Tuesday, October 4, 2011

WALL STREET....PROTEST IS JUSTIFIED!




PROTEST IS JUSTIFIED!

BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

The reckless greed of Wall Street is legend, and surely needs reining in, but the “leader-free” democratic claims of the OccupyWallStreet movement may prove more myth than mythic. What is it about American political culture, left, right and center, that makes for an obligatory mantra of “democracy” even in its absence, whether it be in the name of upholding the status quo, upsetting the apple cart or fomenting revolution? 




On October first, I found myself at the foot of Brooklyn Bridge, not far from where my grandparents first settled in this country, watching hundreds of police cordon off the stately landmark in order to divide a gathering crowd and confront protesters already on the bridge.

Having just arrived from China, via Japan, I was curious about how America might be changing. I stood witness with a largely youthful crowd, morale sustained by rhythmic chants and the drone of drumbeats, as one of the largest mass arrests in American history followed. During the contained, subdued turmoil, I translated for a newly arrived Chinese student who was scoffed at for asking what the protests were about --not that there’s an easy answer to such a question.

For over a decade now it's been hard for Americans to exercise constitutionally protected rights of free assembly due to fears generated by the trumped up war on terror and the burgeoning bureaucracy of an intolerant security state. 

Thus it came as a breath of fresh air to see people in the streets of New York peacefully assembling in public thoroughfares to protest the inequities of the status quo.

In the next few days I saw much good cheer and uplifting vignettes of awakened political consciousness in the "Big Apple revolution" but there were also disturbing signs of groupthink coalescing as various political actors and media manipulators tried to harness the spontaneous energy and angst of a frustrated generation.

The OccupyWallStreet protests are said to be leaderless; even the Washington Post and New York Times chime in from their lofty perches to say so, but it doesn’t feel that way on the ground. Still, the appearance of a vacuum is sufficiently tempting for those who fancy themselves natural leaders of the American people to join the bandwagon, gushing with opportunistic goodwill and condescending advice.

In no time at all, seasoned political “liberals” such as Al Sharpton, George Soros and Nancy Pelosi were in the game, trying to join the bandwagon, while conservative voices such as Peter King, Herman Cain and Mitt Romney made shallow disparaging remarks typical of the US right-left culture divide of decades past. 

While moving amongst demonstrators in lower Manhattan, it is clear that some slogans are more equal than others, (just about anything with the mathematically spurious 99% claim is a crowd-pleaser, along with the binary good-bad pairings such as Wall Street vs Main Street and rich vs poor, etc.) Cardboard placards, on-line tweets and in-group chants converge in content and style. Statistical chance or hidden hand? 

The protests seem not so much scripted as improvised within secret guidelines zealously guarded by facilitators. The high degree of discipline, necessary to the success of any movement, is both imposed and self-imposed. Self-appointed crowd facilitators skillfully co-opt wide-eyed members of the crowd through subtle psychological control mechanisms.

The Occupy movement offers a new vocabulary for a new age, an assortment of odd terms not only geared to sound irresistibly hip to the wannabe, but which serve as a useful in-group marker and to some extent helps consolidate groupthink, if not a common ideology. 

Take free speech and democracy. Anyone who shows up for a “General Assembly” at a protest site, is, in theory, offered sixty seconds to express themselves. The mass deliberations are supposed to be proof of how democratic the movement is, though not much more than a sound-bite or introduction can be accomplished in the allotted amount of time. But the General Assembly is also a control mechanism, complete with a low-key bureaucracy at work, starting with volunteer security personnel, including US vets from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, authentication of visitors, facilitation working groups, a “stack keeper” who decides who gets to talk and in what order (with white males automatically sent to the bottom of the stack because they are presumably confident and like to talk) a “time keeper,” a “note-taker” and “mods” (moderators) for internet live streams. The evil genius of this form of free expression is that the conversation is hemmed in, subject to being steered and controlled, and anything less than glowing positive approval of what the facilitators are facilitating for can result in uncomfortable shunning or silence.

An eerie silent applause technique, said to be adopted from protests in Spain, is another crowd control technique, where an upward flutter of hands is construed as support, a downward flutter not so good.

There is the "mic check", a resourceful response to a police prohibition on microphones, in which listeners repeat in unison what speaker is trying to say. "Taking stack" is the job of the free speech dispatchers, “agenda items” steer discussion, a “report-back” sums it up. A "unity clap" concludes a session. If you don't make it into the “stack,” there is “soapbox” afterwards where one is free to ramble. There are “meditation flash mobs,” “rev fit” is health for revolutionaries, a “walk-out” is students cutting classes, “comfort” deals with showers, etc, and the “vibes-person” presumably monitors the mellowness of the mood. Women are sometimes described as “female-bodied persons” and politically correct terms like “people of color” are coin of the realm.

Yet strangely, as if taking a page from Homeland Security, there are color-coded alerts. Red means “blood,” blue means “fight,” green means “drugs” and white means “thief.”

There are calls to establish a "Liberty Plaza Anarchist College" While American-style anarchy co-mingles with the movement and gives it much of its flavor, there is a hidden hierarchy that is not anarchist at all.

If and when the first blood is drawn --a tragic inevitability in a movement that has goals of toppling the capitalist order and no intention to withdraw-- the self-serving strategy of the low-profile, hard-to-pinpoint crowd leadership will be vindicated. Those advocating revolt and issuing marching orders from the warmth and safety of a heated apartment in Berkeley, or wherever, while the masses confront the blue line of the police on the cold streets of Manhattan will have a lot to answer for.

For a clue as to where the groupthink and groupspeak of the nascent movement come from, one needs to look at Adbusters and Anonymous, the two declared sponsors of the aggressively-named “Occupy” protest that began in earnest on September 17, 2011.

Adbusters is a Vancouver-based media foundation whose eponymous magazine is the voice of an innovative movement that uses media technique to subvert mainstream media, especially advertising. Thoughtful, thought-provoking, and at times breathtakingly radical, the Canadian magazine’s senior editor, Micah White wrote a call for an “American Revolution” in June of this year, saying “we must be judicious and put the actions of the American government on trial before deciding if the sentence of execution by popular revolution is necessary and just.”

Disgruntled former supporters of Obama are already part of the protest, and if Adbusters’ anarchist opinionating and its militant collective statement are to be believed, the incumbent president need not bother trying. Should Obama opt to play the crowd card, he does so at great peril.

In using real names in association with ideas and propositions, Adbusters at least shows the courage of its convictions. Ditto for US Day of Rage which has played a quasi public role. Anonymous, however, works in the shadows, and presumably the techno-geeks like it that way. Even in the crowd there are those who hide in plain site, including the jokers who don the spooky Guy Fawkes masks, inspired from the film “V for Vendetta.” But where's the accountability, let alone democracy, in a group that hides behind an Internet invisibility cloak? 

For now, the behind-the-scenes deciders and influencers are biding their time, exerting influence in subtle ways while justifiably angry Americans take to the streets and make a bid to change the dominant ruling paradigm that favors corporations over individuals. Meanwhile, the feckless American mainstream media, (it took NPR nine days to even notice the protests and the NYT is still playing catch-up ball) has flip-flopped between dismissively ignoring the protests, adoring the protests and trying ride the publicity wave.

If any good is to come from the inevitable street clashes to come, it will be thanks to the quiet courage of a much put-upon populace breaking free by thinking free.
(posted October 11)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

OF SNOW WHITE AND FUKUSHIMA MAIDENS

by Philip J Cunningham

(Fukushima Daiichi, courtesy Dissident Voice)


A wrenching dilemma has emerged in the midst of the nuclear radiation crisis afflicting Japan. A quasi-nationalistic “love it or leave it” attitude has gained currency, putting pressure on individuals to remain in place and face potential dangers for the sake of group solidarity.

Times of tragedy bring out the best and the worst in people, and if there’s any consolation in the harrowing days and nights since March 11, 2011 when a violent quake and giant wave rocked the Tohoku region to its core, it is in the stoicism and quiet heroism of ordinary Japanese who displayed a high degree of courage, order and decorum in the face of unmitigated disaster. Numerous journalists, volunteers and aid workers of diverse nationalities have gone beyond the call of duty to extend help to the hardest hit zones.

But there are hints of darker countercurrents seething just below the surface as well. Mercifully there is nothing on the scale of the race rioting and indiscriminate killing of ethnic Koreans that followed in the wake of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, but there have been incendiary accusations --faint echoes of the same irrational desire, need, even, to pin blame anywhere it sticks—as a coping mechanism during times of stress.

The tendency to categorize, stereotype and "nail" people with indelible stigmas exists everywhere, but in relatively homogenous Japan the tyranny of small differences is codified and enforced to a high degree.

On the one hand, those who evacuated Tokyo or temporarily moved their families to Western Japan or flew overseas are being subject to ridicule as quitters, losers and, in some essential way, non-Japanese.

On the other hand, staying in place involves risks that go beyond the physical exposure to radiation, aftershocks and tsunami to the social realm of peer pressure, identity maintenance and loyalty issues. Evacuations, some forced, others voluntary, have created a new stigma, a class of people shuttled about, irradiated by no fault of their own, who are being shunned from clinics and even refugee camps for fear of “polluting” others.

Whether it’s the unenviable fate of contract and temp workers hired to quell the broken nuclear furnace or the hapless Fukushima farmers forced to destroy the milk from their dairy farms and the food from their lovingly tended vegetable patches and rice fields, or fisherman fishing in an irradiated sea, the fight/flight dilemma borders on unbearable. Already despair-driven suicides and stubborn refusals to evacuate are being reported.

In contrast to the destructive fury of a tsunami that erased entire towns from the map coupled with an ongoing radiation nightmare that is turning fertile farmland and ancestral homes into a dead zone, scattered reports of prejudice are back-page news.

But it doesn’t take long for petty arguments to ensue. Around a week after the quake, the neologism “fly-jin” took wing, batted up by foreign bloggers and bandied about by glib reporters seeking to hype up the meme of foreigners leaving Japan. Even the delayed re-opening of Disneyland has been blamed on foreign talent skipping town. Snow White has gone missing.

(photo by Parkeology)

The fleeing gaijin meme has entered a nationalistic Japanese discourse simmering from frustration, fear, and resentment. Facing vacant embassies, undermanned offices and a floundering economy, politicians tiptoe their way across the smooth paving stones of time-worn prejudices, saying that “only Japanese” can save Japan.

Japanese are socially primed from young age to see gaijin not just as the ultimate other, but as the ultimate guest, especially if the foreigner is European in appearance. So much so that if gaijin didn't exist, Japanese would have to invent them, not so much to describe the physical reality of hairy barbarians as to create a foil by which to focus and firm up an inchoate indigenous identity.

Which is why gaijin who speak Japanese fluently and settle in Japan defy not just expectations but mental categorization.

"So, when are you leaving?" was the habitual greeting a Japanese-speaking American friend of mine heard while teaching English in small town in rural Iwate. He left two years later after completing his contract, fulfilling the apparent expectation that he would leave --because gaijin always leave-- but he has since settled in another part of Japan.

As such, non-Japanese are routinely stigmatized and marginalized in ways both pleasant and unsettling, typically a mix of the overwrought politeness, pomp and ceremony reserved for high-class guests, and the simmering resentment and condescension reserved for low-class guests who don’t know their place.

Many disparate, and frequently stupid things are said about gaijin, an impossibly broad category that theoretically includes the population of the planet minus those eligible to hold a Japanese passport, but one workable definition is that gaijin are people who leave.

The fuss about fly-jin was mostly a case of self-inflicted parody, if not prejudice, on the part of a handful of foreigners who were not content just to stay in place but chose to show their “devotion” by ridiculing the tens of thousands who left, even temporarily.

At first glance, it’s a comical situation in which foreigners ridicule fellow foreigners for not being loyal enough to Japan. But to be more righteous and loud-mouthed than the Japanese about what constitutes acceptable behavior in Japan represents a kind of colonized consciousness in which local norms and prejudices have been imbibed in a futile struggle to prove one’s “non-foreignness.”

This creates an awkward situation for those who choose to return, stigmatized as “fly-jin” for having bolted at the first Becquerel. Even that is a mere sideshow; the real unspoken victims of the open season on gaijin are the Japanese people themselves.

As the Fukushima nuclear facility continues to spew radiation, to “fight” for Japan is being construed to mean staying put with a stoic disregard for danger. Those who elect to leave are seen as threats to the social order. Any disruption or departure gives rise to doubts, and can be seen as a brake on the rolling wheels of the economy, as the trumped-up Disneyland case presumably illustrates.

This inherent social tension, only gradually being given voice to, mirrors a classic divide-and-conquer strategy in which one group of people is pitted against another in order to distract from the actual agents of culpability.

Fly or fry? It’s a false dichotomy, but those most vulnerable to the taming-through-teasing are the people of Tokyo and surrounding prefectures. The emotionally volatile “Don’t leave if you want to be a real Japanese” is showing traction and muddying the discourse at a time when some people in certain parts of Japan are facing scientifically-documented risks that need to be evaluated in a cool and rational way.

If it turns out radiation leakage is worse than what Tepco and the Kan government has been belatedly willing to admit, who's the villain here? The fly-jin?

Most of the “fly-jin” have already flown the coop and moved on to safer climes where ambient radiation and the emerging prejudices of post-quake Japan are unlikely to touch them. The real danger is for those who remain in place, especially Japanese. The mockery of a marginal class of people who have evacuated for safety –gaijin double-stigmatized by their flight-- makes it harder to respond to sensible calls for evacuation should the crisis take a turn for the worse.

What's come into play so far in social terms is not so much virulent nationalism as the regrettable human tendency to vent anger on the nearest easy target and thus discriminate against certain circumscribed "others" rather than address the problem at its source.

The internet-trending fly-jin fuss and kerfuffle is a frivolous distraction, obscuring the gross negligence of the deep-pocketed Tepco and its well-remunerated cronies and enablers in Japanese media, advertising firms and the government.

Already Fukushima-jin are reeling from prejudice, so much so that refugees who hail from hometowns close to the battered nuclear plant are being discriminated against even in refugee shelters. Worse yet, the heart-breaking reports of Fukushima kids turned away from medical clinics for fear they might be radioactive. This instant stigmatization touches on a raw nerve in Japanese culture, reminiscent of the sad fate of "Hiroshima maidens" and other radiated hibakusha whose victimhood attracted social pity from a distance, but avoidance up close at a personal level.

Will there be, in the decades to come, long after the fly-jin are forgotten, a generation of Fukushima maidens unable to marry because of the stigma of birth in a radiation-tainted hometown?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

3.11 QUAKE SHAKES JAPANESE TV


(originally appeared in Asia-Pacific Journal, March 28, 2011)













Japan Quake Shakes TV: 
The Media Response to Catastrophe
Philip J Cunningham
"Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. We have just experienced an earthquake. Please move away from the buildings to an open area...We will provide more detailed information as soon as possible..."

The polite but authoritative "we" was the voice of the Tokyo DisneySea theme park in this instance, but similar, oddly reassuring warnings of peril were being echoed across Japan, mostly following the lead of television broadcaster NHK.

Japan has a thriving terrestrial broadcast television market, which in most cities comes down to half a dozen key players. To watch Tokyo's six main TV stations side by side, as media scholars sometimes do, is to be subjected to an overload of dazzling color, brightly-lit sets, short, snappy jingles, silly commercials and plodding documentaries.

When the biggest earthquake in memory hit Japan at 2:46 PM on the afternoon of March 11, 2011, it took less than ten minutes for the bright, cluttered screens to be drained of color, commercialism and fun. With a disaster unfolding, TV stations were under intense pressure to change the tone of their broadcasts.

To review broadcasts from that afternoon, is to be transported back to a turning point in which everything suddenly changed. The state of TV, as it existed at that precarious moment, good, bad and banal as it might have been, is now a broadcast relic, the last gasp of normalcy before the earth shook Japan to its core, the sea swept the Northeast with tsunamis and a nuclear crisis broke the easy access to electric power that has been a hallmark of modernity in Japan for decades.

Commercials, like them or not, are cultural statements if not technical works of art, but even the best of them quickly assumed a negative valence the moment disaster struck. On that fateful Friday afternoon, each station rushed to report, each in its own fashion, on the quake in real time even as the ground was still shaking.

As zero hour arrived, network TV was thrust into a series of startling juxtapositions and incongruent pairings. The audio babble alone was surreal, a wobbly wall of sound composed of overlapping jingles, earthquake bells, buzzers and alarms, bits of dramatic dialogue, background music, stentorian narration, and breathless news reports.

Japan's biggest TV station NHK, where I worked for a number of years as a writer, news polisher and producer, is a publicly supported broadcaster that also receives government funding -- and is sometimes criticized for an apparent lack of editorial independence for that reason -- was the first station to break into regular programming to report the big quake, just 12 seconds after the first jolt.

NHK interrupted its live coverage of a meeting in the Diet, Japan's parliament. Recordings taken from the cameras recording that session would later show famous lawmakers reacting to the quake, some standing about unfazed, others ducking for cover.

The flagship NHK is linked to a multitude of seismic data-collection sites across the archipelago and has a network of remote cameras ready in case of emergency, providing an unblinking view of public thoroughfares long before the advent of web-cams. Typically the remote lens offers a rooftop glimpse of urban scenery and close-ups of vital infrastructure, available to the studio at the flip of a switch.

As the designated go-to station for earthquakes and other natural disasters, NHK typically puts up graphics and comprehensive lists of hard-hit areas with magnitude readings, giving other stations a heads-up and time to react.
NTV, a medium sized station with a somewhat conservative take on the news, became the first of the commercial networks to take note of the earthquake, cutting from a short taped piece about Tokyo mayor Ishihara Shintaro to a live studio shot just after 2:48 that afternoon.

Despite this supple reaction, NTV coverage quickly reverted to a series of commercials, presumably pre-booked for that time slot. This included a pretty model demonstrating how to use mascara remover towelette and facial cleansing foam followed by an ad for an American insurance company with the logo "We're everyone's hospital."

TBS, another commercial station, broke the bad news next, not with a news report but just running text superimposed on top of the screen, clocking in just five seconds later than NTV. It saw no need to interrupt programming but continued to run its afternoon trendy drama, the sort of soap opera production/housewife fare for which the station is famous.

Meanwhile NHK was fully focused on the emergency, having gone from showing maps of the hard-hit regions in northeastern Honshu to live camera coverage of in-house presenters in the studio intercut with some shaky live views from train stations and tower tops in stricken areas. Tsunami warnings followed almost immediately.

Watching the other stations in simultaneity while NHK reported grim-faced on an earthquake of unprecedented magnitude, one was struck by just how many commercials and shifts of tone and mood can be squeezed into the span of a minute or two. But then, with an earthquake in progress, the hand of time seems to bend and slow down, if not halt entirely.

Ironically enough, one of the commercials is an exquisitely filmed travel pitch, about a fantasy escape to western Japan, which is exactly where rattled residents of Tokyo would seek to go in the days to come to get away from the twin perils of aftershocks and radiation.

About three minutes into the quake, the comparative coverage took on an eerie, unnerving quality. NHK panned the city skyline from a hard-shaking remote camera, while NTV showed a brief studio shot of violently swaying furniture and swinging light fixtures. Then, rather inexplicably, the latter shifted to a smooth, soothing commercial, zooming in on a fresh sliced cabbage, best eaten with a certain mayonnaise, followed by a tomato-themed ad for toothpaste meant to remedy swollen gums.

At the regional station, TV Tokyo, a timely earthquake alert flashed on the screen in a distinctly inauspicious manner. The bad news did not interrupt programming but was superimposed over an unconventional sales pitch for gravestones, featuring two comical middle-aged men, one in a tacky suit, the other in a graduation cap and gown talking about why you should only use the best grave stones because "A grave is your home for eternity."

Meanwhile TBS continued its trendy drama of lovingly photographed stylish actors dressed in black, while Fuji TV cut to an empty news desk with chairs rolling around uncontrollably; apparently a failed attempt at a live update, with lights and cameras ready to go but no people in view.

A few seconds later, by which time the off-shore epicenter of a huge quake had been identified on NHK, three soap operas were still up and running, along with a story about fishing. And a commercial for "Body Cooler" featured a sexy actress standing on a beach as a long, smooth blue wave crashed in the background.

By the time Fuji TV finally broke the news at 2:51 PM, the story was old and redundant. Its viewers already knew about the earthquake because the Tokyo region had been shaking underfoot for minutes. From this point on, four out of six channels were offering dedicated quake coverage.

TV Asahi, which produces journalistically sound news programs and sometimes battles with NHK over political differences, was inexplicably slow at the switch. While pandemonium was breaking loose on the other channels, Asahi aired an ad for a 1950s drama, showing seaside scenes of a man and a child in period costume perched on rocks in front of crashing waves, intercut with quaint scenes set in snowy rural mountains. Next up was a coming attraction filled with apocalyptic imagery, billowing explosions, people running scared, roaring flames everywhere, engulfing the map of Japan superimposed on the screen in advance of an urgent news break.

Finally, around five minutes into the tremblor, the control room switched to a newsreader who looked straight into a wobbly camera, and with considerable poise, backed by a visibly frantic newsroom, began to announce the bad news.
Six and a half minutes after the quake started to rattle Tokyo, TV Tokyo continued to broadcast its scheduled program, a jaunty tale about three jokey TV personalities who decide to try their hand at fishing. There is a close-up of a striped fish writhing in a net, then tossed into a blue basket to exclamations of pleasure about what a beautiful fish it is. At that point, TV Tokyo at last cut to full-time earthquake coverage.

























Broadcast record of six tv stations at the time of quake
In a single afternoon, Tokyo television coverage went, in short order, from scenes of happy people pouring cups of healthy instant green tea to grim-faced newscasters estimating death tolls, from sleek, seductive ads for cars photographed under immaculate conditions, to the flotsam of cars and jetsam of houses helplessly bobbing in a black tide. Glossy takes of starlets doing their makeup and comedians promoting luxury products were replaced in sequence by jumpy camera phone images of devastation and despair.
Just as the quake struck, an insurance commercial was aired featuring a loud, obnoxious duck decked out in a curly yellow wig. By an odd coincidence, Gilbert Gottfried, the actor behind the voice of the Aflac duck in the related US commercial series was terminated a few days after the quake for making some callous jokes about real estate changes in Japan.
US Aflac ad featuring Gilbert Gottfried as voice of duck


Sample Aflac ad for Japanese market, different duck
One minute the screens were beaming with joyous young actresses singing the praise of hair coloring foam, female-only phone apps and aromatic laundry scents, the next the viewer was assaulted with sad, unadorned faces numb with shock and despair. One minute a convenience store chain urged viewers to "Start a New Life". Moments later the slogan sounded like a bad joke as small towns were shown being ripped asunder by rushing waters of unspeakable destructive power.

Sample footage from Tokyo at the time the quake struck

Three days after the quake and tsunami, Tokyo mayor Ishihara Shintaro may have nulled his chances for a fourth term as Tokyo mayor by telling Asahi Press Club journalists that the tsunami of March 11 was "tenbatsu" or "punishment from heaven" because the Japanese have become greedy and egotistical.



Asahi Kantei Twitter post on Ishihara Shintaro comments

Tepco's tastefuly crafted non-apology apology
How odd to hear a leader in a largely Buddhist country preach the wrath of God like a small town American fundamentalist (indeed, an American survey indicated that 38 percent of respondents viewed the quake's devastation as God's wrath). But Ishihara, who first acquired fame as a youth writer, is something of a populist, and his penchant for shocking off-the-cuff comments of the sort a more thoughtful, cautious politician would be loathe to make, is part of his idiosyncratic persona. Still, he was enough of a politician to apologize after the posting of his comments on Twitter raised a storm of protest.
In days that followed the quake and tsunami, public service announcements began to take the place of commercials, as broadcasters returned to airing taped shows with time slots that advertisers were reluctant to fill. But the anodyne messages offered by Japan's advertising council also began to irritate viewers, due to the banality of the themes, such as rabbits and other cute cartoon animals teaching the value of making friends by exchanging polite greetings.


Ad Council Public Service Announcement after the quake

So many viewers complained about the predictable punch line, brought to you by the advertising council or "A.C." that finally the end credit was dropped. The fact that complaints reached a threshold at which the normally one-way conversation between advertiser and viewer became a heated dialogue attests to the mounting frustration and quiet rage felt by ordinary Japanese as they watched the Fukushima Daiichi disaster unfold on television.
One company that showed a rare willingness to advertise during these depressing days is none other than the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, the company most responsible for negligence and lack of adequate safety procedures at the dangerously radioactive Fukushima complex. It might seem brazen for TEPCO to advertise when it itself is the topic of the nightly news, but it is engaged in a desperate PR battle to save its deteriorating reputation and stock valuation at a time when both are in free fall.
TEPCO's non-apology apology looked like the notice for a wake, consisting of white lettering on a black background, apologizing for the inconvenience in highly formulaic terms that clarified nothing about the company's responsibilities for the disaster and neither named nor depicted the company's president.

Tepco's public relations commercial on "Inconvenience"


Shima Kosaku, the ultimate salaryman
The spot was appropriately subdued, after all, TEPCO has long courted some of the best-paid copy artists, advertising executives and even manga artists in the business, such as Hirokane Kenji, famous for his long-running salaryman series "Shima Kosaku," also produced "Genshi-chan" or Lil' Atom as a TEPCO mascot.


Genshi-Chan The Ultimate Lil' Atom

Under the spell of its own overarching corporate vision embracing the unlimited power of a nuclear future, TEPCO has demonstrated in some of its questionable business decisions, short cuts and cover-ups risking the lives of its employees, a willingness to take calculated risks to meet the admittedly voracious demand for electric power in Tokyo and the surrounding megalopolis.


Tepco ad for the energy rich good life (before the quake)


Greater Tokyo region brightly lit up by Tepco
Far from being a stranger to advertising, TEPCO is a "generous" sponsor of television programming. The huge corporation, Japan's largest energy firm, has scores of subsidiaries and an ample war chest to buy the best public relations and legal protection in the business. Its "generous" support for commercial television and advertising in print has given it more than a modicum of protection from hard-hitting journalism, not unlike the unspoken power of the American tobacco and oil industries that use advertising and sponsorship to sanitize their image and deflect serious inquiry.
But you won't learn much about that, on public television NHK. NHK, not unlike America's NPR, might be largely free of direct commercial pressures, but it is not free of influence. Both organizations share a finger in the wind quality of being over-sensitive to flavor-of-the-month political correctness. But NHK dwarfs NPR in terms of budget, reach and influence and it enjoys direct governmental links that make it more akin to VOA or Radio Free Europe.
Best described as a quasi-governmental entity, NHK enjoys de facto, if not de jure status as the voice of Japan. By pedigree and tradition it is the platform by which Japan speaks to the nation and the world. It was the home of Tokyo Rose during the Pacific War and when Emperor Hirohito made his famous announcement at the close of World War 2, he was talking to NHK. Even today it dominates coverage of Diet Sessions, Sumo wrestling, diplomatic news and, after the Tohoku earthquake, a special message from Emperor Akihito.


Emperor Akihito address the people in wake of disaster

While NHK hires journalists by the dozen, and produces many thoughtful, reflective documentaries, it is dependent enough on government funding to fill its budget gap that it goes easy on governmental policy and large corporations that enjoy bureaucratic support.
Quasi-governmental NHK projects a mild-mannered persona, walking the narrow line between a willingness to report and an unwillingness to offend. It could also be described as a quasi-journalistic entity, given that it offers a media mix of fresh, original programming along with gun-shy cancellation of controversial programs and government influenced news product.
Still, NHK stands head and shoulders above the rest as the earthquake and disaster channel par excellence, thanks as much to its own vast information collecting infrastructure, with bureaus, reporters and cameras across the country, and significantly, due to its government-authorized links with Japan's Meteorological Agency and Ministry of Transport.
That's why it's a good place to turn for government and corporate statements about the earthquake and tsunami, but not a good place to learn about corporate malfeasance that worsens the toll of nature's fury and creates entirely man-made disasters. As former NHK television journalist Kamanaka Hitomi found, NHK was so loath to take on Japan's nuclear power industry when she was producing a news story on the topic that she quit in protest and has campaigned against nuclear power plants ever since. An insightful indictment of the formidable "power elite" that she was up against can be found in Andrew DeWit's recent article on Japan's power elite, that is the link between Tepco and other large utilities and government regulators.
Having spent three years in the studios and newsrooms of NHK in Tokyo, followed by a sojourn at CCTV in China, I can attest to the notion that NHK broadcast news, while more hard-hitting and thorough than that of its Chinese counterpart, is alike in the sense that it shares a hybrid broadcasting mission in which the duty to inform is balanced by the duty to reassure the public and promote harmony.
Although opponents of nuclear power still face an uphill battle in fossil-fuel poor, energy-hungry Japan, there have long been strong individual voices, from Okinawa to Hokkaido speaking out about the dangers of harnessing for electricity generation the terrible power that reduced Hiroshima and Nagasaki to cinders.
Adding to an enormous and profound body of work on the topic of things nuclear, Oe Kenzaburo has just commented on the 3.11 crisis, linking it in a trinity with the atomic bombs dropped on Japan and Pacific atomic tests conducted by the US military. (http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2011/03/28/110328ta_talk_oe)
As a result of grievous damage to national infrastructure and power shortfalls, Japan will be pressed to find ways to lessen its dangerous dependence on nuclear power. Tokyo, where rolling blackouts are setting the tone for a new, less energy dependent lifestyle, is on the front line, confronting out of necessity its materialistic, energy-guzzling lifestyle square on.
There is no going back. The fantasy world depicted on Japanese TV just as the quake struck is a freeze-frame, a snapshot in time, of a time and place that has been changed irrevocably by the force of nature and the follies of man.

Philip Cunningham is a professor of media studies who has taught at Chulalongkorn University and Doshisha University. He is the author of Tiananmen Moon: Inside the Chinese Student Uprising of 1989A long-time student of Chinese, Japanese and Thai affairs, his blogspot is here.
Recommended citation: Philip J Cunningham, "Japan Quake Shakes TV: The Media Response to Catastrophe," The Asia-Pacific Journal Vol 9, Issue 13 No 6, March 28, 2011



Comments

Chuck Berg
04/01/2011
An excellent description and analysis of Japanese TV responses to the nature/nuclear disaster. Cunningham's backgrounding of NHK's dual and conflictd status as societal cheerleader and reporter is, of course, mirrored in conglomerate/public news operations worldwide. A genuine contribution to the crucial and growing discourses on nuclear energy and their potential impact on regulatory policy.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

QUAKE SHAKES JAPANESE TV

Philip J Cunningham






“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. We have just experienced an earthquake. Please move away from the buildings to an open area...We will provide more detailed information as soon as possible...”

The polite but authoritative “we” was the voice of the Tokyo DisneySea theme park in this instance, but similar, oddly reassuring warnings of peril were being echoed across Japan, mostly following the lead of television broadcaster NHK.

Japan has a thriving terrestrial broadcast television market, which in most cities comes down to half a dozen key players. To watch Tokyo’s six main TV stations side by side, as media scholars sometimes do, is to be subjected to an overload of dazzling color, brightly-lit sets, short, snappy jingles, silly commercials and plodding documentaries.

When the biggest earthquake in memory hit Japan at 2:46 PM on the afternoon of March 11, 2011, it took less than ten minutes for the bright, cluttered screens to be drained of color, commercialism and fun. With a disaster unfolding, TV stations were under intense pressure to change the tone of their broadcasts.

To review broadcasts from that afternoon, is to be transported back to a turning point in which everything suddenly changed. The state of TV, as it existed at that precarious moment, good, bad and banal as it might have been, is now a broadcast relic, the last gasp of normalcy before the earth shook Japan to its core, the sea swept the Northeast with tsunamis and a nuclear crisis broke the easy access to electric power that has been a hallmark of modernity in Japan for decades.

Commercials, like them or not, are cultural statements if not technical works of art, but even the best of them quickly assumed a negative valence the moment disaster struck. On that fateful Friday afternoon, each station rushed to report, each in its own fashion, on the quake in real time even as the ground was still shaking.

As zero hour arrived, network TV was thrust into a series of startling juxtapositions and incongruent pairings. The audio babble alone was surreal, a wobbly wall of sound composed of overlapping jingles, earthquake bells, buzzers and alarms, bits of dramatic dialogue, background music, stentorian narration, and breathless news reports.

Japan’s biggest TV station NHK, where I worked for a number of years as a writer, news polisher and producer, is a publicly supported broadcaster that also receives government funding -- and is sometimes criticized for an apparent lack of editorial independence for that reason -- was the first station to break into regular programming to report the big quake, just 12 seconds after the first jolt.

NHK interrupted its live coverage of a meeting in the Diet, Japan’s parliament. Recordings taken from the cameras recording that session would later show famous lawmakers reacting to the quake, some standing about unfazed, others ducking for cover.

The flagship NHK is linked to a multitude of seismic data-collection sites across the archipelago and has a network of remote cameras ready in case of emergency, providing an unblinking view of public thoroughfares long before the advent of web-cams. Typically the remote lens offers a rooftop glimpse of urban scenery and close-ups of vital infrastructure, available to the studio at the flip of a switch.

As the designated go-to station for earthquakes and other natural disasters, NHK typically puts up graphics and comprehensive lists of hard-hit areas with magnitude readings, giving other stations a heads-up and time to react.

NTV, a medium sized station with a somewhat conservative take on the news, became the first of the commercial networks to take note of the earthquake, cutting from a short taped piece about Tokyo mayor Ishihara Shintaro to a live studio shot just after 2:48 that afternoon.

Despite this supple reaction, NTV coverage quickly reverted to a series of commercials, presumably pre-booked for that time slot. This included a pretty model demonstrating how to use mascara remover towelette and facial cleansing foam followed by an ad for an American insurance company with the logo “We’re everyone’s hospital.”

TBS, another commercial station, broke the bad news next, not with a news report but just running text superimposed on top of the screen, clocking in just five seconds later than NTV. It saw no need to interrupt programming but continued to run its afternoon trendy drama, the sort of soap opera production/housewife fare for which the station is famous.

Meanwhile NHK was fully focused on the emergency, having gone from showing maps of the hard-hit regions in northeastern Honshu to live camera coverage of in-house presenters in the studio intercut with some shaky live views from train stations and tower tops in stricken areas. Tsunami warnings followed almost immediately.

Watching the other stations in simultaneity while NHK reported grim-faced on an earthquake of unprecedented magnitude, one was struck by just how many commercials and shifts of tone and mood can be squeezed into the span of a minute or two. But then, with an earthquake in progress, the hand of time seems to bend and slow down, if not halt entirely.

Ironically enough, one of the commercials is an exquisitely filmed travel pitch, about a fantasy escape to western Japan, which is exactly where rattled residents of Tokyo would seek to go in the days to come to get away from the twin perils of aftershocks and radiation.

About three minutes into the quake, the comparative coverage took on an eerie, unnerving quality. NHK panned the city skyline from a hard-shaking remote camera, while NTV showed a brief studio shot of violently swaying furniture and swinging light fixtures. Then, rather inexplicably, the latter shifted to a smooth, soothing commercial, zooming in on a fresh sliced cabbage, best eaten with a certain mayonnaise, followed by a tomato-themed ad for toothpaste meant to remedy swollen gums.

At the regional station, TV Tokyo, a timely earthquake alert flashed on the screen in a distinctly inauspicious manner. The bad news did not interrupt programming but was superimposed over an unconventional sales pitch for gravestones, featuring two comical middle-aged men, one in a tacky suit, the other in a graduation cap and gown talking about why you should only use the best grave stones because “A grave is your home for eternity.”

Meanwhile TBS continued its trendy drama of lovingly photographed stylish actors dressed in black, while Fuji TV cut to an empty news desk with chairs rolling around uncontrollably; apparently a failed attempt at a live update, with lights and cameras ready to go but no people in view.

A few seconds later, by which time the off-shore epicenter of a huge quake had been identified on NHK, three soap operas were still up and running, along with a story about fishing. And a commercial for “Body Cooler” featured a sexy actress standing on a beach as a long, smooth blue wave crashed in the background.

By the time Fuji TV finally broke the news at 2:51 PM, the story was old and redundant. Its viewers already knew about the earthquake because the Tokyo region had been shaking underfoot for minutes. From this point on, four out of six channels were offering dedicated quake coverage.

TV Asahi, which produces good news programs and sometimes battles with NHK over political differences, was inexplicably slow at the switch. While pandemonium was breaking loose on the other channels, Asahi aired an ad for a 1950s drama, showing seaside scenes of a man and a child in period costume perched on rocks in front of crashing waves, intercut with quaint scenes set in snowy rural mountains. Next up was a coming attraction filled with apocalyptic imagery, billowing explosions, people running scared, roaring flames everywhere, engulfing the map of Japan superimposed on the screen in advance of an urgent news break.

Finally, around five minutes into the tremblor, the control room switched to a newsreader who looked straight into a wobbly camera, and with considerable poise, backed by a visibly frantic newsroom, began to announce the bad news.

Six and a half minutes after the quake started to rattle Tokyo, TV Tokyo continued to broadcast its scheduled program, a jaunty tale about three jokey TV personalities who decide to try their hand at fishing. There is a close-up of a striped fish writhing in a net, then tossed into a blue basket to exclamations of pleasure about what a beautiful fish it is. At that point, TV Tokyo at last cut to full-time earthquake coverage.




BROADCAST RECORD OF SIX TV STATIONS AT THE TIME OF QUAKE


In a single afternoon, Tokyo television coverage went, in short order, from scenes of happy people pouring cups of healthy instant green tea to grim-faced newscasters estimating death tolls, from sleek, seductive ads for cars photographed under immaculate conditions, to the flotsam of cars and jetsam of houses helplessly bobbing in a black tide. Glossy takes of starlets doing their makeup and comedians promoting luxury products were replaced in sequence by jumpy camera phone images of devastation and despair.

Just as the quake struck, an insurance commercial was aired featuring a loud, obnoxious duck decked out in a curly yellow wig. By an odd coincidence, Gilbert Gottfried, the actor behind the voice of the Aflac duck in the related US commercial series was terminated a few days after the quake for making some callous jokes about real estate changes in Japan.



US AFLAC AD FEATURING GILBERT GOTTFRIED AS VOICE OF DUCK



SAMPLE AFLAC AD FOR JAPANESE MARKET, DIFFERENT DUCK


One minute the screens were beaming with joyous young actresses singing the praise of hair coloring foam, female-only phone apps and aromatic laundry scents, the next the viewer was assaulted with sad, unadorned faces numb with shock and despair. One minute a convenience store chain urged viewers to "Start a New Life". Moments later the slogan sounded like a bad joke as small towns were shown being ripped asunder by rushing waters of unspeakable destructive power.


http://www.youtube.com/user/yuanzency#p/a/u/1/uBCoUg8E0ns
SAMPLE FOOTAGE FROM TV TOKYO AT THE TIME THE QUAKE STRUCK



Three days after the quake and tsunami, Tokyo mayor Ishihara Shintaro may have nulled his chances for a fourth term as Tokyo mayor by telling Asahi Press Club journalists that the tsunami of March 11 was “tenbatsu” or “punishment from heaven” because the Japanese have become greedy and egotistical.



ASAHI KANTEI TWITTER POST ON ISHIHARA SHINTARO COMMENTS

How odd to hear a leader in a largely Buddhist country preach the wrath of God like a small town fundamentalist, but Ishihara, who first acquired fame as a youth writer, is something of a populist, and his penchant for shocking off-the-cuff comments of the sort a more thoughtful, cautious politician would be loathe to make, is part of his idiosyncratic persona. Still, he was enough of a politician to apologize after the posting of his comments on Twitter raised a storm of protest.
In days that followed the quake and tsunami, public service announcements began to take the place of commercials, as broadcasters returned to airing taped shows with time slots that advertisers were reluctant to fill. But the anodyne messages offered by Japan's advertising council also began to irritate viewers, due to the banality of the themes, such as rabbits and other cute cartoon animals teaching the value of making friends by exchanging polite greetings.




AD COUNCIL PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT AFTER THE QUAKE


So many viewers complained about the predictable punch line, brought to you by the advertising council or "A.C." that finally the end credit was dropped. The fact that complaints reached a threshold at which the normally one-way conversation between advertiser and viewer became a heated dialogue attests to the mounting frustration and quiet rage felt by ordinary Japanese as they watched the Fukushima Daiichi disaster unfold on television.

One company that showed a rare willingness to advertise during these depressing days is none other than the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, the company most responsible for negligence and lack of adequate safety procedures at the dangerously radioactive Fukushima complex. It might seem brazen for TEPCO to advertise when it itself is the topic of the nightly news, but it is engaged in a desperate PR battle to save its deteriorating reputation and stock valuation at a time when both are in free fall.

TEPCO’s non-apology apology looked like the notice for a wake, consisting of white lettering on a black background, apologizing for the inconvenience in highly formulaic terms that clarify nothing about the company’s responsibilities for the disaster.


TEPCO’S PUBLIC RELATIONS COMMERCIAL ON “INCONVENIENCE”

The spot was appropriately subdued, after all, TEPCO has long courted some of the best-paid copy artists, advertising executives and even manga artists in the business, such as Hirokane Kenji, famous for his long-running salariman series "Shima Kosaku," also produced “Genshi-chan” or Lil’ Atom as a TEPCO mascot.

Under the spell of its own overarching corporate vision embracing the unlimited power of a nuclear future, TEPCO has demonstrated in some of its questionable business decisions, short cuts and cover-ups risking the lives of its employees, a willingness to take calculated risks to meet the admittedly voracious demand for electric power in Tokyo and the surrounding megalopolis.



TEPCO AD FOR THE ENERGY RICH GOOD LIFE (BEFORE THE QUAKE)



GREATER TOKYO REGION BRIGHTLY LIT UP BY TEPCO



Far from being a stranger to advertising, TEPCO is a "generous" sponsor of television programming. The huge corporation, Japan’s largest energy firm, has scores of subsidiaries and an ample war chest to buy the best public relations and legal protection in the business. Its “generous” support for commercial television and advertising in print has given it more than a modicum of protection from hard-hitting journalism, not unlike the unspoken power of the American tobacco and oil industries that use advertising and sponsorship to sanitize their image and deflect serious inquiry.

But you won’t learn much about that, on public television NHK. NHK, not unlike America’s NPR, might be largely free of direct commercial pressures, but it is not free of influence. Both organizations share a finger in the wind quality of being over-sensitive to flavor-of-the-month political correctness. But NHK dwarfs NPR in terms of budget, reach and influence and it enjoys direct governmental links that make it more akin to VOA or Radio Free Europe.

Best described as a quasi-governmental entity, NHK enjoys de facto, if not de jure status as the voice of Japan. By pedigree and tradition it is the platform by which Japan speaks to the nation and the world. It was the home of Tokyo Rose during the Pacific War and when Emperor Hirohito made his famous announcement at the close of World War 2, he was talking to NHK. Even today it dominates coverage of Diet Sessions, Sumo wrestling, diplomatic news and, after the Tohoku earthquake, a special message from Emperor Akihito.




EMPEROR AKIHITO ADDRESS THE PEOPLE IN WAKE OF DISASTER


While NHK hires journalists by the dozen, and produces many thoughtful, reflective documentaries, it is dependent enough on government funding to fill its budget gap that it goes easy on governmental policy and large corporations that enjoy bureaucratic support.

Quasi-governmental NHK projects a mild-mannered persona, walking the narrow line between a willingness to report and an unwillingness to offend. It could also be described as a quasi-journalistic entity, given that it offers a media mix of fresh, original programming along with gun-shy cancellation of controversial programs and government influenced news product.

Still, NHK stands head and shoulders above the rest as the earthquake and disaster channel par excellence, thanks as much to its own vast information collecting infrastructure, with bureaus, reporters and cameras across the country, and significantly, due to its government-authorized links with Japan’s Meteorological Agency and Ministry of Transport.

That’s why it’s a good place to turn for government and corporate statements about the earthquake and tsunami, but not a good place to learn about corporate malfeasance that worsens the toll of nature’s fury and creates entirely man-made disasters. As former NHK television journalist Kamanaka Hitomi found, NHK was so loath to take on Japan's nuclear power industry when she was producing a news story on the topic that she quit in protest and has campaigned against nuclear power plants ever since. An insightful indictment of the formidable “power elite” that she was up against can be found in Andrew DeWit’s recent article on Japan’s power elite, that is the link between Tepco and other large utilities and government regulators. http://japanfocus.org/-Andrew-DeWit/3501

Having spent three years in the studios and newsrooms of NHK in Tokyo, followed by a sojourn at CCTV in China, I can attest to the notion that NHK broadcast news, while more hard-hitting and thorough than that of its Chinese counterpart, is alike in the sense that it shares a hybrid broadcasting mission in which the duty to inform is balanced by the duty to reassure the public and promote harmony.

Although opponents of nuclear power still face an uphill battle in fossil-fuel poor, energy-hungry Japan, there have long been strong individual voices, from Okinawa to Hokkaido speaking out about the dangers of harnessing for electricity generation the terrible power that reduced Hiroshima and Nagasaki to cinders.

Adding to an enormous and profound body of work on the topic of things nuclear, Oe Kenzaburo has just commented on the 3.11 crisis, linking it in a trinity with the atomic bombs dropped on Japan and Pacific atomic tests conducted by the US military. (http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2011/03/28/110328ta_talk_oe)

As a result of grievous damage to national infrastructure and power shortfalls, Japan will be pressed to find ways to lessen its dangerous dependence on nuclear power. Tokyo, where rolling blackouts are setting the tone for a new, less energy dependent lifestyle, is on the front line, confronting out of necessity its materialistic, energy-guzzling lifestyle square on.

There is no going back. The fantasy world depicted on Japanese TV just as the quake struck is a freeze-frame, a snapshot in time, of a time and place that has been changed irrevocably by the force of nature and the follies of man.

(as published in Japan Focus/Asia Pacific Journal, March 26, 2011)


Philip Cunningham is a professor of media studies who has taught at Chulalongkorn University and Doshisha University. He is the author of Tiananmen Moon: Inside the Chinese Student Uprising of 1989. A long-time student of Chinese, Japanese and Thai affairs.