It is not just the scale of the destruction, the level of the horror and the magnitude of the tremors that has set the terrible events in Japan apart from many other natural disasters of recent decades, it was also the unprecedented, prompt coverage the world was offered live as the damage unfolded.
From the air, Japan’s military – known as the Self-Defense Forces – and Coast Guard sent those first bird’s eye views of the tsunami as it rolled inland, streaming videos from their helicopters and planes that will no doubt go down in history. Then followed ordinary Japanese civilians with their mobile phones and cameras, narrated with panicked yelps as they watched their cities and villages wiped off the map. Google Earth and Geo-Eye have since provided satellite pictures of streets and buildings in orderly patterns before Friday and the wasteland afterwards.
Yet it is the level of television news coverage that has been the most startling. Within hours of the quake, the road from Tokyo was filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic, as TV crews filed north. By daybreak, myriad news choppers were beaming images to TV viewers around the globe. In one dramatic scene, a Japan Broadcasting Corp news chopper virtually piggybacked an olive-green SDF helicopter to film it flying low to pluck a survivor from the balcony of a building half-submerged in water.
Very soon, concerns were expressed that the media blitz was fuelling tensions for the relief and rescue efforts. On Saturday, the Japanese government’s top spokesman, chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano, urged reporters to do their job from the ground. “The rescue teams have told us their efforts have been hindered by noise from helicopters carrying reporters,” he said. Later that day, when reporters and photographers for the Los Angeles Times tried to rent a helicopter, they were told that the government had imposed a flight ban in the disaster zone on helicopters carrying journalists.
Shocking as the pictures have been, they have also surprised for another reason: the absence of the dead. Consider one video that was shot in Kamaishi city, in Iwate prefecture. It shows the sea pouring over the breakwater, gaining force, and ploughing through cars, electric lines and buildings. The camera pans across the roofs of buildings and stops briefly on four people watching the scene from the balcony of a concrete building. It never returns to them, as if to avert our eyes from their fate.
Nobody needs to see bodies to know that a lot of people died. A few have emerged in photos transmitted by the Associated Press, Reuters and other news wire agencies, but none have been shown on Japanese television.
On Monday afternoon a DJ on radio station Tokyo FM beckoned listeners not to dwell on the grim details. “Yes, there are lots of dead. But let’s focus on the hundreds of thousands of survivors and the troops and rescue teams working night and day to distribute emergency supplies,” he said.