electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Discussion Paper 2 in 2012
First published in ejcjs on 1 February 2012

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Framing a Catastrophe:

Portrayal of the 3.11 Disaster by a Local Japanese Newspaper


A. S. Rausch

XXXX University

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Key Words


1. Introduction

The March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power facility catastrophe ‘triple disaster’ not only devastated the east coastal areas of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, it sent shock waves throughout Japan. The direct effects of the earthquake and tsunami can be counted in lives lost, communities washed away and industries destroyed. The catastrophe at the Fukushima Number 1 Nuclear Power Plant brought effect both immediate, in the events that unfolded in the days and weeks after power was lost, and longer term, as fears associated with radioactive fallout devastated the public’s trust not just in their government, but also in the agricultural produce they purchased and the very ground they walked over and their children played on.

The aftermath of these events, both direct and indirect, were minimal for Aomori Prefecture, the northernmost prefecture of the six Tohoku prefectures. The earthquake-tsunami brought minimal damage to the eastern part of the prefecture and the Hachinohe port. The human toll was three deaths and one missing; houses were damaged rather than destroyed or swept away and fishing was disrupted rather than being decimated. In short, Aomori was spared the levels of direct damage seen just to the south in Iwate and Miyagi. The southerly prevailing winds took the airborne radiation from the disabled nuclear facility to the south, such that the only long-term effect was a reappraisal of the future of the nuclear power facilities and reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture. While locals, official and residents alike, debated these topics, a 2 December 2011 Daily Yomiuri newspaper article reported that TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Co.) decided to discontinue construction of a nuclear power plant scheduled to start operation in 2017 located in Higashidori Village, Aomori Prefecture, citing insufficient funds due to the compensation payments required in the aftermath of the Fukushima catastrophe.

Still, in light of its proximity to the events of 3.11, Aomori can provide a unique media view on the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011 and its aftermath. For these reason, this contribution takes up the Aomori newspaper portrayal of the events, using a three-component assessment framework: article trends, the narratives of disaster-related special sections, and reader impressions of newspaper coverage. This contribution will conclude by commenting on the local newspaper as being informational, both near-term and long-term, creating narrative frames for the disaster, and disseminating future policy agendas.

The View of the Aomori Prefecture Newspaper

This contribution focuses on the reporting and representation of the Great East Japan Earthquake by the Tōōnippō, the de facto newspaper of Aomori Prefecture, which publishes a morning and an evening edition with a circulation of 260,000 readers. In other research that centered on media consumption and trust in urban areas of Aomori prefecture, the readership level of the Tōōnippō was reported to be at 67 percent (national average for local newspaper: 44.3%), whereas the Yomiuri and Asahi were reported at 14 and 17 percent, respectively (Rausch 2002). Further, and more to the theme of the present research, coverage of Aomori Prefectural issues by the Tōōnippō was rated as very sufficient or sufficient by 64 percent of respondents and very accurate or accurate by 51 percent.

The present research adopts a triangulation method, wherein three separate research methodologies are brought to analysis of the Tōōnippō in its post-Great East Japan Earthquake coverage. The first component used a Tōōnippō newspaper database keyword search (registration required; Japanese only). The importance of such keyword trends is reflected in research by Ichise (2011) which shows that the Japanese terms jishuku (self-restraint) and fukko (reconstruction-recovery) both reached their peak appearance in five main Japanese newspapers in the first week of April, after having increased over the four week period directly after the earthquake. After this peak, the frequency of references to self-restraint fell off sharply, while reconstruction-recovery continued to be used by the media in a fairly consistent pattern through to the end of the examination period in mid July. Ichise makes an elite agenda-setting assessment in attributing this to the media adopting the various positions espoused by political leaders in the immediate aftermath, this even though the symbolic importance of respectful restraint as espoused by these media elites contradicted the economic need for recovery activities as asserted by others. In terms of the database search in the present research, the Japanese term higashi nihon daishinsai (Great East Japan Disaster) was used as the anchor keyword, with a range of terms added to identify the range and strength of certain combinative notions. At a primary level this was undertaken in combinations of two words, such as ‘Great East Japan Disaster + government’ (gyōsei), and in more extended searches in combinations of three or more words, with the primary combinative keywords being ‘damage’ versus ‘recovery’ and government’ versus ‘nuclear power industry’. An overall time period (March 12 to September 15, 187 days) was used to establish a baseline for the frequency of keywords, which was followed by a search in the seven following time periods: (1) March 12 to 30, (2) April 1-30, (3) May 1-31, (4) June 1-30, (5) July 1-31, (6) August 1-31 and (7) September 1-30. The second component of the research methodology was a focus on the terminology and content of special newspaper sections given over to earthquake coverage and carried at periodic points five to seven months after the disaster. This terminology can be viewed as a significant part of the narrative building that underlies the social construction of the post-disaster consciousness surrounding the event. Finally, the third component of the research consisted of interviews with local informants, through which an overall ‘reader perception trend’ view of the media presentation as discerned by readers could be identified. The viewpoint is ‘grounded,’ in that the findings emerged through the length of the research period, as well as in the triangulation of different measures: one quantitative, one narrative and one evaluative.

The Six-Month Keyword Trends

First of all, the anchor term Great East Japan Disaster (higashi nihon daishinsai) yielded 3530 hits for the Tōōnippō newspaper over the base period (March 12 to September 15). This translates into an overall average of 18.9 references to the disaster per newspaper day. For the immediate post-earthquake period, from March 12 to the end of that month, 765 ‘Great East Japan Disaster’ references emerged, equaling 40.3 references per newspaper day (see Table 1). By April, this fell to 25.6, by May and June to around 18, by July and August around 12 and by September to nine.

 3.12 ~ 9.153.12 ~ 3.304 April5 May6 June7 July8 August9 Sep
Great East Japan Disaster3530; 18.9/day765; 40.3/d767; 25.6/d563; 18.2/d510; 17.0/d429; 14.3/d349; 11.3/d282; 9.4/d

Note: n = total number of references per time period.

Source: Tōōnippō Newspaper database.

Table 1 References to ‘Great East Japan Disaster’

Taking up the first of the primary combinations referred to above, ‘damage and recovery’, references to ‘recovery’ for the overall period (932; 5.0 references per newspaper day) equaled those for ‘damages’ (930; 5.0 references per day), as shown in Table 2. As should be expected, the peak for ‘damage’ comes in March and April followed by a notable decline through July and August, with the peak in ‘recovery’ in April and May followed by a higher trend through to September. At its highest, ‘damage’ related references were 13.3 per day in the period March 12 to 30; at its peak, ‘recovery’ references were at 7.0 and 6.5 per day in April and May. The leading references within ‘damage’ were ‘employment,’ ‘economy’, and ‘business enterprise’, accounting for nearly half of all ‘damage’ references over the base period (48%) and ahead of housing (14%), fishing (12.5%) and agriculture (5%), which would, on one hand, seem to be relatively low for a primary-sector based economy like Aomori. However, given that the earthquake and tsunami damage was concentrated in the eastern and eastern coastal part of the prefecture, the reference to business reflects the indirect and broader scale of damage the disaster brought to Aomori as a whole. On the ‘recovery’ side and also indicative of this business focus for Aomori, ‘tourism’ is the highest referent, accounting for 26 percent of total ‘recovery’ references, followed by ‘economy’ (19%) and ‘housing’ (9%). However, as of August and September, ‘recovery’ related articles still appeared at a level of over three references per newspaper day, versus 2.2 and 1.9 for ‘damage’.

Great East Japan Disaster3.12 ~ 9.153.12 ~ 3.30Apr 4, 2012May 5, 2012Jun 6, 2012Jul 7, 2012Aug 8, 2012Sep 9, 2012
+ Damage930; 5.0/day253; 13.3/d215; 7.2/d136; 4.4/d7123; 4.1/d100; 3.2/d67; 2.2/d56; 1.9/d
+ housing12351231711789
+ agriculture458998555
+ fishing114302824131059
+ economy15112483526151110
+ enterprise1312429252712115
+ nature5191295953
+ trash/waste191522323
+ employment1677181617214
+ Recovery932; 5.0/day107; 5.6/d211; 7.0/d192; 6.2/d131; 4.4/d120; 3.9/d122; 3.9/d95; 3.2/d
+ housing80750352227229
+ economy1764131036624
+ agriculture441619170696
+ fishing79581913755
+ nature5762108746445346
+ tourism24138806332433712
+ Tohoku30937806032435228
+ Aomori 37136886155515238

Note: n = total number of references per time period.

Source: Tōōnippō Newspaper database.

Table 2 References related to ‘Great East Japan Disaster’: Damage vs. Recovery

The second pairing is ‘government’ versus the ‘nuclear power industry’. As shown in Table 3, both for the overall period from March 12 to mid-September and for each respective month period, references to Great East Japan Earthquake paired with ‘nuclear power industry’ far out-numbered similarly paired references to ‘government’. Overall, references to the ‘nuclear power industry’ were 539, yielding 2.9 references per newspaper day, higher than for ‘government’, at 158 references (0.8 per day), but lower than both ‘damage’ and ‘recovery’. Interesting to note in this pairing are the level of references to ‘government’ + ‘safety’, ‘unease’ and ‘policy’ at negligible levels (0.2 references per day) versus those levels for ‘nuclear power industry’ (from 0.8 to 0.5 per day). However, relative to the nature of the nuclear reactor accident following the tsunami, the references for ‘damage’ (140; 0.7 per day) and ‘radioactivity’ (92; 0.5 per day) could be viewed as quite low as compared with the broader references for ‘damage’ referred to above.

Great East Japan Disaster3.12 ~ 9.153.12~ 3.30Apr 4, 2012May 5, 2012Jun 6, 2012Jul 7, 2012Aug 8, 2012
+ Government158; 0.8/day31; 1.6/d37; 1.2/d29; 0.9/d32; 1.1/d12; 0.4/d8; 0.3/d
+ safety35675831
+ unease39789840
+ policy3841361022
+ trust7020000
+ dissatisfaction6123000
+ questions5001221
+ expectation24257431
+ responsibility15112531
+ Nuclear Power Industry539; 2.8/day66; 3.5/d87; 2.9/d54; 1.7/d58; 1.9/d50; 1.6/d39; 1.3/d
+ damage140334014151812
+ safety145322722242211
+ unease1092728151899
+ policy997321920610
+ radiation9223226111012
+ trust25123735
+ dissatisfaction10030321
+ questions14151232
+ expectations39385766
+ responsibility4226811103

Note: n = total number of references per time period.

Source: Tōōnippō Newspaper database.

Table 3 References related to ‘Great East Japan Disaster’: Government versus Nuclear Power Industry

Summarizing the ‘government – nuclear power industry’ theme over the monthly periods from March to September, there is a relatively even distribution for all the ‘government’ keywords across the period. Conversely, for the ‘nuclear power industry’, there are concentrations in March and April for damage and radiation, with policy seeing an increase in April, May and June. Finally, the keywords ‘trust’, ‘dissatisfaction’ and ‘questions’ did not register a notable level in the news of the Tōōnippō over the period. Important to understanding, and contextualizing, these various representations is Aomori’s distance from the site of the nuclear reactor catastrophe, both in terms of the limited immediate concern over the accident itself and the potential for radiation contamination, both for residents at large and with respect to agricultural produce. That the fear of agricultural produce contamination was not at levels seen either within Fukushima and Miyagi or in prefectures to the south, where the prevailing winds may have deposited contaminants is not to say it was non-existent in Aomori. The contamination issue was a local issue for Aomori Prefecture, both in the increase in produce prices, an effect felt throughout eastern Japan, but also for local rice and apple production, which prompted periodic testing throughout the summer but which turned out to be of no danger.

Special Section Vocabulary and Content

A special section that was started at the six month date after the disaster was telling in terms of narratives that were created around the disaster. The following six/seven special section cases (A-F) are from a series titled ‘Tohoku Hatsu (Take Off) — Lively Japan Meeting’ (translations by author).

A. ‘Tohoku Hatsu – Lively Japan Meeting’ special number 1

September 15, pages 16-17, photos of interviewees;

Theme: Living

Main Headline: Overcoming the Hardships of the Disaster – Toward the Future Step by Step

Main article 1: Hachinohe Fishing Cooperative: Rebuilding ‘Anything Will Help’
Restarting after a half-year, New Resolve

Main article 2: Recovery – Starting now for real
Relocating residences to higher ground, gathering supplies at the port

Six Interview Articles

  1. Iwate – Re-challenging to make Japan’s best; harvesting local shellfish
  2. Akita – B Class Gourmet-Rediscovering Nature; reconnecting after evacuating
  3. Fukushima – Heartfelt Ramen; preparing to reopen a cafeteria
  4. Yamagata – Contributing to Recovering the Future; a fisherman evacuee from Fukushima
  5. Miyagi – Activating a Temporary Market Street; Youth Association
  6. Rebuilding a Beautiful Tohoku; living in the spirit of ‘connection’

B. ‘Tohoku Hatsu – Lively Japan Meeting’ Number 2

September 29, pages 12-13, photos of interviewees;

Theme: Support

Main Headline: Giving Vitality to Victims – Volunteer Power and Connection

Main Article 1: 720,000 people Supporting at Sites
Emotional care for how to carry on

Main Article 2: Food for Evacuees on the Sanriku Coast
Military Families Bring Base Food

Seven Interview Articles

  1. Iwate – Overcoming Hardships with Portable Sales Shop – direct sales coop
  2. Miyagi – Visiting Temporary Housing for Counseling – Tohoku University group
  3. Fukushima – Growing, Foot Bath  Bringing Healing – Student Support Network
  4. Akita – Setting Up Junior High School Exchanges
  5. Yamagata – 5555 Folded Cranes – sent to Higashi Matsushima City
  6. Listening to Physicians (1) Stable Environments for Aged Needed
  7. Listening to Physicians (2) Wanting to Increase the Number of Hands for Care

C. ‘Tohoku Hatsu – Lively Japan Meeting’ Number 3

October 13, pages 14-15, photos of interviewees;

Theme: Rising up

Main Headline 1: Steps toward Reviving Agriculture and Fishing
Imbalances in the Levels of Recovery

Main Headline 2: Residents Challenge City Recovery
A Return to Lively Cities

Five Interview Articles

  1. Akita – Repaying 28 Years of Kindness – Prefectural Sake Cooperative
  2. Iwate – Restarting Treatment ‘Hope is Bright’– Local Dental Clinic
  3. Yamagata – Restarting a Local Restaurant – Cook who Fled Sendai
  4. Miyagi – Establishing a Foundation to Support Fishing — Local Business Group
  5. Fukushima – Keeping Tradition Alive — Local Pottery Association
  6. Listening to Local Business Owners:
    Looking Forward while Thinking Things Through
    Local Businesses must Link Up

D. ‘Tohoku Hatsu – Lively Japan Meeting’ Number 4

October 27, pages 12-13, photos of interviewees;

Theme: Calling People Back

Main Headline 1: Not Losing to Rumors — Banding Together to Bring Back Tourism

Six Interview Articles

  1. Aomori – Eco-activities and B-Grade Gourmet
  2. Iwate – Opening an Aquarium in the Station Area
  3. Fukushima – Tohoku’s Genkan is Open for Use
  4. Yamagata – Awaiting the Call for Local Beef
  5. Miyagi – Hotels Reopening as Possible

Column: Tohoku Tourism Promotion Council Chief: Increasing Facility Links and Support is Key

E. ‘Tohoku Hatsu – Lively Japan Meeting’ Number 4

November 3, pages 14-15, photos of interviewees;

Theme: Stepping Forward

Main Headline 1: Participation – The New Challenge

Main Headline 2: One Step at a Time, With a Smiling Face, Strong Connections to Recovery

Six Interview Articles

  1. Hirosaki and Iwate – Sharing a Festival
  2. Fukushima – Regional Power in Reopening a Local Golf Course
  3. Akita Satellite Shops – Selling Goods from the Disaster Areas
  4. Iwate – Entrusting Local Recovery to Hops Cultivation
  5. Miyagi Fisheries – Establishing New Venture Relationships
  6. Yamagata – Celebrating Our Hometowns

Column: Founder of Tohoku Gaku (the Study of Tohoku): The Future is Making Tohoku into a Special Region within Japan

F. ‘Tohoku Hatsu – Lively Japan Meeting’ Number 6

November 29, pages 14-15, photos of discussants;

Theme: Panel Discussion

Main Headline 1: Now is the Time for Realizing the Connections of Tohoku

Five Discussant Themes

  1. The Importance of Local Health Services
  2. Toward Partnerships in Wind Energy
  3. PR the Point for Industry and Tourism
  4. The Importance of Reviving Primary Industries
  5. The Importance of Reversing the ‘Rapidly Aging Areas’

These ‘Tohoku Hatsu – Lively Japan Meeting’ presentations reflect a transition from the initial period which entailed coming to an understanding of the scale of the disaster to a period of recovery efforts. The column themes begin with the first steps of recovery (Sample A), and then move to the reality of support that has been brought to the disaster areas along with the reality of what these areas need, describing the provision of food and housing, the importance of volunteerism and volunteer efforts, and the medial and psychological needs that accompany such a disaster (Sample B). The third, fourth and fifth ‘Tohoku Hatsu – Lively Japan Meeting’ special sections focus on broader themes of recovery, looking at specific sectors and the organizational activities that will support long-term recovery (Samples C, D, and E). Each of these ‘Tohoku Hatsu’ sections include a main article, five to six human interest articles taken from the affected prefectures, and a column written by an expert of some sort. The final ‘Tohoku Hatsu’ column shown also reflects a transition from narrative to agenda setting, in the form of a panel discussion held on the theme of Tohoku recovery.

Taken together with the six-month keyword trends shown above, these special sections reveal a subtle trend in the framing vocabulary associated with the post-earthquake period. The first six month trend revealed an initial balance between the terminological frequency of ‘damage’ references and ‘recovery’ references on the one hand, along with a fairly steady trend of ‘nuclear power industry’ references that doubled references to ‘government’ on the other. The narratives portrayed above in the special sections emerged at the six-month post-disaster point, creating a clear human-interest portrayal of recovery accompanied by an agenda setting column component.

The Reader Perception Trend

As detailed as the keyword searches were and as insightful as the headline vocabulary of the special sections was, it is in an everyday reading of the newspaper that an overall trend of coverage emerges. Often such an overall ‘perception trend’ goes un-noticed in the day-to-day consumption of news media unless specifically sought through prompting and discussion. As a means of identifying the present Great East Japan Earthquake ‘perception trend’, informal discussions were conducted with 12 informants: two sessions with four and five participants, respectively, and three individual interviews. The discussions were unscripted and open-ended, beginning with a prompt (in Japanese) about impressions of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Once the topic had been broached, discussion turned to the media role in informing the individual, with clear distinctions made between television and newspaper media. What follows is a synthesis of these interviews.

Most of the informants can clearly remember the shock of the initial headlines and photos. Headlines are powerful on the basis of size and the stark contrast of white text against a black background, but the photos provided an immediate and powerful indication of the scale of the disaster. Early coverage, over the first week or so, provided only estimates of the scale of both the disaster and the scale of the damage, both of which were primarily due to the tsunami. This focus was soon displaced by a combination of awe and fear, brought to the fore of people’s minds as the scale of the disaster was realized, along with the anticipation of aftershocks and immediate concerns regarding the ongoing and worsening nuclear catastrophe. This fear turned to anxiety in the slow procession of information that emerged daily through late March and April regarding the nuclear power station accident. This anxiety was compounded by the fact that, while most media sources were judged as competent in their delivery of both the information they received and the word of various experts on various aspects of the crisis, the television media, as is often the case, provided contradictory opinions regarding what was a highly technical situation, such that many looked to the newspaper for confirmation—something the newspaper was unable to satisfactorily deliver. Most viewed this as the early stage, a three-part stage of ‘initial shock,’ followed by ‘awe,’ then ‘fear’ and then ‘anxiety.’

This initial stage gradually merged with what most described as a post-event anxiety, as newspaper coverage depicting the immediate aftermath and the unknown trajectory of the nuclear crisis were replaced by recognition of the seriousness of what would be required to recover and the long-term implications thereof. April and May saw the newspaper portray these in terms of the local economy and local tourism, in terms of what policies were going to be drafted to deal with the two sides of the disaster, the tsunami damage to the coastal areas of Miyagi Prefecture in particular, and the radiation effects both of the immediate area surrounding the nuclear reactors in Fukushima, but also of the surrounding agricultural areas extending to other prefectures as well. This then constitutes a second, middle period of media coverage referred to by informants, one that can be described as ‘coming to an understanding’ of the event.

The third period is interesting in that these Aomori Prefectural informants reported that the disaster, still viewed as a newsworthy and important issue unfolding in terms of the details of impact and recovery, had been politicized on the one hand, in that the political maneuvering of parties and politicians at the national level had come to taint coverage of both direct disaster response and formulation of a policy adjustment regarding nuclear energy, and replaced by other news, on the other. Informants seemed to be saying that the coverage of the disaster as a disaster had, by June and July, given way to political opportunism built on the rubble of the disaster. Along with this came the rainy season and a number of devastating typhoons with record-breaking rainfalls causing a new wave of more localized disasters. By August and September, the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident as events, while still very near in the sense of timing and powerful in the attention they garnered when brought up, had largely given way to new issues. By the end of September, the Tōōnippō newspaper reported that prefectural rice was safe, that various disaster response measures were being drafted into national policy, and that automobile production and sales had shown their first post-disaster increases. By October, much of the Tōōnippō coverage focused on dealing with the post-disaster cleanup waste problem, and the state and fate of nuclear power-related facilities located within Aomori Prefecture.


This contribution has looked at local newspaper coverage of the seven-month period following the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, tracking the keyword trends, special section vocabulary and content and offering a reader perception trend. Aside from the findings showing overall an early balance in references between a focus on damage and recovery giving way to a longer term focus on recovery, along with a focus on the nuclear power industry over the government, the special section trend showed a transition from recognition of the disaster to the aspects of initial support and then to recovery in local primary industries and tourism and then onto such social themes as participation and a long-term view for the region at large in a manner that is dominated by early acceptance and then active hope.

From a social science perspective, this portrayal is indicative of a newspaper fulfilling its multiple functions. One of these is the social utility function, both in terms of the quantity of information and the quality of information. This was confirmed as informants allowed that the newspaper could not be charged with accusations of hype—with regard to any aspect of the triple disaster, whether the disaster itself, the nuclear catastrophe that followed or the economic and social implications thereof. While the presence of disaster narratives was clear, these narratives both reflected prevailing public attitude and were judged an appropriate function of the newspaper. Agenda setting and policy information dissemination were the areas were different viewpoints emerged. Views regarding both the appropriateness of the newspaper carrying opinion pieces and the value of those opinions to the various disaster issues that emerged differed dramatically. Similarly, assessments of the Tōōnippō regarding dissemination of policy formulation differed sharply as well. While the latter two aspects differ somewhat with assertions made by Rausch (forthcoming) regarding a ‘local revitalization’ role for the local newspaper in Japan, where the local newspaper can be viewed as taking an active role in promoting the economic stability and vitality of its host region through such approaches as agenda setting and policy information dissemination, this picture of the local newspaper regarding its function with regard to disaster coverage depicts a social institution that is meaningful in its information function, stable in its resistance to hype, and valuable in that it tells stories that contribute to the rebuilding of communities.


Ichise, A. (2011). Japan’s Post-Disaster Vocabulary. Frontline, September 2011, Article ID 2226. Available Online: www.ipra.org/print.asp?articleid=2226. Accessed 10 October 2011.

Rausch, A. S. (2002). The Role of the Local Newspaper Media in Generating a Citizen Volunteer Consciousness. International Journal of Japanese Sociology, 11, 102-117.

Rausch, A. S. (forthcoming). Japan’s Local Newspapers. London, U.K.: Routledge.

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