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Reality trumps Japanese horror stories


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.

At the same time, Japan is aware of the human and economic costs of the tsunami and the nuclear power problem. Tanabata, a summer festival where people seek good things for the future, including relationships, has made people think about those they have lost and what they have. News reports have suggested that in anxious times the security of marriage has become more appealing.

Japan remains a place of considerable courtesy, with an increasing number of signs in English, and helpful people who often take lost tourists to their destination. Its supermarkets and fruiterers have bananas which are both cheap and of the highest quality, as is all food, including ice cream, chocolate and other delights.

As long as you like sushi, teriyaki, noodles, pizza, pasta and salads, Japan is also cheap. Prices have not risen after almost no inflation for over a decade. Japan is also remarkably safe — the only country in which I carry my wallet in my back pocket when travelling!

As Victorians found when tourists avoided Healesville after the Black Saturday bushfires, one thing that regions and countries afflicted by disaster don't want is an end to tourism. That applies to the islands of Japan, too, from Kyushu and Shikoku in the south to Hokkaido in the north, as well as to the main island of Honshu.

Disastrous television news exaggeration is a disaster we can do without. In contrast, travel is one way to begin international understanding which deepens wisdom. What Australians need today, as always, is a mature international approach to the world — a world which is even more interesting than it is complicated and accident-prone.

Stephen AlomesStephen Alomes is an Adjunct Professor in the Globalism Research Institute at RMIT University, currently on attachment as a Visiting Professor at Yamaguchi University. 

Topic tags: Stephen Alomes, Japan, tsunami, Fukushima, Sendai



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Existing comments

Despite the "business as usual" life in many parts of Japan, "horror" does not seem too harsh a word to describe the radioactivity which is now working through hundreds of thousands of (particularly young) bodies, killing cells and mutating genes of Japanese still to be born.

Caroline Storm | 23 August 2011  

I couldn't agree more with you, Stephen. My wife and I spent two wonderful weeks in Japan in June, staying with Japanese friends in Tokyo and then traveling south. Everywhere we went, the Japanese were gracious and welcoming.

Hiromi and I had a long discussion about the way in which Japan has dealt with the tsunami/nuclear crisis. Hiromi pointed out that, from their youngest days, Japanese are encouraged to think about their society first and then themselves. Hence the self sacrifice of the retired engineers willing to go into the Fukishima plant to help clean up.

And yes, Caroline, there has been and there is horror there but that surely makes it all the more important for us to be supportive and to acknowledge the good.

ErikH | 23 August 2011  

Unfortunately, all too true, Stephen. Having last visited Japan in May (and going again in October) I know how people react when you tell them. I think several points of misunderstanding conspire: many Australians think of Japan as a tiny country - everyone lives "in the same place", as it were; many do not perceive Japan as an open society -- with a free media and accountable government -- therefore "you can't believe what they tell you"; many have been misled by sensational or broad-brush reporting, such as a TV interview I saw recently in which the claim by an anti-nuclear activist, that many Japanese children were showing symptoms of radiation sickness, went unchallenged by the Australian interviewer. The fact that no such reports have been verified did not seem to matter; this was Japan, land of "anything is possible".

The only solution is articles like this, chipping away at the myths.

Walter Hamilton | 23 August 2011  

Nice article, Stephen. I have a couple of comments: Firstly, I suppose that journalism/the press has always had a tendency to exaggeration, sensationalism and doom and gloom; but media as more for entertainment than information and informesd comment has gone to new depths with the Murdoch phenomenon etc especdially in UK and USA; secondly, radiation, although it needs respect, is much safer than people ( and Caroline)generally realise: it is one of those areas where public perception of risk (the media again...and the Greens?) is grossly exaggerated (ironically one of the major public health lessons from Chernobyl and indeed Hiroshima!). Coal mining and burning in contrast is REALLY dangerous.

eugenew | 23 August 2011  

I agree, for those who can it is wonderful to go to Japan. And from what I have read and studied and learned from talking with people from Japan I would love to visit. But the earthquake and following tsunami and the Chernobyl melt down of the reactors are facts and it cannot be mitigated.

Nuclear energy is not safe and is as bad, and probably worse, as coal and oil. More and more scientific evidence is being evaluated and the initial information at the time of the crisis seriously underestimated the damage. And indeed we still do not know. Human action is destroying the earth. And I don't see going to mars very realistic either. So a good up beat story and all God's children are beloved and I pray for us all. especially that we begin to understand "that God is God and we are not". But we can love one another with God's grace to do so and often work together for good also.

Mary Margaret Flynn, MD | 23 August 2011  

It is pleasing to read such intelligent discussion of a serious subject. I understand entirely, on the day after the Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan finally confirms his resignation, that there is a long term problem. There are problems of the failure of Japanese regulation, for example of beef and rice straw which wrongly went out from Fukushima prefecture, of the failure of TEPCO and the government to be completely frank about the problems and the industry-government relationshop, and about the long-term implications on two fronts: for how many decades - or more - will the area around the Fukushima reactor be closed to human habitation; and, how will an energy-less country provide enough energy for the future? But there is our negative story - how the media tabloidises countries as well as disaster regions. There is also a positive story. The Japan team played with over 18 nations in the International Cup 2011 of Australian Football in Sydney and Melbourne, reaching the first division of the Cup. We need perspective, short and long-term, which the media does not deliver - even the 'respectable' media.

Stephen Alomes | 27 August 2011  

Thanks very much Stephen for this well informed article, it really puts things into perspective, not just for Australians, but for non-Japanese people around the world, and not only relating to Japan and disaster ANGST, but tabloid reporting and the energy question in general.

Frank Joussen | 09 January 2012  

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