Outsiders have it all wrong – Japan is all right

After the destruction from the tsunami and the earthquake shook up the people of Eastern Japan, residents did the unthinkable – nothing. They didn’t cause riots, they didn’t start looting, and they kept patience in queues that went on for hours, despite the trains breaking down and separating passengers from their families. But when a disaster strikes somewhere in the world, some journalists descend like vultures who scavenge off vulnerable prey. Japan was certainly guilty of this when an earthquake hit New Zealand a month prior. However, the scale of nonsense from the foreign media (FM) has been truly astounding since March 11. I’m not going to pretend that we should discount all claims of potential harm, because obviously there are risks to be considered in Japan. But the FM has exaggerated, speculated, and flat-out lied about many things in their reports. And for all the warnings the FM had given, I would surmise that the situation would have been much worse if Japanese people had been listening to them.

Still Living in a Radioactive Japan

In an earlier post I relayed the information I had been getting about the situation a week after the quake, and the tone was quite gloomy. I said that the events occurring were beyond our most imaginative nightmares. That was referring mostly to the people in the affected areas, though I freely admit that I was more cautious than I needed to be (now I know). I had far more questions than answers, and while I never felt (or saw) panic, it was a confusing and depressing time. It wasn’t clear whether or not the Japanese government was withholding substantial information to try to reduce panic, or whether the foreign media was just over-exaggerating their reports, but as the dust settled, I had come to gradually figure things out. This post is long overdue.

Of course there were many things that the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) did too slowly, or badly (for example, the inconceivably idiotic decision to refuse immediate help from the U.S.). However, it became clear around the beginning of April that the government was basically responsibly trying to provide clear safety measures – measures that sound scary, as I reported after the earthquake. Obviously, telling people to strip their clothes and wipe the dust off them before entering their homes, or to make sure not to ingest the water you shower in, is not going to reduce panic. The government was just explaining safety measures on a “just in case” basis.

But the FM was saying that the government should make the exclusion zone from the power plants much bigger, and it seemed like everyone was telling their citizens to stay farther and farther away, like Australia, Canada, the U.S., New Zealand, and the UK. There were also a number of foreigners I know who were interviewed by foreign TV and web programs whose words were twisted out of context or placed in conveniently negative sound-bites, in order to make the situation sound worse than it was. It was baffling to hear accounts of such discrepancies, but it makes sense in the light of sensationalized reporting.

I don’t know where they got that picture from, but no one looked like this.

Why outsiders have it all wrong

You’re Invited to the Panic Party!

The Western approach to disaster news seems to entail unjustifiable and unrelenting panic – “The Sky is Falling!” Of course, Japanese people were largely oblivious to the FM, mostly because they relied on their local news, and wouldn’t be able to understand FM anyways (due to the language barrier). However, you can see the damage that was done by the fact that so many foreigners left after the quake. In fact, April marked the biggest ever fall in travelers for a month in Japan (down 62.5% from a year earlier).

After talking to multitudes of foreigners since that time, I have observed that the longer the foreigner had been in Japan, and the more ties they had here, the less likely they were to leave – not a big surprise. After the 11th, exiting Japan soon became a self-fulfilling prophecy for foreigners – there were just so many anecdotes of people leaving that it became the reason for others to leave. “You have to get out… my friends who visited Japan are leaving too!” …And yet they say Japanese people always follow the herd?

A brief piece from JapanProbe.com (JP) criticizes the popular UK daily newspaper The Sun (which is where I got the title graphic for my last article on this topic) for claiming that there was a mass exodus. JP puts it this way: “There is no ‘mass exodus’ being reported anywhere in the Japanese media. According to the Wall Street Journal, the only people rushing to the airport to flee the country are foreigners. (Could it have to do with the fact that they’re getting their information from sources like the Sun?)” Indeed, the “panic party,” as I call it, has been astounding. For example, take this footage from American television host Nancy Grace, who is notorious for fear-mongering. She basically says that the Japanese people are totally screwed and that America is next:

“[Sure, the tsunami will be rather harmless by the time it reaches America], but it does pose a very real danger to our ability to make everything about us.”
–American Comedian Bill Maher (March 11)

I expected that this article would be published a little too late, but that video is actually representative of the fear many people (i.e., foreigners) still have. In fact, there are still people trying to write about how the radiation is scary, especially by getting quotes from locals who are afraid. Of course, they have reason to be afraid – we don’t know nearly as much about radiation as we would like to. The information we get from health detriments are generally from unpredictable accidents at nuclear power plants. However, the nuclear threat is decreasing, according to Goshi Hosono – the Prime Minister’s crisis management advisor. Even the U.S. stopped their 24-hour surveillance of the plant last month, since the situation is stabilizing. Don’t get me wrong, by no means is the situation perfect there, but we’re definitely not in any state of emergency at this point. Personally, I started drinking tap water again since around the beginning of April, and basically went about my life as if nothing has happened since – no masks, no fear, no worries. I just use less electricity.

Taking it Too Far?

Someone at GenkiEnglish.net already wrote an apt comparison of the foreign vs. Japanese media and their reaction to the events. He recalls that the same press conferences generated totally different news stories. The Japanese media was calm and professional. The FM was emotional and sensational. I also saw a news broadcast from abroad within the first week, via skype, and I was shocked at how angry they made everyone sound, saying that Japanese people don’t trust their government and how it’s so dangerous in and around Tokyo. Reuters even wrote that people were fleeing the 90 km exclusion zone around the plant, which leads me to the revealing question…

…What 90 km exclusion zone?

The main message from FM was to get out of Japan, such as one from an article that appeared on AOL News, entitled “Chernobyl Cleanup Survivor’s Message for Japan: ‘Run Away as Quickly as Possible’.” However, the first American to research the Chernobyl reactor meltdown on site, Alexander Sich, believes that Fukushima has been blown out of proportion. While it’s true that it’s the worst nuclear accident to occur since Chernobyl, there are numerous reasons why they are not equivalent at all. In an article for The Diplomat, Sich says “Now, everyone is focused not on data but on one, single, solitary number (7 on the INES) and the press is employing phrases like ‘on a par with Chernobyl,’ or ‘equal to that of Chernobyl.’ It’s like defining the entirety of a person based on a single number, like their weight or their age. I think people can see the absurdity of that.” Unfortunately, his optimism is unfounded.

A few days after his article came out, another one entitled “Three Mile Island expert: Fukushima could kill 200,000” gave way to more fear-mongering. The online international news group GlobalPost.com interviewed Arnold Gundersen, a nuclear specialist who has worked in the industry for decades. “This week the Japanese authorities elevated the crisis from 5 to 7,” one question began. “That suggests it’s on a par with Chernobyl. Is this accident as bad as Chernobyl?” “It’s worse than Chernobyl,” Gunderson responded. Unlike Chernobyl, which actually had numerous deaths within a few weeks, no one has died from radiation in Fukushima, even three months later.

Obviously radiation sickness is a concern, and there is an ongoing investigation that has been launched by the U.N. (involving scientists from 21 countries) to determine possible risks involved, but this doesn’t change the fact that Fukushima is not as bad as Chernobyl. In fact, so far the U.N. has found no health effects whatsoever from the radiation. This is likely due to the fact that – as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said – the way Fukushima has been handled is “exemplary,” despite Japan having understandably underestimated the threat of tsunami. It would be unscientific of me to flat-out state that Fukushima will be not be worse than Chernobyl, because I can’t predict the future… but until we see contradictory evidence, there’s no reason to believe otherwise. Also, the IAEA mentioned that “The Japanese Government, nuclear regulators and operators have been extremely open in sharing information and answering the many questions of the mission,” which is quite different from the paranoia coming from other foreign sources.

The Western Response vs. The Japanese Response

One report from the Australian Associated Press included an interview with a 22-year old Australian ESL teacher (on the popular JET Programme) living in Fukushima, who clearly exemplifies the fear instilled by the FM. Despite being asked by his employers to return to work on the following Monday after the earthquake (which happened on a Friday), he was convinced that he had to leave immediately, and set out to leave on Sunday. “The trouble was that accurate information had become just as scarce as petrol and water,” the teacher said, obviously – and understandably – confused by the discrepancies between the FM and what he was told by his Japanese colleagues.  “A lot of people wouldn’t leave because they were never told how bad things were,” he said.

The FM told him to panic and get out of Japan as fast as possible, and he did just that. Referring to his coworker from Singapore who owned a car, he recalled “I really thought we might have to knock him out and steal the car.” Eventually the Singaporean agreed to drive him and their other foreign friends, (two Americans and two New Zealanders) and they reached Tokyo, heading for the airport. This is the frantic kind of thinking many foreigners had when they listened to the FM bombarding them with alerts. Thanks in large part to the excessive crisis alerts from the FM, this seems to be the Western way.

The long queues did not test the patience of the Japanese people, it demonstrated it.

“On the day after the earthquake,” the Australian also recounted, “we were out trying to get water and whatever we could and Japanese people were giving us food, making us take it even though they hardly had any themselves. […] It was awesome that these people who didn’t even know me were trying to help.”

Evidently, this is the Japanese way.

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5 Responses to Outsiders have it all wrong – Japan is all right

  1. Masariko says:

    Nice article! I have to admit, the media got to me, too, after a few days… The video you embeded, from USA media – that was just sureal to me 😯 They allow that kind of crap on their networks?

    • Ryo says:

      Thanks for the comment, Masariko!
      Indeed, American television is full of nonsense like that. But to tell you the truth, it’s not even the worst. I’m going to post an article later this week or next week that will explain just how bad it got.
      Honestly, I haven’t even scratched the surface.

  2. 6 8 10 says:

    I was living in Niseko, Hokkaido at the time of the quake. We felt the earthquake, but were far enough away that it wasn’t very strong, just longer lasting than normal. Over the next few days, we had to deal with all of the cancellations of foreigner’s ski trips- mostly due to over-reaction of the FM.

    Niseko has a large foreigner population. There were some who went into panic mode and fled, but many, many level headed ones who stayed (and continued to monitor the news reports, just in case). Me? Less than a week after the quake/tsunami, I flew down to Tokyo for a job interview. I’d offered one of the panicers a ride to the airport, as I was going there anyway, and when she asked where I was heading… there was a palpable shocked silence when I said I was going to Tokyo.

    The foreign news was reporting a mass exodus from Tokyo, with reports of mass power outages, deserted streets, people wearing masks, store shelves empty of food, people trying to buy a 4-wheel drive vehicle in case it was the only way to get out of Tokyo with the trains stopped (why would you need 4wd here? It’s not like there’s anywhere you’d be able to drive off the road anyway until you get very far out of the city, and even then there aren’t many places you’d need to go off road). I saw none of this while I was there. There were lots of people about. People were wearing masks, but I’d say no more so than normal- when Japanese people have a cold, they tend to wear a white face mask, and in winter/spring you can’t go anywhere without seeing people wearing them). There were scheduled power outages, but aside from being somewhat inconvenient they weren’t anywhere near what the foreign media made them sound like. And yes, the convenience stores were low on most of their food items, but I suspect that may have had more to do with disruption of supply lines than anything else. There were still quite a few little shops selling food and groceries, and at normal, everyday prices. The foreign reporting was ridiculous.

    • Ryo says:

      Hi 6-8-10, thanks for commenting.
      The idea that stores were lower on supplies because of the inability to distribute them is an interesting one that hadn’t crossed my mind. I’m sure that can’t explain it entirely, but that sounds like a viable contributor to the relative lack of food at the time.

      And you’re right, the foreign media made a big deal out of masks for no reason. You can see way more people wearing them in hay fever season. I could probably sell a story with pictures of people wearing masks, saying that “Even three months later, Tokyoites are still scared of radiation,” and I’m sure they’d just eat it up.

      As you said, “The foreign reporting was ridiculous.” Definitely. And it gets worse. A lot worse. I’ll write soon about the many countries who published reports about falsehoods and over-exaggerations that I’m sure contributed to the amount of foreigners who left Japan. By no means has it been limited to America, or even English-speaking countries.

  3. Amac says:

    Great article! That Nancy Grace clip was crazy….

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