After the earthquake, life in Tokyo had mostly returned to normal for graduate student Petra Karlova. Sensationalistic reporting in the Czech media, however, made family and friends back home increasingly worried for her safety. Now having left Japan, she is shocked by the state of Czech reporting of the crisis.
Czech Republic Fears All of Japan Ravaged
I was in my dorm room in Tokyo when the big earthquake struck on March 11. The long, violent shaking caught me by surprise, but I wasn’t especially frightened. I had lived through plenty of smaller earthquakes during my time in Japan. Aside from some falling Tupperware, nothing in my dorm room was damaged. After the quake, I took refuge at the designated evacuation shelter in a local elementary school. So far as I could see, there was no damage between the dorm and the school. It was only when I got back to my dorm and turned on the television that I realized the true extent of the tragedy. I sat stunned.
Shortly after news broke of the hydrogen explosion and radiation leaks at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, my German and Korean friends started getting phone calls from concerned relatives back home. Many of them left Japan as soon as they could.
I kept a close eye on Japanese television and scoured the NHK website for information that would help me to explain the situation to my family and put their minds at ease. But as the situation in Fukushima deteriorated on Tuesday, March 15, I got more and more calls from worried relatives and friends. Apparently a state of panic had erupted in the Czech Republic.
Czechs do not get much news from faraway Japan. For the most part, international news is limited to stories about Europe and America. My family sat fixed to the TV, horrified by the scenes of devastation and worried for my safety. In the early hours after the disaster, little concrete information was given about where in Japan these images were coming from. Many Czechs got the impression that all of Japan had been swamped by the same kind of destruction as the hardest hit regions of Tōhoku. In an attempt to ease my family’s nerves, I walked around my dormitory and the local neighborhood taking photos. Confronted by the benign everyday reality shown in these pictures, my family finally seemed to calm down slightly.
The Czech media reported the hydrogen explosion at the nuclear plant under the sensational headline “Explosion at Nuclear Plant.” These words were enough to set people’s nerves on edge. People in the Czech Republic retain bitter memories of the Chernobyl disaster, when the Soviet Union issued no warnings whatsoever, even as huge clouds of radiation swept from the Ukraine across much of Europe. In the region I come from, some 20% of the deaths of people in their 50’s are attributed to cancer. My own father has received treatment for cancer. The Fukushima crisis has reopened debate on nuclear safety standards across Europe.
Dispatching the Czech Air Force
The Czech media was not well prepared to cover a story on this scale in Japan. With almost no Japan specialists of their own, Czech news companies had no choice but to translate foreign reports from English or German. At times, journalists who knew almost nothing about the situation in Japan were put in charge of reporting the disaster. The Czech media tended toward assumptions and broad generalizations.
As the crisis worsened, Czech TV showed images of non-Japanese Asian parents leaving Japan with their children. Unable to distinguish between Japanese and other Asian faces, Czech reporters mistakenly told of Japanese people fleeing with their children. Repeated footage of the devastation in Tōhoku and the news of the explosion at the nuclear reactor left many Czechs believing that “Japan has been destroyed” or that “Japan is in a total panic.”
These false impressions might help explain why the Czech government decided to dispatch Czech Republic Air Force planes to Narita. My family and teachers in the Czech Republic called to plead with me: “Please get on the plane.” I felt I had no choice, and arranged to leave Japan the following Wednesday.
Concern for Japan
The Monday before I was due to return, I went to work as usual. My Japanese friends did the same. There were a few inconveniences in Tokyo due to the disaster, but compared to the situation in the affected areas everything was fine. Japanese people around me were going about their lives without a hint of panic. For the media, sensationalism sells. It is possible that the media were not as thorough as they should have been in getting the most detailed information possible.
Happily, millions of Czechs have been moved by what they have seen of the tragedy in Japan and want to help. Charity concerts and other efforts to raise money were organized within days of the disaster. Czechs have offered a place in their own homes for evacuating Japanese. The Czech Red Cross immediately began soliciting donations. The Czech government also quickly approved relief funds for Japan.
Rebuilding and recovering from a disaster on this scale is not going to be easy. But the Japanese people are known for their resilience and resolve, and I am confident that the recovery will go well. My message to Japan is this: Remember that countless people around the world are supporting Japan in deed and in spirit. You are not alone. (Written on March 25, 2011.)
In This Series
Insights from a Czech Scholar in Japan
Japan on Czech TV (May 12)
Personal Lessons in Conservation (May 10)
Bottled Up Feelings About Water (May 3)
The Downside to Japanese Self-Restraint (April 18)
Stay Strong Japan! You Are Not Alone! (March 25)
Received an MA in Japanese and Vietnamese Studies and a doctorate in history from Charles University in Prague. Is now studying international relations at the Waseda University Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies. Dr. Karlova has a keen personal interest in Japanese culture, history, and martial arts.