2011 Japan Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Disaster: How The Western Media Got Tokyo Wrong

I SPENT MOST OF the week after the March 11 Tohoku earthquake ferociously battling the hysterical drive-by reporting of the western media. It caused us in Tokyo a problem, as our people back home were all experiencing a much different disaster by proxy than we were on the ground.

The media’s first crime was a failure to differentiate between Tokyo and the stricken areas of Tohoku. This was forgivable in the initial hectic hours. The first very brief English language report I saw about the earthquake, about an hour after it happened, said something to the effect of “Japan including Tokyo was rocked by a massive 8.9 magnitude earthquake, the biggest in its recorded history. Cars were shaken off bridges, buildings severely rattled, and a devastating tsunami was triggered.” Though my earthquake experience had been pretty mild (here’s my full report) and I wasn’t expecting a big deal to be made of it, I saw this and knew I better send a message back to the states to let everyone know that actually Tokyo and I were both alright.

But some media outlets never got the distinction straight. In a typically overwrought report in the Sydney Morning Herald at Narita airport on March 18, reporter Ben Doherty describes someone fleeing Tokyo as “having endured the massive 9.0 earthquake”. Actually, no one in Japan experienced the 9.0 magnitude earthquake directly, but even to conflate our mild scare and inconvenience in Tokyo with the experience in Sendai, three times closer to the epicenter, is pretty insensitive.

Doherty gives us other gems of overstatement that were all too common in the reporting on the effect of the crisis on Tokyo. “The famously efficient public transport system is severely disrupted”, “Power is unavailable for hours at a time”, and “Supermarket shelves are empty”. These crimes and many more, including speculation on nuclear physics by people who probably majored in English (if that), have all been well documented in blogs and editorials (if you haven’t already seen some of these reports, my version is here). There’s also been a Journalist’s Wall Of Shame wiki created especially for this crisis.

This has gotten me to wondering if every disaster in a country without its own English-speaking media has its own wall of shame. In some cases this seems doubtful. In a place like the Middle East, for example, there is so much English language reporting and there are so many bilingual and culturally experienced journalists that it is easy to just pay attention to the most credible sources, or at least get several different perspectives. In Japan there are far fewer such journalists, as they are not needed day to day, so in a crisis like this the media has to make do with a staff not up to the task.

On the other hand, a story in the March 14, 2011 issue of the New Yorker on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill caused by BP last spring makes a good case that that disaster had the same media issues that we in Tokyo had, reporting it to be worse than it really was and failing to use the best science, and right there in the United States with no language barrier at all. (The full article isn’t available online, but I’ve provided some important quotes here.) It looks like many reporters decide beforehand the story they are going to report, and it is immaterial whether they find it on the ground, as in the Haiti earthquake (where it appears it would have been hard to overstate the horrors) or in Tohoku itself, or they don’t, as in Tokyo and the Gulf Of Mexico.

And to further disabuse you of the notion that we in Tokyo are special, let me propose a thought experiment. Imagine a hypothetical nuclear power plant north of Birmingham in the UK, about the same distance from London as Iwaki and the Fukushima plant are from Tokyo. First off, how do you think Londoners and the English media themselves would react if that plant had a crisis similar to the one at Fukushima? Would that most egregious offender in this Tohoku earthquake case, The Sun, be any less alarmist about the danger to London? Possibly, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise anyone if it wasn’t.

And for the real test, how do you think the Japanese media would react to a nuclear crisis in Birmingham? How many alarmist tabloids with little real understanding of either England or nuclear power does Japan have? How protective of Japanese citizens abroad might some major Japanese media outlets become under the right circumstances, with nothing to lose from practicing extreme caution? How much disruption does it take to bring all the barely suppressed Japanese exceptionalism (or xenophobia) way out into the open? And how many Japanese citizens, unable to read or listen to any but Japanese media sources, might get caught up in a negative feedback loop and desperately plead with friends and family in London to flee as fast as they can?

So for all us foreigners here in Japan, this can be a double learning experience for us.

First, we’ve all got this firsthand experience in our emotional memory now, and know just how great our skepticism of our own media needs to be. As my friend Dan Inoue said, “While watching the Daily Show gave me an academic understanding that the 24-hour news cycle is constantly screaming for attention, I never realized how insidious the fear machine really was until now.”

But this experience has done something else for us: We’ve been kicked off our high horse of criticism of Japanese media, which has always been about the most consistent target of ire out of everything foreigners here complain about. It’s an established fact now: The world is full of screaming jackasses, well-meaning fools, and spineless kowtowers north, south, east and west. No need to blame any particular country for that.

-Joe Kern, March 24, 2011


Here’s a link to specific stories of my experiences and how they differed from the media reporting, for example in regard to food and water shortages.

This is my report of what the experience of the quake and the immediate aftermath was like in Tokyo.

Here’s a report of my experience volunteering with the cleanup and rebuilding effort in Tohoku in August of 2011, 5 months after the disaster.

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