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To help others open up, Insight host Kumi Taguchi had to face her family history

Springtime in Japan, 2019. After an icy winter, the country was ablaze with pink cherry blossoms, prized by locals as a symbol of life’s ephemeral beauty. But the serene landscape did little to loosen the knot in Kumi Taguchi’s stomach. Hurtling towards her destination on a bullet train, she decided to scrap the TV program she’d travelled almost 8000 kilometres to film. “I can’t do this,” she told her producer. “My story is not for sale.”

“It seemed like a good idea when we discussed it in the office in Sydney,” says Kumi, the new host of SBS’s flagship current affairs program Insight. “But when you actually get there, the emotional reality is very different. I was just crying and crying.”

Kumi is sitting at her kitchen table inside the sunny home on Sydney’s lower north shore she shares with her 15-year-old daughter, Coco, and their toilet-trained Netherland Dwarf rabbit, Miles. (He uses a litter tray.) Despite COVID-19 necessitating a Zoom interview, she prepares as though I’m visiting in person, laying out a plate of freshly baked biscuits.

In a broadcasting career spanning more than two decades, Kumi’s high-profile roles have included: co-anchoring the afternoon and evening shifts on ABC’s news channel; filling in as host of 7.30, News Breakfast and ABC Radio Sydney’s drive slot; emceeing the Invictus Games opening and closing ceremonies to a global audience of 60 million; and presenting various news and current affairs programs during a six-year stint in Hong Kong.

Taguchi is the new host of SBS’s flagship current affairs program, Insight.

Taguchi is the new host of SBS’s flagship current affairs program, Insight. Credit:Tāne Coffin

In 2017, Kumi replaced Geraldine Doogue as the host of Compass, ABC’s long-running religion and ethics series. Her father, Akira, had died in Melbourne two months prior – but by 2019, his family in Tokyo remained unaware of his passing. (After his parents died, he lost contact with family members in Japan.)

Intrigued by Akira’s complicated relationship with his homeland, Kumi vowed to track down his surviving relatives while documenting her journey for Compass.

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In 1943, 10-year-old Akira was sent to live with other children in the mountains outside Tokyo: an attempt by the Japanese government to preserve younger generations as bombs rained down upon its most populous city. In between foraging for food, the children practised escape drills by walking in a single file while maintaing physical contact with the boy in front. After a bomb exploded during one of these drills, sending shrapnel flying, Akira felt a hand slip from his shoulder. When he turned, he saw his best friend’s lifeless body on the ground.

After marrying Mary, an Australian, and moving to Melbourne to work as
a journalist at ABC’s Radio Australia network in 1974, Akira only returned to Japan three times. In his will, he specified that his ashes should remain in Australia. Kumi suspects her father didn’t want his death to “inconvenience” the family he’d left behind.

As she gazed out the window of the bullet train, she worried she was making a mistake. Would news of Akira’s death bring peace to his family or simply cause them distress? Would they object to her arriving unannounced with a camera crew in tow? Was she truly prepared to share such intimate scenes with a national television audience?

After Kumi informed her crew that she wanted to stop filming, her producer listened to her concerns and convinced her to push on. “My career is built on other people feeling safe enough to share their stories with me,” Kumi says. “I thought, ‘If I don’t go through with this because I’m feeling a bit vulnerable, how hypocritical is that?’ ”

By the time she’d finished interviewing those who’d known Akira and his family, she knew she’d made the right choice. “I grew up in an environment where my surname was always questioned because my family had no history [in Australia],” she says.

“To know that my family was known in Japan was an extraordinary thing. I think most people just want to feel known.”

Still, Kumi couldn’t help wincing when SBS’s management questioned her about this Compass episode during her Insight job interview.

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“I was a bit apologetic because, as journalists, we’re taught to be unbiased and not let our personal stuff get in the way. But they were like, ‘Oh no, we actually see this as a positive! You’ll be asking people to share their stories in the studio and if they know you’ve been through that process yourself, it will be easier for them to open up.’ ”

In an increasingly frenetic media landscape, Insight – previously hosted by acclaimed journalist Jenny Brockie – is a rarity. Each hour-long episode
is devoted to a single topic, from insomnia treatments to wrongful court convictions, and the studio discussion format features a mix of experts and people with first-hand experience of the topic.

“The reason I’m so excited is because I’m involved in shaping something from the ground up. When you see that unfolding in the studio, and you have these little moments where people share a story that you didn’t expect, it’s an extraordinary feeling.”

Kumi Taguchi

“A huge part of the appeal of this job is that I’ve always been fascinated by the stories of everyday people,” says Kumi. “When they share their stories in front of other people, a beautiful kind of support emerges. There’s this sense of ‘Hey, we’re not the only ones going through this.’ ”

Born in Melbourne in 1975 – delivered via caesarean, three months premature – Kumi spent the first month of her life in a humidicrib. (The caesarean was necessitated by complications from a mistake in a blood transfusion her mother Mary had received years earlier in Japan.)

“You read all these articles about how important it is for a mother and child to bond and have skin-to-skin contact, and I never had that,” Kumi says. “I do wonder what my body learnt about the world when I spent my first month isolated inside a little box. I have no doubt that it massively shaped my character.”

When stressed, Kumi tends to daydream about escaping to a cabin in the woods. After COVID restrictions came into force last year, she spent
a month sleeping in a swag in her courtyard, reading or doing puzzles
at night and waking to the sounds of birdsong in the morning.

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“It’s all about creating a little box for myself that I can control,” she explains. “But there is a danger in confusing isolation for safety.”

Kumi wears Esse Studios top, Oroton pants, Holly Ryan earrings.

Kumi wears Esse Studios top, Oroton pants, Holly Ryan earrings.Credit:Tāne Coffin

One of Kumi’s favourite quotes, from the late journalist Christopher Hitchens, concerns the need to scrutinise “the things that are not happening and the dogs that are not barking”. In other words, it’s a caution against overlooking what’s important at the expense of what’s urgent.

This approach has guided some of Kumi’s best work, prompting her to spend two weeks inside a repatriation hospital, for example, while reporting on military personnel diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. It has also encouraged her to think more deeply about her career.

“Once you accept you’re replaceable, you’re free to just do your job without attaching your identity to it – and that’s liberating.”

“When I was working in Hong Kong, I’d feel this deep anxiety the day before the fortnightly rosters came out,” she says. “So one night, I went home and actually looked in the mirror and said, ‘Kumi, don’t gauge your value by the number of shifts you’ve been assigned on a spreadsheet. Don’t ever attach your identity to your job.’

“My advice to young journalists now is that everyone is replaceable. I know that sounds awful but once you accept you’re replaceable, you’re free to just
do your job without attaching your identity to it – and that’s liberating.”

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At the age of five, after her parents separated, Kumi moved with her mother and older sister, Maki, to Sydney before settling at a farmhouse in the Southern Highlands of NSW.

A talented classical violinist, she earned a music scholarship at the University of Wollongong but her love of storytelling drew her towards a career in media.

Kumi was briefly married to journalist Hugh Riminton, now the national affairs editor at Network Ten, in 2005-06. She prefers not to discuss her romantic life and is protective of their daughter’s privacy.

Kumi wears Christopher Esber dress, Holly Ryan earrings.

Kumi wears Christopher Esber dress, Holly Ryan earrings.Credit:Tāne Coffin

“For me, parenting is about putting aside your ego and short-term desires to raise an emotionally healthy young woman who has a real sense of who she is,” she says. “Coco is much stronger and more courageous than I am. Sometimes [Hugh and I] text each other to say, ‘Isn’t our girl great?’ ”

While Kumi is careful not to burden Coco with her problems, she does seek her advice on certain matters. “I might look at an issue and see two options,” she says, “whereas Coco will look at things differently and come up with
a third option.”

When Kumi began working as a journalist, some of her colleagues told her she was “too soft” to succeed in such a tough industry. At first, she accepted these statements as fact.

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“But now I step back and go, ‘I can’t believe I’ve made it this far because
I’m not that aggressive, hard-skinned [stereotype],’ ” she says. “I’ve never been wired that way.”

Instead of striving to fit some imagined ideal – as a reporter, a mother, a woman – she’s learnt to question the assumptions embedded in our language, customs and beliefs.

She accepts, for instance, that she’s both an introvert and someone who feels comfortable on camera. She can value her job without letting it define her. And she can make her mark on Insight while recognising when to defer to the expertise of her colleagues.

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“If SBS had said to me, ‘There’s not much expected of you in this job; we’ll just hand you a script and away you go’, I’d be thinking, ‘What’s the point?’ ” Kumi says.

“The reason I’m so excited is because I’m involved in shaping something from the ground up. When you see that unfolding in the studio, and you have these little moments where people share a story that you didn’t expect, it’s an extraordinary feeling.”

Insight returns 8.30pm, March 16, on SBS.

Photography by Tāne Coffin. Styling by Penny McCarthy. Hair and make-up by Joel Phillips.

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