Fukushima Residents’ Responses to Media’s Visual Framing of the 2011 Nuclear Disaster: From Catastrophe to Recovery

Allison Kwesell (International Christian University, Tokyo, Japan)

Summary of the Project


Shinchimachi, Fukushima, is a village of 8,093 people nestled in the mountains 50 km north of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the site of Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster. When the Great East Japan Earthquake hit, sparking a three-tier disaster, Shinchimachi was not known by many people outside of the village. Villagers nicknamed their town “忘れられた町”, the forgotten village. However, as a part of Fukushima Prefecture unique details about Shinchimachi seem to hold less attention than the word Fukushima and the stigma that follows. Shinchimachi people face trauma from the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and continued uncertainties of the health effects from living in elevated radiation levels. Research shows when disaster happens, ambiguity rises and dependency on media resources strengthens (Ball-Rokeach & Jung, 2009). Immediately following the disaster Shinchimachi people trusted mainstream media as their central source for information (Kwesell, 2013). Media systems dependency theory (MSD) suggests that even when mainstream media are not considered to be the complete and full truth, people rely on them (Hirschburg, Dillman, & Ball-Rokeach, 1986).

Mainstream media photographs of Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster played a role in creating a narrow association between the nuclear meltdown and the word Fukushima. This may have damaged Fukushima communities’ self-perception and thus the efficacious drive to heal and move forward by tangibly threatening the economy, negatively branding their prefecture’s name and psychologically slowing the trauma-healing process (Bandura, 2001). Those stigmatized by Fukushima “may literally be viewed as themselves contaminated, carriers of the affliction” (Flynn, Slovic, & Kunreuther, 2001, p. 42). Japan has suffered a traumatic history both in natural disaster and conflict. Mercury poisoning in Minamata and the Atomic Bomb in Hiroshima have been widely documented photographically, changing the sociological makeup of both places. W. Eugene Smith’s documentation of Minamata helped residents during the legal battle over Mercury poisoning as evidence, yet also left a lasting image of the village’s darkest moment in history. Now, when people hear of Minamata their psyches often go straight to the semiotic landscape of a diseased place.

The collective visual coverage of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima played a role in the city’s self-driven change in identity from a city of war and pity to one of peace and empathy (Saito, 2006, p. 354). Pictures were withheld, and then released by both Japanese and US governments, and ultimately preserved by Hiroshima in the graphic Peace Museum. These brutal images played a role changing the remembered history of Japan’s violent involvement in WWII and its victimization. Now, the Genbaku Dome is a World Heritage site and Hiroshima is known as an empowered city. Different from Minamata, Hiroshima has used images to change perspective of the city.

Though Shinchimachi is physically close to the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant it is far more than any single association with the nuclear disaster. It is a town with families and children, three elementary schools, one public bath, a new hospital and nursing home under construction. Like in Minamata, Fukushima now shares a negative semiotic association attaching connotations such as polluted land and people. However, only four years after the disaster, this generalized image is still shaping. This doctoral research will explore both the historical effects of Hiroshima photographs and the potential effects images may have in Fukushima as well as the desired story Shinchimachi people want history to explain.

Research Questions

1.What was the visual framing of mainstream media’s still images of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima?

2.What was the visual framing of mainstream media’s still images of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima?

3.How do people in Shinchimachi, Fukushima, perceive the overall frame of the nuclear disaster created by still images in mainstream media?

4.How does the perceived framing of the nuclear disaster affect Shinchimachi people; do they desire to share a different angle of their story; and do they see potential to use pictures to change their historical identity? What is the dependency relationship between media images and Fukushima people?

Theoretical Framework

MSD (1976) was formed to understand communication relationships and the effects dependency on communication has on populations and, “why mass communications sometimes have powerful and direct effects and at other times have indirect and rather weak effects (Sandra Ball-Rokeach & De Fleur, 1975, p. 302). It focuses on information flow that changes, shapes, and adapts according to resources, needs, and wants, defining an ecological conception of a dependency relationship whereby the micro (recipients) depend on the macro (mass media) most heavily when ambiguity rises and mass media take control over recipients’ needed information. When mass media or other “power holders” limit the public’s access to important information, resources become limited and valued. As orientation grows, from catastrophe to recovery, desired resources change and direction of needs and wants likely follows. In catastrophe mainstream media is proven to be the essential source of information, yet as communities enter a recovery phase, risk and worry can bring them closer together giving them self-determination to ask questions like, “how safe is safe enough” and, perhaps, how do we want to rebuild our community and its image (Beck, 1998, p. 20)? When needs meet resilience they might be able to have greater influence over mass media and even use it to their advantage. MSD theory questions the basics of the traditional mass to micro argument (Hypodermic Needle) and acknowledges that though a dependency exits, the relationship is nonlinear and meso levels of communication also play valuable roles.

Photographs can create semiotic landscapes by pausing moments in history and having immense social effects. As photography grew quickly alongside modernity so did its effects, which are often overlooked and deserve examination. Photographs establish a self-conscious view thus distinguishing, enhancing or lessening class structure and struggle based on the invention of “other” (Barthes, 2013; Benjamin, 1972). Though the photograph is seen as a copy of truth, photographic representations undeniably reflect the subjective vision of the photographer. Roland Barthes’ semiological work supports the crucial interconnectedness of signs and language, language and thought, and the role photographs have to potentially frame and preserve signs thus shaping social thought (Barthes, 1980, 2013). In scrutinizing modernity John Berger considers a constructed view of reality based on photographs finding an ideological struggle and claims “the necessity of our understanding a weapon [photographs] which we can use and which can be used against us” (Berger, 2013, p. 27). Berger and Susan Sontag consider the timeliness of the “decisive moment” suggesting that the frame is found not in subject matter but the moment in which the still camera pauses history (Berger, 2013; Sontag, 1977). When the sign, likely chosen to be that which is photo-worthy, most dramatic, and therefore publishable, enters language the associations that define it might be irreversible.

Though images can create a misconception or an incomplete semiotic landscape they can also aid in trauma healing allowing a “space of contemplation” giving the psyche time to process past events (Zelizer, 2011, p. 56). Because media is sought when people’s normal lives are abruptly disrupted such association effects can have a deep impact, altering beliefs, emotion and behavior of the at-risk population. They not only pay attention to the story, they are the story and seek news about their story to feel safe and thus reoriented. However, the changing roles in the recovery phase, where Shinchimachi and other Fukushima communities are right now, might offer a window of opportunity for them to take command of the portrayal of their own story as shown in Hiroshima.


This research is a continuance of a three-year photo documentary project and an M.A. thesis and will have three methodological foci.

1. Historical Visual Frame Content Analysis

A time-series visual frame content analysis of Hiroshima and Fukushima will analyze front-page images’ placement, size and visual information. Sources will include Japanese mainstream and local newspaper media and the Hiroshima Peace Museum.

2. Survey / Interview

100 surveys in Shinchimachi will compare the analytically established frames to Shinchimachi resident’s responses and reaction to photographs of the Fukushima disaster searching for commonality and divergences. Select interviewees will be shown still photographs in 20-second slides to measure familiarity, memory and emotional response.

3. Focus Groups

Focus groups will consider ways Shinchimachi’s desired collective memory can be stored, changed or built through still photographs. Participants will be encouraged to discuss the visual framing of this disaster and their perception of its effects on their community pulling images they believe capture “Shinchimachi” and what it means to be from Fukushima. They will be asked about their feelings concerning disaster, post-trauma and moving forward. Participants will arrange images to illustrate their story highlighting what is missing and potential outlets for sharing. Then, they will be asked whether they agree with the coverage of this disaster, it’s simplicity or complexity and truth telling. Participants will be asked to consider if there is anything they can do to shift the perception of their story using both newspaper photographs and documentary photographs taken by the researcher.


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Kwesell, A. (2013, May 13). Coping with Complex Disaster: Media Effects, Perceived Stigma, Community Connectedness and Efficacy in Shinchimachi, Fukushima; (M.A. Thesis). International Christian University, Tokyo, Japan.

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Zelizer, B. (2011). Photography, journalism, and trauma. In B. Zelizer & S. Allan (Eds.), Journalism after September 11 (2nd ed., pp. 48–68). Routledge.

Methodological Reflections

Methodological Potentials

This project might add to the understanding of mainstream media photographs, the relationships between risk communities and mainstream media and the potentiality of photographs to aid in trauma processing and change semiotic landscapes. It could produce lasting effects for Shinchimachi allowing residents opportunity to brainstorm how to use media’s image, their collective memory and possibly add to or change their story.

Methodological Challenges

The researcher is struggling to find an appropriate framework with which to conduct visual frame analysis.

Methodological Limitations

The researcher would like to conduct empirical research (i.e. interviews and focus groups) in Hiroshima but is finding both time and funds will limit this aspect and will therefore rely on historical analysis of Hiroshima and conduct empirical research only in Shinchimachi. In addition she wants to focus the research on photographs and not text. This will add emphasis to effects of visuals yet limit full understanding of media frames and dependency relationships that include text.

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