Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Raging Against the (Fear) Machine

This update / rant comes to you from Kyoto, where I’m spending a few days getting some sleep and just getting my head on straight. I’ll be back in Tokyo by Tuesday, though, by which point I hope that the aftershocks will be a *little* fewer and further between.

There’s some anger bubbling to the surface among the foreign community in Tokyo right now, much of it related to a) the foreign media’s gross misrepresentation of the nuclear power plant issue, b) the overreactions of embassies in Tokyo, and c) the debate over staying or leaving, which I wrote about in a previous post.

My own most recent rage is directed toward the frequently racist, condescending attitude of the U.S. media toward the Japanese media, TEPCO, and the Japanese government. CNN and the like can’t seem to make up their  minds about Japan–one minute they’re praising the Japanese people for their calm, stoic response to the quake, and the next they’re insinuating that the Japanese media can’t be trusted, that the Japanese are naive to think that the nuclear plant isn’t more of a threat, and that the foreign media naturally have a clearer picture of the situation (even when they’re nowhere near it and haven’t interviewed a single local resident or nuclear expert).

For the record, just because the Japanese media isn’t hysterically telling people to flee for their lives doesn’t mean they’re hiding anything. They’ve been criticized for being “vague,” but I don’t call their approach vague–I call it not wanting to speculate positively or negatively about a situation that is constantly changing. TEPCO and Japan’s new rock star politician, Yukio Edano, have been providing regular updates (Edano looks like he hasn’t slept in a week). They’re providing all the reliable information they’ve got and aren’t making up random stories, which is more than I can say for the foreign media. It would also be very difficult to hide the reality of the situation if radiation levels were in fact rising to dangerous heights, since independent Geiger counter readings are being taken all over Fukushima, and in Tokyo.

Some in the foreign media have also criticized the Japanese government and TEPCO for a “slow” response to the nuclear crisis. While I don’t have enough information to comment on the pre-quake safety of the power plant itself or any safety violations it may have incurred, I can say this: the first 24 hours after the quake were like a slow-motion nightmare, even for those far away from the worst-hit areas. In the first hour or two, between rushing under doors and tables to weather violent shaking, I alternated between fear of a tsunami (I know that seems silly now, but in moments of abject terror you can forget some basic geography), fear of more quakes, fear of power outages, fear that my friends might have been trapped in office buildings or hit by falling debris, and fear of the nuclear power plant, which at the time I knew very little about. Something tells me that the Japanese government and TEPCO were in a similar situation–before they started thinking about fuel rod exposure and cooling system failures, they had to think about shaking buildings, downed communication lines, and, oh yeah, that BIG FUCKING WAVE OF DEATH that was bearing down on the coastline, with the possibility of more to come. They weren’t slow–they were overwhelmed, as anyone would be.

The foreign media’s nuclear fear-mongering has had plenty of negative consequences, as Sophie Knight has pointed out:

“…on an emotional level, it detracted attention away from those really suffering, and made this tragedy about the suffering of Americans who are apparently going to get irradiated because of Japanese incompetence. Secondly, on an economic level, it has put both foreign residents in Japan and the Japanese economy out of pocket, thanks to the astronomical airfares they paid to get out, and the struggling unstaffed companies they left in their wake. Thirdly, on a personal level, it has caused a lot of stress and worry to the families of foreign residents in Japan, who beg their loved ones to come home.”

While my own family has been mostly concerned rather than panicked and has trusted my judgment when it comes to staying or leaving, I still feel like I’m in a never-ending battle with the foreign media. We’ll talk via Skype, I’ll reassure them and send them links to reliable information and tell them not to listen to the idiots on CNN or the other major news networks. Things will seem all right. But then I’ll get an email saying something about staying indoors during the day (in Texas) because of radiation fears, and I’ll feel like a tiny, desperate voice in a sea of incoherent shouting. I don’t blame my family for this at all–I blame the cacophony of media insanity that no one could ignore completely.

Family is yet another reason why I refuse to criticize those who made the decision to leave Tokyo when I know very little about their personal situations. Some people’s families have refused to be reassured and have begged them to leave, even hinting that they’re bad children for causing their loved ones so much anguish by staying. To be under that kind of pressure, and then to be vilified by others for acquiescing to your family’s wishes (even if they’re unreasonable), seems horribly unfair.

That said, I agree with Sophie Knight that it’s embarrassing to see various embassies overreacting and spending huge amounts of money and effort to get their citizens out of Tokyo when so many people are suffering and dying in the north. While the U.S. embassy, for example, has not “urged its citizens to evacuate” (as many in the media have falsely reported), it *has* provided buses and plane tickets (to be paid for later), which could surely cause worry even to those who weren’t planning to leave.  On the one hand, this is just an embassy doing what it thinks is best for its citizens. On the other hand, it’s indirectly feeding panic and diverting resources away from where they’re needed most.

I also find it embarrassing that CNN and others have turned the focus toward the U.S., vamping up fears of a “nuclear plume” headed toward the west coast (I’m sorry, but what the fuck is a nuclear plume? Is it green and glowing? Is it carried by flying monkeys? Cause that makes about as much sense as what some media outlets are describing). For the last time (sadly I fear it won’t be the last time, but here’s hoping), there is no threat of contamination to anyone outside Japan, or even outside Fukushima. If you don’t believe me, please read here and here. Yes, some radiation may float across the ocean, but it’ll be so diluted by the time it reaches land that it will be barely detectable, much less significant enough to cause any health concerns. Turning the fear-focus toward California is blatantly disrespectful to the people who are actually suffering and dying in northern Japan.

I’ll leave you with the JPQuake Wiki page’s “Wall of Shame”–the most egregious examples of journalistic fear-mongering on the nuclear plant issue (example: calling Tokyo a ‘ghost town’ with ‘streets deserted’ like the ‘zombie movie 28 Days Later,’ when in fact the streets are full of people). I can almost laugh at some of these–but then I remember the anguish they’re causing my family, and the attention they’re diverting from the real crisis, and I get really, really mad.


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a blog for all things bookish

Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

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