Monday, March 14, 2011

Images of Japan and imagining Japanese society

Here are a few impressions:

On the way to school this morning, Beanie and I were talking about the news from Japan. I explained to her that there had been an earthquake. "Like there was in Haiti?" she asked, her eyes opening wide in horror.

Even before we reached the school, Beanie had told me: "I want to send $5 to Japan." After a pause she said: "I know it is really a little bit." For Beanie, however, it is a lot: I think she has $7 in her allowance jar now (but I am not sure whether or not that counts the $1 from the tooth fairy last night.) We will donate it to Doctors without Borders.


We do not have cable TV at home, so Beanie has not viewed any images of the devastation there. To be honest, I find the images both arresting and horrible: It is difficult to recognize reality in the "before" and "after" satellite images or the video feed of water moving so relentlessly to carry boats, ships, cars, trucks, and entire buildings.

Is it just me, or does it seem that there are a great number of these panoramic views - not only of the disaster, but also of the lines of people (standing in queues for water, or with their bedding arranged on a gymnasium floor, with their shoes also lined neatly)? It seems to me that the orderliness and tidiness of "Japanese society" are being invoked here. The images communicate the enormity of the disaster of the earthquake and tsunami. Yet, I also receive the impression that the disorder itself (of boats occupying streets far inland and cars drifting out to sea) is being viewed as part of the disaster, not just a result of it.

I wonder also about the effects in terms of how "Japanese society" continues to be understood in the United States - in long-distance views?

This is not to mention that the news in Japan has provoked some incredibly hostile and racist reactions from Americans. I hardly even could bring myself to look at the examples reproduced in this posting on UCSC's Ethnic Studies blog, which a friend on Facebook shared. The racist Facebook posts refer to "Pearl Harbor."

In light of the references to "Pearl Harbor," I find striking that the disaster in Japan today is being described in news media as the worst "since World War 2." Indeed, the images of devastation are compared with "war scenes." However, the "war scenes" from "World War 2" that come to my mind are images of devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki - which seem esp. relevant as there is imminent risk of meltdown in the nuclear reactors.


The unreality of the panoramic images attracts my attention to them. In contrast, I find the images of people especially difficult to view. My heart just about stopped when I saw photos on the NYT home page last night of small children being tested for radiation exposure: There was one of a little boy, wearing a winter jacket and boots, with his arms spread. It could have been Bubbie, and the girl in the background could have been Beanie.

Also difficult to view have been the images of the elderly survivors. B/c the areas hardest hit by the tsunami were the kinds of places that young people leave behind, the survivors are old people - which also makes me think that they are both the most vulnerable, but also possibly the most resilient b/c they prob'ly know a bit more about simply having to do.

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