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Reality trumps Japanese horror stories

  • 23 August 2011

The Skyhooks said it well when they described the evening news as 'a horror movie right there on my TV'. The small screen loves disasters: fires, floods, tornadoes, cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes. It also loves displayed emotion, as evoked by the tasteless 'How does it feel?' question often asked by tabloid television and press reporters.

This was brought home to me as a visitor to Japan in the months after the March tsunami, the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear power plant disaster in the Sendai regions. I have been here since June, based at Yamaguchi University, an internationally oriented university in Yamaguchi City. This inland city is nearly 800km south-west of Fukushima and further away from Sendai.

Yamaguchi has no N-plants. Nor is it an area with active earthquake patterns. Nonetheless, before we left Australia people asked, 'Are you still going?'.

All too often anxiety trumps reality. In Melbourne in recent years, we received emails from friends overseas worried that we might be affected by the Queensland floods or NSW bushfires. We were of course hundreds of kilometres away.

Unfortunately, TV prefers emotions to time and place. Commercial tabloid current affairs TV never shows map locations, even on Australian stories, and the ABC's 7.30 Report is rarely any better.

Apparently one television tabloid reporter — the classic fly-in or parachute journalist who knew nothing about Japan — reported that the Japanese were wearing masks for fear of a nuclear threat. In fact they usually wear masks to avoid spreading colds and flu.

Japan does have problems, some immediate and some ongoing. The regions around Sendai and coastal Fukushima have been battered. Japan has a long-term problem as an energy-less country reliant on N-power. Like Australia, it has failed to learn from Germany about developing solar power. Its regulatory systems also have severe weaknesses.

But Japan is not, in general, a disaster zone. For most people life goes on as normal despite a revival of the 'no tie' policy introduced some years ago by then Prime Minister Koizumi, due to higher temperatures in offices. People are urged to save power and while there are fears of outages, they're concentrated in Tokyo and its Kanto region rather than the rest of the country.

Across Japan, while N-power stations are checked and tested, some businesses and offices, and people at home, are running air-conditioners at 27–28°C rather than 20°C. Car plants have moved their 'weekend' to Monday–Tuesday to lessen the weekday power load.