to share their stories. I’ve interviewed hundreds and hundreds of people in my career, and I knew that it was hard, but I didn’t realise how difficult and how vulnerable that experience can make you feel. It’s given me the biggest insight and gratitude. Each week when I walk into that Insight studio, and these people are sharing stuff that is so personal, I have so much admiration for them,” she says.
Her producer convinced her to push on, and the show, Taguchi’s Japan, went to air in 2019. Afterwards, Taguchi received messages from viewers who shared their own experiences. “There is something powerful if you share a story that’s authentic and genuine,” she says. “I think it gives permission to others to feel a certain way, and maybe a certain part of their own journey is unlocked.”
Struggling with identity
Taguchi’s passion for Japan has only grown deeper over the years. Her love of the culture, politeness, attention to detail and the feeling of safety is evoked each time she lands in the country. She recalls the smell of senbei, Japanese rice crackers, wafting from a corner shop in a small corner of Tokyo and the warm, old-fashioned academic feel of a member-based hotel where she would stay (and still stays) during her visits.
“This one building in Tokyo has been the only consistent bricks and mortar place in my life that I’ve known,” Taguchi says, explaining she was born in Melbourne before moving to Sydney and later to NSW’s Southern Highlands.
While her father was born in Japan, Taguchi’s Australian mum spoke and taught Japanese and ran a business creating clothes from traditional Japanese woven fabrics. “Our homes were always quite Aussie homes but also quite ‘Japanesy’,” the Insight host says. “We sat on the floor often to eat dinner; bowls, plates and cups and things we had were Japanese; and a lot of our meals were Japanese. But I never thought it was Japanese. It was just normal — what we grew up with.”
Despite Taguchi’s love of Japan, her feelings towards her Japanese heritage have shifted over the years. In her adolescent years, she struggled with identity and the perceptions of her culture — particularly when at school studying World War II, Australian prisoners of war and the bombing of Darwin.
“I do remember feeling a bit of shame around my background. There was very much, ‘Japan is the enemy’. I remember distinctly feeling quite conscious that that was my people, but I’m Aussie — this sort of conflict,” she admits. “There was definitely a sense of loss. I just remember wishing and thinking that if I were blond-haired and blue-eyed, life would be easy, which is clearly not rational, but it was definitely a sort of desire to not be [from] the background that I was.”
Taguchi’s experiences have helped shape how she approaches her work and the sensitive topics she tackles as the host of Insight. But while being the centre of a story taught her to understand the other side of vulnerability, she says music has also played a crucial role in her career.
From age five, Taguchi trained as a classical violinist, eventually practising six hours daily and landing a music scholarship at university. She says her music training discipline and the multitasking skills she learned when playing in orchestras and with other musicians put her in good stead to become a broadcast journalist.
“I think probably the biggest benefit of my music training is that it is training. It’s an incredible discipline,” Taguchi says. “With a live broadcast, there are five or 10 different things competing for your brain’s attention — you will have this in your ear, a director telling you something and a producer telling you something, and then you’ve got to concentrate on where you’re standing, what you’re saying and listeningto whoever’s talking as well as planning your next question. “What you’re playing, [you’re] reading the music, looking at the conductor, listening to the violinist next to you, looking over to the cellist and seeing their cue for the next bar where you’ve got to come in — it is insane what’s happening in your brain at that time.
“I think that [violin performing] has actually been the best training ground for my career. The multitasking discipline has actually translated unbelievably to a sort of live news multitasking environment in a way that I never would have imagined.”
Perseverance pays off
Despite a promising music career, Taguchi always had her eyes on becoming a journalist. She had a burning desire to know about the world and was fascinated by film, making her first doco at 14 years old and “begging” for work experience at Film Australia when she was 16.
“They kept rejecting me, and I just kept writing back. There was something about wanting to know about the world that I just couldn’t let go of. I was obsessed with the Vietnam War and Agent Orange, and JFK’s assassination — all that stuff during high school,” she explains. “I always wanted to be part of telling stories. My career has probably taken twists and turns that I never would have imagined. There are so many lovely people that I meet every day who have something to say and who challenge my views, and so it just appeals to every single value that I hold close. I just feel like it’s the industry for me.”
In her career thus far, Taguchi has emceed the Invictus Games opening and closing ceremonies, co-anchored shifts on the ABC News channel, filled in as host of 7.30, News Breakfast and ABC Radio Sydney’s drive slot, and presented several news programs during her time working overseas in Hong Kong.
But as she’s ticked major career aspirations off the list, her priorities and work desires have changed. “My whole career up until about 30 or 40 [years old] was kind of directed by what job I wanted,” she says. “But it got to the point where I’ve done so many things — and I don’t want to blow my own trumpet because I’m really not that confident — but I’ve done a lot of things that I wanted to do. I remember going home and thinking, I can’t see what the next job is.”
At the time, Taguchi was working in the relentless breaking news cycle. She wrote on a piece of paper: I want to work for a woman, in a small team that doesn’t change and on content with a shelf life of more than a day.
“I just had a feeling that that’s what I needed in my next step,” she says.
About a month later, the journalist was asked to host Compass, the ABC’s long-running religion and ethics series. While Taguchi wasn’t exclusively interested in religion, ethics and morality, the role meant working for a woman in a small team with content that lasted beyond a day.
“I thought, this is what I asked for, and this is going to be a massive shift, but I think I’ve got to do it, and I did. I’m a big believer in not getting complacent, and I always want to challenge myself to not be comfortable. The flow-on effect of that has been the next part of my career, and in a sense it took a different way of framing what I wanted out of my job for me to make that decision,” she says.
An advocate for throwing herself into new environments, Taguchi left the ABC a few years later to host SBS’ award-winning Australian current affairs program, Insight. The weekly show features people from across Australia, sharing their first-person stories on various topics — from coercive control to addiction and Australia’s 20-year involvement in Afghanistan.
Taguchi says while she has had to learn how to hold a safe space for people to open up and share their stories, the camaraderie in the room each week helps to lift the weight of people’s stories. “It’s as if there’s a different level of understanding that happens in that space because people are having to speak in front of each other. When I think about it, there is no other space like it,” she explains.
She believes filming in real time in a room where people openly share their stories can help change how we talk about difficult topics. “I tell myself that we’re doing something really great in that room and that there isn’t anyone who’s there to unburden themselves without wanting to do so,” she says. “Instead of feeling weighed down, I generally feel really proud and happy with what we do and grateful that we have a show that allows people that space.”
Article Featured in WellBeing #203