Sunday, March 20, 2011

Global anxiety and the disaster in Japan

This morning, for the first time in more than a week, my in-box was eerily devoid of panicky messages urging me to get out of Japan. The melodramatic media coverage of the Fukushima nuclear crisis seems to have cooled. In turn, my parents are no longer pressuring me to come home. I feel like I can breathe again.

There's a discrepancy between the way people inside Japan are reacting to the disaster and the way people from outside Japan are reacting to the disaster. Most of the panic is being generated by people from other countries. My Canadian friends are more freaked out about the possibility of a nuclear meltdown than I am. People in Vancouver are stocking up on potassium iodide tablets, afraid of a toxic cloud of radiation blowing west across the Pacific Ocean.

I can't blame the rest of the world for thinking the apocalypse is upon us. A nuclear crisis on top of a tsunami on top of an earthquake -- just one of these things would have been horrible enough. But to deal with all three at the same time? The aftermath has been overwhelming (8,100 people dead, 12,000 people missing, half a million people homeless, entire towns wiped off the map, nuclear reactors exploding, radiation escaping, electricity failing, shortages of food, water, fuel and medicine, aftershock after aftershock).

But through it all, life went on elsewhere in Japan. People went to work. Kids went to school. The trains ran on time. The buildings remained standing. This ordinariness was nowhere to be seen in the media coverage coming out of Japan. And why would it be? It's not news. Journalists rightly focused all of their attention on the unfolding tragedy. There wasn't room for subtlety and nuance, which maybe partly explains why the foreign reaction seemed to verge on panic while the Japanese reaction was comparatively calm. Maybe it's because people from outside the country were looking at Japan through a very narrow lens. And what they saw looked terrifying.

Even though I am in Kyoto, hundreds of kilometres away from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, people back home worried about my safety. I've spent a good part of the past week trying to convince family and friends that I'm okay. Not that I'm complaining. I'm extremely touched by all of the concern. I received emails from friends I haven't heard from or seen in years. It's nice to know that so many people are thinking of me. It has been the best part of a very long week.

Other people are frustrated with all of the fear-mongering from the foreign media. There's a sense that the media focus on the nuclear crisis is overshadowing the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami. They complain that it's taking attention and aid away from the earthquake survivors up north. It's also causing people outside the country to panic needlessly. Their panic feeds our panic.

I don't think it's fair to blame the foreign media. Yes, there has been some sensationalism but I can live with a bit of sensationalism if it helps draw attention to the disaster. I'm far more comfortable with a few inaccuracies than I am with media outlets that serve as propaganda tools for the government. Most people in Japan don't trust the Japanese media to look for government cover-ups and half-truths when it comes to nuclear safety. The Japanese media simply reprints what the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company are saying verbatim. The foreign media is working much harder to find out what's really going on.

I'm no longer worried but I'm still not taking what the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company are saying at face value. There has been too much confusing and contradictory information. At first, the Japanese government said people living outside a 20-kilometre radius of the power plant were safe. Then they changed that to 30 kilometres. And then the Americans stepped in and said that the evacuation zone should actually be more like 80 kilometres. (I don't know what distance is truly safe. Personally, I'd take their best-case scenario and double it. Just to be sure.)

The Japanese government is desperate to avoid mass panic and they've done a good job of keeping people relatively calm so far. In a country of 127 million people, mass panic would only lead to mass chaos.

We've already seen small pockets of panic, as some people in the Tokyo area started hoarding supplies -- buying rice, noodles, bottled water and toilet paper in bulk. Imagine if everyone tried to flee the country at the same time or ran to the supermarket and stripped all the shelves of food. It would make things much, much worse, especially for the hundreds of thousands of people in the evacuation centres who are already running short of food, water, fuel and medicine.

A handful of friends have flown home. The rest of us are staying put. The nuclear situation seems to be somewhat under control -- for now, at least. The media is starting to shift its attention away from Japan and toward Libya and Syria. For the first time in a week, Japan is no longer the top story. By this time next week, most of the foreign journalists will have left Japan. The country will start to recover and rebuild, without much attention or fanfare.

How you can help:

Japanese Red Cross

Canadian Red Cross

Doctors Without Borders


Second Harvest Japan

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