The Japanese Tsunami: a new benchmark for disaster video

By Hugo Williams

The earthquake, 8.9 on the Richter scale, and the resulting tsunami which hit Japan on the 11 March 2011, have had a truly devastating impact on the country. At the time of writing, the death toll stands at over 11,000, and is still rising. Up to 4,000 people remain unidentified, and there is a continuing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear reactor, where elevated radiation levels have raised fears of a potential meltdown.

The extraordinary thing about disasters in the modern age is how well documented they are. Back in 79 AD, the only description we had of the eruption of Vesuvius were the letters left by Pliny the elder. And some petrified Pompeians, whose final expressions of anguish were frozen in time in the lava, and can still be seen on a visit to the town of Pompei.

The reason that some people find the TV programme “You’ve been framed” has such an enduring appeal (I am not among them by the way) is because it shows things which you can scarcely believe were captured on video. “How lucky was that?” you think to yourself, as the father focuses the camera on his son at the exact moment he bounces off the trampoline and accidentally lands on a horse standing in the nextdoor field. It sounds flippant to compare natural disasters with “You’ve been framed”, but there is a serious point to be drawn from it. In this day and age, when everyone has a smartphone or a digital camera to hand at a moment’s notice, that “I can’t believe they caught that on camera” moment becomes less and less surprising. Now, when extraordinary things happen, be they an uprising in the Middle East, a Tsunami in Japan, or a cat falling off a roof and landing safely in a very deep puddle, it’s much more likely that event will be caught on camera.

This was especially true of the tsunami and earthquake in Japan, which has unintentionally set a new benchmark for online video. There are more cameras per head in Japan than any other country, and people are not afraid to use them, or share the results online via social media. Added to this was the severity of the disaster, the sheer strangeness of the events people saw unfolding before them, and the fact that this disaster struck in 2011, not 2004 (like the Indian Ocean earthquake and Tsunami). The prevalence of camera phones is far higher in Japan than in the areas in South Asia worst hit in 2004, and technology has advanced greatly in those 7 years.

Some questions to leave you with:

Does seeing this footage add to our empathy and understanding of the victims of natural disasters?

Will it change our approach to the environment being able to see natural disasters on video, especially as they begin to happen more and more frequently?

I’ll leave you with this extraordinary video of a town in Japan. It takes 5 minutes for the tsunami to completely swallow the port town of Kesannuma.

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