Dan Grunebaum: The truth behind the international media's disaster headlines

Dan Grunebaum: The truth behind the international media's disaster headlines

March 11 showed Japan's good side, but revived stereotypes: The reality is more nuanced

Dan Grunebaum

In the days and weeks after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on March 11, the world was flooded with stories about the stoic and hardy Japanese people. Accepting the horrible lot dealt by Mother Nature, they were too polite to complain, lining up for blankets and rations at evacuation centers.

Bound tightly by the famous Japanese group spirit, survivors divided meager portions among themselves equitably. None of the unseemly scuffles for supplies one that one sees in "less refined" countries was observed.

Tsunami-hit communities were also safe from looting -- no proper Japanese would even think of stealing from his or her countrymen when they were down.

At the same time, the feckless leaders of consensus-driven Japan were doing a terrible job at managing the crisis. Group-think, it was said, prevented Prime Minister Naoto Kan from leading effectively.

Notoriously opaque Japanese officials were also suppressing the true extent of the disaster at Fukushima -- it was only from abroad that we could learn the “ghost town” that Tokyo had become was about to enter a nuclear nightmare.

Then there were the inevitable comparisons of the selfless “Fukushima 50” with World War II kamikaze suicide squads, and of the tsunami zone to Hiroshima.

Reality or not?

Much of this was true, but only up to a point. There was looting, which partly explains why the government legally mandated a no-go zone around Fukushima. Worse, predators posing as volunteers stole from evacuees, requiring police to be posted at evacuation centers.

And there were disagreements among survivors -- rows over where to rebuild are now getting in the way of reviving tsunami-hit towns.

More on CNNGo: Who's telling the truth about Fukushima?

With “Japan-passing” underway for a decade now, international media concerns parachuted in star reporters for a few days of “disaster vision” and then bailed to the next story.

Later on there was much penetrating reporting by Japan-based journalists. But the first few days mostly offered a clichéd portrait of an unchanging, stoic Japan that the nation is evolving away from.

Kan the revolutionary

The second Democratic prime minister, Kan, may be as gray a character as other recent leaders, but would the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which built Japan’s “nuclear village” and suppressed the Minamata mercury disaster, have promised the world transparency? Somehow, I doubt it.

Would an LDP prime minister have berated TEPCO, told Chubu Electric to shut down its Hamaoka plant, or foregone his own salary, as Kan did?

Kan made his reputation blowing the whistle on Japan’s HIV/hemophilia scandal over a decade ago, and is unusual as a prime minister not born to a political dynasty.

Under-reported by the international media, this represents real political evolution and is why the opposition is now gunning for him.

Stories about Japanese jishuku -- self-restraint -- also filled the airwaves. Group-think dictated that all of Japan was to forgo pleasure to express solidarity for those suffering up north.

Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara even tried to call off Japan’s famous springtime cherry blossom viewing festivities.

Predators posing as volunteers stole from evacuees, requiring police to be posted

And yet, when I went to Yoyogi Park in “devastated” Tokyo a few weeks after the quake, the place was filled with party folk thumbing their noses at the old coot, who everyone knew was relaxing with a brandy on his yacht anyway. Probably.

Social pressure

As much of the international media missed Japan’s evolution toward a more individualistic and outspoken society, it also swept the negative points of lingering group-think under the rug.

It’s easy to ignore collective social pressures that produce one of the world’s highest suicide rates when you don’t experience them yourself.

More on CNNGo: Entertaining the evacuees

Where were the stories about the harassment that Fukushima schoolchildren were being subjected to by kids at the new schools they evacuated to far from their homes? No room for this in the news cycle.

Such stories may not chime with the 24/7 narrative, but that makes them no less real, if forgotten as the disaster junkies move on to their next ratings bonanza.

Some journalists moved away from the news in Tohoku (aren’t reporters supposed to go to the story?). Others created a secondary disaster, compounding the quake damage by driving people away from Japan with their hyperventilating headlines.

Next time I view the media’s depictions of other countries struck by disaster, I’ll take them with a grain of salt. I’ll also take this as a warning to avoid stock clichés and easy stereotypes in my own writing.

Dan Grunebaum is the Music and Performing Arts Editor for "Metropolis" magazine in Tokyo and writes on Japanese culture for "The New York Times" and "Insight Guides."

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