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Fukushima from a Distance – Foreigners use Facebook for News

The following is an article I wrote, inspired by my submission to #Quakebook, now called 2:46: Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake.  I’ve submitted it to some media outlets, along with an introduction of Quakebook and what it’s aiming to do, but somehow I feel like it won’t get picked up, so here it is.  Just to be clear though, this is nothing like my submission to Quakebook.

Edited by Steve Paugh

Having lived as an expatriate in Japan for 4 years, I have come to realize that foreigners with a limited command of the Japanese language don’t have access to the news the same way they would in a western country. There are English newspapers and online sources that readers can casually peruse in their spare time, but when attempting to access concrete, up to date, non-sensationalist news in the wake of a disaster, the task becomes nearly impossible. This is especially true when the news concerns an area that was, prior to the catastrophe, widely unknown both outside of and even within Japan. This is where the wonders of social networking and media sites like Twitter and Facebook can step in, to enlighten the unknown and cut through the impossible.

Just 24 hours after the quake, Facebook was littered with links to warnings from CNN, FOX and other “trusted news sources” that a so-called nuclear apocalypse was about to descend upon the people living in the largely rural prefecture of Fukushima. I jumped on board as well, urging my friends to leave. The blame game in the media quickly began after that, particularly with the western media criticizing the transparency of the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). That didn’t help matters on the ground in Fukushima, and caused people to question what the government was telling them and panicking everyone even more.

To expats living in and around Fukushima, the conflicting reports of safety and nuclear meltdown became confusing. Thereafter followed the panicked assumptions and indecisions: “Should I get out now? Should I run for my life?  How will I be judged by my family if I stay? How will I be judged by co-workers and friends if I leave?” These are only a few of the questions I can assume people in that situation would ask themselves.

Faced with such dilemmas, the expats in Fukushima, most of whom are friends of mine, could have internalized the general doom and gloom flung towards them by the international media, and been ripped apart by self-doubt and panic. Instead, they came together. They helped each other, constantly updating their Facebook statuses with information about road conditions, gas lines, trains and other means of public transportation. They even opened their homes to those fleeing the devastated eastern coast line. Even with limited internet access and phone connections that were sketchy at best, smart phone data connections allowed people to check their Facebook accounts easily.  A calm and rational way of thinking washed over the people on the ground in Fukushima and I realized that this was definitely the way to approach the situation.

From my home in Ottawa, I watched my Facebook news feed fill up with information about the situation in Fukushima.  With no other means to help, I designated myself official note-taker. Using Facebook, Twitter and live online blogs from the BBC and Al Jazeera, I began crafting updates. At first, I only posted information to my Facebook wall, but quickly moved on to writing complete updates, which I then published on my blog. Anyone who had been associated with Fukushima in the past came together to help the people there, searching as they did for relevant and rational news sources about the situation.

That’s when we began to scrutinize the media, finding factual errors and quotes that had been taken out of context and used to fuel the fear of the western media audience. One hopes that these news outlets were not aware of the stress and chaos they were raining down upon the expat community in Fukushima. It must be noted that without some of the responsible journalists that were reporting on the situation and tweeting about it as it happened, we would not have been able to get information to people as quickly and as accurately as we did.

With the flow of communication made clearer, everyone’s movements could then be based on personal choice, without judgement. It was important to everyone involved that each person was free and able to make a decision that would make him or her comfortable, whether that be to stay or go.

Information covered both plans of action. For those wishing to remove themselves from the situation, options were laid out about what to do. Those that decided to stay were provided general status updates about each major city, as well as information about volunteer opportunities. Through a dedicated Facebook group, people in Fukushima and abroad were able to help one another and police the news together, while keeping each other in good spirits in a time of stress and difficulty.

The nuclear crisis has not been averted yet in Fukushima, and things are still frightening to say the least, but I have faith that things will get better. As for my friends; for those who have left, I am glad they are safe. To those who stayed, I am proud that they helped the community around them. For myself, I am just honoured to have been associated with this small part of what the people of Fukushima came together and did during this crisis.

Fukushima Update: 03/31 12:03pm JST

Here are a few things I’ve come across in the last little while.  Some good, some bad.

A handy site that graphs Radiation levels, scroll down for Fukushima levels, or just look at the images below, click them to make them bigger.

There are quite a few graphs after that that show the different parts of the area.  Just go check it out, if your city isn’t listed above.

Radioactive iodine 4,385 times the legal limit was measured today in the sea near the Fukushima N-plant, compared to 3,355 times yesterday.

Reuters: NISA (Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency) says Japan gov’t must consider whether to expand nuclear evacuation zone. (no link to any article)
FLASH: Nuclear safety agency says IAEA did not officially request that Japan expand evacuation zone

A comment on the above from Steve Herman of Voice of America – I believe IAEA’s role is to suggest, not request: RT @Reuters: NISA says IAEA did not officially request Japan expand evacuation zone.

Updated – Steve Herman – More on the high radiation levels at Iitate, Fukushima-ken in this VOA report: http://is.gd/ITFafA

JR: Fukushima-Yamagata shinkansen (bullet train) running again for 1st x since 3/11.

Daily Yomiuri: The govt is planning to spray sticky resin on 80,000 square meters of contaminated debris at the Fukushima N-plant. bit.ly/gEU64E


Social Media – Positives and Negatives

I think by this point, everyone knows the value of things like Twitter and Facebook when it comes to getting information.  It’s invaluable, but just in the ways that it can be positive and help it can be negative and detrimental to situations.   Through this whole experience I’ve gained a lot of friends on facebook.  People I didn’t know I added so that they could see my updates and articles I was finding and vetting to the best of my ability.  I did what I could in the basement, sitting on the couch, in Canada.  Well, now, I’m seeing more and more of things like this being posted by people who live in Fukushima or who have left.  I assume in an attempt to help out and spread information.


This link was just posted to facebook.  I assume this person has friends that are in Fukushima and they will see this article.  I’ve reproduced it below and I’m going to bold the things you should pay attention to.  Keep in mind that today is March 29th

UPDATED March 25, 2011
The Evacuation Zones Around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant
Estimates of Possible Exposure Define U.S. Evacuation Zone

The American Embassy recommended on March 17 that Americans within 50 miles of the Fukushima reactors evacuate. The recommendation was based on an analysis by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that predicts possible radiation levels assuming conditions at the plant degrade. It is not based on current radiological conditions. It includes factors like whether containment vessels remain intact and weather patterns, among others. Here are the results of the analysis on March 16.


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Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Environmental Protection Agency; Robert Meck, health physicist, Science and Technology Systems; LandScan 2009 population dataset/UT-Battelle (population estimates)

First of all, that’s a lot of assuming, predicting, and possibilities.  Then add in the fact that this information is from March 16th and today is March 29th and you really start to think…wow, what is this?

Now, on March the 17th, I posted quite a bit as a lot was going on.  And I remember reading about the NRC and all the crazy things they were saying.  What I found strange about that day was that the BBC had added a little section to all the NRC’s craziness.  I wrote this in my 03/17 6:57am Update

Daily reasons to not believe the hype:
NRC are coming out saying a lot of things. Based on “very limited” information. Make sure you’re reading whole articles!

On my facebook page, because at that point I wasn’t blogging everything, I posted this directly from the BBC Live Blog emphasizing the end, which was left out in the Reuters and most other American news reports, it’s in bold

March 17, 5:33am

BBC live blog: More from NRC chair Gregory Jaczko. He told Congress: “We believe that secondary containment has been destroyed and there is no water in the spent fuel pool and we believe that radiation levels are extremely high which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures.” Mr Jackzo said the high radiation levels would make it very difficult for workers to get near the reactor. “The doses they could experience would potentially be lethal doses in a very short period of time,” he said, but added that the NRC’s information on the situation was “very limited”.

I followed that up with a comment.

BBC is the only news agency to add in the “very limited” portion of the above statements.

I realize that because this article has a pretty graphic, people go to that first, then look at what that graphic means, then maybe read things.  While the top of the article does say, updated March 25th, the article is still referencing the 16th as the time that the analysis was done.  I could also go and find exact numbers on radiation since then if I really needed to.  But it’s 5am and I work at 10am.

My point is that even though things have calmed down and people have removed themselves from the situation or at least have time to sit back now and actually read a couple articles that doesn’t mean you should post everything you see that has an easy to understand graphic.  Everyone worked together to police the news in the worst of situations, let’s not get complacent now and potentially provide incorrect information to people.


Fukushima Tidbits 03/29 5pm JST

Just gonna toss this up here.

Iwaki via a facebook friend: I know some of you are wondering when to return. That, of course, must be a personal choice. I know that there is access to food and water in most areas of Iwaki, but precise details are impossible. It changes everyday, for the better.  7-11’s are starting to open up, grocery stores have been open.

No line for gas in Koriyama

JR TOHOKU Line will start going up to Motomiya. Check timetable on this website. (If you want to go as far as Nihonmatsu, I’ve heard there will be a bus leaving Koriyama, available starting April 1st).

Trains are now expected to be running between Koriyama and Fukushima City by early April. Fukushima to Sendai, however, will take a lot longer due to the severity in damages.

From the University of Oxford – It’s a really good read about radiation and the hazards as well as why it shouldn’t be blown out of proportion.

Viewpoint: We should stop running away from radiation


Notes from Edano’s NHK Conference 03/29 9:40am JST

Taken right from the Prime Minster of Japan’s Twitter feed and Facebook page.

1. Regarding plutonium detected at the  Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant

・The radioactive levels of plutonium detected from soil samples taken at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant are almost the same as those from the fallout detected in the background radiation (i.e. the levels of plutonium detected following past nuclear tests in the atmosphere).

・The plutonium in question was detected probably because the nuclear power plant was hit by the major earthquake and tsunami. We will continue to strengthen monitoring the levels of plutonium at the periphery of the plant.

2.Regarding highly radioactive water detected in  the reactor

・Nuclear Safety Commission and Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency are examining various options to pump out highly radioactive water that has been building up in the basement of the reactor’s turbine building.

・Injecting water is critically important to cool down the reactor and prevent the fuel rods inside the reactor from being exposed above water. It is necessary to strike a balance between removing highly radiated water leaking from the turbine building and injecting appropriate amount of water into the reactor to prevent the reactor from overheating.

Quakebook and Toronto Fundraiser links

First and foremost, here’s a link to an article about the Fundraiser I attended yesterday, run by Jason Ishida, a friend who still lives in Fukushima city.


Here’s a link to the Japanese Canadian Cultural Center – Japan Earthquake Relief Fund, which Jay’s fundraiser donated to.  I’ll be putting it on the about page with the others as well.

And here’s a link to Jay’s interview. Well handled.


2nd, more quakebook hype. This is really starting to pick up steam, but I’m just wondering where all the Canadian media is in all of this. Seeing that there are quite a few Canadians who have written for it.

I’m going to work to get this posted on a few tech blogs and potentially covered by a Canadian News Outlet. I think this book just underscores how social media can be used for all things, whether it be for information in a time of crisis or as something that brings people from all over together in order to contribute to a book.

Japan Times article:

BBC Article:


UPDATE: From the Wall Street Journal:

Also, you can sign up to pre-order the electronic or hard copy of the Quakebook, now titled 2:46 at the quakebook website http://quakebook.blogspot.com/ on the right hand side of the page. I still can’t believe that I’m going to be in this. I went back and read what I wrote again and wow, I’m scared. I hope the editors know what they’re doing. But I feel like that will be a good feel to the book, kind of rushed and unsure, just like this whole experience has been and still is.