The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 25 | Ruminations on the recent events in Japan

Leaving Proof 25 | Ruminations on the recent events in Japan
Published on Tuesday, March 15, 2011 by

I originally planned on publishing a column comparing and contrasting Marvel’s The ‘Nam and its much-maligned spiritual successor, Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq for this week, but decided to pass on that in favour of writing down and sharing my meandering thoughts on the recent earthquake in Japan.

Having spent all of my life living on one side of the Pacific Rim or the other, I’m no stranger to earthquakes and other seismic activity. I was a few months shy of my twelfth birthday when the 1990 Luzon earthquake struck the northern Philippines. The quake measured in at a 7.8 magnitude on the Richter Scale at its epicenter. We lived in one of the hardest hit areas (with local deaths numbering over 700), the mile-high mountain resort town of Baguio, a place that was rendered inaccessible because of massive damage to the mountain passes and the local airport. For weeks after the tremor, the only way to get relief goods in and medical emergencies out of the city was via helicopter. We slept on the streets for fear of aftershocks that kept coming weeks after the initial tremblor and lived without electricity and running water for months. The following year would see the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, the ramifications of which continue to affect worldwide weather patterns two decades after the event. I remember riding a bus through the barren, ash-laden provinces directly affected by the eruption a few years later as I left Baguio to study in Manila: Passengers had to wear improvised face masks as the bus made its way through once-verdant farmlands rendered into a desolate, post-apocalyptic vision of interminable greyness. In 1996, I was building barriers and clearing remaining pyroclastic debris to protect Pampanga and Zambales communities against the seemingly never-ending threat of lahar as a member of a 1302nd Community Defense Center reservist detachment.

None of that firsthand experience with seismic disasters helped mitigate the emotional impact of the images and videos that came out of Japan on the afternoon (Pacific time) of March 11, though. Not that anything could prepare one to see human suffering at such a large scale. But more than images of the actual earthquake, it was the succeeding tsunami that really hammered home the point that this wasn’t just another Japanese earthquake (Japan is one of the most quake-prone countries in the world). As of this writing (15 March 2011), there are an estimated 3,500 dead, 2,000 injured, and some 7,000 missing, with the number of confirmed dead expected to rise into the multiple tens of thousands as more bodies are recovered from underneath the rubble and from the receding waters of inundated coastal towns.

The role the media has played in the aftermath of the disaster is interesting to me, and the behaviour of major news outlets like CNN and Fox News in mining the tragedy for fodder for the 24 hour news cycle is at once abhorrent and fascinating. In a recent TV interview, MIT nuclear science and engineering professor Michael W. Golay was visibly annoyed by the CNN anchor’s badgering and goading of him to give a sound bite that can be packaged with the network’s seeming slant towards depicting a full-blown, Chernobyl-level nuclear disaster in Fukushima prefecture in the wake of the earthquake damaging the area’s nuclear power plant. Four days after the earthquake, CNN has settled into a routine of showing emotionally manipulative, overly-sentimental human interest stories punctuated by alarmist “panic reporting” meant to capitalize on people’s worst fears and sustain an air of nuclear paranoia that will keep viewers glued to their TV sets, regardless of the true situation on the ground. It’s a disgusting display of sensationalist journalism, but riveting viewing in its own twisted way. It might be recall bias on my part, but offhand, it also seems like there’s more media coverage of this disaster than recent and similarly tragic events such as last year’s earthquake in Haiti or the horrendous 2004 St. Stephen’s Day Tsunami that killed over 225,000 people. I don’t know what to read into that, except that maybe I’m more attuned to this news because of geographical (we did get tsunami warnings here on the BC coast immediately after the quake hit) and cultural proximity.

The outpouring of sympathy and help the world over for Japan that goes beyond the basic human reaction to the tragedy comes as no surprise, with or without the emotional button-pushing by the media. Japan and its technological and cultural exports have been ubiquitous in the fabric of international society for at least the past five decades. It doesn’t really matter where you live, chances are you’ve used or directly benefited from other people’s use of a Sony, Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Panasonic, Toshiba, Fujitsu, Nintendo, or Canon-branded product in the past 24 hours. In a certain sense, many non-Japanese people feel a particular affinity for Japan (or the idea of Japan, at least) that perhaps isn’t shared with many other nations because of the contact they have with the products of Nipponese industries.

Like many Southeast Asians of a certain age, I have family who suffered under the rule of Imperial Japan (and its goal of establishing the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere) during World War II. I grew up hearing stories of the cruelties inflicted by the kempeitai. The threat of abduction by Imperial Japanese Army stragglers (who would have been absolutely decrepit by the time I was born) was still used by parents and grandparents to keep young children from straying too far from their homes and villages when I was a kid. So it says something about the strength of Japan’s modern image and the success of its overwhelming post-war transformation that, despite all the cultural and historical baggage, my friends and I still grew up thinking of Japan in a largely positive light. Part of this attitude perhaps came from being the recipient of Japanese aid (the gym at my old elementary school was constructed with the technical help and financial contributions of Japanese volunteers, and many of the schools and hospital buildings that were damaged by the aforementioned 1990 Luzon earthquake were rebuilt with the assistance of the Osaka-based Solid Electronics Corporation). But a larger part of this comes from being a member of the “Voltes V Generation” (an informal demographic somewhat analogous to North America’s “Generation X”), named after the insanely popular Toei cartoon series. Like many of the TV stations in smaller Asian nations in the 1970s and 1980s, Filipino TV networks primarily re-broadcast dubbed 1970s-era Japanese cartoons and live-action “super sentai” and tokusatsu shows to fill their children’s programming slots. Besides Voltes V, many Filipino children my age paid rapt attention to the adventures of Daimos, Mekanda Robo, Mazinger Z, Bioman, and Shaider; and the dubbed versions of these shows, particularly Voltes V, Daimos, and Shaider, continue to be a shared popular culture experience in the modern Filipino diaspora.

Of course, this being the Information Age, it’s inevitable that any idiot with opposable thumbs and a Twitter account will somehow garner attention for his insensitivity regarding the earthquake. Family Guy and Cleveland Show writer Alec Sulkin tweeted that “if you wanna feel better about this earthquake in Japan, google ‘Pearl Harbor death toll.'” As if the majority of people killed, injured, and rendered homeless in the earthquake and tsunami had anything to do with the events of seventy years ago (he has since deleted the offending message and posted an apology). Still, there are people decrying the way Sulkin and other tweet-happy celebrities like rapper/mumbler Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and stand-up comedian Gilbert Gottfried were pressured by the “PC police” into self-censoring and curbing their constitutional right to free speech after their ill-considered attempts at making light of the situation. I think in these cases, almost everyone can agree that the implied “Don’t Be An Asshole Clause” overrides the First Amendment.

Anyway, if all this stream-of-consciousness rambling has somehow convinced you to help relief efforts, feel free to donate to the Red Cross or Red Crescent organization of your country. The Canadian and American Red Cross Societies have set up very easy ways to make a small, one-time, no obligation donation of $5 CAN (Canadian Red Cross) or $10 US (American Red Cross) to tsunami relief efforts via mobile phone text messaging. There are a lot of worse ways you could spend that money this week.

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