Tokyo Notes

Sympathy and Japan’s Crisis

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Tokyo Notes

Sympathy and Japan’s Crisis

Despite some insensitive comments, the international response to Japan’s earthquake has been sympathetic.

The exceptions can be brutal, such as the Twitter comments by Alec Sulkin and Gilbert Godfried. But overall, international online and print media have conveyed an incredible outpouring of sympathy for Japan in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake.

The trend is particularly pronounced among Japan's neighbours, many of whom have often been at odds with it over historical and territorial issues. A three-hour fundraising telethon on Taiwan's TBS network, for example, saw top local stars raise nearly $4,000,000 for quake relief. The opposition DPP has also raised millions. An incredible outpouring of support in Korea, led by local stars such as Yong-joon Bae, Lee Byung-hun and Choi Ji-woo, who rode the ‘Korea Wave’ to popularity in Japan, has raised nearly $10,000,000 dollars.

Online, user-generated content is quickly spreading awareness of the suffering in Tohoku. One powerful Korean video combines shocking images of the aftermath of the quake with a moving score called The Thorn Tree.

Other clips are designed not only to elicit sympathy for Japanese quake and tsunami victims, but also to translate messages of support from the #prayforjapan Twitter tag, which has collected countless messages from all over the world. The video’s creators have translated prayers and words of support into Japanese and set them to music here.

Blog China Smack reports respect, admiration, and kind words from Chinese netizens as Chinese businesses offer aid. The change in tone is particularly striking in the case of China, just months after a territorial clash over disputed islands resulted in the arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain, prompting harsh criticism of Japan at both the state and societal levels.

As Foreign Policy reported on March 11, within hours of the quake, it had become the third ranking topic on Baidu, the nation’s leading internet portal, with 2.5 million searches for ‘Japan earthquake.’

A number of early comments included statements such as ‘Warmly welcome the Japanese quake.’ But these views were overwhelmed by expressions of sympathy. More significant was the reaction against patently nationalistic sentiment being allowed to exploit the tragedy.

Weibo, a Chinese equivalent of Twitter, posted on its homepage this comment: ‘How many Japanese would write, “Congratulations on the Wenchuan earthquake?”’

The Epoch Times similarly noted rumours that some Chinese were ‘jumping for joy’ on first hearing of Japan’s misfortune, but it also suggests that such comments may have been scrubbed from Baidu in favour of numerous sympathetic and even admiring statements in the following days.

Stage and screen stars as well as corporate icons across Asia have pledged millions of dollars in support of relief efforts, while US celebrities such as actress Sandra Bullock have led the way with huge donations.

Still, as in other countries, there are mixed messages being sent out. Glenn Beck, perhaps one of the most influential commentators in the United States, commented of the quake that ‘a message (is) being sent from God.’ Others, meanwhile, were quick to remember Pearl Harbor.

The quake and tsunami have undoubtedly taken a horrific toll across the Tohoku region. But looking ahead, the aftermath may allow Japan not only to rethink elements of its development trajectory, including its heavy reliance on nuclear power, but also open a new page in regional relations.

(This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared at Japan Focus here.)

Matthew Penney is an Assistant Professor of History at Concordia University, Montreal. He is a Japan Focus associate who researches contemporary Japanese cultural history.