Don’t panic: Japan is not sinking

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.

About MThomas

Long ago, I gave up my high school dreams of becoming the next Carl Sagan and instead wound up working (in order) at McDonald's, a '60s-themed restaurant, a video rental store, a used bookstore, a computer seller, Kinko's, a Jewish newspaper company, and an HR firm. I eventually became a teacher of intercultural communication in Kyoto, where I vainly attempt to apply quantum mechanics to language teaching, practice martial arts and Zen Buddhism, and always keep one eye on the sky. And yes, I know my profile photo's backward. I just think it looks better this way.
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9 Responses to Don’t panic: Japan is not sinking

  1. ender says:

    Well said.

    Honestly, I’ve been floored by the fools and their iodine pills and all the panicking. There has been one nice story circulating through Twitter (although naturally not through mainstream press) about one company who has just gone to extraordinary measures for their people in the affected areas.

    I’ve also loved the multiple stories (again from non-traditional media) that have sung the praises of how quickly everyone responded to the earthquake, how efficiently and how ultimately, Japan was far more prepared for an 8.9 than New Zealand was for the two major shocks they’ve had since September. There is less, I think, that any country can truly do for a tsunami, but still the Japanese response has just been amazing. Particularly, as you point out, compared to how badly the U.S. bungled the New Orleans area before and after Katrina.


    • Thanks for the kind words! I’m (to put it bluntly) absolutely livid about the cooked-up stories passed on as “news” by mainstream overseas media. I thought journalists were trained to get at least two separate, independent sources for their stories…but I suppose the instant 24-hour “news” sea of ill-informed information that we now live in demands to be constantly fed this rubbish.

      I think a lot of people are going through a whole lot of trouble for many people in the affected areas. I have hopes we will hear about these true heroes before long…probably through Twitter, Facebook, and other SNS.


  2. Joshua Ledwell says:

    My advice for American TV news is, don’t watch that crap ever. They absolutely milk disaster news and blow it out of proportion. I think they’re been even more shrill than usual because Americans (at least on this coast) weren’t paying as much attention as with Haiti earlier in the year.

    I wasn’t too worried about Japan despite the huge earthquake and tsunami damage, because you’re so well prepared. The comparison with Katrina is well taken. That was a massive failure by American authorities, and the Japanese response has seemed way more effective.

    But in the past few days, the crisis at Fukushima seems dire. Two cracked reactor cores? Spent rods overheating and leaking radiation? That is very scary. I hope the current water cannons / helicopter drops are successful.


    • The radiation “leak” is overstated. The US is being conservative in their estimates by recommending a radius of 80 km. The UK agrees with Japan that no particles, even in the unlikely event of a meltdown, will be jettisoned higher than about 500 meters in the air, and will not travel more than 20 to 30 km from the reactor. It is pure bunk to propose that Tokyo is affected to any discernable degree. The real focus should be on getting the residents of Fukushima TO Tokyo, not AWAY from it.


  3. sixmats says:

    Here’s some good: My neighbor, who has 4 kids, gave me a cooler of drinking water and some cabbage. People I only know through the internet have offered to send me things or even let me stay with them.


    • The same offer from me. Of course, you’d have to get to Kansai somehow… No idea how to send stuff to Sendai, but it looks like the major roads have been cleared now. Hope to send something also to my friend Jim and his family who are also in Sendai.


      • mike says:

        im really desperate for more information about earthquakes.i wanna know whats happening with the plates…are we expecting another big earthquake?


  4. mike says:

    do u have any sites where i can find some infos?
    thanks in advance!


    • The best site for info is the Japan Meteorological Agency, which regularly posts information about earthquakes:

      I would say, yes, Japan will have more big earthquakes. When exactly is anybody’s guess. Scientists were surprised at the location of the most recent quake, b/c they’ve been expecting a big one in the Nankai region (basically from Nagoya to Wakayama area) for a few decades now. When and where earthquakes will happen is something that simply cannot be predicted. Aftershocks are probably going to continue for at least another month (same thing happened with the Niigata earthquake a couple years ago).


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