My last post, about something now that seems totally innocuous, was on Friday, March 11th, at 10 or 11 in the morning. Japan time.
We all know what happened just a few hours later.
To be quite honest, I have no new story to add to the umpteen “My Private Earthquake” stories abounding on the web. Some 450 miles or so away from the epicenter, my family only felt the tremors reverberating down the spine of Japan to the former capital area in the middle of the main island of Honshu. I’ve had to repeatedly reassure friends and family in the US that Japan (a) is not a single, tiny island and (b) is not in danger of sinking into a giant crevice in the Pacific.
(Contrary to popular media in the West, “Japan” consists of far more than Tokyo. Even Tokyo consists of more than “Tokyo,” which is generally shown as little more than the downtown Shinjuku or Ginza shopping areas. Those of us not near Tokyo, i.e., 60-65% of the country, have as much daily interaction with Tokyoites as New Yorkers do with Virginians.)
The true scale of what has happened, and what is still happening, slowly becomes more and more evident as the days progress. Rumors have spread online as various posts have appeared on Facebook and Twitter, many of which were contradictory and some of which were downright false. The vast majority stem from “reporting” by CNN, BBC, and other major international “news” providers…many of which seem designed to provoke fear, insecurity, and sometimes even hysteria.
“Food and fuel shortages across Japan,” claims one article (where is “across Japan”? There’s no shortage here). “Japan’s collective fear and suffering has yet to ebb” trumpets another article, which has a URL about Emperor Akihito’s exhortion to remain calm and work together, but has a title of “Anxiety deepens” (the anxiety is deepening primarily in the Western media and foreigners who pay too much attention to it). “Government breakdown causes frustration” toots another (what breakdown? The response has been timely, ordered, and about as organized as any in the modern world. Compared to Katrina, the response has been nothing short of outstanding).
Stellar “reporting” in one article would have us believe that Tokyo is empty (when in reality only the most panicked of foreigners are leaving) and that there is no food anywhere in the entire country (when restaurants seem to still have food and local bakeries and food vendors seem to have no shortage). Media have resorted to interviewing handfuls of people who give the most panicked reports possible. By the time help comes to the afflicted areas and live returns to normal, the sensationalist media will have milked their cash cows and flown off to cover the next human tragedy-cum-melodrama. I often wonder if these reporters actually help those they report on, or if they simply interview the most desperate or panicked person they can find, before catching the next helicopter back to the bar, far away from where they could do some good.
It also looks like governments are buying into the media-induced panic and adding more of their own. The French and British Embassies urged their citizens living in Tokyo to “consider leaving the country,” and France even sent two airplanes to evacuate its citizens (although I don’t think too many left, unless they were hapless tourists who had just arrived). (UPDATE: The US government provided a handful of seats on planes leaving from Haneda and Narita Airports to the “safe havens” of Seoul and Taipei. So, basically the US government is willing to give US citizens in Tokyo a free vacation to East Asia. But once you get there, you’re on your own…oh, and you’ll also have to sign a promissory note stating that you’ll reimburse the government for the flight…Happy St. Patty’s…).
Many countries have advised against “non-essential” travel to Tokyo, adding to the sense of panic among non-Japanese. The opposite is also happening. Singapore and Hong Kong have already banned all produce from Japan because they are afraid it may be “radioactive” (first of all, produce already outside Japan was sent well before any of the recent events, and second of all, broccoli from Kagoshima and oysters from Hiroshima have nothing to do with a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Get a map!) In the US, Californians have exhausted the nation’s supply of iodine 131 pills out of an unjustified fear that radioactive plumes would spread across thousands of miles…which they eventually will, but at levels so tiny that nothing will happen.
The multinats are getting their uninformed two cents in as well by urging their employees to flee the country. Most of the firms reportedly leaving are financial investment banks and other tools of the market…which were probably already considering packing up and moving to China anyway. (The above “story” repeats many of the same reporting flaws as other BBC and CNN “reports,” which are based on fly-by-night interviews with panicky individuals who do not represent the vast majority of Japanese or even non-Japanese living here.)
Of course, messages about spreading radioactivity are not just limited to the Western press. Someone in Asia started spreading false information that radioactive clouds were going to rain radioactivity on Manila. But by and large the hysteria emanates from Western media, Western governments, and their respective citizens. I’ve seen little to none of the hysteria here in Japan, and neither have my friends in the Tokyo area.
Yes, we are all concerned. “Concern” is not the same as “anxiety” or “fear.” Claims that the nuclear power plant affect the “entire nation” and that “panic is gripping Japan” are nothing more than media hyperbole without factual basis. “Japan” is quite large, and an incident confined to a radius of 30 kilometers, while certainly cause for concern, does not affect “Japan.” It doesn’t even affect the power supply of nearly half the country, since the power grids for West and East Japan are totally separate. We are not panicking here in western Japan, and nobody in eastern or northern Japan is panicking, either. The only panic is in the media.
In addition to the fear and panic perpetuated by the Western media, Ill-advised humor about the earthquake and tsunami already made waves last week. An American comedian whose voice is used for the AFLAC duck in the US tweeted jokes about the value of Japanese real estate…despite the fact that three-quarters of AFLAC’s business comes from Japan. A Japanese comedian…who poses as the governor of Tokyo…openly stated that the disaster was “divine punishment” for Japan’s “bad politics.” Both apologized, saying they basically didn’t mean to say what they did (then, why did they say it?).
Disasters bring out the worst in people. They also bring out the best in people, but we don’t often hear about the best, because there’s more money in covering the worst.
My blog is about raising my daughter, but it’s also about me spending the rest of my life in Japan. I became a permanent resident of Japan two years ago, and I see no reason to leave now. I’m certainly not going to leave friends and family here because of erroneous beliefs and ill-informed fears, and I’m not going to run when times get difficult. The term “surrender monkey” doesn’t translate well into Japanese, because when times get tough, the Japanese get tougher.
I’m not Japanese, but my wife and my daughter are, and this is now my country, too. I’m staying. We are staying.
My daughter starts nursery school on April 1st. There are many other children in northern Japan who may not. There is little I can do directly to aid the effort in Fukushima, Miyagi, and Iwate. Indirectly, I have already donated repeatedly to cash boxes that have appeared all around our area. Once I start having income again in April, I intend to donate online as well. I hope that a conference I am helping to organize for this July in Tokyo will also set up a system for conference attendees to donate to the ongoing relief efforts.
There is no reason to panic. There is no need to panic. Japan is not sinking. It’s just about to rise.