Collective Belonging and Experiences of the Mediated Disaster: Recollections of Media Users in post-3.11 Japan

Sonja Petrovic, School of Culture and Communication/Asia Institute, The University of Melbourne [About | Email]

Volume 21, Issue 3 (Article 7 in 2021). First published in ejcjs on 20 December 2021; updated on 10 January 2022 to reflect greater engagement with existing resources.

Abstract: This study expands on theories of media events beyond the television-centric context, to incorporate the role of online media, and consider how media users in Japan recount and remember the trauma of the 3.11 disaster, as well as perceptions of different media and their relationships. Based on the users’ recollections of experiencing 3.11 in fragmented media environments, the study asserts that while online media provided new spaces for experiencing the disaster, television watching facilitated more solid feelings of togetherness and contributed to the formation of a collective national memory of 3.11. The study broadens the understanding of the concept of ‘media event’ by considering how a traumatic 3.11 disaster became impressed in people’s memories through media practices, both individual and shared. Through detailed individual reflections of Japanese viewers, obtained through interviews and content analysis, the study proposes a concept of ‘intermedial event’ as a framework for understanding the correlation of old and new media in helping users navigate the tensions between belonging and anxiety, routine and disruption, and conflict and togetherness.

Keywords: collective memory, 3.11 disaster, intermedial event, Japanese viewers, online media, reflections, television

Introduction

When the great earthquake hit the northeast coast of Japan on 11 March 2011 at precisely 14:46 JST, Japanese television networks immediately interrupted their regular programming to deliver the breaking news. This was the beginning of Japan’s three days of uninterrupted coverage of the ‘triple disaster’ as the initial earthquake was followed by a tsunami, aftershocks, and nuclear meltdown (Karlin, 2016). The disaster significantly affected regular television programming, which in turn has had an effect on long-established television viewing habits in Japan (Yoshimi, 2003).

The national public broadcaster NHK broke news of the earthquake seconds after it hit Japan. Five key commercial broadcasters—Fuji TV, TBS, TV Asahi, TV Tokyo, and NTV—reported the news a few minutes after that, and switched to full-time disaster coverage (Karlin, 2016). Under the Broadcast Act, NHK bears responsibility for providing fair coverage and issuing early reports immediately following a natural disaster. The live footage [1] and images of the tsunami engulfing entire coastal towns were some of the first signs of the disaster as a mediatised event. In the wake of 3.11, many individuals turned to alternative online sources to find real-time, up-to-date news, and to connect with a close circle of family and friends, or similarly affected others, fostering a sense of social connection and psychological comfort (Petrovic, 2019).

This study explores the role of television and online media in intensifying feelings of togetherness in the wake of the 3.11 disaster, and considers the challenge online media pose to televised coverage in connecting its users with distant individuals and communities. By examining Japanese users’ recollections and interpretations of the 3.11 disaster, I aim to provide a nuanced understanding of how individual and shared practices of media use imprinted a traumatic disaster in people’s memories. The following section will offer a brief overview of the historical role of TV and media events in Japan, before a discussion on how the 3.11 disaster altered these national viewing patterns.

Media Events in Japan

The emergence of television culture in Japan dates back to the 1960s: the period of post-war economic growth and the two most significant national events that contributed to the early diffusion of television sets: the royal marriage of Prince Akihito in 1959 and the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964. Both events marked the emergence of domestic television culture in Japan, where television watching took place within a close household community. Yoshimi (2003) highlights that although 15 million Japanese people followed the live broadcast of the imperial parade from their homes, only 500,000 actually had direct experience of the event. The live satellite broadcast of the Olympic Games in 1964 marked the emergence of post-war television culture and the shift to colour television (Cooper-Chen, 1997; Stronach, 1989).

Television was established as a national medium that structured daily life in Japan, joining the family and the state through a uniform national timetable which included three time periods: morning (7–9AM), midday (11AM–2PM), and evening (7–10PM) (Yoshimi, 2003). Through this fixed schedule, television contributed to a sense of social connectedness among audience members around Japan, creating a cohesive televisual community (Holden and Scrase, 2006). The sense of participation when audience members follow morning news or afternoon wide shows (Painter, 1993), and share the same experience by watching a specific event on television is one of the essential functions of the Japanese television industry (Hirata et al., 2011)

Throughout modern history, television has played a significant role in disseminating news on the most severe national disasters, the most memorable of which are the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, the Tokyo subway gas attack of 1995, and the Great East Japan Earthquake, also known as the 3.11 disaster. The Great Hanshin Earthquake is considered to be Japan’s worst post-war natural disaster, and a critical time point for spreading awareness of how email exchange can assist disaster communication, mobilisation of volunteers, and rebuilding communities in the disaster aftermath (Okada, 2012; Tatsuki, 2000). In March 1995, Japan suffered a terrorist attack in which members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult killed 13 people with nerve gas, injuring about 5,800 others, and traumatising thousands during the morning rush hour on the Tokyo subway. Japanese media immediately broadcast images and scenes of confusion and chaos on the nine o’clock news, providing first glimpses of the catastrophic attack, which ranked as a top story (Pangi, 2002).

These mediated events pre-date the saturated media environment that emerged with 3.11, specifically in the transition from television-centric experience to the deployment of social media and new modes of socialisation and information dissemination. Before 3.11, the television programming schedule in Japan was still structured according to a long-established uniform national timetable, which is said to contribute to a sense of national togetherness (Yoshimi, 2003). In this environment, the complexity and enormity of the triple disaster reshaped and altered people’s securities, sense of social attachment, and routine. The 3.11 media environment denotes the intermediality of information sources—where social media gained prominence in disaster, but without replacing traditional media including television (Endo, 2013). The 3.11 disaster is a major turning point in Japan’s history of mediated events as an unforeseen and intrinsically traumatic disaster, and remains vivid in people’s memories years later. As the disaster accentuated the role of new media technologies, this encourages investigation into how more recent and catastrophic mediated disasters have altered patterns of media use, and the implications this change has had for broad social interaction and community, and collective memory in Japan. Despite the extensive scholarship on various aspects of 3.11 disaster, very few studies offer evidence of how media were used at the time, or how the role of media in the traumatic event remained impressed in people’s memories. 

The next section offers a detailed insight into the classification of media events, and the role of old and new media in evoking and constructing collective memory.

Mediated Disaster, Collectivity, Memory

Media events were first regarded as historical, ritualised, and pre-planned forms of television viewing which disrupt the rhythm of daily life and programming by monopolising media communication across different channels and programs (Couldry, 2003; Dayan and Katz, 1992). The selected works have expanded this definition to include other genres such as media spectacles (Kellner, 2003), and extraordinary, tragic, and sudden events that disrupt the media routine to deliver emergency news (Cottle, 2006; Couldry et al., 2009; Scannell, 1999). These disruptive media events are conceptualised as ‘disaster marathons’ (Liebes, 1998), ‘ecstatic news’ (Chouliaraki, 2006), or ‘exceptional media phenomena’ (Cottle, 2006), which alter media routine and intensify public sentiment.

Mediated disaster should not be conflated with any merely disruptive live broadcast. Several scholars make a distinction between controlled media events and unplanned events, which happen suddenly and cannot be carefully orchestrated (Katz and Liebes, 2007; Scannell, 1999). Although both ordinary and tragic media events can disrupt everyday routine and broadcast, disaster news is also deeply imbued with anxiety and shock, and through constant, emotionally charged updates and announcements, exerts a strong emotional effect on a broader audience (Pantti et al., 2012). Chouliaraki (2006) analyses television’s use of language and visual images to evoke sentiments of compassion and responsibility for distant others, and enable individuals to co-witness an event by bringing the rawness of images and experiences from distant places to their homes. Through the concept of ‘immediacy’, she investigates the impact that the ‘spectacle of suffering’ has on a spectator’s emotional state, modes of action, and memory (Chouliaraki, 2006: 39). My study adopts Chouliaraki’s work to examine how the emotions were engaged through audiences and users watching different media texts during the 3.11 disaster.

Selected works have investigated media events as experienced through social media. Papacharissi (2015) conducted three case studies of the use of Twitter to examine how it facilitates affective engagement for the public and enables individuals to align with the event as it unfolds. She defines ‘affective publics’ as ‘networked public formations that are mobilised and connected or disconnected through expressions of sentiment’ (Papacharissi, 2015: 125). Furthermore, a recent study has argued that the Internet is as vital as television in creating a sense of shared social realities while mapping out new concepts of user-generated and mobile media events (Mitu and Poulakidakos, 2016).

Previous theories of media events are limited by their television-centrism, and their inattention to users’ retrospective interpretations of the events. Existing theories predominantly examine events in the context of their historical occurrence, without considering the ways in which different media users might interpret, remember, and reflect on the traumatic event. Volkmer (2006) investigates variation in mediated memories of major public events through focus groups with individuals of different ages, and across old and new media generations. The same study suggests that news items have national and international resonance across generations as audiences remember news reports over time; it thereby sheds light on the relationship between personal and collective memories. Previous studies confirm that national mediated events are fertile ground for investigation of the relationship between media and collective memory, which is activated in collective contexts (Halbwachs, 1992; Garde-Hansen, 2011).

At the intersection of media events and memory, Julia Sonnevend’s work (2016) on ‘global iconic events’ is of interest, as she investigates how stories and narratives of events travel across time and space, and across fragmented media spaces, using the case of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although Sonnevend (2016) makes a useful starting point for thinking about narratives as transportable and moving through memories, the present study on the 3.11 disaster delves deeper into media users’ recollections of mediated disaster and associated media practices instead of solely examining journalistic narratives and media discourses.

Despite the differences in conceptualising media event, the research conducted to date implicitly or explicitly suggests that the media exert power over audiences by creating, staging, or shaping these events, and how this, in turn, can contribute to a shared sense of identity and community. However, the weakness of previous theories on media events is that they rarely consider how audiences actually perceive media events in fragmented international settings. Through detailed individual reflections, this article explores viewers’ memories of watching the media event on different media platforms, built up since the initial media event. The article further explores how alteration to established practices of television watching has affected and shaped experiences of belonging and collective solidarities. In doing so, the study investigates how viewers recount the mediated disaster in a specific national context, focusing on Japan as a site of study.

Methods

This study employs open-ended interviews as its primary method for investigating a variety of subjective recollections and interpretations of the past historical event (Kvale, 2007), and for providing a thorough understanding of media use as a social practice (Brennen, 2012). The study also utilises content from users’ social media accounts, which serves to enrich interview findings, and better illustrate how users’ sense of communal belonging manifests in online media.  

Memory is a unique mental process, and it is difficult to generalise its relationship with media (Garde-Hansen, 2011). The aim of this explorative study is not to provide representative findings about the uses of television and social media, but to identify patterns across personal recollections provided by media users, which will then be used to inform broader theorisation about media practices and memory in the context of mediated disasters. I have conducted a purposive snowball sampling to provide a variety of experiences, where I first identify a group of users who then provide referrals for further interviews. To increase the likelihood of obtaining a diversity of experiences, I interviewed media users from a wide range of age groups (20–59) and genders, from various neighbourhoods of Tokyo, in a range of occupations. The choice of Tokyo is in line with the research aim of reaching users who were, at the time of 3.11, based outside directly affected regions, and who can provide evidence of their perceptions of the community concerning their media use.

The interviews were conducted in Tokyo in the period September–December 2017, with a total of 38 Japanese nationals. In 1-hour of Japanese language conversation, participants were first asked open-ended questions regarding their media use during the disaster, and questions about their engagement in discussing and sharing disaster news. The interview questions were aimed at exploring users’ reflections of the disaster, including their emotional experiences, perceptions of social bonds, and attitudes towards local and regional communities. Data obtained from the interviews and social media content analysis were analysed using NVivo and followed a thematic approach of coding (Robson, 2011).

Results

Vivid Memories of the Mediated Disaster and Notions of Belonging

During interviews with participants, it was essential to understand what they were doing at the start of the disaster, and where and with whom they were watching news, to collect details about their memories of the media event. Even though over six years had passed since the disaster, these first mediated moments stood out in their memories as exceptional and traumatic.

The primary source of news in the initial aftermath of the 3.11 disaster was television. Of the 38 media users I interviewed, 24 of them recalled using TV to get the first updates on the unfolding earthquake and tsunami and understand what happened. The pattern of users’ responses points to continuous television watching, and leaving the TV news on in the background to follow live updates about the unfolding disaster. The repeated use of the term tsukeppanashi, meaning ‘leave (e.g., a device) on’, suggests that users would turn to TV to check the first news on the earthquake, but then would leave the TV on continuously over a few hours or even days. For some users, real-time transmission of information via live broadcast was a way of maintaining connection to the social world and alleviating feelings of anxiety and isolation. Haruna [2] (54, female) recalls that she had ‘left the television on’ from the start of the earthquake and in the following few days:

I think I left the TV on from that point. With the emergency news on the earthquake, and the continuous aftershocks, I felt scared if I didn’t. Also, there was a nuclear disaster in Fukushima, and one thing after another from the TV news, so I left the TV on in the background—I was worried about what will happen next.
At a time of uncertainty and emergency when individuals’ sense of security is undermined, receiving timely information helps reduce anxiety and fear. Television can provide a sense of security and companionship, and enhance the feeling of others’ presence, thereby addressing a social utility function (Dominick, 1993). Haruna’s comment indicates that continuous television watching helped her overcome anxiety and loneliness by creating a sense of companionship and connection with the outside world.

More explicit reference to TV as a companion comes from Takahiro, who perceives it as a means through which he can bond with the social world and feel connected:

If it’s not on, you feel lonely… When the information comes in, you are alone, right? So really, you’re not alone, you feel psychologically like you’re connected to society. Since there is no such simultaneity on the website, the feeling of being connected to society is weak. Still, the feeling that Japanese people watch TV simultaneously is the feeling of connection to society.

The reference to simultaneous news watching that can generate a sense of belonging to a TV community fits neatly with the Anderson’s (1983) concept of ‘imagined communities’ summarising that there is a collective awareness of a shared temporality in which media users coexist (Couldry, 2003; Ellis, 2000). Through live transmission of video, explanation, commentary, Takahiro maintains a connection with community and society and alleviates loneliness. Furthermore, Takahiro’s reference to ‘Japanese people’ (Nihon-jin) indicates television’s increasingly important role as a familiar medium through which Japanese people remain connected to their fellow nationals. Most users interviewed reported that television in Japan is the primary source they turn to in case of emergencies and disasters.

The practice of television watching in Japan had substantial implications for evoking memories about users’ sense of closeness to their fellow viewers. Some users implicitly stated that they discussed TV news with other people within their circle of friends who have similar knowledge about the broadcast of the disaster. For example, Hiroshi (39, male) elaborates on television’s capacity to facilitate access to the collective experience of watching disaster news:

The positive side of mass media is its ability to provide general information and collective experience. Watching the same image, listening to the same story, and thinking about the shared social experience of the 3.11 disaster, throughout the country, seems like a good side of mass media.

Hiroshi’s comment suggests that the simultaneous viewing of a live broadcast contributes immensely to the sense of shared membership in a national community, and to collective sentiments of the disaster.

Sonnevend (2016) notes that media events do not have the same meaning for everyone, as they are always contested and shaped by social meanings and complex media contexts. A small majority (20 of 38) stressed the importance of having a balanced broadcast and the presence of dramas or commercials, as these can re-create a sense of familiarity and routine of TV watching. The 3.11 disaster, as a highly traumatic event, triggered an inevitable disruption in participants’ media practices, as they were pulled out of their usual media routine to constant exposure to distressing news. Michiko (24, female), recalls that she felt somewhat depressed with the continual transmission of news and unbalanced programming, especially with the absence of her favourite soap operas.

At the time, television was my only source of information, and because they kept broadcasting news about the earthquake, I could stay informed. But it’s interesting that no matter which channel you turned on, at any time of day, the news was coming non-stop, and it made me feel down. When I think about it now, I wish there were at least some TV dramas, even if just for one hour during that time, instead of having 24/7 broadcast of the disaster.

Michiko’s reference to television drama as a way of reducing anxiety caused by the disaster points to the significance of having some part of the daily flow of media routine to achieve a sense of stability even in the context of disaster. This is well illustrated in the case of Ayako (40, female). She remembers that she watched TV news all the time to keep informed about the unfolding tragedy, but the prolonged exposure to distressing footage from the disaster region made her feel depressed. Like Michiko, she stresses the comforting role of standard programming and commercials, as a way to retain a sense of routine:

Since the video of the tsunami was constantly broadcast, I became depressed and felt mentally exhausted; it was too biased… The upside was that due to the 3.11 earthquake, commercial television voluntarily refrained from showing advertising. However, the next day, there were positive commercials, and I felt so much better. I felt like daily life was back to normal. Of course, I could go to a video store and rent a video, but I watch television every day regardless, so it is good to have positive news.

Severe disruption to the regular schedule is amplified by the absence of commercials, which are an essential part of the daily flow of TV broadcast (Doane, 2006). In this way, the disruption to television time caused by the events of 3.11 helps us comprehend the role of media in everyday life (Karlin, 2016: 31). Michiko and Ayako’s comments strongly suggest that television takes a special place in the daily routine as a comforting medium. Furthermore, Ayako differentiates between watching a video and watching TV, which is a notion consistent with Meyrowitz comparison between listening to a cassette tape and the radio station, as ‘the cassette player cuts you off from the outside world, while the radio station ties you into it’ (1985: 90). In the same way that radio provides a connection to the world, Ayako’s preference for television over a videotape affords her a sense of shared viewing and connection to the social world.

When I first asked Ayako whether she remembered watching the first news on the disaster, I noticed tears in her eyes. She reflected on the live dramatic footage on NHK of the tsunami wave; recalling this experience revealed how the traumatic, mediatised disaster had been imprinted in Ayako’s memory. Sonnevend (2016) uses the term ‘condensation’ to explain how a media event is encapsulated through a short narrative, phrase, or recognisable visual scene. In the case of the 3.11 disaster, live video and closeup images of a tsunami, a hydrogen explosion in the nuclear plant, and later of a helicopter dropping water on the nuclear plant became frequently quoted representative visual scenes of 3.11. Further, these memorable mental images of the mediated disaster enabled users to reorganise memories about the event itself and the way they navigated media use.

Media users’ recollections revealed that they followed news of the event on multiple media platforms, and turned to social media for support when the constant reporting of the disaster largely displaced the usual flow of broadcast with pessimistic and distressing news content. In this digital space, users were able to discuss the events with a broader community of people dealing with the effects of national disaster, and navigate their media use between offline and online spaces. In the interviews, media users from Tokyo recalled that they utilised a combination of television and online media such as social media and news websites to find more detailed information about the evolving disaster. Users who felt overwhelmed by the repetitive broadcast of disaster scenes on TV would often turn to online media. The frequency of watching distressing images on TV can have significant implications for the prevalence of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among directly affected individuals (Ahern et al., 2002). Hiroshi, for instance, recounted his media experience during 3.11, when he felt the severe impact of the news broadcast on his emotional and mental state, and turned to social media for support:

I became emotionally unstable while watching those images of earthquake and tsunami. I was close to a state of PTSD when looking at those images. Watching mass media discouraged me. On the other hand, browsing social media and seeing what people are writing, there is much hope, and everyone writes things that motivate me…

Cognitive acts of memory are revealed as personal accounts that users have experienced in the past, as witnesses to the media(ted) event (Garde-Hansen, 2011). Besides, the notion of memory includes the extra-verbal, non-cognitive activity of emotional experience (Papoulias, 2005). From the above excerpt, it is clear that due to witnessing the traumatic event in the news, Hiroshi retains a vivid memory of his media use to the extent that he remembers details about checking the news on different platforms, and the emotional experience associated with this media engagement. Hiroshi sees the benefits of accessing social media because it can facilitate social interactions with others who share a similar experience of the disaster and follow the same news (Ellis, 2000). In this way, while experiencing uncertainty and disruption, users relied on multiple media forms and inter-media use to bridge and navigate tensions between traumatic experience and a need for belonging.

One of the ways to navigate challenges of disruption was to find a connection to community, beyond the traditional context of family and friends. Users’ recollections reveal that, in looking for information, they need to find out how ‘others’ discuss similar issues surrounding disaster news. Users mainly accessed online news portals such as NewsPicks [3][3] and YahooNews because they could see the comments of other users, allowing them to receive different perspectives on the story. Some of the references about NewsPicks potential to produce shared viewing experience are seen in Eiji’s (32, male) comment:

I was not just checking news but picking up comments on the story that others posted. It was very convenient because I could see various viewpoints.

NewsPicks was launched in Japan in 2013 as a social media outlet curating news from Japanese media outlets and international publications. NewsPicks allows users to gather news related to the topics of their interest and share articles along with their opinions, which are followed by discussion threads. Reading the views and comments of like-minded others is considered to be one way to participate in the community and exhibit a sense of communal belonging and inclusion (Springer et al., 2015). These online practices such as reading users’ comments on news portals served the social function of meeting similar others, suggesting that online media afforded users new ways to collectively experience and reciprocate mediated disaster. The following section expands the discussion of how Japanese viewers reflect on experiencing a media event to underline the emergence of collective solidarities in the aftermath of the disaster and viewers’ identification with the affected communities and region.

Evoking Tropes of Togetherness and Solidarity

The surge of volunteer activities in Japan in response to the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 formed a new civil society with stronger community solidarity (Okada, 2012; Tatsuki, 2000). Similarly, the collective experience of the 3.11 disaster accentuated the role of community and volunteer action, and findings revealed that exposure to TV and online media images and narratives significantly influenced users’ altruistic behaviour.

The authenticity of live video images on TV can provide immediate insight into the affected region for those in a distant geospatial location, thereby provoking a ‘spectatorship of suffering’ (Chouliaraki, 2006). Audiences are invited to share sentiments of the catastrophe and connect to nation and community through shared values and uplifting narratives (Pantti et al., 2012). Reflecting on the past mediated disaster, around 35 of 38 users interviewed explained that after watching the live broadcast of the triple disaster and victims’ stories, they felt the need to support affected communities in some way. For example, Mayumi (39, female) explains that the visual nature of television and simultaneous transmission of voices from the affected region can contribute to a better understanding of regional communities and move beyond conveying simple facts and to including the voices of affected others and their needs. Mayumi made the following remark on the impact of the 3.11 broadcast:

Television’s ability constantly to transmit live information from affected areas is great. Photographs also have a substantial impact, but with video, you can see facts and simultaneous flow of video and audio. I wanted to know what those people feel and what they need, I mean, I want to listen to the voices of people from the affected area. I cannot forget images of troubled and sad people and the intense time of the first report of the tsunami; the houses that were swept away. When I realised that there are people who suffer and grieve the same, I felt like I wanted to contribute and do something positive, such as donating.

Mayumi explained how live images she witnessed on the television led her to donate and volunteer. Through witnessing the shock of dramatic moving images and personal accounts, viewers tend emotionally to relate to affected others and imagine their communal belonging (Pantti et al., 2012). Mayumi’s need to find news on affected areas to understand how affected individuals feel, additionally substantiates the notion that the live, visual transmission of news via television acts as a link between viewers and distant others. Furthermore, remembering images and videos of the aftermath suggests that the memory of the mediated disaster has been condensed not only through visual scenes of the tsunami and nuclear accident, but through users’ short narratives that evoke a sense of belonging and emotive connection to disaster victims.

Another participant, Momoko (50, female), recounts watching televised news on the disaster to find information on how to help affected communities with essentials such as food and clothes. Even though she was in Tokyo at the time of 3.11, far from the affected region, Momoko recalled that she often talked to others about the news she watched, which further strengthened her desire to donate money or send essential goods to support affected communities:

The news about the nuclear disaster became the main story on television and in newspapers. Without proper knowledge of the situation, I watched the news while worrying about the affected region.

In the aftermath of the disaster, Momoko volunteered in the affected area of Minamisanriku in Miyagi prefecture. As her reflection illustrates, this compassion and need to help was chiefly caused by watching disaster news on TV. Support for affected communities through acts such as donations, volunteering, or sending relief parcels, suggests a shift from being a passive receiver of news, to utilising news to enact concrete actions (Pantti et al., 2012). In this context, I argue that television viewing potentially evokes distant others in Japan towards public engagement and community participation. Through watching the live transmission of stories and images of 3.11, inscribed with emotions and affect, users who were moved to act felt like they belonged to the same national community as those directly affected.

Another way to encapsulate the social meaning of the 3.11 disaster was through a simple discourse of kizuna (familial bond). This concept was used long before the 3.11 disaster to explain the ties between family or community members, with the connotation of personal and familial relationship (Samuels, 2013). The term kizuna has seen a revival in the general discourse that emerged in the wake of the disaster, used to highlight and praise social ties in Japanese society and the significance of social cohesion in a national emergency. The popularisation of the term is seen in its prominence in mass media that have emerged to lift the spirit of affected communities, and tyo call for community building and the restoration of Japan in the disaster aftermath. In the first week of April 2011, all five national Japanese newspapers used word ‘jishuku’ or ‘self-restraint’ to address the necessity of national mourning and voluntary efforts, in the form of refraining from regular consumption patterns (Karlin, 2016). Further, the article in Japanese newspaper Nikkei Shimbun signified the necessity of community building in Tohoku region, linking concepts of change and community (Samuels, 2013).

Many users regarded mass media reference to kizuna as highly favourable, as it spread awareness among Japanese people of those burdened by the 3.11 disaster. For example, Chieko (42, female), who was stranded in Yokohama on 11 March, unable to go back home to Tokyo, identified the benefits of TV in enabling her to receive information on affected communities and understand the significance of perseverance and social bonds. She recounted that despite her inability directly to help communities, watching TV news about volunteer actions in affected areas enhanced her sense of connection to regional and national communities:

I certainly think it is essential to help each other, but since I could not directly help, I did not feel kizuna at that time, because I was alone in the hotel, unable to act on my own. However, when I watched TV news, looking at how everyone volunteered to go to the affected region and encouraged each other, I felt like I am not alone.

Chieko’s reference to television corresponds to earlier works that regard television’s auditory and visual features as pertinent to an immediate emotional response, mediated empathy and compassion (Döveling et al., 2011). Chieko’s need to help while following disaster news points to her indirectly feeling a sense of shared membership in the national community through television watching, which remains imprinted in her memory.

Most users referred to kizuna as a concept of collective consciousness to help each other that has been embedded in Japanese society from a long time ago. Users’ comments suggest that this term is used for feelings of solidarity between individuals that are shared at the national level by every Japanese person, and are according to their sentimental narratives, now part of a collective national memory of the 3.11 disaster. In this way, users’ comments indicate that kizuna is a crucial constituent of Japanese national identity, or as one of the users, Ayako, explains: Kizuna is deeply embedded within the ‘Japanese spirit’ and foundational to Japanese society:

I think it is the feeling that best represents the way Japanese people see things. When I heard the word ‘kizuna’, I thought of the Japanese spirit, that Japanese are great, the feeling of helping each other, and the feeling of helping a person in need, no matter how far away.

However, not all participants evaluated the media discourse of kizuna positively. Five participants recall having mixed feelings about the overuse of the term in the mass media, that led them to think this was done to shift attention from real problems by highlighting only positive aspects of the disaster. These participants similarly critiqued the overuse of kizuna as propaganda and an ineffective ‘collective trend’, as it did not have a long-term impact on the recovery process.

In addition to television, many users turned to social media as an alternative source of news and space where they can express solidarity with regional communities. They recognised the affordances of online media space, as it allowed users to share their viewing experience, which further contributes to notions of belonging to a community of fellow users (Couldry et al., 2010; Scannell, 1996; Yoshimi, 2003). One media user, Wataru (37, male), elaborates on the idea that online media can facilitate the process of recovery as it encourages an individual to become aware of ‘others’ who share the same struggle and grief from the national disaster:

It’s good that, in the end, TV and social media were used as a catalyst for a fundraising activity, local action, volunteering, and connecting society. I think that’s because all of us can mourn and share our grief. I guess it would be hard to recover if you only grieved inside yourself. I think sharing sadness on social media will empower people to recover.

Wataru’s comment reflects the idea that social media make shared emotions and affect more visible (Döveling et al., 2011; Pantti et al., 2012), and offers a therapeutic space for exchanging emotional support, which helps individuals recover from the disaster. At the same time, Wataru highlights that both television and social media are significant for prompting audiences to act and for spreading awareness of national solidarity, thereby furthering the concept of ‘intermedial event’ and supporting the view that both the Internet and television have an indispensable role in the development of media events (Mitu and Poulakidakos, 2016).

This idea of social media as a space to articulate emotions is clearly expressed by Takashi (25, male), who was eager to connect with his friends shortly after the disaster. At the time of 3.11 disaster, he was doing an internship in Malaysia, so he posted on Facebook to check whether his friends in Japan were safe. Takashi explained that two days following the earthquake, he felt the need to express his feelings and send a message to the people of Tohoku because he felt connected to people who were affected by the disaster. In the Facebook post, which he shared during our conversation, Takashi highlights the significance of human bonds:

Now I’m a person from the affected country. Many people sent me messages, people I’ve never spoken to, the Indian guy in the student cafeteria… I did not experience the earthquake, but I feel that we are human beings by helping each other before the differences in religion and way of thinking.

Sharing this post helped Takashi retrieve the experience of feeling connected, despite being away from home and the disaster area. The tropes of national togetherness and collective solidarity emerge as Takashi empathises with Japanese people as if he were physically there, further demonstrating closeness to the affected region and to all of Japan. More importantly, remembering the disaster through digital narratives and posts like this one suggests that social media served not only to accommodate immediate responses but preserve and retrieve memories of the mediated disaster, further helping users remember their past media practices.

However, not all media users I talked to evaluated social media as highly beneficial for maintaining social ties between people within the local community. For example, Yoshi (36, male) believed that social media alone was not likely to bring about the immediate creation of social bonds and solidarity:

It is essential to make a network somewhere close to you. Of course, the information on the Internet is important, but it is not like you can form bonds right away, without everyday communication—it is difficult.

During our conversation, Yoshi identified the benefits of TV in enabling people to gain knowledge about geographically distant communities and realise the significance of social connection, as fundamental to the process of coping with disaster. At the same time, Yoshi considers the ephemerality of social media, which he believes can only be used for small-scale, local information and for maintaining an existing network of friends and family.

Without the everydayness of communication and familiarity, it is difficult to evoke feelings of togetherness and national unity. This highlights the significance of the inter-media environment in which the role of television cannot be separated from the role of new online spaces (Endo, 2013). Both old and new media were indispensable in coping with disruption, providing comfort and connection, and enabling users to emotively connect to a mediated event as a part of collective memory.

Discussion and Conclusion

This study expands the existing theoretical discussions of disruptive media events beyond the historical context of their occurrence to consider users’ recollections of the mediated event and the unique specificities of the Japanese context. It contributes to the existing scholarship on media events with a nuanced take on how a traumatic mediated disaster became impressed in people’s memories through media practices, both individual and shared. Interviews allowed individuals to process emotions and memories that had built up over the years and achieve a kind of catharsis about the disaster experience.

Users’ recollections of 3.11 suggest that the complexity of the mediated disruption and trauma has been condensed into recognisable visual scenes of the disaster and short narratives that evoke a need for social connection or identification with distant communities. Interviewees recounted the sense of witnessing the disaster through audio-visual affordances of TV, real-time transmission of raw images of catastrophe and the visual proximity of the camera. Emotionally charged images and narratives from the affected region created a sense of proximity, further cultivating and enhancing feelings of compassion towards affected communities. For most users, emotional discourse spurred them to engage in local action, indicating that 3.11 triggered increased community engagement and solidarity with the affected region across varying age groups. Furthermore, in reflecting on the event, users frequently invoked tropes of national togetherness, kizuna, and Japaneseness as signifiers of belonging, which suggests that the disaster created binding narratives of communal suffering which further resonated with media users and, over time, became a part of a collective memory.

The users’ retrospection hinted at the centrality of television, but also the challenges to televised experience posed by online media such as Facebook, Twitter, YahooNews, or NewsPicks. These platforms served as spaces for sharing emotional narratives, thus helping individuals at distance from the disaster zone cope with the disaster, galvanise action, and build community consciousness. Communal news watching in digital space expands media events theories, suggesting that social media and news Websites can recreate a live televised experience of a disruptive event through users’ interaction on news portals. Social media also became a space for users to acknowledge the suffering of distant communities and share the emotional experience of the disaster, while simultaneously relating to local, regional, and broader communities. While this phenomenon can manifest in televised experience, social media allows users to express their connection to multiple communities through individually generated content, even if only fleetingly. What was noteworthy here was that the sense of togetherness as manifested on social media was immediate to the disaster and contingent on users’ instantaneous emotional involvement, but without the similar consistency, simultaneity, and enthusiasm of the televised experience.

The increasing presence of online media use across a range of ages (20–59) shows a remarkable development in disaster communication in Japan, once dominated by traditional mass media. These new media allow for personalised, uninhibited communication among users, accommodating individually crafted responses and reactions which are not otherwise supported by traditional modes of communication. In the context of disruptive media events in Japan, it becomes clear that the Internet serves as a space for those who are emotionally disrupted by the disaster to react to unfolding events, and make sense of their emotions.

Looking at users’ reflections on 3.11 media use, it is evident that social media serve as a site for preserving, channelling, and retrieving memories of the mediated disaster, additionally helping users reorganise their perceptions of community, media, and their relationships. In the offline space, television in Japan retains its role as a catalyst for mobilising public compassion, serving as a voice to the nation, first news in an emergency, and accommodating more solid national sentiments than online media. Thus, users’ retrospection suggests that their experiences of the disaster are structured around the complex intermedial landscape, which further facilitates the formation of individual and collective memory.

The study furthers the development of media events theories by offering varied accounts of how media audiences reflect on experiencing a media event, while considering settings in which their individual and shared media practices take place. The exploration of Japanese media users’ recollections represents a significant addition to extant scholarship on the 3.11 disaster, as it combines interviews and social media content analysis to uncover complexities of user media behaviour and various forms of remembering the traumatic disaster. Through detailed individual reflections of Japanese viewers, the study offers a nuanced understanding of how audiences utilise old and new media to navigate and bridge the tensions between belonging and anxiety, routine and disruption, conflict and togetherness, closeness and distance, and historical occurrence and retrospection. This means that what emerges in the interviews shows not only the evidence of the development of an intermedial environment in Japan, but also how the traumatic 3.11 disasters have been an opportunity for Japanese audiences and users to reorganise their own memories and ideas, and reflect on the intricacies of media opportunities in crisis. 

This study reveals users’ memories of watching and experiencing mediated disaster that accumulated years after the initial media event, and draws new theoretical connections—transferrable to other contextual settings outside of Japan—that can contribute to our knowledge of disaster communications and the role of media practices in promoting communal relationships. Future studies could consider investigating audience viewing experiences and recollections of media events in various cultural and national contexts, which could be used towards a re-examination of the media event theoretical framework. This study can guide investigations of how emotional discourses around the remembrance of the 3.11 disaster are developed in the intermedial environment, which will lead to a more profound understanding of the role that affective communities have in disaster response.

Notes

1.  Japan Tsunami Disaster Footage 2011 (NHK Footage). (12 March 2011). Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZGcWTPkKAk

2.  All names of participants cited in this article are pseudonyms.

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About the Authors

Dr. Sonja Petrovic is an emerging researcher in Media and Communication with a Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences background. Her academic teaching and research interests span across intersecting fields of Digital Media Studies, Crisis Communication, and Asian Studies. Sonja currently teaches in the areas of Media and Communication, Crisis Reporting, and Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

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