x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Watching Japan from afar, tragedy is lost in translation

It is becoming increasingly difficult to turn our attention away from the horrors being broadcast on 24-hour news channels.

It's odd how words, when inexpertly used by people expressing themselves in a foreign language, can sometimes convey a meaning that is far more profound than perfect syntax would.

In the immediate aftermath of the devastating events in Japan last week, I e-mailed my friend Yoichi who lives in Tokyo to ask if he was all right and whether he'd managed to survive the horrors of the earthquake.

"Yes, I am fine," he e-mailed back a few minutes later, before continuing in faltering English, "but I was in my office, and a hill of documents broke down".

That phrase has stayed with me in recent days. "A hill of documents broke down" may seem inadequate to describe the continuing nightmare engulfing the citizens of Japan, and yet somehow Yoichi's halting phrase seems an unwitting testimony to his nation's collective psyche: polite, understated and unwilling to make an unnecessary fuss. Compare that with many here in the UK who cannot wait to make a drama out of a crisis, particularly if we can find someone to blame.

Someone described the footage of the tsunami endlessly replayed on our TV screens as strangely beautiful. That may be taking poetic licence a little too far as it was of course the stuff of nightmares, horror that even Hollywood could never conjure however big the budget. Yet in one respect, it was indeed curiously mesmerising: particularly when viewed on an endless loop.

The advent of 24/7 news has led to a phenomenon, at least in my house, which until now I'd been unwilling to acknowledge, even to myself. The fact is that I've found myself glued to my set, watching the same unfolding events, often for some hours at a time, without knowing quite why. But I suspect the truth is that, as for many others in this media-saturated world, I'm in danger of turning into a news junkie.

There I sit, remote in hand, surfing from BBC News 24 to Sky to CNN, endlessly replaying the same terrifying images of death and destruction, and all the while shivering with vicarious horror. Buildings crash into bridges, yachts are upended over sea walls, cars jostle together like children's toys in a giant bathtub. The commentaries may be different, yet the images and the attendant frisson remain the same.

It was a colleague who first identified my own state of mind. When I asked him the other morning if he had watched the previous night's events on TV, he nodded a little ruefully before admitting he had watched for more than two hours. "It's curiously hypnotic," he said.

Part of the fascination is good old-fashioned curiosity or "rubber-necking" as we call it. It is the same phenomenon when passing motorists slow down to gawp at a roadside accident on the opposite carriageway. The underlying emotions are part philanthropic, but part plain old-fashioned nosiness.

In the old days such images would only be aired for a brief period on the nightly bulletins. But with the aid of a satellite dish you can now watch the news around the clock, and of course the programme producers have their own reasons for trying to keep you tuned in.

After all, their schedules have to be filled and their sponsors satisfied with ratings. There always seems to be another development just ahead if only you'll stay tuned - breaking news, rolling headlines, latest developments. A new scoop is always promised just around the corner.

In the meantime, there's always another pundit willing to read the runes, an "exclusive" report or some fresh clip just in from someone's mobile phone. Before you know it, you're back to the house floating down the main street and the whole cycle begins again.

However the situation in Japan plays out, the images of recent days will remain with us all for many months. But after a week of rarely straying from my sofa, I've decided to try what I believe addiction experts describe as a dose of "cold turkey" - namely, switch off for a bit. There is a thin line between sympathetic interest and prurient thrill, and I fear I may have crossed that line several times in recent days.

In the meantime, Yoichi's awkward phrase will continue to roll around in my brain, not just for what it told me about my friend, but about Japan as it braves this disaster. "A hill of documents broke down" in some ways tells me more than all of those hours of television.


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London