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9 Apr 2011

The curious case of Minamisoma and the overseas media

filed under: journal  :: earthquake  :: japan  :: japanese culture  :: media  :: media-suckage

I've been back in Japan for almost 2 weeks now, and am no longer tweeting Japanese news updates almost 20 hours a day as I was before. I am keeping up with the news as best I can though. Thankfully, things have slowed down quite a bit since those early, frantic days after March 11. Besides, I really have so many other things to do besides sitting in front of my laptop. I'm in Japan! I am still tweeting about things in fits, with plenty of rants along the way if you've enjoyed those.

I've also been writing some longer pieces regarding Japan. You can see my latest output on my food sites (especially on Just Hungry) as well as in The Japan Times. I should have 1-2 more articles up somewhere very soon too. I'm also mulling over establishing a full blog dedicated to things about Japan that are not food related.

Anyway, for the time being this normally sleepy personal blog is where you will see me ranting in longer text form. And one recent story that got picked up by the overseas, not-in-Japan media in the last couple of days is the case of the town of Minami Soma in Fukushima prefecture. (Alternate phonetic spellings of the name of the town: Minamisoma (one word), Minami Sōma/Minamisōma, Minami Souma/Minamisouma, Minami Sohma/Minamsohma. In kanji 南相馬, hiragana みなみそうま. The name basically means South Soma. There's also a Soma or Souma City. In this document I'll go with Minamisoma, though previously I've used both Minami Souma and Minami Soma.) The town has been a particularly hard hit by the March 11 earthquake; damaged by the quake itself, partially inundated by tsunami, and then stuck in a sort of no-man's zone within 25 kilometers of the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant, or within the 20-30km 'staying indoors recommended' zone.

The first someone alerted me to a Youtube video of the mayor of Minamisoma was around April 3rd, referring to this mention on Daily Kos. The Daily Kos post refers to this English subtitled video posted on April 1, the first version of the video, also with subtitles is this one I believe. The note by the uploader says it was taped on March 24th.

The story of the plight of Minamisoma has been major headline news in the Japanese media for much longer though. Around March 15, the same mayor, Katsunobu Sakurai, got major airtime via telephone for 3 nights running on NHK News during prime time. A JMKNAPP posted about this on Daily Kos on March 16, but I haven't seen anyone commenting about that mention in the comment thread below the video post. In any case, shortly after the Youtube video story got picked up on Daily Kos, stories such as this one in the New York Times started to appear in the not-in-Japan media. Headline such as this one in the Irish Times seem to imply that the town is still stranded and in desperate straits even now, even though the story does mention that the town is slowly getting back on its feet.

Now, I am not for one moment playing down the seriousness of the sitaution Minamisoma was placed in. The mayor was justifiably angry. Here are my first tweets regarding his live phone call conversations with NHK News, posted on March 15:

live phone call just now to NHK from mayor of Minami Soma in Fukushima, not only hit hard by tsunami but in 30km Fukushima zone

he's not happy. he says they're staying indoors following the central gov'ts instructions, v. little communication

he wants better communication, when they can continue to look for survivors.He sounded both angry and sad

As I mentioned above, NHK allowed him several minutes of airtime for at least 3 nights running, and several times after that too. On March 19, there was a bit of good news, also reported on NHK and tweeted by me:

buses from Toride, Ibaraki have left loaded with supplies to pick up the 120stranded evacuees in Minami Souma, Fukushima

(Note: the '"the" 120 stranded evacuees' part is a bit misleading. There were and are more people in Minamisoma of course, but these were 120 of the most desperate and weak, running low on supplies of all kinds. NHK had the departure of the buses from Toride live; I still remember the chief bus driver, acting as the captain of the fleet, proudly off to execute a critical mission.

I want to emphasize that I was not doing anything special at all. All I was doing was picking up what millions of people in Japan could see, on the evening or morning newscast on the most-watched source of TV news in the nation.

I haven't tweeted aggressively about Minamisoma since then, but there have been continuing followup reports in the Japanese news. At one point Japan Self Defense Force soldiers were going from door to door, asking the residents what they needed and so on.

As of the latest news on Minamisoma reported a couple of days ago (April 7), the situation there has improved, though by no means are they back to normal. They have 'lifelines', electricity, phone and water back online in many parts. Supplies are coming in. Some stores are opening back, and some people who did evacuate are moving back too. People are angry at the central government for its slowness in getting them supplies and information, and at TEPCO for what's going on at the Fukushima nuclear power plants.

A small but telling sign that things are improving is that the official city website is back up and looking like a regular site; for a while it was just a plain text, bare-facts page of links. And, you can check out the newest message from Mayor Sakurai at the bottom of this page. In case you do not understand Japanese, he says the situation is much improved, thanks people around the country and the world, and states he is formally putting in a request to the Fukushima prefectural office to change the restrictions on movement in their town, so that for example the children are able to go to school. He also addresses the more than 40,000 residents who are still in evacuation centers elsewhere, telling them he is doing his best to ensure they will be able to return soon, and more.

And so we get back to the overseas media again.

But why did the mayor of Minamisoma's pleas not make the overseas news in any significant way prior to the Youtube video - or to be more precise, prior to the Youtube video getting the attention of English speakers, and being mentioned on big American sites like Daily Kos? Why now?

To me this is just another sign that the overseas media have no clue what they are doing when it comes to covering Japan. They are taking their cues from fricking Youtube videos - and they need English subtitles on them to boot. While one could say a lot about the impact of 'new media' and so on - and the mayor is showing his media savvy by continuing to post videos - the phone calls with NHK News probably made a much bigger, immediate and useful impact. At the very least it got the 120 very dire cases out of there when they needed urgent help.

In any case, if you were concerned about the people of Minamisoma, you'll probably be relieved to find out things are improving for them. I don't really hold out much hope that you'll see any followup reports in the not-in-Japan media about that because you know, good news is not 'newsy' enough for them. On the other hand if something disastrous happens there you may here about it, especially if it comes with English subtitles.

I'd like to add just one more thing. The Daily Kos posting about the March 24th video, with the emotional headline HEARTBREAKING Video SOS, says:

You can watch the video with English subtitles on Youtube, but it seems to me that much of what the obviously exhausted mayor is saying isn't fully translated.

On the contrary, whoever did the subtitles did a pretty good job. I've seen this kind of response to someone personally not understanding Japanese, and being unable to read the body language and facial expressions properly, assuming that "they are not getting the full story", time and time again these past few weeks. Frankly it's a problem on the viewer's side, and it's just terribly frustrating and annoying to me. Last night I made a sarcastic comment on Twitter that the Japanese government has put out an open call for actors to audition for key roles to play in front of the not-in-Japan media cameras during the next disaster. They will need actors to play grief-stricken, wailing grandmothers, mothers sobbing uncontrollably while clutching babies, and of course the all-important angry student protestors. Perhaps then the rest of the world that doesn't have a clue about Japan and how Japanese people tend to react to things will be satisfied.

Comments on this post:

local vs foreign media

Makiko, first let me thank you for all your postings and information. Seriously! Your complaints or bewilderment regarding 'non-Japanese-media' does not hit the right points. The issue is far bigger. I do not speak Japanese, so I can't talk specifically about Japan, but my guess is that Japan's media is as clueless reporting on US issues as Australia's media about French issues etc etc.

Losing tears about that is understandable but won't help. If you think foreigners are unable to understand the language, the body language, the specific expressions etc, then please help us understand all those better by explaining them ;-)

thanks again !

Please do!

I think I read that you intend to start "full blog dedicated to things about Japan that are not food related". Please, do! I really enjoyed your cultural tweets, they taught me a lot about a country I appreciate and respect very much.
As for media coverage, I tend to avoid it, and quit simply to look to the sources to get reliable, non filtered information. I could do this in part thanks to you, because you pointed at some of those English language sources very soon after the disaster, telling your readers to "go read them and form their own opinion on the subject".

On your final note; ""You can

On your final note;
""You can watch the video with English subtitles on Youtube, but it seems to me that much of what the obviously exhausted mayor is saying isn't fully translated."
On the contrary, whoever did the subtitles did a pretty good job."

I suppose you'd agree that the overall language barrier plays a significant part. As a student, my vocabulary is limited, but I can understand enough to know that more or less everything the mayor says is reflected in the translation. People who don't speak or study Japanese don't know how long sentences, phrases, and grammatical formations need to be. It doesn't help that Mayor Sakarai doesn't speak with the alacrity of a Tokyo-jin. From my perspective the comment reflects the Anglocentrism of Anglophone media and people who, because they rarely acquire additional languages, assume that all languages communicate at a similar pace with similar rules.

The physical and emotional expression of distress is a separate issue that neither the articles nor the video directly address. The video simply cannot, because Mayor Sakarai effectively bears sole responsibility for the clear and effective representation of the town's case before viewers. Where do you see or hear those misconceptions? Surely the media has reported, ad nauseam, of the overall despair, stress, and misery? And surely most people would prefer that external observers not see too much or inquire too closely of their emotional distress. As important as it may be for others to understand and empathize, such expressive grief remains "unsightly", if you'll pardon my choice of words. Though it admittedly reflects my own cultural upbringing, one imagines that the theoretical and conceptual understanding and sympathy of others is sufficient. The real depth of distress is personal and incommunicable, and one might daresay it "cheapens" those feelings to assume that showing them will beget the understanding and empathy of others who have never or will never share the experience.

I thought it was just America

I thought it was just American news that relied on 'infotainment' as opposed to reporting actual and specific facts. Not sure if I should be relieved or upset that it seems most of the world operates on the same principal of 'it bleeds, it leads'.

I would hope more savvy people know enough to go to the source, or at least closer to the source (like you and bunguman) but the social and cultural dynamics are difficult to overcome, especially when one side isn't willing or able to realize that not everyone reacts in the same way.

And I wanted to add a personal note of thanks to you for your tireless efforts during those first few days after the quake hit. Luckily my family is in Tokushima and was unaffected by the quake and tsunami but you were literally a life line to those of us who couldn't get through and weren't getting the info we needed on the commercial news outlets.

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