This page contains footnotes and extra material to my article 2011 Tohoku Earthquake: How The Western Media Got Tokyo Wrong.
Here’s some commentary about the media coverage of Tokyo in more detail. From Ben Doherty’s March 18 Sydney Morning Herald piece:
“The famously efficient public transport system is severely disrupted.” Well, subways and trains in central Tokyo, once they were restarted on Saturday morning, were never below about 80% of their normal operation. Hardly severe. Some of the commuter services were cut back much more, and out to the north in Ibaraki some lines never restarted because the rails were damaged. But there’s no mention of the fact that many offices were closed or had shortened their workday, and that many people worked from home for a few days to make up for the difficulty of coming to the city, so that for the vast majority of Tokyoites it was a mere inconvenience.
“Supermarket shelves are empty.” Except for the fact that I was still able to buy butter, packaged frozen foods, cooking oil, and fresh fruits and vegetables from morning until night at my local Peacock on the day this piece was published, and every day before and since. I did have to go down at the crack of ten a.m. to ensure a liter of milk for my cornflakes and a loaf of bread, but there’s a huge difference between 70% of normal stock and “empty”.
“Power is unavailable for hours at a time.” Must be referring to the scheduled-and-announced-well-in-advance rolling blackouts that most but not all portions of Greater Tokyo underwent, each one of three hours or less. Hardly a case of shivering in the dark around a lone candle for unforeseen amounts of time, or of being caught in the dark with eyes full of shampoo and no way to clear them out. The blackouts were actually quite easy to plan around, and most people saw it as a small sacrifice considering the total lack of power in many places to the north or the workers in Fukushima who may have been at that very moment walking to their certain death in order to stave of disaster at the nuclear power plant that was causing the blackouts.
One of my favorite bits of bad reporting, which Doherty didn’t commit but many others did, was to imply that Japanese people wearing facemasks were doing so due to fears of radiation from this stricken power plant. Everyone with a week or more in Japan knows this, but I’ll say it again for outsiders: at any time of the year, 2-10% of people you see on the street will be wearing medical facemasks like these, which to Western eyes look like advanced biohazard protection but are actually available for a hundred yen (about a dollar) each in convenience stores, supermarkets, and drugstores. They are especially prevalent in the spring months, including March, because so many people have allergies to cedar pollen. But they are used for the common cold as well. And some people just like the moisture.
The radiation fears were the biggest story of the week, and the primary reason people were being urged to evacuate. Many were saying Fukushima was as bad or worse than Chernobyl, but no one with any actual technical understanding of the two cases could make such a claim, as the disaster at Chernobyl was made so horrible by the critical absence of protective features that every nuclear power plant in the world is now supposed to have and that Fukushima Daichi definitely did have. Blame the Soviets. Further, most evidence gathered in the time since indicates that no one outside Chernobyl’s own 30km exclusion zone were affected by the radiation. Tokyo is over 200km from the Fukushima Daichi reactor. Again with geography.
When it comes to radiation though, exaggerating or misrepresenting the story is hardly surprising and is somewhat excusable. I stood firm, trying to understand as much of the science as I could myself and listening to every commentator I could find with a background in nuclear physics. But it’s not impossible for all the experts to be wrong (see “black swan theory“), and if that had been the case who would have taken the fallout for their mistake, them or me? And there are some people who claim evidence of small spikes in genetic birth disorders such as Down syndrome (West Berlin, 1300km away) and neural tube defects (Bursa, Turkey, 1900km away). This would imply though that Osaka wasn’t much better off than Tokyo in this case.
I certainly don’t blame everyone who left, especially those with children. Some people were out of their minds, obviously, like this English woman who spoke to The Sun. But some people had no work and no reason not to leave. Some offices closed down for the week, and a lot of foreigners here are employed as teachers, and this earthquake happened right during spring break for both grade schools and universities.
It was pretty stressful here. The best reason to leave was the aftershocks, and the fear of another big quake striking close to Tokyo in the near future, which some scientists put at odds of 70%. Actually, we are still in that near future, so it could still happen, and it’s always a worry here anyway. But my fear of a Big One was heightened in the week following. After experiencing the Tohoku quake even as far removed as Tokyo, I could really imagine it for the first time. And the noticeable aftershocks were coming several per hour, so that for about a week the earth never seemed to stand still, reminding us of its power. Sitting in any building was like being on a giant cruise ship on choppy waters. After a few days I could no longer tell if my inner ear was just playing balance tricks on me or if I was experiencing actual quakes.
These are quotes from the March 14, 2011 story in the New Yorker by Raffi Khatchadourian demonstrating media misreporting of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill:
“The heavily oiled marshes had become the staple subject of television crews and photographers. Their images, typically in tight focus, showed suffocating swirls of shimmery crude and sticky pelicans. The scenes were riveting and heartbreaking, but fundamentally misrepresented the situation. For many responders, the amount of oil in the marshes was a relief. The difference between the oil in the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and here was stark. In Alaska, a liquid facade of thick, waxy crude had coated nearly 200 miles of rocky coast. The oil at the Gulf Coast did not remotely compare; by early summer, the crude gushing from the BP well had caused only 25 miles of ‘heavy oiling’–meaning coverage of over 50%–on the entire 1600-mile Gulf coastline. One had to travel, sometimes an hour or more, to see the oil–one had to hunt for it.” It turns out there are more factors than just volume of oil that matter in an oil spill. Wind patterns, ocean hydrodynamics, the chemistry of the oil, and the temperature of the water all matter, and this one had the right combination of factors to mitigate the harm. But all the press is interested in is volume.
Or there’s the way the press refused to admit that anything BP did could be in the best interest of the response, when in fact their cooperation was necessary and much that they did was commendable, all things considered. “The top federal officer had legal authority over BP,” Khatchadourian writes, “but she rarely needed to exercise it. As the response outgrew what BP was obligated by law to support, the company nevertheless gave the Coast Guard nearly everything it asked for, and experience dictated that collaboration usually led to the best outcome.”
Nonetheless, the government was pushed by the press to “exclude BP from the cleanup and simply send the company a bill.” The commandant of the coastguard at the time, Admiral Thad Allen, said “We could never get past the perception that somehow BP was making decisions independently. The perception that there wasn’t government oversight [of BP’s cleanup efforts]—clear down to where the boom was going in the water—resulted in us redirecting resources to reinforce the fact, whether it was needed or not, that there was government oversight.”
The Japanese shindo scale measures the amount of shaking at particular points and not an absolute energy release. On this scale, Tokyo was an upper 5 and the Sendai region the maximum of 7 in the Tohoku quake, much greater. While Sendai apparently didn’t sustain as much direct quake damage as Kobe did in 1995, the people were likely rocked and terrified on a similar scale, as Kobe was also rated the maximum of 7.