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Comparing Japanese and Foreign Disaster Coverage

JMSC teaching consultant and media scholar, Masato Kajimoto, discussed how the Japanese and international media covered the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and the resulting nuclear crisis during a research seminar at the University of Hong Kong on April 8, 2011.

Masato Kajimoto Research Seminar

Kajimoto, a teaching consultant at HKU who is studying for his Ph.D. in Sociology, changed his dissertation topic after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck northeastern Japan on March 11.

“After this happened, I couldn’t really think about anything else,” he said.

International media were filled with empathy and praise for the Japanese people, said Kajimoto, who previously worked as an online reporter and editor for CNN in Hong Kong.

“Many editorials, opinion columns, even the straightforward news articles were very supportive of the people in Japan,” he said.

Two days after the earthquake, for example, The Independent’s Sunday cover featured Japan’s rising sun symbol with the words “Don’t give up, Japan! Don’t give up, Tohoku!” in Japanese and English.

Kajimoto said that kind of media coverage influenced how people behaved, prompting them to donate more than $1 billion to Japan’s Red Cross in the first three weeks after the earthquake.

Foreign media praised the Japanese people for their resilience and endurance in the wake of the multiple disasters, Kajimoto said. They also ran lengthy features asking why there was seemingly no looting in the country.

But Kajimoto said news organisations in Japan reported the situation differently. They were less surprised by the relative calm, since people in Japan are used to frequent earthquakes and are trained to deal with them.

The Japanese media also revealed that some people did take advantage of the situation through donation scams and theft. The tabloid media even reported that people were scavenging corpses for money and other valuables. Reporting on these issues was almost nonexistent in the international media.

International reporting on the nuclear crisis, meanwhile, focused on the worst-case scenario, Kajimoto said. Foreign coverage has dramatised and even sensationalised the struggle to repair the damaged reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, using biblical terms like ‘apocalypse’ and ‘exodus’.

One example is the repeated references to the “Fukushima 50,” who have been portrayed in the international media as selfless heroes willing to give their lives to save their fellow countrymen from a nuclear meltdown.

Kajimoto said there are more like 1,000 people, many of them temporary employees, working in shifts at the plant.

“I don’t know how many of them are willingly sacrificing their lives,” he said. “They were saying they had no choice — they lost their house, they have no insurance.”

The government is offering financial incentives to these workers, who need the money to support their families. Few of them are trained for the situation at the plant. While these issues have been discussed in the Japanese media, they are barely mentioned internationally.

“Many international news organisations, in my view, simplified the situation and tried to tell stories that are ready-made,” Kajimoto said.

He pointed to a crowd-sourced website, Journalist Wall of Shame, where people critique international coverage.

On the other hand, foreign journalists have been more skeptical about information from official sources and have done more original reporting, Kajimoto said. International media are also more willing to air the views of people in Japan who say the earthquake-prone country should not use nuclear power at all.