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15 Openings in Search of a Japan Disaster Story

by Brandon Edmonds / 22.03.2011

So many ways to go here.

Make it Personal: I lived and worked in Japan for 3 years in the early 2000s. By now it’s a fond blur of sushi and fellatio. But the only earthquakes the country experienced back then were minor tremors from ridiculously over-staffed girl-group Morning Musume jumping up and down…

Morning Musume

Hate the Troll: Tamtampamela is a kind of performance activist who specializes in subverting online orthodoxy via the fine of art of emotive trolling. Or just a lame shitty troll. She recently thanked God, parodying the lunatic fringe of Christian fundamentalism, on You Tube for the earthquake as proof that prayers are answered.

Invoke the Spectacle: Any Media Studies Reader worth its Kalahari sticker price will have canonical essays by Baudrillard, Jameson, Guy Debord. What they get at is how social experience is second-hand – how we’re all glomming onto that media teat for our sense of the world and suffering from unreality. Real life as spectacle. If you watched the disaster footage and thought ‘it looks just like a movie’ – you may want to add that Reader to your cart.

Picking Up the Tab: Reuters quotes risk assessors early estimates of the Quake damage to be “an insured loss between $14.5 billion and $34.6 billion” already making the disaster the “second-costliest natural disaster for insurers in the last 40 years”. Behind Hurricane Katrina. That isn’t even counting the impact of the Tsunami. The overall recovery and reconstruction bill is estimated at $200 billion. And long-term power outages “may dwarf the costs of reconstruction.” Maybe even 5% of GDP. Not what an economy facing $10 trillion in public debt ordered.

Japanese Atomic Bombs

Holler back to History: Japan has been a net exporter of disaster footage for a while now. Kobe. Sarin. That Tom Cruise Dances with Samurai movie. Those dolphins in The Cove. Nagasaki and Hiroshima were the twin towers behind anime and the cyber-techno-futurism of amoral manga excess we know and love today. The rabid Japanese taste for overblown apocalyptic fantasy scenarios may have a lot to do with being the only nation to have absorbed not one but two atomic bombs. What matters when in a flash you can be turned to anti-matter?

Pumping Liquidity: Plant workers are pumping seawater into reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant to contain a potential meltdown. The Bank of Japan is pumping record amounts of “liquidity” ($121 billion) into the market to “lubricate the financial wheels of the economy”. The horny urban Edo period of 19th century Tokyo was called “the Floating World”. Hey Japan, enough with the water imagery.

Really Insensitive Pop Culture Reference: For all the otaku (pop culture geeks) out in the cold. Cult director John Carpenter’s classic Escape from LA dials up the OMFG-Is-This-Really-Happening!!! as badass Snake Plissken chases Steve Buscemi down Rodeo Drive surfing a gigantic tidal wave (alongside an Easy Riding Peter Fonda). That’s telling Mother Nature where to put it.

Obligatory South African Tie-In: The Guardian reports that Koeberg produces about 20 tonnes of radioactive waste every year and a half, transported by road to a dump site in the Kalahari desert. Greenpeace activists protested South Africa’s reliance on nuclear power by raiding Koeberg way back in 2002. The State blew over R7 billion (of our money) on a Pebble Bed Nuclear reactor venture that tanked. The ANC wants 14% of SA’s energy met by nuclear power by 2030. Just saying.

The Weird Temporality of Disaster Jokes: There’s a mysterious category of time set aside especially for permissibility: when is it okay to joke about terrible events? There’s no way of knowing. You tell by testing. Which means early-adopters, joke pioneers can get burned. U.S Comedian Gilbert Gottfried famously cracked the first post-9-11 joke in a public forum. It was seen as socially constructive then. A much-needed pressure release. He recently lost his job as the voice of the Aflac duck – the brand mascot of Japan’s biggest insurer – for a few woeful twitter jokes. Damp squibs like: “I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, there’ll be another one floating by any minute.” Oh snap. Too soon? Definitely too soon.

Obligatory Murakami Reference: Haruki Murakami’s short-story collection After the Quake (about the Kobe earthquake in 1995) traces the intimate psychic fallout of disaster, the private repercussions of violent events. A tax collector hallucinates a frog that warns him “People will be made to realise the fragile condition the intensive collectivity known as ‘city’ really is.” Disaster imagery makes a guy impotent. People build giant bonfires out of all the driftwood loosed by the quake. A wife suddenly leaves her husband, calling him, “a chunk of air”. And a man, long before ‘Requiem for a Dream’, has nightmares about his own appliances: “Inside the refrigerator is pitch-dark. I wonder if there’s been a power failure and stick my head inside. Hands shoot out from the darkness and grab me by the neck. Cold hands. Dead people’s hands.”

Pikachu Airplane

That One Still Photo that Gets to You: Cutesy Japanese ‘kawaii’ culture (the chronic infantilism of Hello Kitty or pop artist Takeshi Murakami’s fizzy Superflat style or Pikachu ludicrously supersized on an airline fleet) is headache-inducing until you look harder and root around in all the repression required to keep on smiling – as if nothing is wrong. It’s part of what makes Shiho Fukada’s photograph of bodies covered by futons so terrible. It feels like the end of the Culture of Cute. That bright Disney graphic covers a dead person.

That’s the Magic Number: Ten thousand. 10,000. The media needs a number. There’s no way of knowing for sure. Not yet. But this number circulates. This is the number that emerged. Ten thousand dead. Not having a number is an unacceptable information gap. The number plugs a hole, the official demand for a quotable death toll. How many are dead? Nobody knows. Not yet.

Pseudo-Marxist Jab at Bargain Hunters: The Nikkei share index, the ‘most widely quoted average of Japanese equities’, recently had the “biggest intraday slump since the 1987 stock crash” according to online sources – plummeting 14%. Sony shares dropped 17%. Tokyo Electric Power, the company behind the hazardous Fukushima nuclear plant, has seen its share price drop 24%. But the “creative destruction” that keeps capitalism ticking over means opportunity knocks regardless. As a BBC World business reporter put it, “It’s horrible to say but stocks bounced back today on the back of bargain hunting.” There’s blood in the water and investors are circling.

That Old Inscrutability: It means calm down in Japanese. Ochitsuite. Western media has noticed the lack of panic, the restraint, the orderliness, the well-drilled sense of public decorum, the admirable calm on display in Japan. The media response to this tempered Japanese response to the disaster amounts to: Why aren’t they fucking freaking out!!? It’s as if Japan is the quiet one in the Big Brother house. Entertain us with your grief! Lament! Get emotional. Show us how painful and wretched this all is for you. How did we become such pain connoisseurs?

That Sentence that stays with You: “Bodies are washing up all along the coast.”

Tsunami Flotsam

*Images sourced Wikipedia Commons.

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