The emotions of catastrophe

This is a guest post by Michael Facius, M.A, a Research Fellow at the Institute of East Asian Studies, Freie Universität Berlin. He is currently finishing his PhD thesis on “Chinese knowledge and globalization in 19th century Japan”. His new research topic explores the role of emotions in the history of disasters in Japan.

Aerial shot of the Fukushima nuclear plant, under creative commons

Disasters and catastrophes connect with a wide range of emotions: affected individuals and communities in shock and agony, the bereaved mourning for the dead, politicians and disaster managers emanating professional calmness. After the first shock is overcome, anger and frustration might kick in when the “blame game” begins and recovery efforts are slow. Those who have been spared the experience might donate out of feeling of sympathy.
While the above depicts a set of familiar emotional reactions to disasters, there are wide variations in different times and cultures. After the Japanese triple disaster on March 11, many Western observers were surprised by the stoic attitude inhabitants of areas affected by the disaster displayed in the face of the loss of their home, family and livelihood. If this had happened in Europe or the United States, some speculated, mass panic and anti-social behavior would have been the ugly consequence.

It is not implausible to assume that different cultures exhibit different emotional responses to disasters. The anthropologist Greg Bankoff coined the term “cultures of disaster” to describe how communities adapt to the frequent exposure to hazard and disaster over time. In the Philippines, he argued, floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions wove the population into a “fabric of disaster” that made them embrace bahala na, a kind of active fatalism, vis-à-vis a cruel nature. So would it not be natural if the “earthquake nation” (Gregory Clancey) Japan had developed comparable emotional coping mechanisms, even if they seem strange and exotic to us?

Yet, cultural difference is not the sole factor in determining emotional reactions to disasters. It was not the Japanese Tenno who was “impressed by the stoic and heroic manner of the people who had obviously been through a bad and trying time, suffering heavy losses”, but Queen Elizabeth II., as the Times reported upon her visit to a village afflicted by a flood in 1953.

On the other hand, in a recent workshop on post-Fukushima Japan, a participant who had been in Tokyo at the time the disaster struck related that in the days and weeks following the disaster many Tokyoites sensed that the calm and subdued atmosphere might devolve into panic, including looting and mass flight, any minute.

After the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which devastated much of the Kanto area centered on Tokyo and killed more than 100.000 people, rumors sprang up that members of the Korean minority were taking advantage of the situation by looting, setting fires and poisoning wells. Emotional tension in the wake of the disaster combined with anti-Korean resentments and led to massacres with a death toll of somewhere between 2.000 and 6.000.

Still, even though there are examples of moral breakdown such as the above, empirical research has shown that in general mass panic and anti-social behavior are not a huge issue in post-disaster situations anywhere but are, on the whole, “disaster myths”. In reality, people tend to pull themselves up and help others.

Where do these myths come from? Pop culture, and the genre of disaster film in particular, plays an important role in framing our expectations about emotional and behavioral reactions to disasters. This became obvious after the terror attacks of 9/11 when victims and spectators repeatedly stressed how the whole event felt “like a movie”.
The link binding disasters as events to their perception as movie-like is not just empty association. Theater studies scholar James Thompson has recently made the point that contemporary post-disaster aid is best described as a performance, that aid organizations and the media work together to stage relief and rebuilding activities in particular ways. Disaster coverage is scripted on the one hand to satisfy expectations about appropriate emotional reactions of the affected population and on the other hand to elicit a culturally defined set of emotional reactions in the viewer.

The coverage of the relief efforts after the South Asian Tsunami in 2004 depicted communities affected by the disaster as helpless victims unable to cope and rebuild their lives without help from (Western) aid organizations. In return for the aid, recipients staged “rituals of gratefulness” such as dances and opening ceremonies for rebuilt schools and houses. The question of whether help is actually needed becomes secondary in this game of aid performance.

In the case of the post-Fukushima coverage, different staging strategies were employed. Crying or desperate disaster victims were excluded from most news reports in the West so as not to unsettle the exoticist notion of some singularly Japanese samurai (or worse, kamikaze) spirit shared by many reporters and viewers – a feedback loop of cultural stereotyping and a validation of the emotional regime that governs our responses to disaster.
One particular striking (if failed) attempt at staging disaster emotions can be found in a mail sent to a well-known Japanese intellectual by a correspondent of a major German news outlet. The correspondent wanted to know whether there was a “typical Japanese approach” to the “very surprising fact” that the Japanese stayed in Japan in spite of radiation leaking from the Fukushima-Daiichi plant. The intellectual refused to answer the question and tried to explain what was wrong about it, but the correspondent did not seem very eager to rethink her standpoint and eventually gave up.

These are some examples for the many ways in which studies in the history of emotions and disaster research intersect. In fact, I would like to argue that disasters cannot be fully understood without adding emotions to the equation. Emotions are not just part of a response to disasters. They play a crucial role in making us experience an event as disaster in the first place.