Wednesday, October 13, 2004 Posted: 10:37 AM JST
The Japanese media has been on a feeding frenzy over the past four days. Over the week-end many reporters went bananas over the "worst typhoon in a decade" and since Tuesday they are scrambling all over two group suicides. The coverage of both events gives me an extremely uncomfortable feeling.
Saturday Tokyo was hit by a typhoon that was billed as the worst in a decade. It did claim the lives of at least 7 people and caused some damage, but it was surely not worth the panic that the Japanese media spread about it. News program after news program had reporters in helmets and full rain suits report in high pitched voices that reeked of panic. One reporter in a yellow suit and red helmet stood on the middle of Shibuya's famous crossing, screaming about the "terrible damage" the typhoon was causing. If you managed to look behind this screaming maniac you could see hundreds and hundreds of people walking calmly holding their umbrellas. If the wind was as bad as this reporter claimed how come the umbrellas and the people holding them weren't flying all over the place?
I happened to be in Shibuya and Daikanyama when the storm hit those areas. There was a lot of wind and rain, but it certainly didn't warrant the panicky reports. I walked to Daikanyama Station when the storm was at its very worst and was able to use an umbrella. My lower body was drenched, but at no time was I worried of being swept away. More importantly, the storm was gone in no time. It lasted an hour at the longest. After that you didn't even need an umbrella anymore. But if you only watched TV you would have thought Tokyo had barely escaped an enormous natural disaster.
Countless meetings were needlessly canceled and millions of customers stayed home on this important three-day holiday week-end. That probably caused a lot more financial damage than the storm itself. It is fine to be cautious, but it is totally irresponsible to create this kind of a panic.
In comparison, this year an average of 20 people per day have died in traffic accidents in Japan. In other words, on a single day three times as many people die in such accidents as were killed by the storm. By the end of the year more than 7,000 people will have perished. The media would do a lot better to discuss ways to lower this tragically high number than to cause a panic about some rain and wind.
Since yesterday the media has jumped all over group suicides by people that meet on the internet. Seven people in their twenties and thirties, four men and three women, and two women in their twenties were found in two separate incidents. In each case they committed suicide by burning charcoal in a stove in their car. The two incidents happened in two different prefectures and were most likely unrelated.
This story has not only received the oversized attention of the domestic media, news media all over the world have jumped on it as hungry dogs. They create an image that Japan is facing a group suicide wave. In reality, these kinds of suicides are relatively rare. According to the National Police Agency there were 12 cases resulting in 34 deaths in 2003. During the first six months of this year there were only 5 cases claiming 11 lives. Remember that Japan has a population of 125 million people. Though extremely tragic and sad, it cannot be labeled a trend or a wave. All the media attention, however, may soon change that. Once again, it seems extremely irresponsible.
A dangerous by-product of the sensational reporting about these two group suicides is that politicians are now starting to call for restrictions on the internet. The internet is not the problem. If anything the internet has probably saved many tens of thousands of lives because people were able to find someone to communicate with. Japan's problem is insufficient systems for finding and assisting people who are in danger of killing themselves. There are very few support systems in this country and most people don't know about the few that do exist.
Additionally, few people are aware of their own mental health. Last Friday I interviewed a Japanese activist who was jailed in China for 8 months because he was assisting two North Korean refugees to escape the country. I asked him about his mental state and if he was getting any kind of counseling. He told me that only foreigners asked him that question and that all Japanese only told him to eat well and not catch a cold. He must have been under terrible stress as he was jailed together with Chinese criminals with whom he could hardly or not communicate, yet he himself did not consider the possibility that this would somehow affect him. I don't mention this because I think he is in danger of committing suicide, he is clearly not, but to illustrate how little many Japanese know about the effects of stress.
All this makes me wonder how many other news reports with facts that are not as easily checked slip by and create an impression of imminent danger that does not exist. I am a skeptical journalist who survived a killer earthquake and several potentially lethal encounters, yet all the news reports about the typhoon unconsciously created tension and fear in me last Saturday. If it can affect me like that, it will affect less informed people even more. What are the consequences of all this fear-mongering, I wonder.
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