Distant Disaster: Local and Global Response
The first I heard about the earthquake came from a staff member in the exchange program’s office. While inquiring if we knew of anyone travelling out of the Kobe area this weekend, she informed us that there was an earthquake in the north close to the Tokyo area. She did not seem overly worried, and no one in my group reacted with excess concern. Earthquakes are extremely common in Japan, we all knew this, so it didn’t strike us as overly concerning news. After talking for a bit more, we all went out for dinner, and then to a party at a restaurant that a friend was holding. People were handing out papers in the street. I assumed it was in regards to the earthquake, but no one seemed overly panicked while reading. I didn’t think much of it and carried on with my evening. The party went very late, and so I went straight to bed once getting home. When I woke up to check email and Facebook, I was completely taken aback. I had dozens of emails and notifications, all from people back home frantically trying to hear from me if I was alright. I replied to everyone as fast as I could telling them that I was alright and that the disaster events were very far from me. Despite this blanket reassurance, and subsequent telling of my safety as the nuclear issue came about, I would be spending the next two weeks in a constant attempt to calm fears at home. In addition, I would be balancing highly differing information in an attempt to evaluate the truth of my situation.
The portrayal of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that occurred in the Sendai region of Japan seems to have varied greatly from country to country. In Japan, videos of the disaster and reports came constant from the sites surrounding and in the area affected. For days, a map of Japan was shown on the TV screen with three levels of tsunami threat depicted: red the greatest risk, orange moderate risk, and yellow minimal risk. Whenever a news report was given on the event, the correspondent would always wear a hard hat, regardless of where they were (this including, quite unnecessarily if they were in the station studio of an unaffected city). The devastation was constantly reported, but no sensationalism seemed to be expressed. It was a massive disaster that affected a highly populous region of Japan, but it was only a relatively small part of Japan, and therefore most of the country was able to continue on their normal business. This was true of the area of Japan where I live and travel, the Kansai region. No shocks were felt at all from the distant quake, and our risk of tsunami was extremely minimal, especially considering that the island of Kyushu is blocking most of our area from the direct sea. The event stayed on the local news, and was is the background of people’s conversations for days, but people in Kansai largely continued their lives as normal.
The view of the disaster abroad was quite a bit different. My exposure to American news media at the time was minimal, but from what I saw, it seemed to be a constant stream of disaster footage. The massive wave becoming a wall of mud and debris and the devastation that followed it. All that could be seen was devastation of the towns over and over again. But the headlines I saw did not talk about the region or cities affected by the event, they talked about Japan being affected, with devastation often implied to be total across the country. Much of my poor family and friends were in a great panic, thinking that I was absolutely in danger. I made a continuous effort to calm people, and to try to get across how big Japan really is, and that the media’s portrayal of the event was maybe misleading. I was fortunately able to quell most fears with assurances that I was okay, and would be remaining that way. But then the nuclear disaster hit the mainstream news. Once again sensationalism set in on the news. The reactor is quite far from me, so I once again set out to explain that the danger for me and Kansai was just not present. If there was any risk, I told everyone, my university would know, and they would withdraw us from the program. This calmed my parents, and calmed me, but then confusion set in among the exchange students. Our program at the time consisted of about 45 people coming from about ten schools across the US and Europe. Four of the schools were linked to Illinois, so their information and advice would be the same as that given to me. Every other school, though, made their own evaluations, and no two institutions came to the same conclusion. Soon after, students began to be recalled. Some universities firmly believed students were in immediate danger due to radiation, and some seemed to just want to be cautious just in case. A university in France even decided to cut off all relations with the university. This situation greatly confused all of us. All the universities have access to roughly the same information, how could such varying conclusions and levels of panic be reached? Some of us are still unsure if we will be sent home early. Worse yet, with so many authorities claiming to understand the situation over everyone else, we still don’t know the true risk involved with staying here. Unfortunately, it seems only time will tell.