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.


8 thoughts on “Fukushima from a Distance – Foreigners use Facebook for News

  1. Pingback: Fukushima from a Distance – Foreigners use Facebook for News « For … « WAFFiL: In-Store, Online & Mobile Social Marketing

  2. Thanks for laying this out. I was in Fukushima City for four days following the quake, running the gamut of emotion and looking for some sense amid all the conflicting reports regarding the reactors. In this, the Fukushima expat community was a tremendous help. Still, the uncertainty remained, and when I woke on Tuesday morning and saw a line for gas a half mile long (most would end up getting none), with the buses and trains spotty if they were running at all, I looked at my two little boys and knew I couldn’t afford to stick around. We hitched a ride out of town that afternoon and two days later we were touching down in New Jersey.
    I too admire those still there, helping out; I wish I were one of them.

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