Japan: Rumors And Misinformation Create Undue Panic
TOKYO — I am very tired; exhausted, could be a better word. In fact, I don’t think anything can describe the stress that people in Japan have been under since March 11, when the 8.9 earthquake and the tsunamis struck this island. As a foreigner living in Tokyo, my concernes may differ from those of Japanese people, but maybe they don’t.
The Irresponsible Media
I would say that the number one culprit of the stress I and my friends in Japan have suffered has to do with the media coverage of the recent events in Japan. Day in and day out we have been bombarded with rumors, speculation, outright lies, hyperbole, and pessimistic outlooks from “experts” on TV, newspapers, and the Internet about the situation here. It has to stop.
Since the nuclear crisis began, talk about radiation levels, fallout, thyroid cancer, iodine pills, and more has blurred the lines between reality and science-fiction. The news has been plagued by more speculation of what could happen if the reactors at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant exploded, than the facts of what is actually being done to prevent such a disaster. The “apocalyptic,” “end of the world,” predictions from people around the world since the reactors began to fail, has been uncalled for and should be condemned by any decent human being.
As a Westerner, I’m ashamed of the news media our countries are able to generate. I can’t believe that this painful time in Japanese history is being used to increase ratings and to attract people to the TV screens by inciting nothing more than fear.
The Reality In Tokyo
Take a look at the streets of Tokyo, let me tell you what you will see: children going to school, people tending to their gardens, grandma taking a stroll, office workers heading to work and train systems that are improving service by the hour.
Now let me tell you what headlines I see in the news: “Radiation Spread Seen; Frantic Repairs Go On” — “Japan’s nuclear accident evokes Chernobyl memory” — “Japan faces ‘apocalyptic’ disaster as radiation spills from stricken nuclear plant” — “Is Japan Disaster Another Apocalyptic Sign?”
Indeed, the devastation of the tsunamis that struck the Tohoku region was tremendous and deserved every minute of news coverage, but once the reactors began to fail, that’s when journalists went from messengers of facts, to messengers of hyperbole and speculation.
The Effect On Policy Making
What is most alarming is that in fact, our world leaders do read the news and somewhat rely on professional journalists to help them make informed decisions. If the news are exaggerated, you see government taking exaggerated measures. Take for example that now some European governments are halting or reviewing their own nuclear plants, or that people in California are desperate to take iodine pills because the radiation plume has been projected to reach the West Coast. Obama has to go on TV to ease fears of radiation contamination in the US. How irrational!
An earthquake the size we had in Japan would never strike in the center of Germany and would not damage those nuclear plants. No one in the US should be taking Iodine pills since many experts agree that radiation would dissipate over the Pacific Ocean miles before it ever reaches the West Coast of the US. It’s all fear and it’s very dangerous.
A great cause of concern has been the position US government officials have taken to point fingers and accuse the Japanese government of “downplaying” the danger that the nuclear reactors pose. The US dared to expand the evacuation zone for its citizens around the Fukushima Nuclear Plant from the 12-mile radius the Japanese had recommended, to a 50-mile radius — thus, clearly telling the Japanese, “we don’t believe you are handling this correctly, let us step in and correct you.” It’s very insulting, considering that Japanese people are in those nuclear plants right now, fighting around the clock to cool the reactors, stop fires, and restore power lines. These men are sacrificing their lives for the millions of others living in Japan and they do so with pride and unity. Let’s trust them a little.
On Friday, the Japanese made huge progress in cooling off the reactors. They have restored power lines and pumps are working again. They have spent endless hours planning how to extinguish fires, moving quickly if something goes wrong — they have handled this situation and will continue to do so. They will succeed. Unlike, us, Westerners, the Japanese don’t spend their time screaming on the streets at the time of a tragedy. They don’t go and loot or riot either if disasters strike. We have something to learn from the resilience on this island. I have reported from 5 disaster areas during my 7-year career as a journalist, and my jaw drops at how strong and calm the Japanese are. I’m in awe and I respect them immensely.
Evacuating Americans Off Japan
There is no danger to Americans in Tokyo, yet, the State Department has moved to evacuate those who want to leave. The US Embassy in Tokyo has failed in all their emails to US citizens living in Japan to cite scientific information or sources that justify these evacuations. The reason why the US moved to start evacuating citizens: to calm down nervous people who have been unable to pull themselves away from the TV for a week and are now one-minute away from a heart attack. These costly evacuations are a waste of US taxpayer dollars and it’s money that could instead be going to the relief efforts.
The radiation levels in Tokyo have been fluctuating every day, some days they are slightly above normal, then they drop again. You can take a look at this yourself and compare that the levels from a year ago in Tokyo, they have not increased as much as the news will lead you to believe, click here for the Tokyo University radiation meter for Tokyo. Last year, the levels stayed slightly below 20, now, they are only slightly above 20 — the levels are safe.
What To Look For
If you are keeping track of news from Japan, look for news that show progress because that is what is happening. It will probably take a few weeks to get this totally under control, but it will indeed, be under control. Don’t buy into the hype, or the “experts” that tell you that the Japanese don’t know what they are doing. That is outright condescending.
For those of us still living in Japan, stay calm, go outside and get out of the bubble. You are safe in Tokyo right now, when you aren’t anymore you will know. Listen to what the authorities are saying and make informed decisions. Don’t pick up and go and leave the life you built in Japan over some unfounded rumors.
A special thanks to my friend, Evan Jarvis, who amid these difficult moments has helped me and others at the Jiyugaoka Guest House, stay level-headed.