Chinese Media Coverage of Japan: Where Are the Bodies?

Looking at how Chinese news media covered the two earthquakes that rocked Asia back to back last week —a 5.8-magnitude earthquake in southwest China on Thursday and the 8.9-magnitude earthquake in northeast Japan on Friday—raised an interesting question:

Where are the dead bodies of the earthquake victims in Japan?

As of March 16, Japanese police recorded 7,558 missing individuals and 3,373 deaths caused by the earthquake and tsunami. Japan’s National broadcaster NHK said more than 450,000 people were in temporary shelters in the affected areas.

Although we are not yearning to see terrifying and heartbreaking images of dead or bandaged bodies, such as those that were seen during the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China and the 2004 tsunami that hit Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and Indonesia, the extraordinarily “clean and calm” images coming out of Japan — most of which focus on debris, destroyed infrastructure and evacuees waiting for help — have failed to visually match the death tolls being reported.

On Tuesday, five days after the earthquake, Sing Tao Daily, one of the largest Chinese newspapers worldwide, featured a story about the lack of coffins for Japanese earthquake victims. Despite an eye-catching headline, “Many Deaths, Shortage of Coffins and Body Bags”, none of the three accompanying images depicted “death” or coffins. The largest picture was of a demolished house, alongside a computer-generated map showing the level of destruction in different prefectures. A smaller photo depicted four rescue team members moving a male survivor to safety in a boat. The shot is wide enough not to show the facial expression of the survivor, despite the fact that “many more bodies washed ashore,” and “crematoriums and funeral houses were overloaded,” according to the report.

The contrast is more obvious when comparing the photographic coverage of Japan’s crisis to the images shown during China’s earthquake the day before at Yingjiang county in Yunnan Province, a catastrophe that killed 25 people, injured 314 and impacted more than 282,000 people.

Although the scale of that disaster was much smaller in comparison to what happened in Japan, it felt quite the opposite judging solely by the images. On the day the Chinese earthquake happened, Xinhua News Agency, China’s state news service, immediately posted several emotionally arousing photos, including one that captured a young man carrying a seemingly unconscious woman, her face covered with blood, out of a toppled building. Another photo showed three civilians digging an unconscious man out of the rubble. These photos, along with others showing trapped individuals and large numbers of victims sleeping on the streets, were quickly republished by various Chinese news sites and blogs.

An article published on Tuesday in China Times, one of the biggest newspapers in Taiwan, made similar observations after comparing the Japan images to the tragic images that surfaced during the 2004 tsunami, which showed large numbers of swollen and decomposed corpses. The article, entitled “Respect the Deceased, Japanese Media Won’t Expose Bodies,” explains that the high level of respect for the dead in Japanese culture has led Japanese rescue teams to be extremely careful in their treatment of bodies. China Times reporters Huang Jing-Jing and Leng Do-Ping say they witnessed firsthand the careful steps Japanese rescue teams took to avoid exposure of bodies they discovered at the Sendai International Airport. They wrote, “After taking the bodies out [of the airport], the rescuers immediately used green and white plastic sheets to wrap around the bodies, and placed them into body bags. These corpses were then loaded onto a coroner’s vehicle that was completely covered by canvas.”

The same article also describes how Japanese media outlets have been adhering to unspoken rules that guide their disaster coverage, rules that exclude images of dead bodies from publication: “Japan Newspaper Publishers And Editors Association Affairs Minister Hirano Kyoko said images of dead bodies would make readers tremble and feel uncomfortable. It would also hurt the survivors’ feelings and would harm the dignity of those deceased. In addition, from a legal and moral point of view, the reputation and privacy of the dead should be protected.”

T.J. Pempel, a political science professor at UC Berkeley who has studied Japan for the last 40 years, said the strong sense of consensus among Japanese news media, particularly the mainstream media outlets, has been developed over years of collaborative reporting, which de-emphasizes the need to beat out competitors by using sensational disaster images.

Because there also appears to be a lack of dead bodies or severe injuries displayed in the foreign media reporting in Japan, Pempel believes the Japanese government has been exerting a certain level of control over the media. In fact, Pempel said he heard on the news that an American reporter in Sendai was told by a Japanese authority not to focus his camera on uncovered bodies. Pampel believes that is partly due to the Japanese government’s attempt to control public fear, but is also because Japanese people are less willing to show emotions publicly.

Pampel added that, even without bodies, he has seen many photographs that convey the great sense of loss being experienced by the Japanese people.

“There are lots of pictures with individuals wandering around in absolute devastation. I think that captures, for many Japanese, the emotionality in a way that is more effective than showing somebody sobbing and tearing their hair out, which might be the American approach.”

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