Japan’s crisis exaggerated

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Japan continues to suffer through the aftereffects of the earthquake that devastated the Sendai area on Friday, March 11. The tsunami it triggered caused even more destruction, and the residents of northern Japan are faced with a potential nuclear disaster in the Fukushima prefecture. Japan is, in general, well-equipped to deal with natural disasters — the country is located on the edge of a tectonic plate, so earthquakes are a fact of life. In fact, Japan’s meteorological agency records several daily earthquakes that are too small to be felt. Because of this, measures like earthquake-safe building codes and tsunami gates in coastal towns are commonplace safety measures. Although the magnitude of the destruction and death caused by the recent disasters was great, these precautions ensured that the effects were not even worse.

I was studying abroad at Temple University’s Tokyo Campus when the first quake hit. Even in Tokyo where it was comparatively mild, the Japanese I talked with following that Friday said it was the strongest quake they’d ever felt. The school called off classes for the afternoon as everyone tried to find their way home. Growing concerns about the threat from the nuclear plant in Fukushima led to another week of canceled classes; finally, the school terminated its study abroad program altogether and made those students return home. In fact, I’m still waiting for classes to start again; Temple is working to set up online classes for its students so that they can still receive credit for the semester.

That week of canceled classes for me was a learning experience in wading through the mainstream media’s spin on the situation. Many students in my apartment building were living in states of near-panic because of the crisis at the nuclear plant, a situation that is still evolving now. And depending on where their information came from, their reactions were not surprising — American media coverage of the crisis ranged from apocalyptic to even more apocalyptic. Many headlines played on the knowledge that most Americans couldn’t find Fukushima, Sendai, or Tokyo on a map of Japan if they tried; they made it seem like all of Japan was experiencing the radioactive aftereffects of the fires and other problems at the plant rather than just the immediate vicinity in Fukushima. One article with a wildly inflammatory title admitted at first that the situation wasn’t bad yet, but went on to list all the potential disasters that could result from a nuclear meltdown in gruesome detail.

It was difficult to reconcile the calm atmosphere that surrounded me with what I was reading about online. Tokyo dwellers seemed to be going about business as usual; the only outward sign that anything was wrong was that all of the instant food (ramen and the like) had disappeared from the stores. There was no rioting or looting. Borough-specific rolling blackouts were instituted so that power could be redirected to the areas hard-hit by the earthquake, and people seemed to just work around it. It was nothing like the fear-laden nuclear holocaust that my family and friends back home thought I was experiencing. I’ve been told that fear sells better than sex in the news; however, I can only hope that reporting on this and other natural disasters loses its rampant sensationalism in the future.