Reporting and Responding to Disasters

I have previously done some posts (such as Creating Disasters and Disasters by the Book – How Japanese may be Designing Disasters) relating to one of the most significant concepts to have impacted my research – the idea that disasters are ‘designed’ as put forward by Dennis Mileti. This concept has underpinned much of my research the JL123 plane crash, particularly my book Dealing with Disaster in Japan, but also in other publications such as ‘Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different?‘. In this post, however, I would like to discuss another concept that has been significant in relation to my research on disasters.

Unlike the ‘disaster by design’ concept, which I had not really stopped to think about until I read Mileti’s work, the one that I am writing about today is one that fits much more with something that I had questioned about for many years – it’s just that I had never seen it written down so powerfully. And I didn’t expect to find the words in a novel – although I should not have been surprised about that since challenging ideas is one of the roles of novels and authors, as I have discussed in another post.

The words are found in the novel Kuraimazu Hai (クライマーズ・ハイ) (‘Climber’s High’ – official English translation ‘Seventeen‘) by Hideo Yokoyama. They struck me as so significant that I used them to open the chapter on the media reporting of the JL123 crash in my book Dealing with Disaster in Japan. I have also used clips from the NHK dramatization that features the lines being delivered in many of my presentations related to the JL123 crash, such as one that I gave at SOAS in 2017 and which is available in full on YouTube and which was published as ‘Conflicting and Complementary Demands after a Disaster: The Different Faces of Remembering the JL123 Crash’, Kamizono, Journal of the Meiji Jingu Intercultural Research Institute, No. 20, November 2018, 151-9.

To save you watching the whole video, here is the key slide (which was used in the presentation three times to make a point)…

The above translation is my own, and is a bit different to how the text appears in the official English translation of the novel, Seventeen, which was wonderfully translated by Louise Heal Kawai

‘Heavy lives and lightweight lives; important lives, and lives that are… not. Those people who died in the JAL crash – their lives were extremely important to everyone in the mass media.

Seventeen (hard back edition), page 345.

For the sake of completeness, here is the original Japanese text

重い命と、軽い命。大切な命と、そうではない命…。日航機の事故で亡くなった方たち、マスコミの人たちの間では、すごく大切な命だったんですね。

Climber’s High (paperback edition), pages 406-7.

These words themselves are powerful enough. But coupled with the ending words of the chapter, they are stinging attack, not just on the media, but also on society as a whole.

To all those who didn’t cry at the deaths of my father and cousin: I won’t cry for you either. Not even for you who lost your lives in the world’s greatest, most heart-breaking accident – I have no tears.

Seventeen (hard back edition), page 349.

Again, here is the Japanese version –

私の父や従兄弟の死に泣いてくれなかった人のために、私は泣きません。たとえそれが、世界最大の悲惨な事故で亡くなった方々のためであっても

Climber’s High (paperback edition), page 411.

Although in an interview with me, Yokoyama points to an article in the book written by the reporter Sayama (this may be a topic for another post) as the one that he wished he had written in 1985 (Yokoyama was a reporter at a local newspaper and went to the JL123 crash site) but that it took him 17 years to get to a point where he could write it and that this helped him to deal with his experiences of the crash (he says something similar in the foreword to Seventeen), in many respects I feel it is the above quotes are also wanted to express about his experiences. Yokoyama stopped being a journalist just a few years after the JL123 crash and devoted himself to being a novelist (which he had started doing before he quit the newspaper). I suspect that it’s also these concepts that led Yokoyama to worry so much about how the relatives of those who died in the crash (izoku) feel about the book – but, in a scene that felt reminiscent to one that happens in the book itself, the others who were with me when I was interviewing Yokoyama pointed out that there had been no criticism from the izoku.

Sadly the 2008 movie of Climber’s High did not include this particularly storyline – and as I have pointed out elsewhere this is my biggest criticism of the movie. The director, Masato Harada, has also told me that it is the one that he received the most criticism after the movie’s release. In reality, within the movie the concepts are there (as Harada is keen to point out) – but they are relatively hidden and clearly lack the punch of the original novel and the NHK dramatization (the movie does do a very good job at pointing out that question marks remain about the cause of the crash, however, which neither the novel or NHK dramatization do – see also this post).

The first of the quotes above is clearly an attack on the media. But it’s also an attack on society. The second quote is much more explicit about this. In the novel, the character later phones to apologize for what she said (and wrote – as it appears in a letter which is published in the newspaper), saying that she has gone too far. The fact remains, however, that the media and society do value lives in different ways – sometimes individuals can be seen as more worthy of mourning than huge numbers of people, and other times those caught up in a tragedy will be mourned while individuals or those caught up in a different tragedy are overlooked. We cannot cry for everyone. We cannot remember everyone. All lives matter – but there are times when certain lives, or deaths, need to be focused upon to help remind us of this fact. But balance is needed – and that balance is often missing still. This is a point that Yokoyama’s book powerfully reminds us and continues to shape my research and writing.

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